AT Skiing & Uphilling in Aspen
The sport of uphilling or skinning is the fastest growing segment of the ski industry today and Aspen is very friendly to enthusiasts of this fitness craze. Uphilling is slightly different than back country skiing, they both use similar gear but one is done on a ski resort while the other is done on un-managed terrain in the mountains. The latter, back country skiing, can be extremely dangerous, uphilling on the other hand is no more dangerous than skiing.
Many athletes uphill as a means to an end, you get a great workout, you are outside in winter and you get a ski run in at the end. The workout is both cardio and strength building, propelling yourself up a mountain is very difficult. Others skin as training for when they do get to go back country skiing and others do this as training for SkiMo races.
The first step to getting into skinning is getting the right gear. AT boots (AT stands for Alpine Touring) and bindings that are essential, these boots are extremely light, sacrificing the downhill skiing performance of the boot for ounces save for the uphill. The bindings are also minimal but more importantly are made to allow the boot to be free in the heel while climbing and locked while skiing. There are several manufacturers of these boots and binding, at our Aspen ski shop we carry (). When it comes to the skis you can use any downhill ski but most athletes will choose a ski made specifically for uphill travel. These skis are extremely light and some will choose skis that are more narrow than your average downhill ski to be even lighter, again sacrificing downhill performance for gains on the uphill. Backcountry skiers will often use the same boot and binding system but need to ski a wider ski to have control in the mountains.
The last and most important part of the system is the “skins” this term comes from the early days of travel on skis when animal skins were used to gain traction on skis. Just like the hair on you head animal skin grows with a grain, where you can slide your hand over it easily in one direction but it resists in the other. Same with modern synthetic skins, the skin can slide over the snow in one direction, uphill, but will grab the snow and prevent you from sliding down hill. These skins have glue on the bottom and hooks that clip onto the tip and tail of the ski, adhering to the bottom of the ski and allowing the skier to gain traction.
Aspen has embraced this growing sporty and has designated routes on all 4 of its ski mountains. Buttermilk has become the most popular, largely because the height is a little less so the challenge is a bit less daunting. Also because the mountain has the fewest skiers on it providing a more peaceful setting for this sport. With uphill routes on both Main Buttermilk and West Buttermilk you can choose your own adventure. The free parking at this area is also a big attraction.
The course on Aspen Highlands weave circuitously across the mountain with one long section that follows a tight cut in the trees that is an old life line. This part of the skin is usually completely private. For the extremely feet athlete you can do what is known as “Creek to Peak”. This is the act of skinning from the base of Highlands, near Maroon Creek, to the top of Highlands Bowl. This goes from around 9,000 feet to 12,200, that is over 3,000 feet of gain and one hell of a workout.
Snowmass has a more mellow course and is a bit of a friendlier workout, you also get some of the best views from this mountain. Aspen Mountain proper does have a few limitations due to the nature of the fact that most of the skiing on the mountain ends in either Spar or Copper Gulch and uphill traffic in these areas could be dangerous during lift hours. If you want to skin up Aspen you need to be above Chair 3 by 9:00 a.m. when the mountain opens, or go after the lift closes. This is a popular option for many who work in Aspen to go after work, the only extra thing you need is a headlamp to see. Many will not even bother with the light for the way up but it comes in pretty handy for the way down. On a full moon however the light reflecting off the snow is so bright many will not need a light for this magical experience.
SkiMo, the race for uphillers, as mentioned earlier has grown in popularity around the world and in Aspen as well. There is a race series taking place at Aspen Highlands with a multitude of ups and downs and navigational challenges, many Lycra clad ultra fit types love this kind of suffering. One of the pinnacle events of the season for the entire country is also held here, The Power of Four. This race is extremely challenging and takes not only physical prowess but extreme will. The race started on Snowmass Mountain and ascends each of the four ski areas of the Aspen Skiing Company. The race skis that competitors use for this event are not made to handle well on the demanding skiing of the Highlands Bowl making this and the even more challenging descent down the Congo trail (a single track trail that takes you to Castle Creek when you leave the ski area) feel like a kamakazzi run. The final slog up Aspen mountain can be spirit breaking as only strong survive to ski into glory at the base of Aspen.
Another world class event starts in Crested Butte and ends in Aspen after covering 40 miles and thousands of vertical feet of gain. The Grand Traverse is a team Ski Mo race due to the nature of the backcountry travel and dangers involved that takes place every spring. As technology and athletic prowess improve this race becomes more and more competitive. Many Aspen locals compete in this race and get a slight edge in the knowledge that they are skiing home to their warm beds.
If you are ready to get into this popular sport stop into Miller Sports downtown Aspen ski shop and get geared up. We have a whole AT ski wall with a wide selection of uphill oriented skis and boots to get you set up with everything you need to get in the shape of your life this winter and have some fun doing it!