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Nikki LaRochelle arrives at Breckenridge resort before dawn most weekday mornings, hours before the lifts start turning, and affixes climbing skins to her skis so she can head up the hill. After reaching the top she removes the skins, clicks into her bindings, and skis down one of Breck’s groomed runs.
Skilled backcountry skiers have earned their turns for generations, hiking up and skiing down wherever their imaginations, not ski lifts, transported them. But LaRochelle is part of a growing cadre of skiers who, for fun and fitness, skin up inbounds. “It’s far more appealing than winter running, which can be cold and miserable,” says LaRochelle. “And you get rewarded with a nice descent.” Once frowned upon or even banned, uphill traffic is earning acceptance, with Colorado at the epicenter of the activity. But with increased use comes increased regulation.
Photo: Tyler Roemer
Breckenridge implemented an uphill policy last winter with designating routes for uphill skiers. Arapahoe Basin, Crested Butte, Keystone, Vail, Beaver Creek, Loveland, and Sunlight––all located in Colorado––likewise allow uphill traffic, as do Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor and Montana’s Whitefish Mountain. Most resorts require uphill skiers to stop climbing before lifts open, not hamper snowmaking and grooming efforts, stick to the trail edges––and most definitely scoop up after their dogs.
“Uphilling on our mountains has become popular with locals, guests, and staff,” says Aspen Ski Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle. “We encourage people to enjoy the activity while understanding regulations exist for their safety and the safety of others.” LaRochelle, who works in the Breckenridge town hall, is frequently accompanied by the mayor and other staff. “It’s a great form of exercise. You enjoy spectacular sunrises and, on powder mornings, get fresh tracks,” says town manager Tim Gagen. “The camaraderie is great. We chat all the way up, solving the world’s problems before heading to work.”
Some call it fitness skinning or fitness skiing. The activity, which combines the aerobic benefits of nordic with the rush of alpine skiing, is rooted in randonnée racing, a popular European sport. Many North Americans refer to it as AT, or alpine touring, though the term typically refers to backcountry or sidecountry skiing. Some participants use telemark skis. But AT gear has been a hot sales category for the past few seasons, with uphill inbounds use catching many gear manufacturers by surprise. Devotees prefer lighter randonnée gear made by Dynafit, La Sportiva, and others. Dynafit, for example, sells a popular lightweight ski called the PDG for $700, along with lightweight boots and bindings that freeheel on the climb and lock down for the descent.
Photo: Eric Berger
All four Aspen Skiing Co. resorts have designated uphill routes, with Buttermilk allowing skiers to ascend during operating hours. “Bagging a backcountry peak can take five hours. But you can do a lap at the resort on your lunch break,” says Kir Newhard, who’s been skinning up Buttermilk for 20 years. “If you get out at 6 a.m. you can have a mountain of powder skiing to yourself without the danger.” Many skiers believe they are allowed to ascend any ski area on public land. False. Resorts on U.S. Forest Service land operate under permits that compel them to provide a safe environment, and they can be sued if someone gets injured. That’s why many resorts require uphill skiers to sign waivers and adhere to strict rules, such as being off the hill before lifts open.
A 78-year-old Jackson Hole skier learned this after refusing patrollers’ orders to stop ascending during a busy Saturday morning. Patrollers called the sheriff, who arrested and handcuffed him, though charges were later dropped. Vermont’s Stowe allows inbounds skinning, but the scene is tiny or nonexistent at most Eastern areas. Breckenridge-based Pete Swenson, who is credited with popularizing the activity in the U.S., sees big potential in the region. “The East is perfect for this activity because there isn’t a lot of backcountry terrain,” he says. He raced both nordic and alpine as a youth before getting hooked on randonnée and competing in Europe.
In 2007, he founded the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup race series. “In five or 10 years lots of resorts will have uphill skin tracks on their maps and may even sell uphill passes,” Swenson says. For now, however, it remains a niche activity. “In most places,” he says, “it’s still at the level of acceptance snowboarding was in the early days.”
GOT THE UPHILL ITCH?
Tired of your gym? Getting into fitness skiing is easy, but it does require an investment in new gear. The simplest way to start is to buy a pair of skins and a set of Alpine Trekkers, which convert your alpine setup into an uphill rig. Work ’em for a month. Hooked? Next step is to get a dedcated AT setup–boots with a releasable, stride-friendly cuff, AT bindings (frame- or tech-style) and lightweight skis. Check with your local resorts for any restrictions. And if you venture off-piste, avy training is a must, as is bringing along ski budddies who know what they’re doing.