The classic old-school XCD pose in all its glory (Brad English)
Source: Johnny / MikeK
What the heck is XCD? Well of course the acronym stands for cross-country (XC) downhill (D) but that apparently means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And quite often the term XCD may be used to denote techniques used by cross-country skiers to descend slopes. Basically, we can say it's downhill skiing using cross-country gear.
So XCD becomes this short-hand term that gets thrown around to encompass both a type of skiing and ski techniques. But the fact of the matter remains, it doesn't matter what kind of cross-country skiing you do, you are bound to have to descend a hill. How well you do this will most likely depend on how good you are at applying certain XCD techniques as well as what equipment you choose.
As was implied above, this XCD skiing can be defined by free heels, much like is used in any cross-country skiing as well as skiing off-piste. By off-piste this means skiing out of groomed tracks or flats that are used predominantly by race and recreational cross-country skiers. What distinguishes XCD from Telemark and Alpine Touring is discussed here.
It becomes advantageous to break up this group of skiing into two different categories. Why that is done will make a lot of sense later on, but mainly it depends on how exactly you blend two of the dominant aspects of XCD. Simply put, how much cross-country and how much downhill aspect. By the 'cross-country' aspect we mean how well the ski tours; also a metric of speed over flat terrain. By the 'downhill' aspect we mean how easy the ski is to control on slopes; generally considered a metric of turning ability.
It became the notation that the cross-country focused side of the XCD should be notated by XCd, meaning XC (touring ability) is dominant, d (downhill control) is secondary. On the other extreme we have xcD, where xc (again touring ability) is the secondary aspect and D (again downhill control) is the dominant aspect.
Johnny on edgeless XC skis negotiating his way down from the top of Jay Peak
Touring with Turns (XCd)
The long descriptor of this is 'Touring with Turns'; in short hand, XCd. This is what most people think of as traditional cross-country skiing. Skiing as it was in the days before groomed tracks, skate racing, and spandex. All that stuff has a place but it's not the best sort of stuff to take in the woods. This is where cross-country skiing split from the racing and resort world and goes back to it's roots. It could simply be sliding around a park or it could be a polar expedition. This type of skiing encompasses them all.
In this type of skiing, turning ability or downhill control is often sacrificed for touring speed or gliding efficiency. In this sense, different skis, boots, and bindings may be used from the type of skiing where descending is the primary focus. Such is the case on very flat terrain, there may be no turning and very little descending. The purpose may to be to get from A to B as efficiently as possible. There may also be cases, as in touring mountainous terrain, where one's primary focus is getting from A to B, but must also negotiate steep slopes or prolonged sections of descending. In this case turning, or ability to control speed while descending becomes a little more important, but it's still not the main goal.
As such, one can see that even within XCd there is a very wide spectrum of what one user may find acceptable. In that case it's not so easy to split gear up into two categories as some skiers will prefer stable, easy to control skis while touring in difficult terrain. The important thing to note is that covering ground is the primary goal and one must choose gear appropriate to the terrain.
Touring for Turns (xcD)
In some sense 'Touring for Turns', or xcD for short, is a lot easier to understand and choose gear for, but not always. This is not cross-country skiing in the traditional sense, but rather the roots of downhill skiing. It's skiing as it was before lifts and locked heels. In fact, there was a time when all downhill skiing was xcD by necessity. These days it has become more of way to either access remote terrain for a downhill thrill or less remote terrain that is not accessible by lift.
Just as with XCd, there are many aspects of xcD. One such aspect is how far one must travel to find the hill they wish to descend. Some may be a short walk and climb from a road or parking area, others may be very remote and require a good deal of 'cross-country' to get the area of interest. In this sense, xcD starts to get as blurry as XCd from a gear perspective. One may still choose a light, fast touring ski to reach more remote areas with less effort, although perhaps the lack of stability or confidence on the downhill terrain may force them into more turning focused gear.
Again we see that gear that one may think of as being used for XCd may in some cases be preferable for the xcD and vise-versa. This is why it helps to have a thorough knowledge of the skis, boots, bindings and what part of your quiver you may want to use for what. Some days you may just want to challenge yourself on some downhill terrain or have some extra fun on a tour through rolling terrain. It really doesn't matter. It's what works for you and how you have the most fun.
Cross-Country Downhill, The Book
Cross-Country Downhill is a book written by Steve Barnett in 1977. It was first published in 1978. Even though there was other similar books written about telemark skiing, Cross-Country Downhill somehow became a classic and has recently gained a sort of cult following.
The three different editions of Cross-Country Downhill by Steve Barnett
XCD or Light Telemark?
Simply put, XCD is just skiing and doing Telemark turns on leather boots. This is how skiing originally started. While Telemark skiing is still quite popular, XCD is slowly dying. Rigid plastic boots made Telemark skiing more and more accessible in the mid-1990's. Since telemark is now easier than ever with new developments in the equipment, XCD became sort of obsolete and left behind. Today, only a few hard-core skiers are still really doing it the way Barnett and his friends were doing it some 40 years ago. But it's quite common to see people wrongly use the term "XCD" for any kind of light telemark skiing. While being significantly easier to ski, "light" Excursion type of plastic boots do not offer the thrilling sensation and the blissful rewards of real XCD on leather shoes.
XCD or Heavy Telemark?
Free-heel skiing with any kind of plastic boots is not Cross-Country Downhill. It's either light modern telemark, NTN, or as Steve Barnett himself calls it, "Heavy Telemark".
XCD or Norpine Skiing?
It's basically the same discipline. But the main difference is that XCD is the term used for backcountry telemark skiing on leather boots, while the term Norpine is used for on-piste telemark skiing on leather boots at lift-served downhill ski resorts.
The Karhu XCD logoXCD, by Karhu
XCD was also the name of the backcountry ski line of Karhu Skis. First introduced in 1978, Karhu’s XCD glided toward a revolution in ski mountaineering that married deep-powder descents with epic cross-country tours.
"With the XCD Guide, a full-metal edge ski with an Omnitrak NoWax base, Karhu re-embraces its freeheel roots while embracing a new future of mountain-bike style backcountry adventure of wide-ranging tours and turns."
Karhu’s XCD concept, which married downhill and Nordic qualities – metal edges, Nordic builds, new sidecuts and cambers capable of touring and turning in a single ski became a legend. The ski was christened the XCD, the perfect encapsulation of its purpose, Cross-Country Downhill. To a larger extent, it opened up a new world of backcountry possibilities and captured the essence of the whole telemark revival, as the nascent sport’s pioneers embraced the innovative new design and discovered new peaks, descents, traverses and adventures only imagined before.
Because of XCD, Karhu understands that the turn alone lacks the satisfaction of the earn, and the tour is enhanced by the thrill of the descent. The heart of the adventure is the blend of the two, and that marriage of styles – that Karhu DNA – will continue to define the brand for years to come.
Karhu stopped producing skis in North America around 2008. They were still making a very few models of skis for the Europeen market only until 2016. The XCD line of skis also gained a cult following, and they are now manufactured by Madshus under different names.
The XCD Knights
Today, the term XCD seems to be used for many different things, far from its original meaning. An unknown group of ancient skiers, The XCD Knights are now protecting the Cross-Country Downhill teachings and ideology.