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Beginner Skills

Pass/Fail: Learn a New Winter Sport

Can a diehard winter athlete take on a new sport—and the frustration of becoming a beginner again?

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After a lifetime of snow travel, I’ve tried it all: snowboarding, snowshoeing, skiing (of all kinds), and even sliding downhill on cafeteria trays. I’ve always loved picking up new sports and decoding gear, so when I heard about a snowshoe-ski hybrid called skishoes, I was intrigued. I had no idea it was my cafeteria tray sledding experience that would turn out to be the most useful.

My skishoes are roughly 3 feet long and 7 inches wide. They weigh about 4 pounds each and are made of high-density polyethylene, the same stuff as an old-school Nalgene. They don’t have edges, but built-in teeth and scales line their underbellies.

The skishoes seemed to fall somewhere between snowshoes and touring skis, and would hopefully marry the traction and learning curve of the former to the float and efficiency of the latter.

The gear was easy to assess, but I had some misgivings about mastering it. After all, I hadn’t tried to pick up a brand-new sport in a while. This would be an adventure.

I knew any ascent of the learning curve would require the right partner. Fortunately, my two-year-old yellow lab is always up for anything.

Lulu and I headed to a trailhead near Brainard Lake, Colorado. I scratched my head at the map kiosk. There were ski trails and snowshoe trails. What was I? Time to find out. We picked a 5-mile loop that incorporated both.

Lulu sniffed at a nearby tree while I buckled my hiking boots into the snowshoe-style bindings and adjusted my poles. Compared to my sleek ski setup, I looked like Daffy Duck. Reservations resurfaced, but I pushed them down and took a deep breath. Blue sky, happy dog. Let’s do this.

The built-in teeth stuck to the snow and hindered the glide, so I stomped along the flat trail as if on snowshoes. But the only trouble was these are a lot heavier than the snowshoes I’m used to. They’re also bigger—I kicked myself in the ankle more than once trying to get a feel for the size.

The breeze flicked ice crystals off the pine trees. The soft spring snow crunched beneath my feet. It was beautiful, but not enough to distract me from my awkwardness. There was a little more to this than I’d expected, but I told myself
I was getting the hang of it.

We approached our first rolling hill. Lulu bounded up it. That made one of us.
I took one step and slid right back down. Huh. Maybe the snow was too hard? The slope too steep? The teeth not grippy enough?

Time to get out the toys. I stepped out of the bindings and pulled out the accessory crampons—additional rows of metal teeth that screwed into the bottoms of the skishoes. I fumbled around with the screws, dropping one in the snow. I sighed, fished it out, and finished the job. The dog did her happy dog thing, and I was glad for her optimism.

With crampons, I marched up the slope, hip flexors straining with the weight of the skishoes. I still missed my toothpick skis and my lightweight snowshoes, but I told myself I was getting a workout. Adventure, I reminded myself, rarely visits the meek.

Meanwhile, Lulu decided to poop as far off the trail as she could manage. Classic. I swear she was laughing at me as I sighed and trudged after it, the wide skishoes thankfully keeping me afloat in the powder. I tied the bag to my pack and kept going.

When the trail leveled out, I switched to skins—and was finally gliding. I glimpsed the freedom and efficiency that had made me fall in love with skiing—until I pushed over a small lip onto a gentle downhill slope.

One leg slid out from under me. My arms windmilled and I overcorrected, flipping my runaway skishoe into my other shin. I channeled my cafeteria tray experience and managed to keep balanced, but not for long; the other leg buckled, sending me back-slapping into the snow—right on top of my dog bag. I pulled myself up, but to the smell of defeat: The bag had popped.

Then I glanced at Lulu, who was grinning once again. I imagined what she was seeing: a grown adult, rolling around in poopy snow with plastic planks strapped to her feet. The day’s frustration boiled out of me, but not in a scream as I expected. This time, I laughed.

It’s hard to push beyond your comfort zone, but trial and error is all part of the game. And if I learned nothing else that day, I at least remembered how to laugh at myself.

Together, Lulu and I stomped our way down the rest of the trail. I decided skishoes seemed like a decent alternative to snowshoes, if not skis. I could picture my kids or parents stepping into them on my flat street or taking Lulu for a short ramble in deep powder.

But that day, I used them to bumble my way back to the trailhead. I loaded them and Lulu into the back of the car and felt more graceful climbing the side of my vehicle to lift the pack into the rooftop box than I had all day. But, hey: I’d asked for an adventure for the two of us, and that’s just what I got.

The Verdict: Pass

The skishoes were heavy and unwieldy, but they got me out on snow and out of my comfort zone, and learning a new skill is always an adventure.

Try something new

Enlist aid. Take any and all help you can get. With skishoeing, use poles to take longer strides and stabilize yourself on slopes, and apply wax to keep slushy snow from sticking.

Read the directions. Understand your equipment—and any accoutrements—before heading out. Practice switching out crampons and skins at home first.

Go easy. Opt for gentle trails and familiar terrain. You’ll need room for error as you figure out the technique.

Buddy up. Find a patient partner. Failing is easier with a good friend in tow.

Keep your sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. A misadventure is still an adventure. 

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