Even though I love the thrill of rushing down a ski slope with the wind on my face, I’ve always enjoyed the in-between moments of skiing: plopping down on the chairlift so I can catch my breath, taking in a bird’s-eye view of the beauty of the mountain, and maybe even striking up an interesting conversation with a stranger. But it seems the promise of a breather and some chairlift chatter doesn’t appeal to everyone. There’s a new cadre of winter sports enthusiasts in the United States who are refusing to take the easy way up—forgoing the lift altogether, they’re actually skiing uphill.
Uphill skiing, also referred to as “skinning,” is the practice of climbing up a mountain slope on skis fitted with specialized bindings and adhesive skins that line the bottom of the skis to provide grip on the snow. At the top of the mountain, skiers can peel off the skins, lock in their heels, and swish downhill using the very same equipment they climbed up in.
While skinning has been popular in Europe for many years—before the advent of chairlifts, it is how all skiers would get up the mountain—the practice is only just gaining traction at ski resorts across the United States. The Aspen Times reported that, according an annual survey produced for the National Ski Areas Association, around 53 percent of ski resorts across the country now allow uphill travel in certain areas and/or at certain times.
In Aspen particularly, what began as a trend with hardcore local athletes looking to get in some early morning exercise has caught on with visitors. Now, the area is one of the leading uphilling destinations in the country; skinners are permitted to go uphill during operating hours on both Buttermilk and Snowmass, and on Aspen mountain and Highlands, they’re permitted to uphill ski before and after operating hours, or pre- and post-season. “Uphilling is becoming more popular because it offers another way to experience the outdoors,” says Dan Sherman, vice president of marketing at Ski.com. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, all you needed for a successful ski vacation was a chairlift, a hotel, and a bar. Now travelers are looking for options.” U.S. ski resorts such as Crested Butte, Colorado, and Snow King Mountain in Jackson, Wyoming, have embraced uphilling as a way to introduce more people to the mountains and give experienced skiers another reason to come back.
The team behind Dynafit, the leading brand in uphill ski equipment, believes that two of the main reasons uphilling has gained popularity in U.S. ski communities is because it’s safer and more accessible than backcountry skiing. Unlike backcountry skiers, who also eschew the use of chairlifts, uphillers ascend main runs in the front country—that is, close to civilization and not on some remote stretch of mountain. “You don’t have to worry about the risks of avalanches and the hazards of being in the backcountry,” says Mike Eisenbrown, a communications representative for Dynafit. Uphillers can also hit the slopes before, after, or even during operating hours, depending on the resort, giving locals the flexibility to ski around their work schedules.
There are other benefits appealing to casual skiers too. Uphillers get to skip the lift lines, and the climb up is a low-impact cardio and strength-building workout. And it’s easy to learn. “If you can walk upstairs, you can ski uphill,” assures Eisenbrown. “With a quick tutorial from the ski shop, an intermediate skier can be skinning uphill at the resort in no time.” Eager to “earn my turns,” as the uphill skiers say, I decided to forgo the chairlift on a recent ski trip. Between days of traditional downhill skiing, I took a lesson at Aspen Snowmass, a resort that partners with Dynafit to offer skinning lessons and alpine touring equipment rentals at all four of its mountains.
I found uphill skiing to be the perfect marriage of two of my favorite sports: skiing and hiking. Once I got the hang of the movement—sliding or shuffling my feet forward without lifting them—gliding up the hill was meditative, allowing me time to connect with the nature around me instead of rushing past it, as I do going downhill. And bonus: I burned more calories than I would have riding in the chairlift. So I earned not only those turns, but my après-ski cocktails as well.
And I actually found more opportunities for chitchat when I left the chairlift behind. It’s easy to have a long conversation with a fellow uphiller as you slowly work your way up a mountain, and some resorts encourage an après scene specifically for uphillers. Aspen Snowmass hosts a Friday morning uphill breakfast club and full-moon uphill ski diners at the Cliffhouse on Buttermilk. When I wanted to focus on pushing forward, I was content to flow uphill in silence, my rhythmic stride carrying me toward the rush and reward of soaring back down again.
Where to Try Uphill Skiing
The United States Ski Mountaineering Association maintains a list of resorts that allow uphilling, but it’s always a good idea to double-check with the resort itself on its policies, including whether or not skiers need to buy passes to uphill. Here are a few of our favorites:
Aspen Snowmass, CO
Uphilling is free of charge at all Aspen Snowmass resorts, which also offer a host of activities for uphillers. Beginners can take classes and rent the necessary gear at locations on all four of the resort’s mountains. Guests who ski at an intermediate level or above can book a private uphilling lesson. The resort also offers a SkiMo (or Ski Mountaineering) Series with Dynafit that includes an uphill course and demos.
Crested Butte, CO
Crested Butte Resort features a variety of uphill routes for those with uphill tickets or season passes; most are available before and after the lifts run, and there is one designated uphill route that is available all day. The Umbrella Bar on the top of Crested Butte hosts full moon parties, where uphillers celebrate after the hard work of climbing the mountain at night.
Snow King Mountain, Jackson, WY
Snow King Mountain will partner with Stio this winter for an “Uphill Challenge” to mark the resort’s 80th anniversary season. Participants with uphill passes and season tickets will be able to log times and vertical feet climbed. Each month, the top male and female performers will receive awards, and each week, those who have climbed over a certain number of vertical feet will be entered in a random drawing for Stio gear prizes.
Magic Mountain, VT
Over 10 years ago, long before other resorts supported uphilling, Magic Mountain instituted a formal pro-skinning ski policy. Today, this pioneering resort offers alpine touring rental equipment and lessons, and there are no fees for uphillers; it even gives one free lift ride token for the same day to those who skin to the top of the Red Chair lift.