Quite often, people ask me about the difference between downhill and cross-country skiing or between alpine skiing and nordic skiing. This always seems strange to me. Growing up in Vermont as the son of a ski instructor and ski coach, I thought humans were born with the ability to tell pleasure from pain, sweet from sour, and of course, alpine from nordic. But then I moved to California, where this knowledge seems less common. Yesterday someone asked me again, so now I'm writing it down.
The difference between downhill skiing and cross- country skiing is pretty simple. Cross-country involves propelling yourself across rolling terrain under your own power. Downhill skiing, by contrast, involves somehow getting to the top of a big hill and then turning around and skiing, well, downhill.
Cross-country skiing is done on light , skinny skis attached to light, flexible boots. There are two major forms of cross-country skiing. Classic cross-country is sort of like running, though with a longer, shuffling stride. Cross-country skate skiing is, not surprisingly, more like ice skating, where the skier pushes from side to side.
Downhill skiing usually involves much wider skis and much heavier, stiffer boots. In the larger majority of cases, it involves taking a ski lift up, and then sliding back down. Some of us, though, climb up under our own power using "climbing skins", a material with a one-way plush that you can stick on your skis for the climb up and remove for the descent.
There are also two major forms of downhill skiing: alpine and telemark, also known as "nordic downhill". It used to be that there were huge differences in the equipment and telemark gear resembled heavy-duty cross-country gear. Now it's more similar to alpine equipment, except that the boots bend at the toe and the bindings allow the heel to move.
Which brings us to the difference between alpine skiing and nordic skiing.
Nordic skiing is a technique where the toe is firmly fixed to the ski, but the heel is free to move. There are basically four forms of nordic skiing: telemark, classic cross-country, cross-country skate skiing and nordic jumping, where skiers jump for distance rather than doing tricks. There are no telemark events in the Olympics, but the other nordic events are represented. In addition, biathalon combines cross-country skiing with marksmanship and is an Olympic event.
Alpine skiing by contrast uses a binding that fixes both the toe and the heel to the ski (though it releases in event of a fall or other strong force). There's really just one form of alpine skiing, but there's a lot of variation, including several Olympic events. For the Vancouver Games in 2010, those events are slalom, giant slalom, super G, and downhill for racing, as well as moguls, aerials and ski cross for freestyle (though actually, ski cross is a race; are you confused yet?) . Most forms of alpine skiing are considered downhill skiing, but alpine touring (also known as AT or Randonée skiing) involves climbing up under your own power before you get to ski down.
So, as you can see, downhill includes both alpine and nordic forms of skiing, and nordic includes both cross-country and downhill forms of skiing. So it is not quite true that nordic is synonymous with cross-country. The most important thing to remember is that all forms of skiing are great fun and if you already do one type of skiing, trying another will really help out your major sport. Find an instructor and go have some fun!