At 6 a.m., Ken Willoughby and Doris Spencer step out of their car in the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area parking lot. Behind the ridgeline of the Continental Divide, the sky is starting to lighten. Already geared up before the sun even had a chance to crest over A-Basin’s famous skyline, the pair heads to the base area two hours before the lifts are scheduled to open for a morning Alpine touring (AT) session — 1,700 feet up to A-Basin’s summit.
While uphill ski mountaineering continues to grow, the parking lot at A-Basin is almost empty except for the cars of one or two other skiers who took to the hill before them.
For the couple that met 18 years ago at Keystone Resort — what Spencer referred to as the beginning of her second life — it’s just a part of what has become their morning routine: up at 4:30; in the parking lot and ready by 6; at the small lodge at the summit sipping their morning coffee and reading the paper by around 7:30, followed by a quick downhill ski back to the base area before the lifts open.
“It’s like running 5 miles,” Willoughby, a former football player and avid runner, said, explaining part of the draw. “You get the euphoric uplift just like a runner gets.”
For the 76-year-old Willoughby, skinning uphill is almost a necessity. It keeps his heart rate up and makes it possible for him and Spencer to spend their summers climbing fourteeners and other tall peaks. “It’s all about cardio, especially at my age.”
For Spencer, 68, it’s as much about enjoying the outdoors as it is the workout.
“You know why it never gets old?” she asked as she enjoyed a homemade muffin in the small summit lodge at A-Basin, while the sun crested over the Continental Divide. “Every morning the sky is different, the moon is different, the colors are different. It never gets old.”
For her, having recovered from a back injury and surgery that was once deemed to be permanently debilitating, it’s also a spiritual time and an opportunity for reflection.
“When they rewired me they didn’t think I could ever do the things I do,” she said. “I thank those two doctors every day of my life.”
This week the pair notched their 120th touring session of the season — that’s six times a week, all winter long, and a combined elevation gain of more than seven times up Mt. Everest, starting from sea level.
“We haven’t taken off two (consecutive) days all season,” Willoughby said with a quietly humble sense of pride.
But it’s not for bragging rights or even necessarily a goal they originally set out for when they started ski mountaineering 14 years ago.
It’s just something they enjoyed and started to do more of over the years, until they completely left traditional downhill skiing behind.
“We did a lot more Alpine skiing than we did skinning,” Willoughby explained of their progression. “The transition has taken place in the last four or five years; more and more skinning, less and less Alpine.”
So why so many days? It’s fun, plain and simple.
“It’s a really good addiction,” Spencer says with a smile. “You feel better all day.”
And even with the six-day-a-week schedule, Willoughby said, “there’s days that we regret that we didn’t go skinning.”
“We miss it,” Spencer adds. “It’s like forgetting to eat breakfast; you don’t want to skip breakfast.”
While for many avid ski mountaineers the sport is about how fast and how far you go, for Willoughby and Spencer it’s neither of those.
“There’s so much emphasis on how fast you go,” Willoughby said. “We don’t do that. The time doesn’t really bother us. Young people blow by us all the time. We don’t care. We used to be fast; the heart slows down.”
But while the heart may slow down with age, neither Willoughby or Spencer seem to have any intention of listening to it any time soon. The couple’s winter touring keeps them in shape for a busy summer mountaineering season. They’ve already summited all of Colorado’s peaks over 14,000 feet and have since moved on to the 200 other tallest peaks in the state. And after that, the tallest 300.
Willoughby also has his sights set on the Pike’s Peak Marathon when he turns 80. He’s already raced in it once before.
“I’m going to wait till 80, because all the competition will be gone,” he joked.
As for their Alpine touring, they said they’ll probably finish this year with around 130 days on snow, and continue living by Willoughby’s latest mantra.
“You don’t give up skinning because you’re old, you get old because you give up skinning.”
You don’t give up skinning because you’re old, you get old because you give up skinning.”