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Snow problem: Vermont's high school Nordic ski teams adapt to inconsistent winters

A person moves on cross-country skis over the snow. Only the bottom half of their body is seen.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
A cross-country skier from South Burlington High School practices at a ski area out of town due to the lack of snowfall in the Burlington area. Because of warm temperatures on the day of practice, the skiers were "skating" — a technique of cross-country skiing that uses a motion similar to the side-to-side of ice skates, and uses a smaller ski.

The regular season for high school cross-country skiers wrapped up last Friday with the last statewide meet of the year in Craftsbury.

It was a spotty season. Athletes spent weeks anxiously awaiting the first snowfall deep enough to ski on — as they have the last couple winters.

Climate change is making Vermont winters shorter and warmer, limiting how long athletes can spend on their skis each season.

As the sun set outside Montpelier High School on a recent Thursday, stadium lights illuminated a group of impatient cross-country skiers waiting at the starting line for their race.

Skiers launched forward on the short course, skis gliding over freshly groomed snow.

A race like this wasn’t possible in Montpelier in January. In December, the high school was blessed with what now seems like a rare gift: snow blanketing the schools' fields, rooftops and trees. But Montpelier’s head coach Brian Carlson says it quickly melted away, disrupting the team’s plans.

“I think we had to miss a couple of our first races on the schedule because there just wasn't snow yet,” Carlson says.

Montpelier wasn’t alone in their snow woes this year.

Large swaths of Vermont just had their warmest winter on record. And though higher elevations have had near normal snowfall, valleys across the Green Mountain State have been bare for much of the season. That disrupted training schedules for established athletes, and prevented prospective skiers from fully getting into the sport.

"It just comes down to a couple of inches, you know, a couple of nights of thaw, that can really make the difference, you know, in terms of wiping us out or keeping us going."
Brian Carlson, Nordic skiing head coach at Montpelier High School

And it’s not a new trend. Carlson says after five years of coaching, He expects to have a stretch of time every season where they have to take a break from skiing.

“It just comes down to a couple of inches, you know, a couple of nights of thaw, that can really make the difference, you know, in terms of wiping us out or keeping us going,” he says.

Kate Hale, a postdoc studying snow hydrology at the University of Vermont, says the winter season is shrinking in Vermont due to climate change.

“Snow on is occurring almost two weeks later on average in the year and snow off is now occurring about a week earlier in the spring,” Hale says.

On top of the shrinking length of the season, Hale said that Vermont is seeing an increasing amount of rain-on-snow events.

“So essentially, we're getting this warm precipitation on top of a cold snowpack. And that induces melt really efficiently and effectively,” Hale says. “So we might have, you know, a somewhat shallow snowpack that can disappear overnight by way of rain inducing snow melt.”

Hale says Vermont’s snowpack depth has declined about 13% between 1965 and 2022.

During stretches of no snow, cross-country ski coaches use other ways to keep their athletes’ fitness and interest in the sport up.

Marie Voisin was a junior on Montpelier’s team this year. She says they did a lot of dry land training during these periods

“Runs or bike rides, or we'll go and do some strength,” she says. “And so while we're not on snow getting accustomed to that, we still are getting stronger, you know, building both our strength and, you know, building community in this team.”

This can be a rough period for a lot of athletes, lacking the excitement of speeding down a snow-covered slope, or discovering new terrain.

Ski marks are seen in slushy snow during South Burlington High School's practice.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Slushy, wet snow can change how fast skiers are able to move.

Skiers are also increasingly facing more slushy, wet snow, like Montpelier’s team did during a recent practice.

Montpelier’s assistant coach Jason Serota-Winston says poor quality snow can be a drag.

“It changes everything. It changes how fast the snow is. It changes how saturated the snow is with water. … And then it changes the experience of the skiers,” Serota-Winston says.

That feeling’s known all too well in South Burlington, where nothing about the high school’s campus signaled winter over the last couple months — least of all the puddle-ridden football field surrounded by mud and dead grass.

“Time on snow is the thing that is the biggest predictor of how well you're going to do in this sport."
Matthew Powers, coach of South Burlington High School's Nordic ski team

Matthew Powers says throughout their time as an athlete and now coach with South Burlington’s Nordic team, they could train at the school’s campus at least once a week or more if the snow was good. But that wasn’t the case this season.

Instead, the team has to travel for almost every practice, like they did for a recent practice at Sleepy Hollow Ski Center near Huntington.

But traveling isn't a silver bullet either.

“Because it's difficult to get buses every day to have kids out that late every day. Usually as late as seven,” Powers says. “We've been skiing only around three times a week, where it'd be more ideal to ski every day.”

A student loads a bag into the back of an orange school bus.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
A cross-country skier at South Burlington High School gets ready to ride the bus to practice at Sleepy Hollow Ski Center.
Two cross-country skiers skate up a snowy hill.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Two cross-country skiers from South Burlington High School practice skating at Sleepy Hollow Ski Center.

When they do train, South Burlington senior Molly Levy says the late travel can be mentally taxing.

“I'm in, like, AP classes, and it's definitely pretty stressful to have to take a bus that far every day and get home at like 7:30, sometimes at the latest, and then be stuck with, like, a bunch of homework,” Levy says.

Despite the hurdles, Powers says traveling is crucial to athletes’ improvement.

“Time on snow is the thing that is the biggest predictor of how well you're going to do in this sport,” Powers says. “When you're on snow, you're having more fun and you're building the skills and technique necessary to elevate how good you are at skiing … in a way that we just can't do on pavement or on dirt.”

A man in a red jacket with snow in the background looks out of the frame, smiling.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Brian Carlson, the head coach of the Nordic skiing team at Montpelier High School, says constant traveling to practice on snow could be unsustainable for the future of the sport.

Montpelier’s team also has to head out of town for snow. A handful of skiers are members of the club team at Craftsbury Outdoor Center, which makes its own snow. But there’s fees and transportation costs that come out of an individual’s pocket.

Montpelier coach Brian Carlson says, when they can, they try to take trips with the entire team, but he says it’s unsustainable for the future of the sport because of how few places In the state make snow.

“If you're not really close to those places, then yeah, that's what worries me because, you know, it's hard to make that commitment to travel,” Carlson says. “It just doesn't make sense to be, you know, for a high school team to be traveling an hour every day to get to snow.”

Despite every annoyance that comes at the skiers — the dry training, the travel, the on and off snow — Montpelier assistant coach Jason Serota-Winston says they’ve learned how to be resourceful and roll with it.

“I mean, it's a generation of kids who have gone through COVID — who have had school and races canceled due to COVID — have learned how to be flexible, which is not to say that they don't observe and react to the changes that are happening all around them,” Serota-Winston says.

A pair of Nordic skis rest against a pole at Montpelier High School's snow-covered track during a meet on Thursday, Feb. 8.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
A pair of Nordic skis rest against a pole at Montpelier High School's snow-covered track during a meet on Thursday, Feb. 8.

Still, Nordic skiing — historically at least — has been known as one of the more accessible outdoor staples of Vermont’s winters.

If cross-country skiing becomes less and less approachable here, Serota-Winston wonders what that means for Vermont’s identity.

“A lot of the best skiers in the world that are Americans have either grown up here or trained here. And that's still the case. So if, you know, if we lose skiing, would it be a different place? For sure,” he says. “You know, there are bigger things we should all be concerned about. But it's part of what makes it such a great place, and a great place to live and to raise a family and to grow up.”

And if Vermont loses that, Serota-Winston says, it would be felt across the state.

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