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A Grand Tour of Tahoe on Skinny Skis: Adventures of a Ski-O Newbie 

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We have it pretty good here, but sometimes you just get a little jaded with yet another lap of Woody's or Zig Zag. So last week I decided to try something new - the 2010 Sierra Avalanche Ski-Orienteering Championships, a week full of Ski-O races in Tahoe. The field was stacked with several top Ski-O-ers competing for spots on the U.S. National Team for World Championships next year in Sweden.

Although I've done a little "Foot-O," this was my first time doing it on skis. Ski-O totally breaks up the drudgery of just another ski race. Sixty seconds before your start, you receive a map plotted with about ten "control points" (orange and white one-foot cubes generally hanging from trees) to go find in order. Sounds easy... until you get to Intersection 15 at Tahoe Donner with nine trails radiating outward.

Ski-O is sort of a geeky, nichey sport, but I shared a cabin in Soda Springs with ten members and friends of the Bay Area Orienteering Club ( who couldn't have been more welcoming.

Half the fun of Ski-O is poring over your maps and comparing route choices with your fellow competitors afterward. Then, over dinner, you talk about maps. Then, you plug all your split times into some software called "Route Gadget," so that you can replay your routes on the map. Then, before bed, you talk more about maps. Then, you put your map under your pillow and dream about contour lines and shortcuts and magnetic north... until you get a new map the next day.

A special thanks goes to Matthias Kohler for lending me his Ski-O mapholder - a key piece of equipment that allows you to read the map while you are skiing. The first day, I executed a full-on somersault wipe-out trying to read the map during a descent, but I did learn from the experience.

Not only is Ski-O a ton-O fun, the Sierra Avalanche also provided a grand tour of Tahoe's Nordic centers. I missed the first two events in Bear Valley, but thoroughly enjoyed the new terrain of the 5 north Tahoe Nordic areas we skied. Here's an overview, in case you're dreaming about breaking out of the Rich's Range Rut:


I have a warm spot in my heart for Tahoe Donner - it's where I learned to skate ski, back in the day (1987). TD has a lot of things we don't have at Bachelor: 102K of trails, 5 warming huts, a lighted 2.5K night skiing loop and the Euer Valley, featuring long, flat, sunny cruising. For my first race, my goal was to "navigate cleanly" (not get lost) and I actually accomplished that on the 8.4K course.


The next race was at Northstar at Tahoe, The trails there are quite nice, but the logistics at the alpine resort are a bit inconvenient. For $25 you get a gondola ride part way up the mountain to the base of the 40K trail system. This time, I not only navigated cleanly, I spent less time standing still looking at the map and more time skiing. "I'm getting the hang of this!" I thought.


"Royal Gorge" is the King of Cross Country Centers, or at least it used to be. "North America's Largest Cross Country Ski Resort" boasted 330K of groomed trails in its heyday. The Wilderness Lodge burned down in 2003 and it seems like the glory years are past. Now, the resort, which charges $29 weekends/$25 weekdays, is closed on Wednesdays and "only" 130K were groomed the day we raced. As it turned out, there were more than enough kilometers for me to accidentally ski right off the map and spend over an hour looking for Control #6.


After a rest day, we raced on the Auburn Ski Club's 15K of groomed trails at 7,200 feet at Donner Summit. The trails are usually open only to club members. Since the area was small, we got two maps that day - double the fun!


Our final race was at Tahoe X-C on a warm, sunny day. You've got to fight Squaw Valley traffic to get there, but this Nordic center, which is also the start of the Great Ski Race to Truckee, features dog ski trails, which is super cool. Since the existing trail system wasn't confusing enough, our kindly course setter added several snowmobile trails to the mix, but he didn't trick me too badly. After a whole week of Ski-O, I'm starting to understand the mentality. I may even sleep with my map tonight.

You can try a Ski-O race for yourself at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center on March 14th. For more information, visit


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