Ted Mahon: It’s All Uphill From Here

A look at Aspen Skiing Co.’s new uphill pass policy

Ted Mahon
Stuck in the Rockies
Ted Mahon

Skis, boots, poles, skins … uphill pass?

They say change is the only constant in life. The ski industry is no exception. One season to the next, there are always changes, from upgraded lifts and new terrain to tweaks of the menu at your favorite on-mountain restaurant. And one noteworthy policy change for the 2021-22 season is Aspen Skiing Co.’s implementation of an uphill pass.

This new pass is a requirement for anyone planning to uphill on the four mountains of Aspen Snowmass. It’s free for premiere pass holders, as well as ski company employees and their dependents. For everyone else, the cost is $69 for the season. In addition, all uphill pass holders will receive an armband to wear when they head up the mountain.

Uphilling on the ski areas of Aspen Snowmass has been around for a long time. However, for most of history, it saw limited participation, primarily members of the budding backcountry ski scene and the aerobic mountain athletes in pursuit of endorphins. Since the participation was light, so too was the management.

Nowadays, the scene looks much different. Technological advances in equipment have improved the once-burdensome gear. Backcountry skiing has exploded in popularity, pushing more people onto uphilling setups. The magazines and ski media also have picked up on the trend. They produce endless content that promotes skiing and adventures where you earn your turns. Then the COVID pandemic arrived, which served as an accelerator for all things outdoors.

As a result, the routes up the mountain are busier than ever, often with people who are new and unfamiliar with the protocols. The Tiehack parking lot is full at times. Unofficial estimates from the Buttermilk Ski Patrol report 300 to 350 people are uphilling there each day. It’s undeniable to anyone who’s been around for a while; there are many more people. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to learn that more hands-on management was coming.

The new Aspen Snowmass Uphill pass displayed at the base of Aspen Mountain on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Some in the community are a bit upset about this. What was once free of cost and light on rules now has little more of both. When you consider the uphilling options that are available to us every day, and that none of it changes with this new uphill pass, it’s hard to deny that we’ve got it pretty good here. Let’s review.

We have four ski areas that allow uphilling, three of them during the daytime operating hours. It’s permitted after hours as well. In some places we can even bring dogs. During the day we’re allowed to download on the lifts and have full access to restaurants and mountain services.

The ski company arranges dinners for uphillers on the full moons and breakfast uphills on Friday mornings. We have uphill races all winter long, even some at night. When conditions allow, you can skin from the base of Highlands to the top of the bowl, known locally as a Creek to Peak. It gains 4,400 vertical feet, and you can finish by ripping a run down Highland Bowl. That’s a far cry from what you can do at most other ski resorts.

It made me wonder if perhaps it was worth looking at what sort of policies exist elsewhere, to see how Aspen Snowmass stacks up. So after some googling, here’s what I found:

Our neighbors down at Sunlight require an uphill pass that is $59. And like Aspen Snowmass, it’s free for season pass holders. There’s a suggested route, and you can go day or night.

There are similar policies at Arapahoe Basin, Copper Mountain, Monarch and Winter Park. Uphilling is permitted on designated routes during the day and after hours. All participants must purchase a pass and wear an armband.

Telluride also allows daytime and evening uphilling in the Lift 10 pod, a network of beginner trails accessed from Mountain Village. There is no uphilling from the Town of Telluride.

Our Boulder friends who call Eldora home have to fork over $199 for an uphill season pass. You are only allowed access on specific days and times, and you must use skis or split boards; hiking on foot or with snowshoes is not allowed.

Outside of Colorado at Snow King, the smaller sibling to Jackson Hole, you can uphill both day and night. Single-day tickets are $20, and season passes are $150. Snow King is the only mountain I found outside of Aspen Snowmass that offers uphilling lessons through the ski school.

The next category of policy is more restrictive. These ski areas don’t permit uphilling during operating hours but allow it when the ski area is closed. Bundle up and bring a headlamp. During the winter months, you’ll likely be in the dark for at least a portion of your hike.

Steamboat falls into that category. They offer uphill access before 9 a.m. and after 4:30 p.m. on a few designated routes. You aren’t permitted to go during the day when the lifts are open. Participants must sign a waiver, purchase an armband for $49, and watch a safety video.

Beaver Creek, Keystone, Crested Butte and Vail fall in the after-hours-only category too. They allow skinning on designated trails before and after the lifts are operating. They don’t allow any daytime uphilling on their resort. I found it surprising that Vail advertises an enormous 5,300 skiable acres. Yet, despite all that space, there isn’t a single route for the community to use during the day.

Sun Valley doesn’t require a pass but only grants access from 5 to 8 o’clock, both in the morning and evening, along two designated routes.

If you’re a night owl, you’ll love Loveland because they only allow skinning in the evening. Their uphill pass, though required, is free. That tiny bit of charity might help soften the sting of the cold and wind you’ll likely encounter skinning around the Continental Divide at night. Wyoming’s Grand Targhee offers an evenings-only policy as well.

For the early birds, consider Breckenridge where uphill access is only allowed in the morning, between 6 and 8 a.m. Taos and Snow Basin operate on a similar schedule, as does Big Sky. Like Vail, Big Sky advertises an enormous amount of terrain but only allows uphillers access to a single ski run with 1,300 feet of gain.

And if you’re a Park City local, your only option is to ascend a 1,200 vertical foot beginner run to the top of the Town Lift before the lifts open. Don’t look for opportunities from the Canyons base area; there aren’t any uphill routes originating there. Curious about Deer Valley, the other local hill? It’s not allowed there. They still don’t even allow snowboarding.

And that brings me to the other areas where uphilling is prohibited in all forms. Alta, Snowbird, Jackson Hole, Palisades/Tahoe (formerly Squaw/Alpine), Purgatory, Solitude, Sundance — all these resorts have an outright prohibition on uphilling within the ski area, day or night.

Next time I’m out skinning up the hill, be it a quick Tiehack lap or a Creek to Peak, I’ll be sure to think about my friends in other ski towns. The uphill community has always had it pretty good here. An armband doesn’t change anything.