Aspen Times Staff Writer
Grunting, glistening, gasping, their thighs burning, they tackle the slopes of Aspen Mountain with a mixture of determination and stamina.
They aren’t for the weak, these lung-bursting pitches and seemingly endless ribbons of white. Especially if you’re going up.
Uphillers. They’re a breed apart, climbing the corduroy that other ski resorts set aside for, well, skiing and riding.
While other ski areas see no more than a handful of hardy souls skinning up their mountains, or frown on uphill traffic altogether, Aspen/Snowmass boasts a growing subculture of fitness fanatics who insist on walking up the ski slopes. They coexist peacefully, for the most part, with those zipping by in the other direction.
More than a trend, it’s a tradition.
“Really, it’s a phenomenon that’s been going on at least 15 or 20 years in this town,” said Erik Skarvan, who began snowshoeing up Aspen Mountain some two decades ago. “There was just a core group of us doing it, and it just kind of grew over time. At that point, there was only a handful of people going up in the morning. Then it was 20, 25.”
The practice actually predates Skarvan’s arrival by a good measure.
German-born Fritz Stammberger was an early uphiller, running up Aspen Mountain to train for his mountain climbing exploits. Legend has it he’d run up the slope with a mouthful of water, forcing him to breathe through his nose in proper high-altitude fashion. He is presumed to have died in 1975 while on a solo expedition to scale Tirich Mir in Pakistan.
“I think Fritz was one of the pioneers in hiking up the mountain,” said Skarvan, whose Sun Dog Athletics leads guided snowshoe tours, including hikes up the comparatively gentle slopes of Buttermilk.
These days, all four local ski mountains accommodate uphillers, though they must follow a designated route on Buttermilk, where the practice is so popular that a steady stream of sweat-soaked hikers can be seen trudging upward on a sunny day.
A hiker with so-so speed can summit Buttermilk in a hour and download on the chairlift. It’s doable in a long lunch hour.
“Buttermilk is by far the biggest uphilling mountain, probably, in the United States, as far as a ski mountain goes,” Skarvan said.
Ski poles in hand, uphillers hit the groomed slopes on snowshoes, tele skis and skins, randonnee gear, or simply wearing hiking boots or shoes. STABILicerr – a popular brand of traction cleats – is a household word in these parts.
“We sell more units of those than just about anything else we sell,” said Warren Jones, a sales clerk at Aspen’s Ute Mountaineer. “We were selling them so fast in December that we couldn’t keep them in stock.”
In fact, the store has seen a tremendous boom in the sale of uphill equipment of all sorts over the past few years, Jones reported.
Whatever the gear, the slopes await.
On Aspen Mountain, uphillers must get an early start to avoid conflicts with downhill traffic. They must be at the bottom of Lift 3 by 9 a.m. At Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass, uphillers are welcome all day long, though anyone who wants to climb beyond the midmountain Merry-Go-Round restaurant at Highlands is supposed to do so before 9 a.m.
Uphilling isn’t unique to Aspen and Snowmass, but it apparently enjoys a measure of popularity here that isn’t seen elsewhere.
Sunlight Mountain Resort outside Glenwood Springs permits uphill traffic while its lifts are running. So does Vail, according to Jen Brown, communications manager for Vail Resorts. But it’s not a common practice during the daylight hours at Vail, though, according to Julie Rust, head of the Ski Patrol.
“The mountain’s really there for skiing,” she said. “We ask people to stay off to the side if they’re doing it during the day. We recommend you go out at night when you’ve got the mountain to yourself. A lot of people will snowshoe to the top after work.”
Beaver Creek doesn’t encourage uphill traffic during the day, either, according to Emily Jacob, communications manager there.
“We don’t have people hiking up. Skinning, yes, but not a lot and mostly at night,” she said.
Crested Butte sees some uphilling early in the morning, but hiking isn’t permitted while the lifts are running, so the practice isn’t nearly as prevalent as it is in Aspen/Snowmass, according to John Norton, president and CEO of Crested Butte Mountain Resort and a former Aspen Skiing Co. executive.
“The backcountry climbing culture here is very strong,” he said. “They’re going uphill, they’re just not going uphill on groomed terrain.”
Telluride doesn’t allow uphilling at all, but for a route beneath the chairlift that serves a snowshoe area, according to Annie Kuhles, communications director. And, most snowshoers simply ride the lift.
“That’s definitely not a common thing around here,” she said.
Aspen transplants Hal Clifford and Lou Bendrick, both veterans of America’s Uphill, the grueling race up Aspen Mountain each March, were dismayed to discover they couldn’t grunt up a groomer in Telluride.
Clifford wrote a couple of letters to Telski executives to plead the case for uphilling.
“Basically, you can’t do it, is what I was told,” he said. “This is a phenomenally athletic community here. I think within two years, you’d have a race.”
Clifford wasn’t looking to re-create America’s Uphill, though. “I just didn’t want to get fat,” he said.
Park City Mountain Resort officials were incredulous when The Aspen Times inquired about uphilling at the Utah ski area. “So they do it just to get their heart pumping? Wow, this is so interesting,” said Michelle Palmer, communications director.
“I’ll be darned,” added Brian Strait, Park City’s vice president of mountain operations. “I don’t know if we’ve ever set a hard and fast policy on it. There isn’t a lot of demand for it.
“I can’t think of a time when it’s been, ‘Hey, I’ve got 30 people walking up a ski run, or even three people walking up a ski run,'” he said. “Right now, it’s a non-issue.”
While the Aspen Skiing Co. has embraced uphilling at its four ski areas, it doesn’t have to, according to Dave Bellack, senior vice president. There’s nothing in the Skico’s permit with the Forest Service that requires it to open the slopes to uphill traffic, he said.
But, the company accepts uphilling as part of the local culture, said Mike Kaplan, vice president of mountain operations. In fact, plenty of Skico personnel make uphilling part of their fitness regimen.
“We like to encourage people to get out and enjoy the mountains doing what they like to do. It’s great in that sense,” he said. “Obviously, we can’t be overwhelmed by uphill traffic. That would create an issue.”
Mark Tye, who organizes the annual One From the Heart charity uphill, scheduled Feb. 15 at Buttermilk, is grateful for the Skico’s attitude.
“It definitely is a luxury to be able to go up the mountains,” he said. “I think it’s great we have the opportunity to go up all four mountains. It’s a privilege that can be taken away.”
Tye cringes when he sees uphillers failing to observe proper protocol, like sticking to the edge of ski runs. “I’ve seen four people abreast, just chatting and not paying attention,” he lamented.
Skico executives, however, say they can’t recall a serious incident resulting from uphillers sharing a slope with downhillers. Nonetheless, the growing potential for conflicts at Buttermilk led to the designated uphill route on that mountain, according to Norton, who spent 11 years with the Skico before heading to his new post in Crested Butte last year.
“You know, the uphillers were saying, ‘You gotta get the downhillers off the mountain’ and the downhillers were saying, ‘Give me a break, you ought to be able to crest a hill without encountering somebody in the middle of the slope,’ ” he recalled.
“I remember getting in quite a heated argument once with somebody who wanted to hike up Ajax in the middle of the day,” Norton added.
Certainly, uphilling is a passion here, observers concur.
“It may just be a part of the Aspen culture that doesn’t translate anyplace else,” Norton said.
Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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