We had barely gotten started and Astrid was already done with cross country skiing. “I hate this!” she yelled in frustration, her long, narrow skis and poles splayed in four different directions as she slid slowly backwards down the hill. I was about to launch into another explanation of how to go uphill on cross country skis, when two men came along and offered my twelve year-old daughter the same advice I had been giving her, albeit with a tad more patience than I could muster at this point. Their words of wisdom — or more likely the prospect of public humiliation — did the trick, as Astrid finally managed to angle her skis in a wide v-shape and ascend, one slow and exhausting v at a time, to the top of the hill. The herring-bone technique, it then occurred to me, was probably one of those things a tween-age girl is better off learning from a stranger, or at least from someone other than her mother.
It was the last day of our family’s annual mid-February ski vacation at Snowmass, and Astrid had decided to forego a day of downhill with her father and younger sister to join me and some friends at Ashcroft, a cross country skiing area about twelve miles north of Aspen, in the remote upper reaches of the White River National Forest’s Castle Creek Valley. With thirty-five kilometers of groomed trails winding through a 600-acre winter wonderland of snow-blanketed woods, meadows and the creaking wooden remains of a turn-of-the-century silver mining ghost town, Ashcroft is one of the best, and possibly most beautiful, places for cross country skiing in Colorado. For me, this was heaven. Whether my downhill-loving daughter could learn to appreciate the more low-key pleasures of Nordic skiing remained to be seen.
After Astrid caught her breath and her cheeks faded from red to rosy, we skied onward through the evergreens, with icy Castle Creek to our left and the worst of the hills behind us. Soon the forest opened up to a wide, sun-blasted meadow, the snow blindingly bright and sparkling. Framed by the frosted peaks of the Elk Mountain Range and a deep blue sky, this was winter at its finest. Falling into a smooth and steady rhythm, we glided along together, Astrid smiling and nodding wordlessly in response to my repeated exclamations of “isn’t this beautiful!” While she might not yet share my love of cross country skiing, I was pretty sure she no longer hated it. And what’s more, she even seemed to be enjoying herself.
Our friends Lisa and Scott, who had taken a trail better suited to towing their seven-month old baby, Will, behind them in a sled, were waiting for us when we later arrived at the Pine Creek Cookhouse. Offering gourmet “mountain cuisine,” cozy log cabin ambiance complete with elk antler chandeliers and crackling wood stoves, as well as the same spectacular views we’d enjoyed on our way there, the Pine Creek Cookhouse is generally booked solid for both lunch and dinner. Diners can make their way there on skis, snow shoes or by horse drawn sleigh, a couple of which were parked outside when we turned up.
Given that we didn’t have a reservation, having planned only to meet here and maybe order some hot chocolate at the bar, I was surprised to see that our friends had managed to get a table. And it was a good thing, as we had all worked up too much of an appetite to get by on the apples and granola bars we’d brought along with us for lunch. With Will holding court in his high chair, we went on to enjoy a wonderful meal, made all the more delicious by the unexpected nature of it. Lisa’s smoked trout plate and my mushroom and spinach crepes were especially memorable.
Our stomachs full and spirits high, we retrieved our skis from the rack outside the restaurant and loaded baby Will back into his sled. Gazing wistfully north, I wished we could continue deeper into the Castle Creek Valley and explore more of Ashcroft’s magnificent terrain, as Lisa and I had done on a previous visit. But the sun had already begun to drop behind the mountains and I didn’t want to push my luck with Astrid, so off we went in the direction of the car.
Hanging back to take a few photos, I watched my daughter glide confidently through the silvery aspens, noticing how far she had come since our cross country adventure began. Downhill, she later admitted, was still her favorite kind of skiing, but she’d had a great day at Ashcroft, and like me, hoped to return.