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Uphill skiing: 'This is my running in the wintertime"
People enjoy fitness, solitude at ski areas before dawn
SUMMIT COUNTY • It’s a brutally cold and snowy morning at ski area Arapahoe Basin.
The lifts won’t start running for three hours. Lonely tracked groomers rumble down the mountain, headlights revealing the fat snowflakes falling in the predawn gloom. Nine inches of new snow awaits the skiers who are still warm in their beds, dreaming of a powder day.
And more than two dozen skiers are skiing up the mountain.
“I have passes to all the resorts in the county, and I haven’t been on a chair yet this year,” says Summit County skier Scott Wescott.
It’s a scene repeated daily at ski areas across Colorado. A growing number of skiers, mostly locals or ski commuters from the Front Range, are getting up early to beat the crowds up the hill.
Skins — sticky liners that attach to the bottom of skis — keep them from sliding backward. Alpine touring bindings allow the heel to release on the ascent and lock in for downhill turns.
A-Basin has embraced the trend. The area in November released regulations on when and where skiers can go uphill, and last week held the second of four uphill races, with competitors skinning up 5,000 feet of elevation.
For Vail’s Dawes Wilson, it harkens back to skiing’s early days, when his father taught him how to ski and before resorts dotted Summit and Eagle counties. They skinned up, learned to make downhill turns, then skinned up higher.
“It was a real sport, with an athletic uphill component,” he said. “It was hard and only tough outdoors people did it. It’s been made so easy that it’s a good activity, but it’s barely a sport for most people.”
Uphill skiing is not about getting around buying a lift ticket; Wilson has a season pass. In fact, a survey of uphill users by A-Basin last winter found 90 percent had passes.
For most, it’s about exercise. Skiers burn more than twice as many calories going uphill, an intense cardiovascular workout made more grueling by the thin air.
“It’s such an amazing workout, I mean for your full body,” said racer Ram Mikulas. “Your heart rate gets so high.”
Added Wescott: “This is my running in the wintertime.”
But why do it in-bounds at a ski area, when solitude and plenty of untracked powder await in the backcountry?
Uphill enthusiasts say the lack of avalanche danger is one reason. Another is resort grooming, which makes gliding uphill slightly more effortless, and snowmaking, which guarantees snow in early season.
There’s also a social aspect. The small cadre of uphill skiers get to know each other, if not by name then by their jacket or helmet.
And there’s the convenience. Skiers with day jobs can’t wait until the lifts start at 9 a.m. By then, they’ve already carved fresh tracks through the previous night’s snowstorm.
Ski areas still are wrestling with how to regulate uphill skiing. Most areas are on national forest land, so operators can’t simply keep people off the hill if they don’t buy a lift ticket.
A-Basin’s policy requires skiers to get a free uphill pass and check the website each day to see if access will be allowed. Skiers also are required to use the east side of the High Noon trail during operating hours and go no higher than mid-mountain.
“It’s not because of any incidents,” A-Basin spokeswoman Adrienne Saia Isaac said. “We just want to make people aware, because I don’t think every person who skis downhill is aware of how popular uphill skiing is.”
Nearly every ski area has regulations in place or, as in the case of southern Colorado’s Monarch Mountain, is drafting rules for what has been an unofficial tolerance of uphill skiing.
Ski areas can be busy places in off-hours, with avalanche blasting, grooming and snowmobile traffic. Most limit hours and trails that can be used for uphill access. Some, such as Copper Mountain, don’t allow it in early season because of “limited open terrain and aggressive snow-making activity.”
At A-Basin, Kat Cournoyer had her first uphill skiing experience in last week’s race. The smile on her face afterward wasn’t there at the outset.
“I have to tell my boyfriend I love it,” she said. “This morning I was like, ‘I hate you.’”
“It’s really gradual and it’s like a slower pace, but it’s consistent,” she added. “It’s such a good time and everyone is so nice on the trail. It’s such a nice way to start off the day. You get a couple runs in before you go off to work. You can’t beat that.”
Breckenridge skier Greg Ruckman finished first in the race, with a time of 41 minutes, 55 seconds from the base to mid-mountain, back down to the base and then up to the summit at 13,050 feet.
He was asked, isn’t gaining all that elevation hard, compared with riding the lift?
“Sure, it’s hard,” he said. “And that’s why people do it.”