Going Uphill, Fast

Skiing up Bolton on a glorious morning
Skiing up Bolton on a glorious morning

It’s dawn on a powder day and you have the entire mountain to yourself.

The journey started in darkness. You booted up in the parking lot, stretched climbing skins on your skis and set off uphill by headlamp. As your heels lifted with each step, your heart rate quickened and your legs assumed a slow, steady burn. With every rhythmic glide, the surrounding hillsides brightened from pink to dazzling white as the sun emerged over the ridge. Now, the trails lie blanketed in fresh, untouched snow. There isn’t another soul to be seen and work doesn’t start for another two hours.

Welcome to skinning.

This winter, when the chairlifts are stopped and the parking lots are empty, groups of skiers and split-boarders will be working their way towards the summit for dawn patrol turns before work or to get the very first tracks after the latest storm.

Over the past few years, uphill and backcountry skiing have seen dramatic growth, with skins and alpine touring bindings flying off shelves and more people looking to explore off piste. Ski resorts have responded with uphill travel policies that allow ambitious skiers and riders to get the goods early, while not interfering with snowmaking and grooming operations.

And this winter, even more new events, races and clinics are bringing backcountry skills to the front side ski experience.

No Ticket Required?

It used to be that ski patrollers would wag a finger at those who chose not to use the lifts. Skiers and split boarders would duck into the woods and sneak their way up. No longer. At Sugarbush, if you already have a season pass, for the cost of signing a waiver you receive an uphill travel pass valid for the season. At Killington and Pico, if you are not a pass holder, there is a $20 charge. So as to not conflict with snowmaking and grooming, travelers are expected to follow designated uphill and downhill routes before or after regular mountain operations. Bolton Valley’s uphill policy, released last year, designates routes up two of its three peaks, routes that also access 100K of Nordic trails and backcountry terrain.

Before work or after, this is a far better workout than the gym
Before work or after, this is a far better workout than the gym

At Magic Mountain, every skier who climbs the 1,700 vertical feet to the summit is rewarded with a token valid for one ride up the Red Chair. At Mad River Glen, skiers can earn their turns when the area is closed. At Smugglers’ Notch, uphill travel is allowed between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Mount Snow permits uphill travel from dawn to dusk for skiers and split boarders who purchase an uphill travel ticket (free for passholders). Some resorts still discourage all uphill travel so it’s best to check the policies before heading up.

Joining the Crowd

Whether you’ve just had your first pair of AT bindings mounted or you’re a veteran, there’s a host of options for learning new skills, competing with friends or simply finding more people who enjoy the uphill journey as much as you do.

On four Saturdays in February, Sugarbush offers an introduction to alpine touring skills and equipment on black diamond terrain as part of its Essen tials lesson series. The Catamount Trail Association holds a series of clinics at Bolton Valley as well as regular dawn patrol skins every second Thursday until April. If you can’t make Thursday mornings, sign up for one of the Wednesday Night Uphill Series, a friendly race series on two alternating routes up Vista Peak. Instead of a simple up-and-down race, the nighttime series requires skiers to transition from “hike” to “ski” mode as quickly as possible.

A night run up

Stowe is also repeating its successful Saturday Night Lights program. Organized in cooperation with the CTA, Stowe opens the lights on the Gondolier trails on three Saturdays: Jan. 23, Feb. 6, and Feb. 27. The series culminates on March 26 with the Topsy Turvy Uphill Race, a nighttime race up the Gondolier trail under the lights.

Race to the Top

With more people going uphill, the “rando” (randonnée) and “skimo” (ski mountaineering) competitions have grown fierce with many races combining skinning, downhill skiing and sometimes simply running or snowshoeing.

If you want to compete against the best in the East (or just watch), Magic Mountain hosts the one eastern event in the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Nationals (a weekend series with criteriums, vertical and sprint races) March 14.

One of the oldest and most challenging of ski mountaineering races in Vermont, the Mad River Valley Mountaineering Race has, historically, sent skiers up Mad River Glen and then across the Long Trail to Sugarbush’s Mt. Ellen. This year, Sugarbush is hosting the race on March 20 and running it from Lincoln Peak through the Slide Brook Wilderness to Mt. Ellen and down.

If that’s not tough enough for you, that same weekend Bolton Valley partners with outdoor adventure company Native Endurance to host New England’s first 24-hour backcountry race, March 19-20. Teams will attempt to log the most vertical feet possible as they test their legs and lungs on a course that is split: 12 hours in the backcountry and 12 hours on alpine ski trails.

The early bird gets fresh tracks
The early bird gets fresh tracks

Jonathan Schefftz, who has began organizing events for the New England Rando Race Series since 2009, has seen participation in his events rise, with races attracting not only die-hard skiers but also endurance athletes like marathoners and triathletes.

“Some people stop skiing because they spend all their time standing in lift lines or skiing crowded trails,” he says. “This is something different. It’s aerobic and athletic that can really get people interested.”

At the Mount Greylock rando race, participation increased by 53-percent last season with more than 100 skiers showing up to register the day of the race. This year, the NE Rando Series includes new races at Q Burke (Jan. 30) and Pico (March 27).

Schefftz says the momentum behind the uphill travel movement is just getting started. “Right now, the stars are aligned,” he says. “You have the gear manufacturers producing the gear, the resorts are on board with their uphill policies and the competitive aspect has gone from complete obscurity to strong. I think it’s only going to get bigger.”

* Interested in skinning, but need a place to start? Try the Skimo Citizen Race Series. Visit Catamount Trail Association’s website for details.