by Hilary Oliver
The massive, quickly falling snowflakes muffled the sound of the chairlift grinding nearby—but nobody was getting off it yet anyway. It was just before 9 a.m., and we looked with glee down the slope ahead, piled with fresh, untracked powder that we were about to pillage. We’d beat the crowds by getting up early and skiing to the top of the Loveland Basin Ski Area just west of Denver before the lifts open, and were about to be rewarded. A number of ski resorts are getting hip to the growing trend of skiing uphill, some allowing access with a free pass and others offering deeply discounted rates for uphill traffic. Why ski uphill? If getting first tracks in fresh pow isn’t enough, it’s a fantastic cardio workout and offers a more safe alternative to venturing into avalanche-prone backcountry. Here’s how to do it:
Find an uphill-friendly resort.
Not every ski hill likes—or allows—uphill traffic, though the trend seems to be moving in that direction in Colorado. In fact, several resorts host uphill races throughout the season. Look online for their “uphill traffic policy.” If you have any questions, stop by the season pass office or ski patrol headquarters.
Get geared up.
To ski uphill, you’ll need two things that most downhill ski kits lack: alpine touring bindings and skins. Alpine touring—or AT or randonnée—bindings allow your heel to either be free to move up and down in a Nordic-style ski motion, or to be clamped down for downhill skiing. Most AT bindings also have little risers that can be raised or lowered underneath the heel, making it easier to ski up steeper terrain. Just make sure your boots are compatible with your new AT bindings before you point your car toward the mountains!
Skis won’t get you far uphill without a trusty pair of skins. These strips of plush, velvety fabric get their name because they were once made of actual animal skins. They attach to the underside of your skis with clips on the ends and an adhesive on one side. The “fur” on the skins is grained in one direction, so when you slide the ski uphill, it glides smoothly, but when you step down on it, the fur grips into the snow, keeping you from sliding backward. When you reach the top of the hill, you’ll remove the skins, clip your heels back into your bindings, and enjoy those turns you earned!
Dress for success.
Just because you’re at a resort, doesn’t mean you should dress like you typically would for a day riding the lifts. Imagine how sweaty you’d get climbing 1,000 feet on a Stairmaster. Now imagine being that sweaty at 11,000 feet, with a 28-degree breeze. Here are three ways to make sure you stay comfortable:
- Start cold. Most days, a long-sleeve base layer and a breathable soft shell (with base layer pants and soft shell pants) will be enough to keep you warm for the uphill. Even if you feel cold at first, your uphill effort will soon have your internal heater cranking, and if you wear too much, you’ll be dripping in sweat and clammy.
- Go synthetic or wool all the way. The high exertion of skiing uphill will have you sweating more than you would just skiing downhill. Anything cotton will absorb the sweat, keeping it close to your body and chilling you. Opt for non-cotton base layers and insulation.
- But pack insulation for the mountaintop. When you stop at the top of the mountain to remove your skins and slam some water before heading downhill, you’ll feel your temperature start to drop. Pull on an insulated puffy jacket right away to keep all your hard-earned warmth close to your body for the transition and descent.
Follow the rules.
Skiing up and then and downhill at a resort can bring the same “earning your turns” satisfaction of backcountry skiing with significantly less avalanche risk. And getting up a little early—or hitting the slopes after the lifts close—can even mean some precious peace and quiet. But every resort’s policy is different, so make sure you know the rules before heading uphill. Does the resort require you to sign a waiver for an uphill pass? Do they post online when uphill routes are open or closed? Is uphill traffic allowed while lifts are operating? Or only during off hours? Knowing and following the rules will help keep uphill access available for future fun, too.