Uphill All the Way: Alpine Touring in Aspen

“Hey, you’re going the wrong way!” That’s the refrain one might hear from downhill skiers when skinning up the slopes on Alpine Touring (AT) gear. But Alpine Touring—a.k.a. skimo, short for ski mountaineering—is getting so popular that it seems like as many people are walking up the mountain as skiing down it these days.

Why would anyone want to make a grueling trek to the top on foot when there’s a perfectly good chairlift? For most Aspenites, it boils down to one thing: exercise. Skimo is a great workout—and it changes the way you spend time on the snow: Using your own strength to go up 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.

Skimo’s devoted fans hope to make it an Olympic sport soon.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Skimo has a long history in Europe, where it’s known as randonee skiing and where the first specialized heel-freeing bindings and snow-gripping ski “skins” were developed. Such equipment was originally designed for and 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 its popularity in resorts has soared recently as gear has become super lightweight, high-tech, and easy to use.

What differentiates Alpine Touring gear from regular Alpine ski gear is that the bindings are designed with both a “walk mode” and a “ski mode,” allowing you to release your heel to walk uphill and then lock it in to ski down just as you would on regular skis. (In telemark skiing, by contrast, 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.

Skinning up the slopes in early morning is a popular Aspen activity.

The second key piece of equipment is skins—long strips of nylon, mohair, or a combination of the two that feature a tacky, carpet-adhesive material to make them stick to the bottom of your skis, as well as hooks, loops, or straps to hold them in place. Skins provide a combination of glide and grip that lets you move easily over the snow but keeps you from sliding backward when you’re climbing. (When you’re ready to ski down, you just remove and stow them for reuse.) A backpack is also essential for storing your skins, along with water and extra layers of clothing; you’ll get hot and thirsty on the way up, but you’ll want those warm layers for the way down.

For hardcore Aspen locals, skinning up before the lifts open has become a favorite morning ritual—as has rewarding oneself with a big breakfast at Bonnie’s (Aspen Mountain, mid-mountain off Tourtelotte Park, 970.544.6252) after what inevitably proves to be a quad-punishing, lung-searing workout. More often than not, the exhilarating reward is powder turns on the way down—or at least some fresh corduroy.

Stick to designated uphill routes, marked with an orange disk.

BEGINNERS’ GUIDE

Skimo is a great way to build strength and endurance, though you should be reasonably fit to attempt it as a first-timer. Listen to your body: Remember to breathe, stay hydrated, and stop to rest when you need to. Here are a few helpful resources.

Gear and Rentals: The Ute Mountaineer in downtown Aspen has a large selection of AT skis, skins, and boots. 210 S. Galena St., 970.925.2849

• Guides and Instruction: It’s a good idea to let an expert explain the ins and outs of the equipment and give you some pointers on technique. Aspen Expeditions offers an Intro to Uphill Fitness Ski Tour that includes gear rentals. 133 Prospector Rd., 970.925.7625

Guides can point out routes and fill you in on regulations. You can also find the Aspen Snowmass Uphill Policy here.

Like most outdoor sports, skimo is safer with company.

• Local Uphill Events: Aspen’s fitness-obsessed community has embraced skimo and offers a slew of races to prove it. For those who’ve mastered the basics and are feeling competitive, 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 7). If you want to push the limits of endurance, you can train for The Power of Four, a race up and down all of Aspen’s four ski areas—in one day (February 29).

If distance is your thing (and sleep is not), check out The Grand Traverse, an overnight race from Crested Butte to Aspen that covers 40 miles with 6,800 vertical feet of climbing (March 27–29).

—by Alison Margo

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