Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What's cross-country skiing worth to you?

A recent article in Cross Country Skier magazine reported (in a four-page valentine to the behemoth of New England cross-country skiing) that a day pass to Jackson Ski Touring costs $21 now. A quick check of the Ski NH listings of cross-country ski centers shows that Jackson sells the most expensive day pass of any area in New Hampshire, but only by a dollar over Waterville Valley and two dollars over Bretton Woods and Great Glen.

Great Glen? Really? Their website advertises 40 km of groomed and backcountry trails. Backcountry is a code word for ungroomed and possibly ungroomable, which in many common snow conditions means virtually unskiable. You decide if it's worth the drive to the top of Pinkham Notch and a $19 ticket.

A lot of areas offer a day pass for $12 or less. They may not offer 76 or 100 kilometers or a view up the skirts of Mount Washington, but how much can you really ski in a day? The old argument that cross-country is cheaper than downhill is still true, but that's mostly because downhill is now absurdly expensive with lift tickets commonly well above $70 on weekends at major mountains. The merely ridiculously expensive $21 trail pass looks downright economical. And according to the Cross Country Skier article, executive director of JSTF Thom Perkins says that the $21 ticket does not meet their expenses.

Ski areas depend on season pass revenues for the bulk of their income. Day skiers are unpredictable. They go with the weather. They decide on a whim. To guarantee some level of operating funds, ski areas have to convince a lot of people to throw down a bet before a flake hits the ground or a cold cloud even gathers in the sky.

Cross country skiing, especially in New England, depends on expensive grooming equipment run by skilled technicians. Some areas have experimented with snowmaking, which is another large expense. The downhill industry tells us it is one of the biggest drivers of their pricing. So the claim by cross-country ski areas that their sport is cheaper than downhill faces a growing challenge if they're going to invest in infrastructure to put down a guaranteed surface of manufactured snow on a significant amount of terrain. Will people love cross-country skiing enough to pay what it really costs to provide it? History hints that the answer is no.

The same issue of Cross Country Skier had an article titled "Beyond Grooming" in which the author put forth the radical notion that a skier could get some wide touring skis and heavy boots and ski the trails they use for activities such as mountain biking. Wow! Make your own tracks? That's the craziest idea since hippies invented cross country skiing in the late 1960s! The article was also an advertisement for Rottefella's widely licensed NNN-BC boot and binding system, since the war on 75 millimeter has never ended. Word to the wise: find yourself some good beefy 75 mm boots and bindings for your exploring skis if you plan to go far from the car and you might be trying to drive some turns. System bindings from Rottefella or Salomon are made with a lot of plastic and plenty of small parts just for the sake of skiing performance that is only debatably better. Old boring 75 mm bindings are simple, durable and readily repairable in the event that you actually get snow conditions that will permit you to venture away from groomed trails in this era of warming winters.