Going against the grain has never been so cool.
In Aspen, skinning is fast becoming the new skiing. Whether it is in the frozen predawn hours before the lifts open, in the Alpenglow of the late afternoon or under full-moon nights, going uphill has become the latest rage. The fit set’s new mantra: “We don’t need no stinkin’ lifts.”
To be fair, there has long been a cadre of backcountry aficionados who have eschewed the lifts for a sweatier, more authentic mountain experience. Unrolling a pair of mohair skins, hooking them under the boards and freeing the heels for a self-propelled hike up the hill is both inspirational and great exercise.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in people using the slopes for their uphill workouts,” says Aspen Skiing Company spokesperson Meaghan Lynch. “We have a very liberal uphill policy. We even allow it during operating hours on three of our four mountains.”
The surge in popularity likely has something to do with the recent growth in uphill events in Aspen encouraging weekend warriors to summit our mountains for charitable causes. It certainly has increased the numbers.
Skinning is not as difficult as you might think. If you can hike up a slope, you can skin up it in the wintertime as well. Just so long as you have the proper equipment.
The first thing you’ll need is a pair of skis set up with bindings and alpine touring (AT) boots. The boots look a lot like downhill boots, but they are generally lighter and have cuffs that can be adjusted to give the ankle room to bend forward and move as you climb. The bindings have releases on the back that allow the heels to lift from the ski with each step, effectively providing a flat plane for the foot as you progress. While you can put AT bindings on any pair of skis, lighter weight touring skis are generally a better choice. You’ll also want to use AT poles, which are slightly longer than the ones you use when you ski. These will help propel you with each step on your ascent. When you get to the top of the hill, simply remove the skins, reset the bindings and you’re ready to ski back down.
Of course, the key component for skinning is the skins. These are made from nylon or a mix of nylon and mohair (more expensive), and they need to fit the bottom of the skis. The fibers on the bottoms of the skins will slide backward as you move uphill, and then grasp the snow when you slow or stop so that you don’t slide backward. Totally genius. I mean, how does it know?
Skins can cost from $200 to $300 a pair, and AT equipment is similarly priced to its downhill cousins. But if you don’t want to invest, you can give skinning a try by renting a setup of AT skis and skins at the Ute Mountaineer (210 S. Galena St., 970.925.2849, utemountaineer.com).
But be warned. It’s easy to get hooked.
Aspen Skiing Company Skinning Policy
With the proliferation of skiers skinning on local slopes, SkiCo has had to rethink its policies for access. Here’s what’s what for the four mountains:
Aspen Mountain: The uphill route is Little Nell, Bingo Slot, Spar, Silver Bell to the summit. Uphill traffic must be at the summit by 9am. No dogs are permitted uphill on Aspen Mountain in the winter.
Highlands: The preferred route is Thunderbowl, Golden Horn, T-Lazy-7 Catwalk to the Merry Go Round. Uphillers traveling further up Aspen Mountain are asked to pass the MGR by 9:30am.
Buttermilk: The designated routes up Main and Tiehack are marked and segregated. No restrictions exist on Tiehack and West. The Main route is closed during the X Games.
Snowmass: There are no time or route restrictions (dogs are permitted if on a leash).
Skinning culture has spawned a number of new events that offer uphilling options in Aspen.
Summit For Life, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013
The eighth annual fundraiser for organ donor awareness takes place under the stars—2.5 miles and 3,267 vertical feet slide below your skins. Happy holidays!
Power of Four Mountaineering Race, March 2014
Four Ski mountains, the Highland Bowl and 12,000 feet of vertical climbing—never mind the winners, just signing up for this monster gets you props.
The 2014 GORE-TEX Grand Traverse, Friday, March 28, 2014
This one’s the granddaddy of them all: 40 miles of trails to be navigated by the stars. The race begins at midnight and traverses the Elk Mountains from Crested Butte to Aspen.