Aspen Ski Co. goes an extra mile for uphilling |

Aspen Ski Co. goes an extra mile for uphilling

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
nA uphill skier climbs through the powder of the High Alpine section of Snowmass Ski Area last season.
Maria Wimmer/The Aspen Times |

While a lot of the national ski industry remains wary of uphill traffic by skiers using climbing skins, Aspen Skiing Co. has not only embraced uphilling, it’s promoting it.

Skico will offer clinics for uphillers for the first time this season. It’s also making uphill guides available to its guests at the Limelight Hotel.

The company rents alpine touring gear at its Four Mountain Sports at Aspen Mountain, and it is exploring offering full-moon uphill dinners at the Cliff House at Buttermilk, according to Rich Burkley, vice president of mountain operations.

Burkley hosted Skico’s first uphill community outreach meeting Tuesday night at the Limelight. He covered Skico’s policies for uphill traffic while the ski areas are operating as well as pre- and post-operating hours. The overriding message, Burkley said, is uphillers are welcome.

Earning turns is ingrained in the community and is part of the Skico’s own culture, Burkley said. Several members of the executive committee are uphillers, himself included.

Burkley said he understands why some individual resorts with limited terrain must be careful about uphill traffic. Skico has four ski areas, so it is easier to accommodate uphillers.

Snowmass most flexible

Uphilling is allowed at all times at Snowmass and Buttermilk/Tiehack. Uphillers must reach the summit of Aspen Mountain or get to the Merry-Go-Round Restaurant at Aspen Highlands by 9 a.m. or turn around. There are designated routes during hours of operation at each of the ski areas except Snowmass. Only Adams Avenue is closed there.

The popularity continues to surge both locally and at ski resorts across the country. Skico doesn’t track numbers because so many uphillers travel when the ski areas aren’t operating. It appeared that numbers were up during the preseason at Aspen Highlands, Burkley said.

“People will chase good snow,” he said. “It was off the charts.”

Highlands opens today, but some skiers were climbing up for weeks in advance. One uphiller estimated he encountered 300 people on the slopes one day. That’s more paying customers than Highlands accommodates on some weekdays during the season, he said.

Not wholly embraced by industry

Other ski-area operators aren’t as welcoming of uphillers as Skico. The Kottke National End of Season Survey is prepared each year by the National Ski Areas Association. In 2014-15, 51 percent of resorts prohibited uphill access while 43 percent allowed it. The remaining 6 percent didn’t have a formal policy.

Of the resorts that allowed uphilling last season, the vast majority allow it on a limited basis, the Kottke report said. The limitations included time of day and prescribed routes. About 61 percent of the resorts in the Rocky Mountains allow uphilling, and 70 percent in the Northeast permit it. Only 11 percent of resorts in the Midwest and 11 percent in the Southeast allow it.

A slim majority of resorts are trying to make money off the uphilling trend. The Kottke report said 53 percent of resorts that welcome skinners require a paid ticket or pass. However, most of them accept a regular lift ticket or season pass rather than an uphill-only pass.

Skico has no plans to start requiring uphillers to possess a pass to get on the slopes, Burkley said. Skico stresses that uphillers must take great care to avoid ski area operations. That means staying away from snowmaking equipment and not crossing snowmaking lines. They must also be aware and avoid grooming machines and snowmobiles. Uphillers must also stay on the side of trails and avoid blind spots. The vast number of uphillers follows the rules, Burkley said.

“We have a very sophisticated uphill community,” he said.

Dogs, droppings are biggest problem

But many uphillers love to share their time with their dogs, and that’s where problems arise.

“Our biggest issue is dogs and dog poop,” Burkley said.

Dogs are banned from every ski area except Snowmass during hours of operation. Dogs must be on a leash at Snowmass. Many people take their dogs up Tiehack before the lifts start spinning in the morning. Most but not all pick up after their pets.

The scene at Highlands’ base this fall also raised concerns. World Cup skiers, disabled skiers and Aspen Valley Ski Club racers were all training there prior to the ski area opening. Meanwhile, hundreds of people were skinning up, and many had dogs. Not all the pet owners picked up after their dogs.

Burkley said no policy will be changed with dogs this season, but Skico officials will assess if new rules need to be adopted down the road.

Meanwhile, Skico will continue welcoming uphillers with open arms. The first clinic for uphillers will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Buttermilk. Another is offered Jan. 9. The clinics are $80.

“This one-day uphill clinic is designed to introduce participants to the joy of experiencing the mountain from the bottom up,” According to Skico’s website. “Guides will share tips and proper use for: boot/binding interface, clothing/layering, hydration and nutrition for uphill fitness, putting skins on/off the skis, walking uphill at a reasonable pace, proper routes and ski area rules for uphill traffic, transitioning to downhill mode and enjoying the ski down.”

The same type of clinics will be offered to Limelight guests once in February and once in March.