Uphill Skiing in Colorado
By Emily Krempholtz
Everything comes and goes in cycles. It’s funny that ski resort technology could progress so far—tow ropes, then chair lifts and gondolas—and yet uphill skiing, the act of physically hauling yourself up a mountain to ski down it, is gaining in popularity. Crazy, right?
Nah, we jest. Uphilling—also known as alpine touring, skinning, uphill skiing, ski mountaineering, or the French word randonnée skiing—is a fantastic way to skip the lines at the resorts and get in a killer workout as you make your way up the mountain. And if you’re looking for something new this winter, it might just be the answer to what you’re looking for.
Why Go Uphilling?
Uphilling combines a lot of what we love about Colorado—pristine mountain views, those gorgeous blue-sky winter days, a great workout that will make you earn your celebratory craft beer a the end of the day, and of course, a killer run down the side of the mountain that will exhilarate you to the fullest.
Despite the intense workout, ski mountaineering can also be a lot more relaxing than a day at the resort. You can forget about the endless lines for the lifts, and even with COVID regulations and capacity limitations in place, it’s a lot easier to social distance on an uphill access trail than it is in a resort village or in a gondola. It’s been gaining in popularity, but as a general rule, you’ll have the wide open spaces of some of Colorado’s most enviable terrain all to yourself, and that’s no small accomplishment.
Skinning is a fantastic way to take the scenic route, to really work for your ride down the slopes, and to spend time with friends and family while working toward something big—and fun. Many uphill access routes are free, even at the big resorts, so it’s an awesome way to experience some of these famous hills without having to shell out for a lift pass.
What is Skinning?
The name “skinning” comes from the early days of skiing, when travelers would attach animal skins to the bottoms of their skis. When gliding your skis forward, ie uphill, the direction of the animal fur would glide smoothly on the now, but that same fur would also provide traction in the other direction, locking into place just enough to stop you from sliding backward down the slope.
Nowadays, skins are made from a synthetic material that feels more like carpet or suede, but the concept is the same. When you’re uphill skiing, you attach the skins to the bottom of your skis to provide traction as you make your way up the mountain. When you reach the summit and you’re ready to ski down, all you have to do is peel off those skins, fold them up, and adjust your bindings, and then you are ready to go!
What Equipment Do You Need for Uphill Skiing?
Skins aren’t the only equipment you’ll need for your skis if you plan to try your hand at alpine touring this year. You’ll also need special bindings for your skis that allow increased heel movement, making it easier to move up those hills. (Don’t worry, they lock back into place when you’re ready for the downhill part of the game.) You’ll also need adjustable ski poles to assist you on the uphill, because while shorter poles are better for the downhill, believe us, you’ll want them to be a little bit longer as you’re making your way up the side of the mountain. You’ll learn as you go that uphilling feels a lot like Nordic skiing—instead of lifting that foot with every step like you would with hiking, it’s more of a gliding motion, keeping your skis close to the surface of the snow. It might take some getting used to, but you’ll find a rhythm very quickly, we promise!
If you’re going to be doing a lot of uphilling this year, you’ll probably want to look into getting your own equipment, but if you just want to try it out, there are sports equipment stores all over Colorado that will rent skis, skins, and everything you need by the day so you can try before you buy. If you’re staying or skiing at a resort, they’ll most likely offer rentals as well.
If you don’t want to invest in skins, some people snowshoe or even hike up the mountain, but you’ll have to carry your skis or snowboard with you the entire way.
Which Mountains Allow Uphill Skiing in Colorado?
Most resorts and ski areas in Colorado allow uphill skiing, but there may be a couple of restrictions or rules. Some ski areas, like Aspen Mountain, allow uphilling on designated routes, but only before the resort opens for the day or after it closes. Others, like Copper Mountain or Loveland Ski Area, require you to obtain an uphill access pass before you strike out on your adventure. The passes are free, but this way, the resort knows you’re out there in case something should go wrong. Some resorts have specific days of the week when they allow uphill access, and most have specific designated routes for uphilling. These designated routes might seem like a pain, but especially in resort areas where uphill access is allowed all day, it ensures that there’s never a conflict between uphill and downhill skiers, and helps the ski area know where you are. Wherever you intend to go, make sure you check on their website or call ahead for more information so your alpine touring adventure is done safely and according to the rules.
Another important thing to keep in mind this season is that many resorts are limiting their capacities due to COVID regulations, so it’s more important than ever to check their uphill access policies to help keep everyone safe and make sure you’re doing your part to keep these resorts open within regulations.
The Difference Between Uphill Skiing and Backcountry Skiing
But why do I need to go to a resort, you might be asking? If I’ve got all the right equipment, I could uphill ski anywhere I want, right?
Well, technically, yeah, you’re right there, but what you’re getting into in that case is backcountry skiing, which has a lot of overlap with alpine touring. Backcountry skiing, where you leave the confines of a ski area and head out into—you guessed it—the backcountry, can be incredibly fun and rewarding, but it is absolutely essential that if you attempt to backcountry ski, you do your research. For their own safety, it is imperative that backcountry skiers be fully equipped and have an understanding of the terrain, avalanche assessment and rescue. For now, when you’re just trying out the new and exciting world of ski mountaineering, we strongly suggest you stick to resorts and ski areas. The trails will be more defined, the runs will be well groomed, and you’ll have just as much fun, but be way more safe about it.
Give Uphill Skiing a Try
Whether you’re a newbie to the world of uphill skiing or it’s something you do every weekend, there’s no better time to do it than this season. Explore new terrain, experience new adventures, and have a great time skiing without the hustle and bustle of the resort crowds.
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