Often when the lifts are still, they stir. These dedicated and unusual brand of winter salmon travel uphill during an exhausting trek and then ski down.
When the lifts start to turn, they are ordinarily done or soon finished with their adventure.
“For me, it’s not about the downhill, it’s all about the uphill,” says Chad Denning, 37, of Grantham, N.H., an adventure athlete who routinely “skins” up ski areas and also produces the recreational eight-stop Winter Wild series in which competitors ascend a resort manually before plunging down.
Skinning is associated with backcountry skiers and snowboarders seeking snow off the groomed trails and lifts. By applying climbing skins to the bottom of their free-heel boards, they are able to ascend without slipping.
Alpine touring equipment, also called randonee, telemark skis, and split snowboards are the norm.
Advances in ski mountaineering gear, a shift in ski areas offering “backcountry” experiences, exercise, convenience, and a chance to test gear before heading to locations such as Tuckerman Ravine entice them to resorts.
But this can put ski areas in a bind regarding uphill policies that often include hikers and snowshoers, as operators are concerned about safety, possible conflicts with snowmaking and grooming equipment, a mix of uphill and downhill traffic, and liability.
“We also feel that we are protecting the rights and investment of the paying public as well as our investment in making snow, grooming, and operating a for-profit ski area,” said Cannon’s marketing director, Greg Keeler, of the Franconia, N.H., area that doesn’t allow uphill traffic.
On the flip side, Magic Mountain in Londonderry, Vt., is a skinner’s heaven with an “Earn Your Turns” policy that allows uphillers free and unlimited access.
“We believe in that mentality,” says marketing vice president Geoff Hatheway. “The loyalty and positive word of mouth we get is invaluable.”
Hatheway estimates Magic has between 100-200 regular hard-core upholders, many who routinely grab a sandwich or beer on site vs. the area instilling a trail pass fee.
Uphill skier Jonathan Shefftz is a financial economics consultant from Amherst and ski patroller at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock. Since 2009, he’s assembled the three-event competitive NE Rando Race Series in western Massachusetts and Vermont.
“Ski areas have such a big investment in grooming, maintaining trails, and snowmaking,” he said. “Why not treat skinning like a Nordic area and charge a trail use fee? Then they can get the most out of their investment.”
Skinners are also season-pass holders and day-ticket purchasers who often return to ride the lifts with friends and family, he said.
Uphill policies vary widely. This season, the US Ski Mountaineering Association started posting policies of resorts nationwide.
Its director, New England native Pete Swenson, says some families often look at skinning opportunities while booking vacations.
“More parents tell me they love to skin up before skiing with the family,” he said from his home in Breckenridge, Colo., where skinning is more progressive.
Some areas post policies online, and ski patrol and guest services are also resources. Wildcat in Pinkham Notch, N.H., operating on a land-use permit through the US Forest Service, allows season-pass and day-pass users access only during regular operating hours and on a designated route, and also has a $10 uphill ticket.
At Mad River Glen in Vermont, which hosts a Feb. 3 USSMA-sanctioned randonee race with Sugarbush, skinning is allowed during non-operating hours only. But it’s problematic, says marketing director Eric Friedman, as the area prohibits dogs and snowboarders — both uphill travelers.
“This is kind of a funky thing,” he said.
Northern Vermont’s Jay Peak is working on a map for designated uphill routes but is concerned about safety despite skinners frequently donning headlamps, blinking lights, and reflective clothing.
“Skinners are typically on the hill at zero-dark thirty when the groomers are still zipping around the hill,” said communications director JJ Toland. “That creates a safety concern not only for the obvious chance for collision, but we’re often using winch cats that use long cables to essentially rappel themselves down the hill. Those cables are tough to see, especially when you’re ripping down a hill on skis or a board.”
Burke Mountain respects those who venture uphill but doesn’t recommend it. But, they post tips online for safe skinning during non-operational hours.
Mount Snow’s policy allows uphillers during the winter operation season access from dawn to dusk with a $10 “Uphill Travel” pass, $49 “Uphill Season Pass” or complimentary endorsement on their regular-season pass.
Unveiled last month, communications manager Dave Meeker says the new policy was not put in place to make money, but to encourage safety.
“By requiring them to get a pass we are able to educate them on what the best routes are, best practices like staying to the side of trails and being aware of downhill traffic coming over blind pitches, and also having them sign a waiver for liability sake,” he said.
Wachusett in Princeton, Mass., which is hosting a Winter Wild race Saturday and is offering participants discounted lift tickets to spend the day, allows skinning before the lifts open. Saddleback in Rangeley, Maine, doesn’t have an official uphill policy but directs those who ask to less-traveled trails.
Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, embraces skinning, allowing season-pass holders and day-ticket users access with certain restrictions, such as not skiing down before the lifts open. Last month, they unveiled a $10 Uphill Access day ticket.
“If our skiers want to do it, we want to try to figure out a way to make it happen,” said communications director Ethan Austin.
So far, they’ve sold four uphill tickets.
“There is a reason there are chairlifts,” said Austin. “There is a lot of work required to get up the mountain without them.”
Last winter, some 800 people competed in Denning’s early-morning race series that’s completed before the lifts open. They run, snowshoe, and about a third are uphill skiers.
“Many areas are hesitant about allowing uphilling,” he said. “This way they can try it and see if it catches on.”