Fitness professionals agree that cross-country skiing is one of the most efficient cardiovascular activities out there. Cross-country skiing is a truly lung-busting, muscle-melting workout. From Dec. 6 to 9, the Cross-Country World Cup will unfold in Quebec, raising the profile of the endurance sport that dates back 5,000 years and makes everyday skiing seem like a breeze.
Yet cross-country skiing isn’t the only adrenaline-fueled variety of the classic downhill sport. There are a plenty of ways to engage with snow strapped into the sleek, thin ski blades.
Here are the best extreme skiing variations.
If you think cross-country skiing is offbeat, then get ready to learn about Nordic combined. At heart, Nordic combined is a cross between a ski jumping competition and a grueling cross-country skiing race, but the form varies. “Sprint” involves a single jump followed by a cross country race, “team” has four skiers do one jump each and then move onward to a 4 X 5 km (about 3.1 miles) cross-country skiing relay and “mass start,” which debuted at the 2009 championships at Liberec, Czech Republic, kicks off the with cross country race rather than jumping. Recently, the “Hurricane sprint” was introduced, where the best contestant from the jumping races 7.5 km (about 4.6 miles) and all others start at a given distance behind. Since 1924, Nordic combined has been a feature of the Winter Olympics and normally Norway produces the top athletes. Austria, Finland and Germany aren’t too shabby either.
Few snow sports are more exhilarating than ski jumping. The abrupt, aerial test of explosive strength and agility is simple. Competitors just whizz down a take-off ramp, leap into space and try to land as far down the hill below as they can. Besides being judged by the length of their gravity-busting jump, they get points for style. The skis used are long (up to 9 feet), giving competitors a clownish look when they walk. The first known ski jumper – a Norwegian lieutenant named Olaf Rye – launched the sport and himself in 1809, travelling more than 31 feet through the air in front of fellow spectator soldiers. Catching on, ski jumping became an attraction at carnivals. The sport has been part of the Olympic Winter Games since the first Games unraveled in Chamonix Mont-Blanc in 1924. Part of the thrill of ski-jumping is the tight timeframe: a single jump lasts under 30 seconds.
If there is one winter sport even more dynamic than ski jumping, it’s “ski flying.” Ski flying pushes ski jumping to the extreme – with an emphasis on floating through the air, bird-man style. The extreme sport stems from Slovenia, where the first allocated ski flying hill stood in a northwest alpine valley called Planica. The sport was thought up by Janez Gorisek: an engineer, athlete and sports-promoter responsible for the Planica ski ramp. The ski flying world record of 808.7 feet was set by Norwegian Johan Remen Evensen at Vikersund, Norway in 2011. If you want to take a crack at the breathtaking sport, there are several ski flying hills dotted around northern Europe.
Biathlon pushes the winter sports envelope even further than ski flying, twinning skiing with small-bore target shooting. The core of a biathlon contest is a cross-country trial course race interrupted by shooting rounds: half in prone position, the other half standing. The five spherical targets fired at are set at a challenging 160 ft – an incredibly tough distance if your fingers are numb. The sport owes its existence to Norwegian soldiers, who pioneered biathlon in a spirit of battlefield training. Originally dubbed “military patrol,” the mix of marksmanship and skiing was contested at the 1924 Olympic Winter Games. During the mid-1950s, biathlon spread to the Soviet and Swedish winter sport circuits and caught on. Now there is even a Biathlon World Cup.
Ski orienteering is for the winter sports buff who likes to mix arduous exercise with mental challenge and a bit of puzzle-solving. The point of ski-orienteering is to ski to “controls” marked on your map in the right order quickly. The trick is to pick the most effective route, judging possible paths on length, smoothness and gradient. For example, you might find you move faster taking a winding route over flat land than a hillside short-cut. A successful ski-orienteer combines strength and stamina with agility and ingenuity to pursue the best routes while moving as fast as possible. It is a race, after all. Though it is popular in New Zealand and Australia, ski-orienteering failed to make the cut for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, as reported by Orienteering.org. Maybe the sport will have more luck in 2022.
Cover Photo Credit: tpower1978 – flickr.com