How Learning To Cross-Country Ski With My Partner Brought Us Closer Together
This would take no time at all on downhill skis. I could barely hear my thoughts above the loud grind of my cross-country skis that I held stiffly in pizza mode (meaning, I was pointing my skis together into a wedge shape rather than having them protrude straight out into vertical lines). I did this to control my speed—which, to be clear, was that of a snail—as I scraped down the gentle, groomed hill. But, slow and steady, I had a smile plastered across my face. Cross-country skiing was new and different to me, but learning to do it with my partner has been an unexpected joy. And that’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d write.
It was a bluebird day, with the snow-heavy pines creating long shadows on the trails and mountains framing the background. My partner waited patiently waiting at the bottom of the hill. I wasn’t very good at this new winter sport, and my partner was not much better, but we were doing something together. And the far-reaching effects of doing so have brought me gratitude for our life, love, and nature. This is the meet-cute of how he, me, and cross-country skiing became a hot new triad that I didn’t see coming, yet feels so right.
We are what I would refer to as an active couple—but we have historically ended up doing different outdoor activities during each season. He mountain bikes when I hike. He snowboards through the trees as I ski scenic intermediate routes in the open. He runs while I…don’t.
Cross-country skiing was something new to us both, but because of his athleticism and my background in downhill skiing, we were learning at a similar rate.
While we individually fell in love with the sport, it ultimately brought us closer together. Cross-country skiing was something new to us both, but because of his athleticism and my background in downhill skiing, we were learning at a similar rate, wiping out at a similar rate, and laughing at a similar rate. Sure, we were novices at the sport, but we were novices together. And we were hooked.
What led us to try cross-country skiing
Growing up in a family of downhill skiers, I used to assume everyone lucky enough to learn would surely pick skiing or snowboarding as a go-to winter sport. Even after college, when I learned about the inherent privilege baked into these sports (i.e., expensive gear, lift tickets, and transportation), I felt committed to doing what I could to continue downhill skiing each winter. I loved having a reason to go to the mountains in winter to smell the crisp pine air and see the magical snow-covered vistas.
But, during a short trip to Breckenridge, Colorado, a mountain town known for its downhill ski runs a few years ago, my partner and I took to the slopes—he was snowboarding while I was skiing—on a cloudy, snowy day. My fingers were numb when we reached the top of the chairlift. It was challenging to talk over the howl of the wind, and difficult to see the runs with falling snow and dim lighting.
Uncomfortable and nervous, I took a break in a mid-mountain hut while my partner made a few runs. But I couldn’t actually relax and enjoy the scenery with the $150 dollar lift ticket expense taking up all real estate in my mind. I tried to wash away the economic concern with a $15 comically strong (and delicious) cider beverage. But all I felt was pressure to enjoy something—and guilt that I just… wasn’t. This wasn’t the first time I felt this way as a result of downhill skiing.
So, at this point, a friend’s invitation for me and my partner to go cross-country skiing suddenly felt appealing.
Cross-country skiing: A love story
My partner and I bailed on the worsening downhill weather conditions (and the guilt) in favor of a more tranquil cross-country skiing experience. As we pulled up to the Breckenridge Nordic Center, the vibe shift was unmistakable: There were no chairlift lines or freneticism, and cross-country ski boots felt more comfortable than stiff downhill ones. (“Sometimes we wear them all day,” our friend casually told us.)
My first impressions were positive, but I was a slightly sweating bundle of nerves. Luckily, my partner was utterly relaxed, slinging jokes in a teal ski suit that managed to make his jokes even funnier.
We were suited up and ready to get going with our first cross-country skiing experience. Our friend showed us the basics, and we took our first awkward steps in the groomed tracks near the cozy lodge. The ultra-lightweight, narrow, and slippery cross-country skis were different from what I was used to from downhill skis, but not wholly unfamiliar. The tracks kept everything aligned and more stable as I worked to find a rhythm with the poles.
With some effort, I found my first glide. Is that it? With more adjustments, I could feel myself propelling forward with every step. Yeah, that’s it. There were barely any other skiers around as we whooped and hollered as we caught on.
We stuck together at our slow pace, taking on gentle trails with names like Baby Doe and Troll Forest. Even though it was the same day, with the same person, in the same town, you could have fooled me. The same snow that bit at me on the mountain added a background sparkle and softness. The same cold that made my fingers numb on the chair lift kept me from overheating while working my underutilized arm muscles. The same partner who felt compelled to keep snowboarding helped me in and out of my cross-country ski bindings and eased my nerves.
Why we’ll continue cross-country skiing
My partner and I tried cross-country skiing again in Breckenridge and then sought it out at other locations. The ultra-lightweight, narrow, and slippery skis were different to but not wholly unfamiliar. The biggest difference in gear was the lack of any “edge,” the solid, sharp side of a ski that allows you to dig into the snow to make turns or stop yourself.
Without the edge, every rolling hill became daunting. A turn at the bottom of a hill? It was as if two clumsy penguins were picking each other up after consecutive wipeouts. With this gear shift (from fast to slow, from pros to newbies) came a shift in perspective. Instead of focusing on controlling or maintaining speed the entire day, it was about propelling ourselves forward at our desired pace—and staying present.
I also found myself enjoying the full-body workout. Using my arms and engaging my core felt good and balanced compared to how much legwork I was doing. Sure, my calves were burning on every uphill and my biceps were sore after every session, but I also felt satisfaction with each completed loop through the trees. (Endorphins certainly amplified things.)
Despite the bruises and soreness, we kept trying. Each time we went, we marveled at the lack of crowds and the jolly nature of those we did encounter. We giggled at the sub-$25 trail pass and frolicked in the winter sights we were treated to on each blue-square loop. And we couldn’t stop talking about it, chatting excitedly before each session and recounting the day on our drive home.
We were proving the psychological science on romantic partners: Couples who exercise with each other are happier, and doing a novel activity with one another helps you feel more secure and satisfied. Honestly, I felt closer to my partner, like we had more in common. It was so satisfying to do this new outdoor winter sport—together.
After three seasons of cross-country skiing, my partner and I can proudly say we’re in a long-term relationship with it; we’ve even invested in skis, poles, boots, and bindings. Each time we go, we marvel at the lack of crowds and the jolly nature of folks we do encounter. We giggle at the sub-$25 trail passes and frolic in the winter sights we’re treated to on each loop.
While I doubt we’ll ever entirely give up on downhill skiing, with cross-country skiing, my partner and I don’t have to battle the lines to the lifts, our frustration with increasing lift ticket prices, or our momentum on the downhill. We can just… glide—much like the way cross-country skiing glided right into our hearts.