While trying to recover from double heel surgery in 2010, elite trail runner Rob Krar, now 39, became convinced his career was over. “I completely quit running with no intention of ever picking it up again,” he recalls.
That was before he discovered the growing sport of uphill skiing, which involves shunning chairlifts in favor of climbing uphill on skins and skiing back down, all using specialized lightweight skis, boots, and bindings—the technology of which has radically improved recently, helping to attract ever more practitioners.
Krar, a Canadian living in Flagstaff, Ariz., discovered uphill skiing during the winter of 2011–12 at Arizona Snowbowl, and it led to his ascent as an elite runner. “I did a lot of it,” he says. “And I came off of it not really understanding how fit I got.” So fit, in fact, that Krar went on to win the Moab Red Hot 33k trail-running race in February 2012, after deciding to enter only two days prior, and then proceeded to win the entire race series. “I’m like, ‘What the hell just happened?’” he recalls. Krar, along with an increasing number of veteran skiers, noticed that uphill skiing is both an end (fun to do) and a means to an end (serious fitness builder).
Ever since, Krar has been competing in ski-mountaineering—or “skimo”—racing, the competitive expression of uphill skiing. Elite endurance athletes like Krar, with their athletic gifts, name recognition, and ability to compete on par with top European racers, present a great opportunity for the sport’s continued growth in North America, says Pete Swenson, program development director for the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association.
The key, Swenson says, is hooking those athletes early, especially if the IOC decides to include skimo racing in the 2022 or 2026 Winter Games, which he says appears quite possible, given that, worldwide, the sport has met all requirements for consideration. “I want to reach the Rob Krars of our country at age 12,” Swenson says.
Future success will be determined by the kids, but the fuel driving the sport from the fringe to the mainstream appears, in part, to be older skiers and riders looking for new thrills and new ways to get in shape. Aspen checks both of those boxes, and its embrace of uphill skiing has established the town, along with nearby Crested Butte, as an epicenter for the sport. Mayor Steve Skadron has stated his intention to make Aspen uphilling’s North American hub, and Aspen Skiing Company allows uphilling on designated routes at no charge.
But not every American resort has the acreage or the ability to implement such a program, at least not immediately. At Eldora Mountain Resort, outside Boulder, Colo., resort executive J.P. Chevalier says managing the traffic patterns of downhill skiers and uphill skiers can be like trying to safely put “England and America on the same road at the same time. They drive on one side and we drive on the other.” Still, he believes it’s possible to embrace the burgeoning uphill culture, even at small resorts like his, and he’s shepherding the resort into a pilot program this season, complete with uphill passes and fees.
As more resorts strive to accommodate uphill skiers, it’s a touchy time in the sport’s development, and Krar says respecting resort policies is critical. “I get really frustrated when people don’t follow the rules because I value that access so much,” he says. “All it would take is for one skier to hit a snowcat or slice a $20,000 snowmaking hose.”
Swenson, for his part, is hopeful, citing ski-industry demographic studies that show more than three million aerobically inclined alpine skiers who also bike and run. “Snowboarding was illegal in the mid-’80s, and now it’s a multibillion-dollar industry,” he says. “Our kids are going to look at us like we’re nuts when we tell them it was once illegal to skin up ski areas.”