FeatureTrainingA Summer Without Snow: Athletes and Coaches on a Year with No Summer Skiing

Gavin Kentch Gavin KentchOctober 12, 2020
DIY Dachstein: September tracks on a snowfield in the Chugach mountains, Sept. 27, 2020. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

The koan that skiers are made in the summer has been around for longer than this website. The related truism, that summer snow time is necessary to effectively compete as a high-level skier come winter, also has a venerable history. 

For example, here’s Luke Bodensteiner, writing in Endless Winter about why he had journeyed to a place where “the weather sucks all year long” to ski on the Sognefjellet snowfields in August 1993: “We all come to this spot simply to be able to ski a race faster than everyone else.” Or Billy Demong, discussing summer training on Eagle Glacier nearly 20 years ago: “In the late 90s and early 2000s, we were all working super hard, but we hadn’t quite broken through. I was on Eagle Glacier in 2002 because as a team we were committed to be the best.” Or Andy Newell, who first skied on Eagle the same year: “As the overall level on the World Cup continues to rise, summer training camps have become even more important. To be competitive at the very top level, you simply must get on snow at least once a summer.”

Bottom line, as Reese Hanneman wrote in an essay for a Boulder Nordic Sport catalog a few years ago, “All the best skiers in the world are on snow in the summer. Do you really want to try to be the best skier who wasn’t on snow?”

All well and good, but what happens when a global pandemic interrupts access to estival snow, for many athletes for the first time in a decade? More rollerskiing, of course, is the predictable and relatively simple answer. But bigger picture, it’s also a chance to introduce a new stimulus to long-established training patterns, and to replace travel and camps with increased consistency training out of a home base. Judging from conversations with three veteran athletes and two longtime coaches, high-level American skiers seem to be cautiously optimistic about how well this summer’s training will prepare them for the 2020/2021 World Cup season that starts in Ruka late next month.

(Disclaimer: It should go without saying that the global health toll of the coronavirus pandemic, and resultant inequality, are bigger problems than the inability of professional athletes to train on snow in the summer in the manner to which they are accustomed. Because this is a ski news website, the rest of this article focuses on the latter, but that is not intended to deny the existence and importance of the former.)

Background: In a normal year…

Here’s another saying you may have heard recently: These are uncertain times. In a normal summer, the Alaskan skiers would be on snow through at least mid-May, then all national-team skiers would meet in Bend for a two-week on-snow camp in the second half of May. Skiers with Alaska Pacific University Nordic Training Center, or APU, would then spend one week a month in each of June, July, and August skiing on Eagle Glacier, a short helicopter flight above Girdwood, Alaska.

Some national-team skiers – typically heavy on Stratton Mountain School and Craftsbury athletes, less so APU – would then spend two to three weeks in New Zealand in late August and early September, nearly all of it on snow at the Snow Farm. Groomed skiing returns to Independence Mine, about 75 minutes outside of Anchorage, in mid-October (probably), and to Frozen Thunder, in Canmore, about a week later (quite reliably). Arriving in Europe a few weeks ahead of the season’s first World Cup races typically affords athletes more on-snow time before first putting on a bib.

Summer skiing at Independence Mine, above Palmer, Alaska, May 30, 2020. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

This year, Independence Mine was skiable through the end of May, but everything else has been off the table. No Bend Camp; no Eagle Glacier; certainly no international travel to New Zealand, let alone to Canada for Frozen Thunder or Forêt Montmorency. It’s hard to survey the entire country, but this reporter’s cumulative four-plus hours of skiing since June 1, on snowfields in southcentral Alaska, may be among the highest on-snow summer nordic training loads in the nation, depending on how much time APU athlete Ari Endestad put in during a late-June (!) crust skiing trip in the Alaska Range. Until snow starts to accumulate at Independence Mine – the Mat-Su Ski Club’s historical first date of grooming there has recently been a tantalizingly close October 15 – American skiers’ collective summer snow drought looks likely to continue.

What all this means

So is this a problem when it comes to on-snow performance in the upcoming race season? Not really, according to multiple athletes and coaches.

“You can accomplish 95 percent of your technique goals, perhaps,” on rollerskis, U.S. Cross Country Team Program Director Chris Grover said in a late-May interview with Cross Country Skier magazine (22:54 mark of podcast), speaking at a time when summer training options were still unknown. “And so we’re in a good place; even if we never touch snow this summer, we’ll be ready to race when we get to next winter.”

“We’ve had many instances over the years with athletes who have missed on-snow opportunities in the preparation period, and gone on to have breakthrough winters,” echoed USST Head Coach Matt Whitcomb in a recent email to FasterSkier. “The dryland training is the cake, and the snow is the frosting. Americans will be frosting our cakes this fall when the snow flies, and this should lead to top performances during key mid-season international championships. I’m not one who attaches irreplaceable value to prep period on-snow training.”

2018 U.S. Ski Team camp at the Snow Farm in New Zealand. (Photo: Matt Whitcomb)

“The assessment period, that’s still ahead of us; that’s the race season,” echoed longtime APU Head Coach Erik Flora in a recent phone interview. “But … at least the athletes I work with, they’re in a good position right now heading into the winter.”

“Of course, we will have to see when the races hit,” APU and USST athlete Rosie Brennan wrote to FasterSkier, “but I feel very optimistic that the summer has had a positive impact on my training.”

“I’m hoping that some other training strategies – workouts that I normally won’t do because of the glacier, and a different strength routine – will have actually given me an advantage,” emailed APU skier Becca Rorabaugh to FasterSkier. “This is a good year to try new things and shake it up!”

(Against all this enthusiasm, Whitcomb did provide a more nuanced look at some potential disadvantages, while acknowledging a former athlete’s gentle chiding about his perennial optimism: “Since Holly Brooks once asked me to not always be so positive,” Whitcomb added, “I will start by saying that Norway will have an advantage in the early season. Many of them have found some snow. But Norwegians are often competing for start spots and racing very fast in period one, which allows us a window to catch up when their performance flattens. It all balances out. Beyond that, this is a global pandemic, and every team has been affected. Americans don’t have to do things better than we ever have, but just as good as we can. That will be good enough for this season. I’m confident in our preparation, and believe we’ll deliver great results to our fans.”)

What’s happened instead

“There is naturally more roller skiing” this summer than in prior years, Whitcomb noted, “since during an on-snow camp we will do little to no roller skiing. The sessions on roller skis versus on snow are similar.”

This is sensible enough. But everyone contacted for this article also discussed the broader implications of this year’s changes, be it for the overall training stimulus, travel schedule, training schedule, or all of the above.

Pepa Miloucheva skates behind CGRP biathlete Casey Smith while at a training camp at La Forêt Montmorency in Quebec in early November 2015. (Photo: Caitlin Patterson)

Here’s Rorabaugh, for example, who as a longtime APU athlete has logged three glacier camps each year from 2007 through 2019, making for an impressive 39 cumulative weeks of summer glacier time. (Flora says that athletes typically log 20–30 hours of ski time in a week at Eagle Glacier. Taking the midpoint of this range, 25 hours, yields a healthy 975 total hours of summer snow time over the past 13 years.)

“2020 has been structured similarly to a normal summer of training,” Rorabaugh wrote. “The only difference is that where we would usually have a high volume week on-snow, we have done one in town. My overall training volume may have decreased slightly, since it’s hard to get quite as carried away with dryland training, but it’s also been more consistent week-to-week. We might be doing slightly more running than in the past, but the balance between rollerskiing and running is very similar. My joints and feet are actually the healthiest they’ve been in years though, probably because I’m not able to pound them into the ground with the expectation of a low-impact glacier camp for reprieve. Staying in town is forcing me to be a more responsible athlete, and I think my body appreciates it. Actually the biggest challenge for me this summer has been adapting to at-home strength training. Not having access to a weight room has definitely tested my creativity and self-motivation.”

Or here’s Scott Patterson, like Brennan also an APU and national team athlete, in an email to FasterSkier: “The big changes to my training have mostly been the consistency of time in Alaska and a few alterations for indoor training. We haven’t had any USST camps or APU glacier camps so there have been a lot of weeks just plugging away in Anchorage. It was nice that the snow held on fairly late so it’s only recently that the desire to get sliding on snow has really caught up to me. Not having camps definitely changes things and has its downsides, but I am also really appreciating having fewer obligations and travel days through the summer.”

Ida Sargent, Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Bjornsen, and Rosie Brennan enjoying freshly groomed snow on Eagle Glacier in summer 2011. Photo courtesy of Sophie Caldwell.

And here’s Brennan, another veteran athlete with a long history of summer snow time: “It’s definitely been a bit of an experiment this year, but I have really chosen to look at the potential benefits. For one, as an older athlete it gets harder to introduce new stresses that create the adaptation needed to keep improving. This summer has certainly provided me a different set of stressors that I have had to adapt to. Travel also takes away training days and always comes with some sort of a need to adjust to the new training environment, so without travel, my training has been just so consistent.”

What about technique work?

As Grover said, “You can accomplish 95 percent of your technique goals” on rollerskis.

Others were a little less sanguine. As Patterson noted, “Those weeks of glacier time in the middle of the summer are a great opportunity to preserve the on snow feel even when in town rollerskiing. It’s easy to forget that skis don’t kick like ratchets, pole plants are much softer than pavement, and asphalt never turns to deep slush. I usually try to use the glacier weeks as high volume periods with fairly intense focus on the technical aspects of actually skiing. In town, it has definitely taken some adapting to not have the focus week or the on snow technique.”

And Rorabaugh, a Fairbanks native, sounded similar themes. (Relevant: Even in an era of climate change, Fairbanks, Alaska, reliably provides hard-wax skiing for at least four and probably five months a year, from early November through late March. Fairbanks skiers once started a spring marathon on the Chena River, in downtown Fairbanks, at temperatures of –12° F. On March 25.)

Audrey Kentch, 5, skiing in wet-snow conditions in Alaska, June 2020. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

As Rorabaugh wrote, “Summer on-snow training is a good time to work on technique and try new things, and to adapt to dramatically new ways of skiing. It’s also a vital opportunity to practice skiing in slushy conditions – something that an Alaskan skier might be unprepared for. At my first JNs in Lake Placid I remember being utterly shocked that people skied on sloppy trails, and having no idea how to do it! Thankfully I’ve had a lot of practice on Eagle Glacier since then.”

Looking ahead to the start of the season, Rorabaugh noted, “I don’t think I’ll change my approach when I get on-snow this fall because it’s a different time of year. Early season snow is a good time to transfer dryland fitness to skiing, but it’s not as much of a technical laboratory. It’s more about technical honing than totally revamping.”

No matter what the summer looks like, the first few times back on snow are necessarily different than rollerskis, and can potentially require some degree of transition. As Whitcomb observed, “It takes a few days for everyone; the skate skis feel long and awkward, and the greater hip area muscles get sore from slipping on classic skis. Our first few on-snow workouts in Finland each season call for short, easy training, and after that we’re good to go. I also think it is harder for juniors than for seniors, but neither case is a big deal.”

A more nuanced aspect of this issue involves the optimal application of summer snow time for working on ski technique. Flora is a firm believer in his seriatim method, which involves one week on snow at roughly one-month intervals from June through August.

The June camp is “usually the introduction of new ideas,” Flora told FasterSkier. “And the nice part about being on snow is that it’s real-time, real snow. So it applies 100 percent; you’re not adjusting for a rollerski kick, or, you know, road-style terrain; you’re on snow, and it’s World Cup-style terrain. And so, usually, June, we use to introduce ideas, and then July is kind of, refine and play with those, and then usually by August, you can see those changes kind of setting in. And so that’s a pattern that we’ve used for over a decade. And it’s an effective pattern.”

World Cup terrain: The groomed ski trails on Eagle Glacier gleam in this view from the training center on a late-July evening in summer 2019. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

When attempting to translate this pattern to an exclusively dryland paradigm, Flora explained, he found himself emphasizing more of a “steady amount of technique work in the summer” this year.

Has it worked? With the significant caveat that the race season has yet to begin, Flora is cautiously optimistic: “As far as which one is more effective? Hard to say; I think they both work. One thing right now seems to be we have a number of athletes that have made jumps this summer, you know, similar to in years past. But again, we’ll see as the on-snow time comes.”

Flora is similarly confident about an athlete’s ability to ski well in early-season races this year, even if they have transitioned from rollerski kick to hard-wax skiing at Independence Mine, only to be thrust into, say, a messy artificial snow, above-freezing, klister slopfest race in World Cup Period One. Flora expresses his hope that APU’s “style of coaching and education” has let the athletes “create an adaptable kind of platform to work from. And so when … they show up and it’s icy or soupy, or whichever it may be, that they’re ready just to jump on their skis and adjust.”

Finally, Flora also cites his athletes’ accumulative lifetime on-snow experience: “The athletes that I’ve worked with for a while, I’m confident that they’re ready to kind of jump into any kind of conditions, that those athletes also have thousands and thousands of kilometers behind them, of glacier soup, and spring-like conditions. … I think for my main group [of athletes], everyone is comfortable kind of moving forward. I don’t know that one summer has a huge impact into that. … I guess I’ll know more about that in a few months.”

 

Towards a philosophical understanding of summer snow

Flora’s observation about lifetime glacial kilometers skied raises a final point: What, perhaps in a more fundamental sense, does summer skiing mean? The final paragraphs of this piece on FasterSkier attempt to limn an answer, and Chelsea Little’s lovely, lyrical essay on summer skiing at Italy’s Passo dello Stelvio does much the same. But what do coaches and athletes have to say about it?

For Flora, summer skiing is, as discussed, an opportunity to install and ingrain technique changes relatively early, “so by the time they’re in the racing season it’s an automation or a natural movement, as opposed to trying to race and then also think about new movements.”

But it’s also a chance to, well, ski a whole lot. This may seem obvious, if not downright unremarkable for professional skiers who ski all winter long, but for Flora it stands in contrast to, perhaps counterintuitively, the relatively reduced amount of actual skiing that occurs during the World Cup season, which brings with it travel days and recovery days and multiple venues with limited snow on small loops.

As Flora notes, “What’s really interesting about those numbers is that if you go up to a glacier camp, and you ski, say you ski 20, 25, 30 hours that week. And you take that across roughly 15 k an hour, or you can even just look at the pure hours. Most of the athletes in the wintertime are training anywhere from, you know, 30 to probably upwards of 60 hours a month, at most, during the race season. And so the amount of time you get at a camp – if you’re having 30 hours in a week of training up there, take two camps and you have over a month of skiing already. And so the time up there is different than the race season too, because a lot of times when you’re traveling and racing, you’re skiing once a day, jogging in the afternoon, where on Eagle, you’re skiing twice a day. And so that time has a huge impact on kind of turning the body into a ski body.”

All athletes and coaches also noted that summer skiing is some sort of change – a new physical stimulus, to be sure, but also just a change. Whitcomb spoke of the danger of “monotony,” and of the need to avoid not just an outright overuse injury, but also the “physical plateau” that can result from consistent use of one training mode. Brennan unconsciously mirrored Whitcomb almost verbatim, writing, “As for an overall approach, I have tried to remain very consistent all summer so no one activity gets into a level in which I’m risking overuse.” And Flora, similarly, said that he began the summer by telling his team, “the opportunity ahead of us is just the change in stimulus.”

It’s hard to discuss these changes, in this year, without trafficking in tropes, but here are a few more to end things: Every disruption is a chance for improvement. It’s not a challenge, it’s an opportunity. The only thing constant is change.

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In all seriousness, though, in a sport where the increased sharing of information has led to high-level training looking relatively homogenous around the world, the unparalleled summer of 2020 provides a chance to see what winter results look like when traditional summer training is disrupted. As Flora said, he’s confident now, but we’ll all know more soon.

— Jason Albert contributed reporting

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.

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