Aspen is a ski town. It’s a great ski town, with four lift-served mountains comprising terrain for all types of downhill sliders.
But Aspenites aren’t one-trick ponies, so don’t expect them to limit themselves to just skiing or boarding the local slopes. Right? Right.
In fact, uphilling — from a lunchtime stroll up Smuggler to an early-morning skin up Tiehack to a hard-core fight for first-place in the Battle of the Bowls — is increasingly the norm. Yes, Aspen is becoming an Uphill Nation.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a rundown of what you need to know to be part of the movement, including a gear guide, list of local races and more.
An Uphill Battle
When I moved to Snowmass Village in October 1997, we had an early season much like the present. Lots of snow, and great expectation for the season ahead. I was 23 and hadn’t done a ton of skiing, let alone powder skiing (unless you count that epic 6-inch day at Song Mountain outside Syracuse, N.Y., elevation 1,940 feet). Brian (the same guy I later married) and his obsessed friends suggested we hike up for a few turns before the lifts opened. I agreed.
For this young landlubbing lass, my first uphill was a nightmare. I was struggling not to keep up; I was struggling just to survive. I hiked by myself most of that day, cursing young Brian Beazley the entire way. At that moment I thought the world of uphilling would ever appeal to me. But as anyone who lives in the mountains long enough knows, you come around. There is a time for every skier when the desire to travel up the hill becomes as strong as the desire to ski down it.
Almost 30 years ago, Erik Skarvan, owner of Sun Dog Athletics, started uphilling as a way to cross-train for mountain-bike racing. He wanted to maintain his fitness year-round, discovered snowshoeing and literally ran with it.
“It’s hard to avoid the hills around here,” he says, “so I started to cross-train on snowshoes.”
Skarvan is one of those Aspenites you will find uphilling most days for strength and exercise, but he says there is a spiritual aspect to it, too.
“There is real adrenaline, there are real endorphins; you feel great when you do it, and the satisfaction at top of a climb, of submitting a mountain is tangible,” he says.
Some uphill for exercise, for clarity of mind and in some cases to heal.
Last year, when friends experienced the death of a child, somehow the only thing that made us all feel good was to skin or hike up Snowmass together. We talked a lot, sometimes we cried, but under the sunshine, sometimes through the snow, the pain that we felt hiking up the steep slopes didn’t compare to the ache were felt in our hearts. Being amongst the trees, the animal prints, the snow, and having the space and time to cherish all of it at a slow pace seemed to help restore us.
“There is spiritual part,” says Skarvan. “To have time, be slow moving, to look around and appreciate the mountains and their beauty, versus skiing — where you have to really focus on your line — and having the connection to the mountains. It’s why we are all here.”
So, the next time you are skinning up and someone feels compelled to yell, “You’re going the wrong way!” Just give them the thumb’s up, because sooner or later they’ll be following your lead.
— by Amiee White Beazley
Free or fee?
The U.S. Forest Service is working on a national policy that would give ski areas the discretion to charge people using the slopes to go uphill, but the Aspen Skiing Co. says it won’t charge a fee even if authorized.
The Forest Service is working on a directive that clarifies the powers of ski areas that lease public lands for their operations. They would be able to charge a fee to skiers using climbing skins, snowshoers and those using stabilizers and other devices even if they aren’t using a chairlift.
The proposed language would authorize a fee “for facilities and service the holders provide, such as lifts, parking lots, and slopes and trails that have been cleared, graded, groomed or covered with manmade snow.”
The directive “encourages” ski area operators to provide access to some slopes without a charge so that there isn’t a “de facto entrance fee.”
The Forest Service’s national headquarters took public comment and is working on a final decision.
Rich Burkley, Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of mountain operations, said the company has a history of accommodating uphill traffic at its four ski areas because it is so popular in Aspen-Snowmass. Skico would not be interested in charging an uphill fee at this point, he said.
Ski areas in the eastern U.S. pressed for the clarification to the Forest Service’s policy, according to Burkley. A depleted snowpack in a recent seasons had uphill adventurers using the same narrow strips of manmade snow that paying, downhill skiers and snowboard riders were using, he said.
The Forest Service’s proposal, as well as other rules that dictate what activities will be allowed during the summer at resorts that lease public lands, is available at https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/10/02/2013-23998/proposed-directive-for-additional-seasonal-or-year-round-recreation-activities-at-ski-areas#h-18.
— by Scott Condon
Uphill gear can range from the very simple — a traction aid on the bottom of your shoes and a pair of poles — to the high-tech, featherlight gear favored by ski mountaineering racers. Here’s a rundown of the basic categories, with a suggestion for each to start you thinking about the type of gear you may want to use.
If the snow’s packed down, you can easily hike up in winter boots; but you’ll want something grippy underfoot so you don’t slide backward and downhill. Kahtoola’s Microspikes are like tire chains for your feet, with toothy stainless-steel spikes that dig into snow and ice. They’re simple to put on — just stretch the rubber upper around your boot. $65; kahtoola.com
If it’s a powder day and you’re hoofing it uphill on foot, you’ll want a pair of snowshoes to stay on top of the snow. The Fitness snowshoe from Atlas, available in unisex and women’s versions, is streamlined and lightweight, with an easy-entry binding and a suspension system that lets you stride naturally without stressing your joints. $180; atlassnowshoes.com
Sure, you can put a pair of freeheel bindings (whether Alpine Touring or telemark) on any skis, but fast and light is the most efficient way to go uphill. La Sportiva’s Mega Lo 5 straddles the line between backcountry and resort, meaning it’s lightweight for going uphill yet beefy enough to ski hardpack — the conditions you’re most likely to encounter on your way down. $725; sportive.com
Dynafit makes the minimalist Alpine Touring bindings that skiers who spend a lot of time going uphill prefer. The weight-shaving TLT Speed Radical is nimble enough for fitness junkies but not as pricey as the high-tech race bindings. $400; dynafit.com
The new TLT 6 Mountain boots from Dynafit set a new standard of lightweight yet supportive performance for uphilling fans. Two interchangeable tongues give the boot more or less flex, and the cuff has 60 degrees of rotation, a key mobility aid when you’re striding upward. $750; Dynafit.com
To keep your skis from sliding backward, you’ll need climbing skins. G3’s Alpinist skins are tried and true, made of synthetic plush with secure tip and tail attachments. A non-adhesive strip runs down the middle of each skin, making them easier to pull apart before putting them on your skis. Start at $145, depending on width; genuineguidegear.com
Whether you’re hiking, snowshoeing, or skinning, adjustable poles come in handy since you can change their length depending on whether you’re ascending or descending. Swix’s aluminum R4 has a new locking system that’s high up on the pole shaft, which is partially coated in silicone for turning ease. The pole grip includes a beveled straight edge so you can easily adjust the climbing height of your free-heel ski bindings. $100; swixsport.com
Though it’s designed for the backcountry, K2 Snowboarding’s new Ultra Split Kit will take you up (and down) any hill. The step-in binding is a reinvented version of K2’s one-time Clicker binding. The package includes the board (the lightest on the market), bindings with accessories, and climbing skins. The bindings pair with the Stark boot. $1,000 (package)/$380 (boot). K2snowboarding.com
— by Cindy Hirschfeld