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P.S., Unusual Ski Race

February 24, 1985|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

PALM SPRINGS — Move over, Norway, and Wisconsin, too. Make room for the Palm Springs "Birkebeiner."

Coming up Sunday, March 3, is the first-time-ever "Ski Palm Springs" Cross-Country Ski Race.

This could be the beginning of the world's most unusual Birkebeiner, patterned after the classic cross-country ski race over the old Viking trail from Lillehammer to Rena in Norway.

Cable, Wis., introduced the American Birkebeiner in 1972, and it draws 8,000 cross-country skiers from around the world, plus spectators to book every available accommodation.

So why not a Palm Springs Birkebeiner as a visitor attraction?

But maybe we should first make clear that this isn't a bit of Miami humor to twit Palm Springs about the snow that powdered swimming pool covers during the most unusual cold spell of January.

That cold spell did enough to hurt what should have been the highest of high season tourism, without any jokes being made about it now that the weather has turned balmy again.

Spinoff Benefit

But the touch of real winter produced a spinoff benefit of sparkling white snowfields in Mt. San Jacinto State Park at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, 8,500 feet above the swimming pools of this desert spa.

The result has been to boom the year-by-year growth of interest in bringing cross-country skis as well as tennis rackets, swim gear and golf clubs on a winter weekend or vacation in and around Palm Springs.

This makes the timing perfect for the first ski race of what could well become an annual counterpart to the Bob Hope Golf Classic.

There will be two races on March 3, a 5K and a 10K. Terrain is available in this 13,000-acre state park, with its 54 miles of hiking trails, to expand the cross-country course into the 55-kilometer distance of a Birkebeiner.

Already the tram has quite literally become the No. 1 Palm Springs attraction this winter. When we rode up on the tram with cross-country skis on the sunlit warm-again Sunday of Feb. 10, we became part of the 2,300 riders for that day.

Our tram car, and every other one we saw start up the mountain, carried a capacity load of 80 passengers. Some brought their own skis; others rented skis, boots and poles from the Nordic Ski Center at the top, which also has gear for youngsters who just want to sit and slide gleefully down a small slope.

Skiers and Spectators

At the Birkebeiners in Norway and Wisconsin we have shared the snow with skiers and spectators from as far away as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The base for such an international event has already been set at the Palm Springs Tram, which distributes free information leaflets to visitors printed in both English and Japanese.

Sharing our tram car was a tour group from Japan; four were dressed for cross-country skiing. Standing next to us beside the window was a young family from Frankfurt, West Germany; the wife and husband and their 9-year-old son. All would rent skis.

We traveled the nearly 6,000 feet of vertical rise, a cable span of 12,800 feet, in about 13 minutes. Looking ahead, we could have been ascending a canyon in the Swiss Alps. Behind and below us, small lakes sparkled on a golf course.

There has long been an awareness of cross-country skiing at the top of the tram, but the specifics are not yet known to most Palm Springs visitors.

Ski trails, as do the summer hiking trails, begin at the Long Valley Ranger Station a few hundred yards from the walkway that winds down the slope from the Upper Tramway Terminal. If you bring your own skis, you can begin on this slope.

We watched a perfectly executed telemark turn when we paused to snap a few photos about halfway down the walk. We also watched children throwing snowballs and clomping on snowshoes. Grandparents applauded their efforts.

Clearly Into Focus

Paradoxically, the snow-covered meadows and slopes brought a microcosm of Palm Springs in this winter of 1985 more clearly into focus than you could ever see it down on Palm Canyon Drive, on a tennis court or golf course, or around a pool. This isn't the elite tourism of the past or the mass tourism many in Palm Springs fear.

Many people from the Los Angeles area were among this international smorgasbord in the snow: young families and middle-aging families, grandparents who could still be nostalgic for the snows of yesteryear in the East and Midwest, just so they could descend from it to sun beside a pool.

There was affluence up here, but also enough budget consciousness to appreciate the values offered by an $8.95 round-trip tram ticket, or $4.95 for children 3 to 12. We met Canadians on the ski trails as well as visitors from Montana, Vermont and Texas.

We've been cross-country skiing up here for at least a dozen winters, but never have had such a feeling of being with the present and future of Palm Springs and the other desert communities.

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