Uphillers earn their turns on Aspen’s slopes
Uphill the old school way
Some uphillers like to joke that real skiers don’t use chairlifts. Longtime Aspenite Jim Ward might argue that real skiers don’t use climbing skins.
Ward, 79, is a cross-country and ski touring aficionado rather than someone who straps on skis to climb the slopes of a ski area or backcountry peaks for powder turns.
But when you tour the Colorado mountains as often as he has, you can’t avoid uphill travel. Ward was a central piece in casts of characters that skied from Crested Butte to Aspen in 1968, from Vail Pass to Aspen in 1970 and from Denver to Aspen in 1972.
“I don’t think there was anyone on any of those trips that used skins,” Ward said. “It was all wax.”
The Denver to Aspen trip was particularly memorable. His group of eight started at the state capitol in Denver when the governor lit a torch. They rode bicycles out of the city and up into the mountains to reach the snow near Morrison. They picked their way over Kenosha Pass and made their way to Fairplay, where they stayed in the old hotel after a few nights of camping or crashing in summer cabins. They started up the east side of Weston Pass, then bushwhacked on a route scouted by pilot Dick Arnold, who was also in the ski group. They came over Independence Pass and into Aspen in only 10 days. It was an epic trip that got them to town two days ahead of their deadline — the launch of the Winterskol Parade. “We laid low for a couple of days,” Ward joked.
He said effective ski touring on those long trips required avoiding the steepest uphill slopes and picking angles where his wooden, waxed skis would be effective. The members of the group would take turns breaking trail in virgin snow. “We didn’t see any packed tracks where we were going,” he said.
Ward was a partner in Aspen’s first cross-country gear shop from 1970-78 and said he doesn’t recall selling climbing skins. He remembers some of the early guides and customers on Tenth Mountain Trail Association huts using skins, but he was reluctant to buy into it. He recalled skiing slopes outside of one of the huts and waiting for other skiers to put on and take off their skins between downhill runs.
“You get 30 percent more skiing in if you know how to wax,” Ward said. “I’m definitely a redneck when it comes to that.”
Sometime in the 1980s he broke down and bought a narrow set of skins for his skinny skis, but they rarely were put to use.
He raced the first four or five years of America’s Uphill on Aspen Mountain in the late 1980s and early ‘90s on waxed skis. He raced it most recently eight years ago. “I used skins. Don’t tell anybody,” he chuckled.
Truth be known, he used skins again at Christmas when he visited the Markley Hut south of Aspen with some of his kids and grandkids. Nevertheless, Ward remains devoted to old school.
— by Scott Condon
The cold, dark mornings that settled in with winter in December didn’t deter them from pursuing their passion. On any given day between 6 and 7 a.m., they were at the base of Aspen Mountain, preparing for a slog up that combines exertion, exhilaration and a pinch of pain and suffering.
They are among the swelling ranks of the “uphillers” — hundreds of Roaring Fork Valley residents and visitors who make their way up the slopes. Most of them subject themselves to the lung-searing climb and frigid temperatures for the superb conditioning it provides and for the one sweet downhill run they get in before other skiers arrive on chairlifts.
Uphillers are proud of “earning their turns” by making the hike to the top of the ski areas. At Aspen Mountain, that’s a 2.5-mile, 3,267-vertical-foot trek. Some people lope up. Others race the clock or one another.
Most uphillers clip climbing skins onto the bottoms of their skis, providing a “grabby” surface that helps them negotiate the steep grade of the Little Nell, Bingo Slot and Spar Gulch trails while heading straight uphill. Some uphillers strap special cleats onto lightweight shoes for what essentially becomes a jog up the mountain.
I’m not totally crazy
Chris Lane skins religiously about four times a week. He drives from Basalt in the early morning hours and skins up Aspen Mountain before reporting to duty as executive director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
He’s been uphilling for 25 years, first on snowshoes, next on telemark ski gear, then in the late 1990s, on alpine-touring ski equipment. When ski-equipment manufacturer Dynafit produced a lightweight boot and binding system in the 2000s, the popularity of uphilling on the slopes of ski resorts soared.
“Everybody switched,” Lane said. “It took a pound to a pound-and-a-half off each ski.”
Suddenly, a niche sport that attracted a few devotees was the rage.
“I used to go up and think, ‘I’m the only one in the world doing this,’” Lane said. “Now I say, ‘I’m not totally crazy. There are other people who get up in the dark and cold.’ I see all the people I know.”
The scene at the bottom of Aspen Mountain plays out the same at Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk-Tiehack. Aspen Skiing Co. is accommodating, perhaps even embracing, of uphillers. They are welcomed on the slopes before, during and after resort operating hours. They must make it to the Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain by 9 a.m. At Aspen Highlands, uphillers must reach the Merry-Go-Round restaurant by 9:30 a.m. if they plan to continue farther.
At Buttermilk and Tiehack, they can travel during resort operations as long as they follow designated routes. Snowmass has the most lenient policy with no designated routes; uphillers are just urged to stay to the sides of trails.
Skico embraces uphill traffic
Rich Burkley, Skico vice president of mountain operations and an uphiller himself, said earlier this season that the company enjoys a “harmonious” relationship with uphillers. He said he’s witnessed a real explosion in uphill travelers on the slopes in the past five years.
Skico is one of the few companies that allow uphill travel during resort operations, he said.
About 50 percent of ski areas prohibit uphill travel and another 10 percent have no formal policy, according to a survey of U.S. ski areas commissioned last season by the National Ski Areas Association, an industry trade group.
Among the other 40 percent of ski areas, 6 percent allow unrestricted uphill access, such as Skico does, and 34 percent allow it on a limited basis, the survey showed. The U.S. Forest Service set a national policy last year allowing ski areas to charge a fee when uphillers use a resort amenity, ranging from parking to groomed slopes. Skico isn’t looking into a fee, Burkley said.
On a growth curve
Chances appear good that the ranks of uphillers will continue to grow.
Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America, a trade group for manufacturers of skis, boots, bindings, other equipment and clothing and accessories, said there has been steady growth in uphill travel and thus in related equipment.
The dollar volume for national retail sales of alpine touring bindings and boots, plus climbing skins, was $14.27 million between August 2011 and March 2012, according to the trade group’s data. That climbed to $16.21 million a season later and rose again to $17.34 million during last ski season.
Retailers sold 56,645 units of alpine touring boots, bindings and climbing skins before and during last ski season, Davis said.
Uphilling on-slope at resorts — which Davis labeled mountain aerobics — has caught fire among fitness fanatics, typically in their 30s, evenly divided between men and women, according to the trade group’s research.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, uphilling appears to appeal to all adult age classes. Events such as the Aspen Snowmass SkiMo Race Series attract elite athletes and hard-core recreational uphillers. The six-race series features events that combine uphill and downhill travel and some boot packing.
The Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race that combines terrain on the four ski areas continues to surge in popularity.
The Grand Traverse from Crested Butte to Aspen has become legendary since it started in 1998.
America’s Uphill is a spring ritual on Aspen Mountain that’s become ingrained in the upper Roaring Fork Valley’s ski culture. It attracts hundreds of competitive and recreational uphillers of all ages.
And, of course, there’s an entire culture of uphillers who skin up favorite backcountry peaks for powder turns.
From utilitarian to sport
Lane often skins up alone, but he also has training and social groups that he will travel with. During winters, skinning becomes his exercise regimen. Like many adventurers, he skins up the ski-resort slopes to stay in shape from November into March or April, when backcountry conditions start to stabilize.
“I do ski areas for exercise and backcountry for fun,” Lane said.
Aspen architect Kim Raymond got into uphilling 30 years ago as a young ski patroller at Aspen Highlands. She recalled being first on the chairlift one day during the 1984-85 season and thinking she would arrive first to build the fire at the ski-patrol shack. She was astonished to find another patroller already there and learned he slogged uphill using telemark gear and skins. It fascinated her. She invested in telemark gear and borrowed skins from another member of the patrol.
The gear wasn’t well adapted for uphill use. There were no heel lifts to provide better leverage while going uphill. She recalled a friend of hers used PVC pipe to create a riser.
By the 1986-87 season, she was skinning up three or four times per week to work on the Highlands patrol. By that time, skinning had caught on.
“We actually got half of the patrol doing it,” Raymond said.
Outside the patrol, uphilling was rare. Few people were undertaking it for recreation on the ski slopes. Raymond would randomly see someone skinning on Aspen Mountain in the mid-’80s.
“Not very many people did it, and a lot of people thought I was crazy,” Raymond said. She experienced the good-natured razzing that used to be common toward people skinning up underneath a chairlift during resort operating hours.
“People yell down from the lift, ‘You know you can take the chair,’” Raymond chuckled.
She remained an avid uphiller even after leaving the patrol in the 1990s. She now travels up Aspen Mountain or Aspen Highlands four times a week, usually before the lifts start.
“I love the quiet of the mountains before anyone is up there,” she said.
But unlike in the 1980s and most of the ’90s, Raymond isn’t alone anymore. One of the first Saturdays after snow began falling this fall, there were about 50 people heading up the slopes of Highlands, eager for their first turns.
“It’s cool to see so many people doing it,” Raymond said, though she lamented the difficulty to find solitude.
Raymond said there has been a strange contrast in her skinning experiences over the past 30 years. In the ’80s, she was hauling up gear to work on the ski patrol. It was very much utilitarian. Now, uphillers are snaring the ultralight gear and staging competitions, she noted.
Lane has climbed the Lift 1A side of Aspen Mountain for 20 years, putting in an effort that requires less time but more effort than the Little Nell side of the mountain. He’s seen voles rooting through the snow, heard screech owls in the dead silence of early morning, spotted a bear in late spring and just missed running into a mountain lion, based on the freshness of its tracks just above the Aztec trail.
It’s those experiences that make skinning priceless — along with screaming downhill on the empty slopes.
“You think you own the whole mountain,” Lane said.
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Kevin Warner started his career with the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in 2001. Now he’s taking over the key position as Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.