For a full list of resorts that allow uphilling: ussma.org/resort-uphill-policies
On dark mid-week evenings in the winter, four skiers gather together at the Jenny Creek trailhead, just outside of Eldora Mountain Resort’s private parking lot.
Pete Fox, Sara and Ben Kadlec, and Travis Scheefer all wear headlamps and put carpet-like skins on their skis as they prepare to ski uphill — no lifts — along the trail. Fox and the Kadlecs are ski mountaineering (“skimo”) racers; they race both up the hill and back down. Scheefer is a former skimo racer who skis to stay in shape for mountain biking. All of them try to ski this way once or twice mid-week and both days of each weekend.
“Uphillers” range from backcountry enthusiasts who appreciate solitude to cross-training endurance athletes, from ski mountaineering racers to environmentalists who prefer human-powered skiing.
And they’re a growing group.
Many ski resorts have embraced this new wave of uphilling snow-sport enthusiasts and have developed policies that allow the sport within resort boundaries.
But Eldora, a 45-minute drive from Boulder, doesn’t allow uphill access within resort boundaries, said spokesman Rob Linde.
Some local uphill skiers wonder why Eldora hasn’t gotten on board with the uphill movement that other resorts — including Arapahoe Basin, Copper, Loveland, Winter Park, Aspen Snowmass, Vail, Crested Butte and Breckenridge — are embracing. Liability concerns, safety and how to manage an uphill policy are holding Eldora back, Linde said.
“It’s going off all over, and all the resorts that have embraced it have found it to be pretty low impact,” said Kim Miller, of Boulder. Miller is the CEO of Scarpa North America, a maker of skiing and climbing gear. “You’ve got the lifestyle, the environment. You’ve got the participants and the right demographic, and now we need the access to do it.”
Uphilling has grown in popularity over the last 10 years, and explosively in more recent years. The concept is simple: participants ski uphill instead of using a lift before cruising back down. Uphillers attach skins to their skis, allowing them to glide forward but not backward as they trudge up the hill.
Many resorts charge a small fee and require skiers to sign waivers. In return, uphillers get restrooms, groomed runs, resort staff nearby for safety and easy access before or after work.
Boulder skimo racer Ben Kadlec started skinning uphill after he discovered backcountry skiing, and found himself enjoying the aerobic workout of skinning up the mountain before shredding on the way down.
But skinning into the backcountry means long travel times and avalanche risks, so more often Kadlec skins on groomed runs at resorts. Kadlec works as a software engineer with Microsoft, which means his uphilling time is limited to weekends when he can drive I-70.
“There have been a lot of high-profile avalanche accidents in the last couple years, but people enjoy skiing under their own power,” he said. “If you can skin at a resort, it’s a lot safer. There’s been a lot of interest in town here and a need for people to safely practice it.”
Safety is the primary reason Eldora doesn’t allow uphill traffic in bounds, spokesman Linde said. The risk of skier-on-skier collisions or skier-on-snowmobile collisions is too high, Linde said. He worried that opening the mountain to uphill skiers before lifts open, when the resort does most of its snowmaking, would be dangerous.
Right now, the resort has a “firm policy” that prohibits uphill traffic within resort boundaries, Linde said.
“Very simply, it’s trespassing so we certainly could get the law involved and the sheriff involved if there were some sort of an issue,” Linde said. “Right now we ask the person to leave and respect the policy.”
He pointed out that skiers can access the Jenny Creek Trail, which begins just outside the Eldora parking lot, and can access backcountry areas just beyond the resort’s boundaries at the top of the West Ridge trail.
But getting to those areas without crossing into Eldora is challenging. To access the backcountry area at the top of West Ridge, a skier has to take a lift to the top.
The U.S. Forest Service description of the Jenny Creek Trail states that, “This trail crosses private land and is not open for use when Eldora Mountain Resort is closed to the public.” The first mile or so of the trail sits on private property, owned by Eldora and other parties. Linde said the resort has an agreement with those private landowners that allows users to cross private land to reach the Jenny Creek Trail, as long as they stay on the trail.
The 680-acre ski area plans to adjust its boundary by adding about 90 acres of new terrain, according to the 2011 Eldora Master Development Plan. The plan also includes adding a new Jolly Jug lift, which means expanding across the area that includes Jenny Creek Trail.
Linde said nothing will change as far as uphill access on Jenny Creek Trail goes, though he added resort officials “haven’t gotten there yet.” There’s currently no timeline for when the expansion will begin, Linde said.
Eldora has no plans to change the “no uphill traffic” policy in the short term, but Linde added that resort officials “explore new opportunities all the time.”
“This is a trend that’s happening in the industry right now, and we’re certainly aware of that, it’s just at this point we made the decision not to (allow uphill skiing),” Linde said.
Linde, who’s tried skinning uphill before, said the resort’s Nordic area provides many of the same benefits as uphilling. Skiers can access Nordic trails before the lifts open if they have a season pass and sign a waiver.
“We feel like that’s a product we offer,” Linde said.
Scarpa North America’s CEO Kim Miller said the uphill movement started as a “low-key groundswell” and has become “mainstream.”
To him, it’s just one more activity for a community of outdoor enthusiasts to participate in. The uphill movement reminds him a lot of snowboarding in the 1980s — very few resorts allowed it, and many considered it a “renegade” sport.
“Our attitude at Scarpa is if you follow sports and participate, you know what’s going on,” he said. “It’s important to support the sports, and the business will probably follow.”
Scarpa’s sales of uphill gear doubled in recent years, Miller said, and the industry as a whole is seeing an increase in uphill gear sales.
Boulder Nordic Sport owner Nathan Schultz introduced alpine touring gear for the first time this season — in part because the company moved to a larger location, but also because of ski mountaineering’s increased popularity industry-wide. Schultz said he’s heard businesses are seeing 50 percent growth in skimo race gear.
Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup (COSMIC) race series director Pete Swenson has watched his ski mountaineering series go from five races eight years ago to around 15 this year. He approached Eldora officials separately on two occasions about the resort hosting a race, but said the meetings went nowhere. Swenson lived in Boulder for 10 years before moving to Breckenridge, where he lives now.
“Now, I have more resorts that want to have COSMIC races than I can do,” he said. “If a resort doesn’t want this, we’ll go places where they do.”
On any given night at Breckenridge, Swenson said, he’ll see at least 50 people uphilling. Considering the Boulder community’s penchant for extreme exercise and endurance sports, Swenson said, Eldora should be making a killing on uphill season passes.
“The frustrating thing is arguably the largest uphill access community is 30 miles down the road in Boulder,” he said. “If they wanted to sell an uphill pass, they could be generating an awful lot of revenue with very little work. They move from an area where they’re not allowing it to a progressive area, generating some income. They’d see a lot of upside.”
Crested Butte Mountain Resort vice president and general manager Ethan Mueller came to the resort in March 2004. Back then, Crested Butte allowed uphilling, but it wasn’t popular.
But two years ago, he and other resort officials started talking about formalizing the uphilling program because they saw how quickly it was growing.
Today, 700 skiers have uphill season passes at Crested Butte. Mueller said he’d guess around 120 people skin up the mountain each day. The cost is relatively low — $100 for a season pass, and $10 for an uphill day pass. Pass holders sign an uphill policy waiver and watch a short video about the sport.
To increase safety, Crested Butte has created traffic patterns; skiers go up and down the middle of the trail, snowmobiles and other vehicles go down the sides. The resort has designated uphill trails for skiers during operating hours, and designated dog trails so that alpine skiers know when and where to expect uphill and dog traffic.
Nederland residents Elaine and Dan Vardamis have uphill passes at Arapahoe Basin, and say they spend an average of five mornings a week uphilling.
The two work at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder. Uphilling could be the next big thing, Elaine Vardamis said.
“Skiing has historically had these pushes,” she said. “I do see this as the next sort of push. It’s a way to get people into the sport. It’s not a renegade thing, it’s actually a very mainstream, enjoyable thing that normal people want to do. I’m not sure skiing’s in a place right now where they can be excluding too many people.”
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.