Uphill skiing continues its climb in Colorado | SummitDaily.com

Uphill skiing continues its climb in Colorado

Jason Blevins
The Denver Post

Colorado is fast becoming the nation's capital for uphill skiing.

While some resorts around the country tentatively tolerate, ignore or even ban (it's forbidden at Big Sky and Jackson Hole, for example) the panting skiers clicking up groomed slopes in the pre-dawn or moonlit darkness, many resorts in Colorado are celebrating their toiling guests.

"There are more people going up Buttermilk than coming down some mornings," said Damien Williamson, who is managing Aspen's push to become a hub for climbing skiers. "Uphilling is taking off everywhere, but Aspen has a long history of it. We want to be the epicenter of uphilling in North America."

Aspen Skiing Co. joins Arapahoe Basin, Wolf Creek, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Sunlight, Powderhorn, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Steamboat as hosts of uphill races and events this season.

Aspen is taking the next step with a weekend festival.

This winter Aspen will host its first-ever ski mountaineering festival around its 30-year-old America's Uphill race. The mid-March festival will feature demos from mountaineering manufacturers and brands, an uphill-gear swap, film screenings, backcountry tours and parties, all celebrating the free-heeled skiers who climb the Roaring Fork Valley's four ski hills every day. Aspen Mountain hosts a morning yoga class at the mountaintop Sundeck, which is popular with skiers who skin up the mountain before the lifts turn. Snowmass and Buttermilk let people — and their dogs — climb the mountain all day long.

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The valley's grueling Power of Four ski mountaineering race, which scales 12,000 vertical feet across 25 miles, regularly draws more than 200 racers.

"We want this to be a testing ground for manufacturers and athletes. We are looking beyond just people skinning up the mountain in winter," Williamson said. "We want to see gear marked as 'Tested in Aspen,' and we want to be a place where athletes come to train."

Arapahoe Basin drew more than 80 athletes to its pre-dawn Rise and Shine Rando Series race last month. The second of a four-race series, the contest was one of 12 Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup races around the state this season. Each race draws dozens of hardcore and recreational skiers.

"You can see what's possible here in Colorado. With industry support and a sponsor, we could share this with resorts in the upper Midwest and New England resorts, and it would take off," said Pete Swenson, who founded the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup series seven years ago with five races.

Most every resort has moved beyond the decades-old laissez-faire approach to uphill travel and established rules and regulations for skinning skiers and split-boarding snowboarders. Ten years ago it was a few folks. Nowadays, on a snowy Saturday, several hundred people are skinning up ski slopes before the areas open. Resorts are establishing designated uphill routes and requiring lights and reflectors. Some areas, like Arapahoe Basin, Loveland and Crested Butte, offer uphill passes (free at Arapahoe Basin and Loveland, $10 per day or $100 per season at Crested Butte) to make sure climbing guests are aware of the regulations. Skiers welcome the rules, Swenson said.

"It makes us legitimate," he said.

The Forest Service, which oversees 122 ski areas on public land, last year released rules that allow ski areas to charge nominal fees to climbing skiers who access groomed slopes. The ski area can't charge people to hike on Forest Service land, but resorts can charge if the hikers use facilities or groomed slopes.

Burlier equipment

These are not cross-country skiers. With skins attached to skis and bindings capable of both free-heeled climbing and a locked-down descent, the alpine touring equipment used by these groomer-scaling ski mountaineers is much burlier than the skis and boots used by traversing cross-country skiers. And they are fueling a boom in the ski retail world. Sales of touring equipment — like boots that offer a walk mode for uphill travel, tech bindings that allow for free-heeled climbing and avalanche-safety accessories like beacons and shovels — rank as the fastest-growing category in snowsports retail. While still a sliver of total sales, backcountry travelers spent a record $40 million in 2013-14, fueling a record year for snowsports retail, according to the Snowsports Industries America trade group.

Resorts that allow uphill travel are a training ground for backcountry neophytes who can hone skinning skills on groomed slopes with more limited avalanche danger.

Luke Bass is one of those newcomers eager to explore the uphill game. At the recent Arapahoe Basin climb, the 11-year-old from Boulder finished his first race.

"Days later, he's still basking in the glow of it," said his dad, Sam Bass, editor of Skiing magazine.

Luke is curious about the backcountry. He reads his dad's magazine. He's too young now, but he's learning the skills he'll need when he's old enough.

"He surprised himself by doing more than he thought he could, and it was really fun as his dad to see the feeling of empowerment he got from finishing the race," Bass said.

It's easy for resorts to dismiss uphill travel as too big of a hassle for too little reward. Alan Henceroth, the chief of Arapahoe Basin, isn't buying that. He expected to dole out maybe 200 uphill passes when he formalized his mountain's uphill program three seasons ago. He just handed out his 2,000th free pass. (Loveland Ski Area issued 282 passes in its first year offering free uphill in 2011-12 and last season the area doled out 1,203.)

Early risers

Dozens of skiers stop at Arapahoe Basin's mountaintop Black Mountain Lodge and get coffee and breakfast before the mountain is open. Skin-up dinners at the lodge fill the restaurant long after the lifts have stopped.

"For a lot of people, skinning has become a part of their ski day," said Henceroth, who started as the area's ski patrol director in 1988. "On many levels, I equate it with a terrain park. It's hard to pin down how much the park generates … Uphill access is generating revenue too. It's just a different way of looking at things. People are enjoying the mountain differently than they used to."