This week I was in a pickle.
A few friends and I got to talking. I have the Rocky Mountain Super+ pass–Winter Park, Copper Mountain, and Eldora–another friend has the Epic Local pass–Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin, and Keystone–and yet the other just moved to Colorado from Montana and, alas, has no pass. We like each other and want to hang out, so how the heck are we going to ski together? Ski uphill!
Uphill Access and What It Means.
Many resorts allow skiers and boarders the luxury of returning to the ways things used to be done and earn their turns, whether you’re using “skins”, snowshoes, or hiking your way up. Depending on the resort, you may be using designated trails or making your way up the mountain in any direction right from your car.
Attaching a set of “skins”–synthetic material resembling animal fur that slides uphill, but then sticks to the snow when pushing forward–to the bottom of your skis is easily the most common due to its simplicity and the recent boon in popularity of backcountry skiing. Telemark skiers, those with designed free-heeled bindings and boots, can easily start “walking” uphill without any new gear. On the other hand, Alpine Touring (AT or Randonee) enables a skier to unlock the heel while skinning uphill and then lock it back when she wants to descend like all her fellow skiers on the slope. I’m also going to throw Splitboarding, which is a snowboard that literally splits in half to make two skis, in this category for snowboarders who want the ease of free-heeled skinning going up and boarding coming down all in one piece of equipment.
For the budget conscious, snowshoeing is a great option for those who don’t want to purchase a whole new set of equipment (yippee, like me!). Even if you don’t own snowshoes, loads of ski resorts and nearby gear shops have snowshoes to rent even on a tight budget. You may want to own, however, a pack that can carry your skis and boots for when that anticipated descent finally comes. Beyond carrying your skis and boots, having a pack handy is a great idea because you will undoubtedly shed a layer while working your butt off to get uphill. I use the Osprey Kode 32, which has been a dream to wear even loaded down with gear, water, and food for the day.
Finally, you may hike. Kick off your sticks or board and start walking. Although it may not be the easiest option, it’s definitely a way up the mountain.
When To Go
The early bird gets the worm, but who says the last one around can’t have just as much fun? Within the ski season (generally speaking, November-April) and depending on the resort, uphill access can be limited to before/after operating hours or 24 hours a day. Either way, going uphill is most enjoyable when there’s nobody around. Guess what? The idea of getting the first chair on a powder day also goes out the window. Suddenly you have access to all open trails before anyone touches them.Ah, the beauty of a little elbow grease! Be sure to check with your resort before your go, though. Each resort will have different policies about when you may play in such a way.
What to Wear
The most important feature of your clothing is not about moisture wicking technology, it’s about visibility. On the bumper hours of resort operations (before 8:30am/after 4:00pm), the mountain can be a bit of a zoo. Snowcats will be cruising and sometimes stretching a tight cable across a run called winch grooming, and ski patrol will be zooming around on snowmobiles and downhill on skis. Bring a headlamp and wear fluorescent clothing. Then, of course, make sure you’re breathable enough for the trek up, and warm enough for the ride down. Layer, layer, layer!
Where to Go
There’s about 100 ski resorts across the U.S. that allow uphill access. The trick for you is to decide which one you like best. I may write a future article about the best ones, but for now I’m going to send you to the United States Ski Mountaineering Association website for a great up-to-date list of all the resorts that allow (and don’t allow) uphill access. As far as where to go on the mountain, stick to designated trails. If there are none, stay to the edges, avoid downhill skiers if they’re there, and stay within open trails. The last thing you want is a talking to by ski patrol.
The most important tip I can give about skiing uphill is to be safe. You assume all your own responsibilities when skiing outside of operating hours. If something happens to you and you need to call patrol at 6:30am, not only will they be less than stoked, but they may take a lot longer than usual…not to mention certain costs that you may incur from getting your butt saved. So stay safe, ski with a partner, and be smart.
Above all, have yourself a rip roarin’ good time! Have fun out there, and get up early. Sleep shleep.