It’s all uphill now for Aspen-Snowmass
Anyone up for some Skimo?
Yes, Skimo —short for ski mountaineering. Put more simply, it’s the act of skiing uphill. It requires alpine touring gear — free-heeled boots and sticky carpet called “skins” on the bottom of skis to prevent sliding down the hill.
It’s an emerging trend in snow sports that the Aspen/Snowmass resort community is fully embracing. Aspen Skiing Co. is one of a handful of ski operators in North America that allow uphillers to climb their mountains free of charge.
And the city of Aspen has embarked on creating an uphill economy that would see the town and the region become a mecca for industry and year-round recreational opportunities.
“Seventy years ago, Aspen built its local economy around downhill skiing,” said Mayor Steve Skadron. “Today, uphilling has become one of Aspen’s must-do ski experiences, like hiking the [Highland] Bowl or skiing bumps on Bell [Mountain]. Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy is evolving and Aspen is leading it.”
The effort officially began with an inaugural uphill festival as a way to carry out Aspen City Council’s goal to “support economic activities that build on small mountain-town character rather than physical development.”
Aspen is in many ways already a big player in the “skimo” culture, playing host to some of the most challenging races in North America — the Power of Four and the Grand Traverse. The Power of Four is a ski mountaineering race that has skiers ascend and descend Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain. The Grand Traverse is an overnight race from Crested Butte to Aspen. Both events draw thousands of people, from participants to organizers to spectators.
Katie Ertl, Skico’s vice president of mountain operations, said the company recognizes the value in hosting these types of events and will continue to explore other ways to build up the sport, including organizing clinics and multi-day camps.
The success of Skico opening the Cliffhouse restaurant on top of Buttermilk to nighttime uphillers is proof of how popular the activity has become.
“The moonlight dinners were off the chart, so much fun,” Ertl said. “It was such a cool energy and you get the sense like, ‘This is a really special thing to do.’”
And the number of people skinning up Skico’s mountains has seen explosive growth as well. Its popularity has prompted the company to establish policies to keep everyone safe by reducing potential interactions between visitors and mountain operations. Uphilling rules for each mountain can be found on Skico’s website, aspensnowmass.com
“We want to be able to continue to offer it and that means it has to be done responsibly,” Ertl said. “We really do have a passion for it … it’s part of our history and our culture.”
And if Mayor Skadron has his way, the sport will become a local economic driver as well. Outdoor gear companies have established themselves here in recent years, and the idea is to create a job ecosystem in an industry that can stretch as far as Grand Junction, where product development and testing is a good fit for the region, Skadron said.
The city has hired SE Group, a Frisco, Colorado-based consulting firm that’s developing a recreation plan that will provide recommendations, goals and policies for various forms of uphill recreation, whether it’s skiing, backcountry touring, hiking or mountain biking.
It will be based upon an uphill economic development plan that was developed in 2016. The rec plan is more narrowly focused and is currently in development. It’s intended to provide a blueprint for the long-term success of the uphill economy, said Phillip Supino, the city’s long-range planner.
He said it’s a yearlong planning process. The consultant will spend the next year meeting with groups like area land managers, recreation advocates and conservationists.
“The idea is to bring these experts in their fields to guide the plan,” he said. “The rec plan is looking at existing conditions in the upper valley, who is recreating and using the backcountry and when. What qualities are they looking for?”
Supino said creating an uphill economy is a decades-long endeavor that involves so much more than just Aspen and its partners.
“I don’t think there is another city or resort that has framed it like City Council has,” he said. “Over time, through Skico’s very progressive policies and the public lands around us, the public is slowly going to identify us an uphill destination.”
Skico’s Ertl, a near lifelong valley resident, said establishing Aspen/Snowmass as an uphill economy could be a wise move in what has become a competitive climate among ski area operators.
“I think it could be a differentiator,” she said.
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