Come spring in the mountains and the time when the snowpack sets up hard at night and stays covered with a thick layer of hard crust for most of the following day. With the first signs of thick crust comes the start of the "crust cruising" season. The season when where you can cover miles of snow covered terrain on cross-country skis in a fraction of time it would take to ski the same distance through powder, heavy wet snow or mush.
Think of it this cross-country ski way-crust cruising is like running on a modern synthetic track. It's effortless.
There's the notion that crust cruising is something new and came along when skate/freestyle skiing became popular. That simply isn't so. Cross-country skiers have been cruising the crust for decades.
My first big crust cruise came in 1973 when a group of us stepped onto the crust at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park to ski down to Waterwheel Falls and back. The snow that day was so firm and so fast, one diagonal stride kick and you could glide five yards. One strong double pole push and you could glide for 15 yards. Come to a low angle hill, push off and you could glide for a quarter mile.
That trip got me excited about crust cruising so later that spring a friend and I decided to try a cross-country ski crust cruise down Childs Meadows in the shadow of Mount Lassen. Not more than fifty yards into the trip, my friend said: "remember how we used to skate on our alpine skis, let's try it with these skis."
We did and it worked. The ten-mile round trip taking just over and hour and it got us thinking about skating. Unfortunately we did nothing about perfecting skating on cross-country skis and so can't lay claim to helping invent the skate technique. We simply employed something that worked to have a fun day.
After that, and a subsequent cruise up and down Childs Meadows, we took decided to try and ski into a Lassen Volcanic National Park private in-holding infamous because it had a year-round outdoor pool fed by boiling hot waters from a nearby steam vent.
As legend had it, people had skied into swim only to get chased off by a shotgun-toting caretaker. But with this skate thing we were working on, we figured we could beat a hasty retreat if we encountered the caretaker and easily outdistance any of his 12-guage shotgun blasts.
So we skied in one Sunday about noon on solid crust. Coming within sight of the pool we noticed six people in the pool partially hidden by a cloud of steam.
As we turned to beat a retreat someone in the pool raised an arm and beckoned us to come on in. We did so cautiously.
It was only when we got within ten yards of the pool that we saw that it was a group of skiers we knew from Chico, California. "Don't worry, " laughed one of them, "the caretaker always goes Chester and sits in the saloon all day on Sunday. So we're good for at least a couple more hours."
We peeled off our clothes and hopped in thanking crust cruising for the speedy way into the pool and for our friends for having discovered the caretaker's Sunday routine.
Long after this trip, crust cruising was taken to an art form by a group of Lake Tahoe area cross-country skiers. It came with the advent Fischer's Revolution model skis-the first short cross-country skis.
Skating on the ultra short Revolutions the Tahoe skiers found they could cover mega miles in one day. Soon they were off doing big chunks of the John Muir Trail in a day. That or traveling with minimalist bivouac gear and doing two long sections of the Muir Trail or trans-Sierra traverse over a weekend.
Today crust cruising is done all over the west and two of most incredible places to do it are Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks with their vast expanses of wide open terrain. Then again, just about any mountainous place with acres of moderate, rolling terrain skiing is a great place to cruise and make the most of spring crust.