While many Vermonters are downhill skiers, some like to ski uphill, too. Called skinning, these skiers head to the resorts or their favorite backcountry locales to “earn their turns” — that is, to ski up the mountain, then turn around and ski back down.
It’s a growing trend, says Peter Kavouksorian, co-owner of Mountain Travelers Hike and Ski Shop in Rutland. While he and many others have been skinning for decades, recently it’s become more popular.
“It’s something we’ve been doing forever, but now legally,” says Kavouksorian. He started out skinning on big-mountain adventures in the Adirondacks of New York and White Mountains of New Hampshire, where there are no lifts to bring skiers to the top of the mountain. But he and his ski buddies quickly realized that skinning was a great way to use their local mountains, like Pico and Killington Resorts, too.
He said they recognized the potential to skin at ski areas because there were no trees, there was man-made groomed snow, and they could go out before or after work when the lifts weren’t running. Skinning is also a great way to get on the mountain with fewer people around and, increasingly, it’s another way for the fitness- and performance-oriented to get their hearts and lungs pumping or to challenge themselves on the hill. As Kavouksorian points out, many skinners are cyclists and hikers, too, and so skinning helps them to push the envelope on their fitness — or at least maintain it through the winter.
Skinning was at one time a fringe activity that wasn’t technically allowed at most ski resorts, but it’s now main-stream enough that most resorts in the state have uphill travel policies specifically for skinning. (See “Downhill resorts welcome uphill traffic” from Jan. 30, 2019, for a rundown of resort policies.) Ski resorts were worried about liability, especially when mountain operations teams were grooming and making snow, so the policies allow the resorts to provide some guidelines for skinning.
“We were like loose cats,” says Kavouksorian about skinning in the old days. Skinners would go where they wanted, sometimes interrupting and irritating mountain operations teams. But now, with their uphill travel policies, resorts can take some control by setting designated routes, setting rules, and, in some places, requiring a waiver. With these uphill policies, mountains reduced their liability and, simultaneously, became more inclusive.
“I see it as a trend, a growth in fitness in general,” says Kavouksorian. And, they’re getting the reward of fun ski turns on the way back down.
When it comes to gear, skiers interested in heading uphill may need to buy a whole new setup. First, the boots should be flexible, with a touring mode that allows the foot to walk freely. This is more than “walk mode” on a typical downhill boot; it’s a setting that allows the foot to experience its full range of motion on the uphill climb. Then, the skinner needs a compatible binding, and the binding needs to also allow for free movement of the heel for climbing. The skis themselves should be light weight but capable on the downhill, and ski poles should be quickly adjustable to be long on the climb and short on the descent.
Importantly, skins are also required to get uphill. These are grippy strips of fabric that stick and anchor to the bottom of the skinner’s skis to provide traction on the snow. In the old days, they were made of beaver or seal pelts, hence the origin of the name. Skins, which today are manufactured, are cut to the shape of the ski, thereby providing edge-to-edge coverage. A special glue on one side of the skins is strong enough to hold them to the ski on the uphill, but forgiving enough to be peeled off relatively easily for the return trip back down the mountain.
Mountain Travelers has always specialized in Telemark skiing, a method that is like a cross between alpine and Nordic skiing; the Telemark binding leaves the skier’s heal free and the turning technique utilizes deep alternating knee bends to get down the mountain. It’s a setup that can be lightweight and inexpensive compared to other options.
But some skiers don’t want to learn or use the Telemark turn. And, on steep terrain, a free heel is not as rigid and stable for turning in dicey conditions. More recently, alpine touring gear has increased in popularity. This type of setup allows the skier’s heel to be locked down during downhill travel, just like in a regular alpine downhill skiing setup, but with special bindings that switch to freely moving heels for the skin up the mountain.
At Mountain Travelers, Kavouksorian has noticed a change in the type of gear skinners are after as the sport increases in popularity. While skiers at one time were looking to get into the sport cheap, making do with lightweight gear they already owned and adding simple bindings and skins for a few hundred dollars total, now skinners are spending $2,000 to $2,400 on a specialized setup. Splitboards are another option for those who want to ski up the mountain, then connect their boards to make a snowboard for the trip back down.
The prices for ski packages are similar at Onion River Outdoors in Montpelier, a ski shop specializing in backcountry skiing. Their most popular ski packages are waxless backcountry skis that utilize a fish-scale pattern on the bottom of the ski right at the waist to provide some uphill traction, no skins required. The skis are shaped and have metal edges, just like downhill skis, and can be outfitted with simple three-pin Telemark bindings and paired with lightweight three-buckle plastic boots. But this setup is best suited for out-the-door skiing and touring on backcountry ski trails like the Catamount Trail or Camel’s Hump Challenge Trail. The setup is not ideal for downhill resort skiing.
For skinning at resorts, ORO offers Telemark packages and will soon be adding alpine touring gear to their shop selection. At OR, too, an alpine touring package will run skiers about $2,000, once the gear is in stock. A Telemark ski package could be less expensive. Shop co-owner Kip Roberts explains a Telemark setup would include a four-buckle plastic boot with a touring mode, such as the Scarpa T2; Telemark boots will cost somewhere in the $550 to $600 range. Skins will cost about $170 to $200 and, depending on the model chosen, a Telemark binding can run from $60 to $330. The skis themselves are $695 to $795 and adjustable poles will add another $50 or $60 to the price of the full setup.
It’s not an inexpensive hobby, no matter which setup a skier chooses, but it’s one that pays dividends in fitness and happiness.