Winter Recreation

For skiers who skin, it’s uphill all the way, then back down on skis

Skiers skin at a Colorado resort. The activity requires special ski boots and bindings and “skins” that prevent the skis from sliding backward.
Skiers skin at a Colorado resort. The activity requires special ski boots and bindings and “skins” that prevent the skis from sliding backward. Crested Butte Mountain Resort

In a DIY precursor to downhill skiing, the latest on-slope trend is to go uphill.

Called skinning, the activity of walking up a downhill slope on skis to schuss back down exemplifies a no-pain, no-gain ethos among skiers determined to earn their turns for the sheer challenge (or to burn calories). Skinning falls under the family of activities known as uphilling, which includes snowboarders using special split boards, snowshoers and hikers.

“Skinning is one part aerobic hill workout, one part downhill skiing,” said Ted Mahon, an avid uphill skier and a 20-year veteran ski instructor with the Aspen Skiing Co. who teaches uphill touring. “It’s more than just exercise. You’re climbing a mountain.”

He added that it can be “meditative” with “an almost Zen-like winter stillness where all you hear is your breath and the sound of the skis sliding on the snow.”

What was once strictly a backcountry practice, used to explore ungroomed, off-piste terrain, is becoming more common in the front country. Fifty percent of ski resorts in the country now allow uphill skiing on their slopes, according to the National Ski Areas Association, an industry resort group. Several are adding new uphill ski races this year.

In addition to physical fitness, skinning requires special ski boots and bindings that free the heel to march up a mountain. Nonslip “skins,” special coverings that prevent the skis from sliding backward, go on the bottom of the skis for the vertical trip.

Sales of alpine touring equipment used to go up and down hills rose 13 percent last year, according to Snowsports Industries America, a nonprofit trade association representing ski manufacturers and retailers, and the trend has led to lighter downhill skis.

“You can hike up before the lifts open and get first tracks down,” said Nick Sargent, the president of Snowsports Industries America. “The weekend warrior is getting the most out of the day by hiking up in the morning.”

As uphilling has increased in popularity it has forced ski resorts to reckon with safety issues related to two-way traffic. Resorts that allow vertical ascents often have a designated uphill zone that is sometimes cordoned off from the rest of a run to prevent downhillers from entering uphill territory and vice versa. Some allow it at specific times or only on specific trails.

For skiers, the practice offers a new way to explore the mountain, especially if downhill conditions are marginal, as in the case of warm weather or light snow cover. Beginners may try it, according to Mahon, as long as they climb a run they can handle going downhill or take the ski lift or gondola back down.

“If you’re just getting started and you’re building your skills and confidence, embarking on a ski run with tired legs after a large physical effort isn’t something most beginner skiers get excited about,” he said.

At resorts, uphill access policies vary. Sometimes a lift ticket is required, other times it is discounted or free. Windham Mountain in the Catskills Mountains of New York offers an uphill ticket for $10 a day or $25 for the season and Killington Resort in Vermont offers an uphill season pass for $20. Arapahoe Basin in Colorado normally offers free uphill access, pending avalanche mitigation work.

Because it requires special gear and different skills, some ski resorts are adding skinning to their ski school menus or holding special events related to it. Other outfitters offer guided trips in the backcountry. The following are some ways to circumvent the chairlift before pointing your skis downslope.

Where to ‘Skin’

In Idaho, Bogus Basin near Boise and Brundage Mountain near McCall have extensive uphill-travel policies that restrict those activities to outside of operational hours. Brundage has designated areas, while Bogus requires uphill skiers to avoid areas associated with downhill skiing. Sun Valley Resort also restricts uphill travel to outside of operational hours but access points are subject to closure. Tamarack Resort doesn’t have a policy.

In Utah, Utah Ski Mountaineering, a nonprofit group, compiles uphill policies at ski areas throughout the state. Brighton Resort operates a stoplight system to indicate whether its designated uphill routes are open.

Monarch Mountain near Salida, Colo., added a dedicated uphill lane last year, joining other Colorado ski areas, including Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Sunlight, Breckenridge and Steamboat, in offering uphill access.

Visitors to Las Vegas can take a winter break at nearby Lee Canyon where uphill traffic tripled last year. Uphill skiing passes are complimentary, but skiers must check in at the base lodge before ascending.