Alpine and cross-country skiing are poles apart. While Alpine skiers stick to downhill runs, cross-country skiers explore the mountain in any which way they like - across great flat expanses, over rolling hills or through forest trails.
Here is a brief run down of the differences between Alpine and cross-country skiing, along with what you can expect to learn in your first cross-country lesson. Be smart and sign up for at least one lesson before you start.
In cross-country skiing, only the toe of the shoe is attached to the ski and the heel remains free to allow more movement, like telemark-style turns. With Alpine skiing, the entire boot is attached making it possible to go quickly down steep hills without worrying about your ski flying off.
Cross-country skis also look very different: Alpine skis have more of a curve - narrow under the foot and wider at the tails and tips to help with turning; cross-country skis are long and skinny, better for gliding on linear trajectories.
How much you invest in your look is a matter of personal taste, but in general cross-country clothes are less expensive than Alpine parkas and pants, which are often as stylish as they are functional.
Layering is the key to a fun cross-country outing: a moisture-wicking undergarment, warm middle layer like a fleece pullover, and a wind-breaking outer layer. You'll probably shed a layer as you warm up, especially if the sun is out.
Your level will determine your speed for both sports, but in cross-country, you will have to work harder to go faster. In Alpine, a lift takes you up and you decide how fast you want to go back down, but gravity does most of the work.
As a regular lift rider, I decided to try cross-country skiing to broaden my snowy horizons. The sport looked easy enough, but I first had to choose between classic and skating styles.
Classic style seemed to be easy enough - you land your skis in prepared tracks and swing your arms and legs in opposing rhythms, walking or shuffling along. Skating, which mimics the movement of inline skaters, looked more challenging. I signed up for a skating lesson.
The skis vary between the two styles: classic skis have an underside similar to fish scales for better traction; skating skis are smooth for easier gliding. Make sure you get the right skis for your style.
It's never comforting to know that you are being observed, but that's how the lesson began. I skated ahead of Regis, my instructor from the ESF French Ski School in Autrans, while he assessed my (lack of) technique. I flailed along the piste and he soon announced the good news - there was lots of work to be done.
The first thing to understand was the movement. In skating, your hips should move from side to side like a pendulum. The movement is transferred down to the heels, creating the sliding motion that carries you forward.
After having grasped that basic rule, we went through the basic techniques. Skis in a V-shape, we waddled up a small hill, again using the pendulum motion. This would save me lots of energy in getting up the pistes later on.
We skated along, practicing the hip sway and learning how to shift from one foot to the other without tipping over. We took off the skis to practice hitting the snow heel first (going down toe first can land you spread eagle on the snow). We put our skis back on and did the half step, with one foot in the straight track, the other free on the piste. With just one leg to propel me, it was easier to see the importance of pushing down through the heel to go forward.
After an hour-long lesson, I put my Olympic hopes aside. I did however feel comfortable enough to enjoy skiing around the pistes the rest of the afternoon, practicing what I had just learned.
Back at the lodge, Regis shared a few more tips for those considering trading the lift for the trails:
1. Cross-country skating should not be your first ski experience. It's best to already have done some kind of skiing - downhill, classic style cross-country or ski jumping. It's a question of knowing how to keep your balance.
2. Take a lesson. Cross-country skating requires certain technical gestures that, while not difficult, are not natural. You can't just improvise and hope to get it right.
3. Get the right cross-country skis: don't try to skate with classical skis and don't think you can do classical style with skating skis.
4. Start easy. Beginners should keep to the flat pistes as they grasp the motions. Why make it harder on yourself by trying to go up hills on your first day?
5. Don't get discouraged. Getting started may not be easy, but one of the great things about cross-country skiing is that everybody can do it. It's just a question of practice.