“Hey, you’re going the wrong way!” is the refrain one might hear from downhill skiers when skinning up the ski area or walking up the mountain on Alpine Touring gear.
It seems like just as many people are walking up the mountain (also known as “skinning”) as skiing down it these days. Why would anyone want to walk up the mountain when there’s a perfectly good chairlift? For most Aspenites, it boils down to one thing: exercise. It’s a great workout and changes the way you spend time on the snow. Using your own strength to go up somehow makes skiing down that much sweeter.
Maybe that’s why Alpine Touring equipment is the fastest growing category in the outdoor sports market, according to Forbes. While Alpine Touring equipment was originally designed for backcountry skiing, it’s becoming increasingly popular in-bounds, too, especially among Aspen’s fitness-crazed.
Alpine Touring: History
Alpine Touring has a long history in Europe, where “randonee” equipment began. Essentially, it’s a special binding that allows you to free the heel of the boot for walking with skins applied to the bottoms of skis to keep from slipping. This equipment was used “off piste,” or in the backcountry where there was no chairlift access. In the United States, skiers have been using Alpine Touring equipment for backcountry skiing for years, but it has only gained popularity for use in resorts in recent years as equipment designed specifically for fitness has become lighter and easier to use.
Earning Your Turns
The idea of walking up a mountain where there is lift access might have been laughable to some, but it has gained so much popularity in recent years that it has become a sport onto itself, complete with a whole slew of super lightweight, high-tech equipment. Skinning up before the lifts open has become a ritual for hardcore locals who reward themselves with a big breakfast at Bonnie’s after what most people would consider a monumental effort (and before most of us even woke up). And more often than not, they’re rewarded with powder turns on the way down (or at least some fresh corduroy).
Alpine Touring (AT) Equipment
What differentiates AT gear from regular alpine ski gear is the ability to walk uphill and also to ski down the exact same way you would on regular skis, with your heel locked in. AT gear is designed to have both a “walk mode” and a “ski mode.” The bindings have a mechanism that allows you to release the heel for walking uphill and also a way to secure the heel for downhill skiing (this is where AT differs from telemark skiing, when the heel is released for both uphill and downhill mode). Alpine Touring boots are like a regular ski boot but lighter with a rubber sole and a “walk” mode for flexion going uphill. Finally, you’ll need skins, a tacky, carpet-like material adhesive that sticks to the bottom of your skis to keep you from slipping backwards when you’re climbing uphill. When you’re ready to ski down, you simply remove the skins and readjust your bindings and boots from walk mode into ski mode. (A backpack is also necessary to carry your skins on the ski down, as well as water for skinning up, and extra layers since you get hot and sweaty on the way up and warmer layers for the way down.)
Local Uphill Events
Aspen has embraced the sport and run with it, so to speak, right up the hill. Leave it to our fitness-obsessed community to want to go farther and faster with a slew of races to prove it. There’s America’s Uphill, a race up Aspen Mountain (snowshoes, telemark skis and track skis are also allowed). The 3,000-foot climb starts at The Little Nell and ends at the Sundeck (March 8, 2019). https://www.aspenspecialevents.com/americas-uphill/. For those who want to push the limits of endurance can train for The Power of Four (March 2, 2019) a race up and down all of Aspen’s four ski areas—in one day. (https://www.aspensnowmass.com/while-you-are-here/events/audi-power-of-four-ski-mountaineering) If distance is your thing, (and sleep is not), check out The Grand Traverse (March 28-30, 2019), an overnight race from Crested Butte to Aspen that covers 40 miles with 6,800 vertical feet of climbing. (https://thegrandtraverse.org/ski/) As if that’s not enough, there’s the second annual Aspen Uphill Symposium (March 31 – April 2, 2019), an industry gathering of manufacturers, retailers, athletes to talk about the what-goes-down-must-also-go-up craze.
Gear & Rentals: The Ute Mountaineer in downtown Aspen has a large selection of AT skis, skins, and boots: http://www.utemountaineer.com/rentals-repair/aspen-alpine-touring-cross-country-ski-rentals/
Guides and Instruction: It’s a good idea to let an expert help you make the transition and explain the ins and outs of the equipment and how and where to use it. Aspen Expeditions offers an Intro to Uphill Fitness Ski Tour that includes gear rentals: https://aspenexpeditions.com/products/intro-uphill-fitness-ski-tour
Routes and regulations: check out the Aspen/Snowmass Uphill Policy: https://www.aspensnowmass.com/our-mountains/aspen-highlands/uphill-policy