Love or Hate It, Uphill Skiing Will Be Big This Winter
If you’re not familiar with the concept of uphill skiing, it probably sounds at the very least like an oxymoron, or at most, pure torture—the kind of thing you do to haphazardly recover from a sloppy tumble down the slopes.
For die-hard skiers, though, “uphilling”—also called “skinning” or “ski touring”—is the best way to access a mountain’s most pristine terrain.
The concept is simple: Use specialized equipment (sticky coverings for the bottom of their skis; special bindings that release from the heel, like telemarking boots) to skip the chair lift and hike up to the top of a run instead. Ski down. Repeat. How much you hike is up to you.
Unlike telemark skiers, the goal is to traverse uphill—and occasionally across ridges, cross country style. Compared to traditional backwoods skiing, it's a bit more intrepid. This isn't just about shuushing through the glades.
For some, uphilling can mean climbing an additional 30 feet from the top of the highest lift for a few moments of unobstructed skiing (and bonus bragging rights). For others, it means an exhilarating way to access backcountry areas that aren’t serviced by lifts at all—to a monastery in the Swiss Alps, perhaps, or to summits that jut out from Norwegian fjords.
Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum—if you fall on it at all—expect to see more skinners on the slopes this season. The trend is taking over Colorado, with resorts from Aspen to Crested Butte adding it to their official lineups. It’s also booming in Europe, where you’ll find new uphill skiing programs in Switzerland, the Dolomites, and beyond.
Dan Sherman, vice president of marketing at Ski.com, said the rising trend can be attributed to gear improvements that make ski touring less onerous.
“Uphill skiing has long been part of European ski culture,” he said. “But as gear is becoming more versatile and accessible, we’re seeing more and more vacation-goers taking an interest in North America.”
Some resorts will lend their guests specialized skins to attach to the bottom of their skis for an easy taste of the sport; others have special boots and poles available for rent. Companies such as Dynafit and Tecnica are increasingly producing "tech bindings" and boots that let skiers use the same equipment for ascents and descents, regardless of skiing intensity. Even snowboarders can get in on the fun—some boards these days split into two pieces that look like short skis, perfect for hiking up slopes.
By Sherman's latest count, 70 mountains in North America have published uphill skiing policies, and the resorts he works with are noticing significant upticks in uphill activity. According to Snowsports Industries America, the reported sales of uphill-style equipment increased by more than 200 percent last winter.
Here’s where to get in on the trend, whether you’re a total novice or an expert skinner.
Skinning is how St. Regis Aspen’s director of sales and marketing, Justin Todd, prefers to commute, so it’s no surprise his hotel has launched official excursions in the up-and-coming sport. “You can connect more with nature,” Todd told Bloomberg of the advantages for uphill skiers, “and you don’t waste time waiting in lines.”
To make the experience more accessible, Todd partnered with Aspen Expeditions Worldwide to create a guided-skinning package called Uphill/Downhill for his guests this winter. Participants get fitted with specialized equipment and then get taken to little-known trails that run along the Snowmass-Aspen ridge and down the backside of Aspen mountain. The reward for their efforts: an après ski stretch class and Altitude Recovery Massage at the on-site Remède Spa. (The whole experience will run you $4,227 for two, including a three-night stay.)
Not staying at the St. Regis? Get a private lesson in uphilling from the experts at Aspen Alpine Guides, who are now offering day-long classes that include crash courses on etiquette and nutrition tips for high-altitude hiking and skiing. It’s the first step toward racing in Aspen’s Summit for Life Uphill Race, which has been catering to local enthusiasts for 11 years running.
Monarch Mountain, Colo.
For uphillers that worry about avalanche risks outside patrolled areas, Monarch is debuting dedicated uphilling lanes that run alongside traditional lifts. That way, skinners can climb up terrain that they know has been deemed safe and ski down with non-touring friends.
The ski area, roughly midway between Aspen and Telluride, is championing regulations to keep skiers in both directions safe, along with a handful of other resorts that include Sunlight, Powderhorn, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, and Steamboat. Among their new rules: Uphillers must stay in designated lanes, stick to the mountain’s operational hours, and have lift tickets for mountain access, like everyone else.
Monarch's stance is cautious but smart. Some mountains limit uphill activity to off-peak hours and off-piste terrain to keep uphill and downhill skiers from colliding unexpectedly; Monarch lets skinners ski during prime (safe) hours and on prime (safe) terrain, as long as they stay within a clearly designated (safe) distance of downhill skiers.
These important safety standards will likely spread across the Rockies as the sport continues to take off.
Ciasa Salares, in the Dolomites, has a knack for making old-fashioned Italian pursuits relevant again; it leads wine and cheese tastings in a stylish but ancient-looking cellar, and its modern décor is the result of traditional woodworking techniques.
Now it’s bringing back “sealskin skiing,” which at one point required the use of seal fur to create traction against wet snow. Starting this season, the hotel will be lending guests synthetic fabric versions of the ski covers, helping them explore the full range of the Alta Badia ski area—which has long been known for its mountaintop restaurants, many in areas too remote to be accessed by lifts.
Crested Butte, Colo.
As if hiking up a mountain in your skis weren’t epic enough, Crested Butte is asking skinning enthusiasts to do it at night—headlamps and all—in order to attend their monthly Full Moon Mountain Parties. It costs only $30 per person to get in, assuming you can make it to the top of the Painter Boy lift, where the mountain's Umbrella Bar is opening for its sophomore season.
Once you’re there, it’s all about fondue dinners and knocking back beers in slope-side Adirondack chairs by the glow of (you guessed it) the full moon.
Norway is one of this year’s up-and-coming ski destinations—partially because it’s so pristine and little known to skiers. The only way to access its best terrain is by helicoptering or hiking up, which means you’re likely to have first tracks on nearly any slope you shred.
Bonus: Since its mountains literally jut out from the fjords, you’re starting your hike at sea level, rather than at altitude. That makes Norway one of the most scenic (and approachable) places to master the art of skinning. Plan your trip with the locally based luxury operator 62 Nord; it specializes in bespoke guided trips and ensures you’re never too far outside your comfort zone.
Beaver Creek, Colo.
This season, the team at Park Hyatt Beaver Creek decided to roll a bunch of trends into a single epic day with their Ultimate Winter Experience. Guests who sign up don’t just get to go skinning into the North Vail Bowls—they also get to have a picnic in a snow cave, take an avalanche-training course, and spend a few hours ice climbing in the mountain’s remotest corners.
And if that all weren’t enough, they’ll help you hire a drone cinematographer to capture all the action. The package is available for the entire season and costs as much as $30,000, depending on which add-on services you choose.