Adventure
Welcome to
Ski(n) Season
The beginner’s guide to skinning
By Micah Ling
UPDATE

With the premature closure of all ski resorts in Colorado due to the coronavirus, many are left wondering if they’ll get any spring turns in at all this year. Some mountains have officially ended their season early, thus opening their land to the public for uphill access, at their own risk. Colorado Avalanche Information Center is an excellent resource for anyone venturing into the backcountry or skiing at resorts that are not operational. They urge people to always be aware of conditions, and to never take on more than they’re prepared for. Uphill skiing, even at a resort, comes with dangers.

Eldora’s Sam Bass says, “During the current operational suspension period, Eldora is closed to all access—including alpine, Nordic, and uphill skiing, as well as all lift operations, food and beverage, ski patrol services, ski and ride school, and retail and rental services. Eldora operates on both public and private lands and controls access to all lands within its permit area, up to and including complete closure, such as the closure currently in effect (the authority to control access to the public lands within its permit area is granted by a special-use permit administered by the US Forest Service). Maintenance operations, which can include heavy machinery anywhere on the mountain at any time, may be taking place during the closure. For everyone’s safety, we ask that would-be uphillers please respect Eldora’s decision to close its entire permit area to all access.”

Katherine Fuller at Arapahoe Basin confirmed that uphill access is closed on their land.

Loveland Ski Area released the following statement: Now that we are closed for the season, the mountain is open for uphill access. Go here for all the details. Please note that there will be no avalanche mitigation or emergency services. Uphill users must practice safe backcountry travel and use 911 for any emergencies.

Vail Resorts announced a closure for all of their resorts, but have not yet decided if they will attempt to reopen Breckenridge later in the spring. 

Steamboat Springs says that while the mountain is closed, they have had many inquiries about uphill access. They ask that skiers follow guidelines for appropriate routes and uphill access here, and understand mountain crews may be encountered, ski patrol response is not available, and to keep in mind social distancing recommendations to avoid gatherings on the mountain.

As always, check websites and weather conditions before skinning or skiing anywhere in the state. Be aware of surroundings and safety, and stick to CDC recommendations. 

Arapahoe Basin
bag in the snow with ski stuff
Skis leaned up against wood fence
Close up of the front of a Ski
Going Up!
The earn-your-turns culture is growing in Colorado, and this season more resorts than ever are offering various deals to those who want to skip the lift line and power up the hill on their own energy.

For the early birds, many resorts offer pre-dawn skinning access, and what’s better than sunrise from the top of a mountain? Some also offer specific routes or have designated guidelines about how to gain uphill access all day long. Always check out websites and talk to guest services before you head up the mountain, so that you have the safest and most updated information. 

What do you need?
What’s more Colorado than a reason to buy a whole new set of gear? Skinning does require alpine touring equipment, designed to be lighter and give mobility going up the mountain, but also stability going down. You’ll need AT boots, bindings, skis, (or a splitboard) and skins, which are long strips of nylon with mohair or synthetic fur on one side, and adhesive on the other. Skins usually make it through two seasons of skiing, depending on use. Whether you’re curious about skinning at resorts, or getting into the backcountry, we recommend renting equipment first. Many resorts now rent AT setups, or demo them from time to time. JAX Outdoor is renting complete packages for $60 per day at some locations, and employees are happy to give a rundown of how to get the skins on and general usage tips.

Ryan Petry, professional mountain biker and Boulder resident, started skinning last season as a way to stay fit and have fun through the winter months. “I love skinning because I’m able to get a killer workout, and the slower pace uphill allows me to enjoy the scenery in a way you just don’t get on the chairlifts or when ripping downhill.” Petry also likes skinning because it’s pretty easy to pick up and, for the most part, safe. He likes going to resorts because of accessibility.

Petry’s advice for someone looking to try skinning is to find cheaper gear on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, or borrow gear from a friend. “Definitely go out with someone who knows what they’re doing. A mellow grade that’s groomed, like a resort, is the perfect place to start. It’s okay to fall. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable and out of breath at first. The payoff is worth it; it’s such a great low-impact workout.”

Risk Management Director at Arapahoe Basin, Patrick O’Sullivan, suggests that people who want to try skinning decide what their goals are. “Skinning uphill is great for fitness and for getting to experience the mountain when no one else is around. I recommend knowing what your goals are. Maybe you’re skinning to get fit for a hut trip, or you’re primarily using the ski area like a Nordic center for fitness. If you just want to be on the hill for fitness, get the lightest gear you can handle. Otherwise it’s like running in hiking boots.”

Dan Wiesner, owner of The Extra Mile, a consignment outdoor store in Loveland, says you can piece together a pretty good starter setup for a reasonable price. Except for the skins themselves, there’s nothing wrong with well-used gear when it comes to skinning and skiing.

For a shop closer to some of the big resorts, Wiesner recommends Cripple Creek Backcountry, with locations in Carbondale, Aspen, and Vail.

Know before you go
Each resort is a little different when it comes to uphill access, hours, pass requirements, and general rules. Most resorts that charge for uphill skiing also feature day passes, so you can try things out before you go all-in for a season pass or add-on.

At Arapahoe Basin you’ll need an uphill access pass and armband. For the entire 2019-20 season, the uphill access pass is $30. Uphill access is free for anyone with a current A-Basin full-season, midweek, senior or military pass, but you must still have a pass and armband. Learn More

At Eldora Mountain, uphill access is restricted to specific routes at specific times, to pass- and ticket-holding skiers only. Due to constraints caused by Eldora’s operational logistics, they don’t allow uphill access on weekends, holidays, or peak days. But for those who crave quiet sunrise turns, Eldora offers early access three days a week, which means the mountain is pretty much yours from 6 a.m.-9 a.m. Learn More

Uphill access at Echo Mountain is permitted from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (during normal business operating hours). During the early or later hours of the day, they suggest wearing reflective clothing visible from all directions, such as a vest, armband, belt, headlamp, or flashing bike lights. Current season pass holders can grab an uphill addition to their season pass for $50. Non-season pass holders can purchase an uphill seasons pass for $100. Learn More

Ryan Petry often frequents Crested Butte Mountain Resort for his skinning sessions. “My wife’s family has a house there, but it also happens to be my favorite place in the world. CB allows you to skin before and after the chairs run, but also have an all-day skin track if you don’t feel like waking up super early or missing out on après with your friends. I’ve also skinned Breckenridge and A-Basin. The views and feel of Crested Butte are impossible to beat though. Even on the mountain, you feel like you’re in the backcountry.”

Many resorts, such as Copper Mountain, Loveland Basin, and Breckenridge allow uphill skiing for free, outside of normal operating hours, but you still need to sign a waiver and acquire a pass or armband.

Steamboat Springs allows free uphill access in certain areas even during normal operating hours. Users must have an armband, which they can acquire after downloading and signing forms from the website, and bringing them to the Welcome Center in Gondola Square.

two people In the mountains
Arapahoe Basin
Katherine Fuller, communications manager at Arapahoe Basin, says they’ve experienced steady growth in uphill use over the last several years, with both guests and staff. “It’s pretty spectacular here at the Basin because just getting to mid-mountain means you’re at 11,500 feet with incredible panoramic views. If you can make it to the top (12,500 feet) it’s even more breathtaking — literally and figuratively.” Fuller says she takes advantage of the early-morning hours herself. “I just love being on the mountain as the sun is rising with no one else around. The cold is intense, but as soon as that sun appears it’s just a magical feeling.”
A look back in time
Longtime residents of Estes Park, Loveland, Greeley, and Fort Collins will remember a scrappy little resort called Hidden Valley. Operational from 1955 to 1991, this ski area was initiated by the National Park Service. Before it became an actual resort, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the NPS cleared Trail Ridge Road through the winter, so that locals could ski the bowl. Army trucks shuttled visitors and their equipment up to 11,400 feet, and let them ski down.

By 1971 a chairlift was added, and in 1984 a season pass was $100. Skiers in northern Colorado were thrilled to have a place to ski in their own backyard. Eventually though, the parks department decided that a ski resort really wasn’t compatible with park objectives, and Hidden Valley closed.

Today there are still remnants of the little resort’s heyday, and many from the area skin up and enjoy the old runs when the powder hits. The terrain is open for backcountry access, and the snow is plentiful on the higher slopes, most of which are relatively low-angle.

Dan Wiesner says the access from Loveland and Fort Collins makes it tough to beat. “I can get over there on a weekday for a lunch session, and still get back to Loveland to pick my kids up from school.” He says that if you’re new to skinning and back-country, Hidden Valley is a great place to start. “I’d still recommend going with someone more experienced the first few times, for safety and just to learn about technique and equipment.” Wiesner says the best snow and conditions for skinning and skiing at Hidden Valley actually come later in the spring.

Despite Hidden Valley being less prone to avalanche, all areas of Rocky Mountain National Park are considered backcountry, and skiers should always come prepared with proper gear and some education on avalanche safety.

So you wanna race?
If you’ve gotten your skinning legs and feel the itch to try your fitness up against some others, many resorts are adding racing to their calendars. A-Basin now has a Tuesday early-morning, uphill race series. Check-in begins at 6 a.m. at the rental shop, and races start at 7 a.m. Each event costs $25 and features different demos and sponsors. The races start in Mountain Goat Plaza at 10,780 ft. and finish near the Summit at 12,474 ft., with twists and turns along the way. Learn More

Eldora has a Nighthawk race series that runs from January through March and features alpine, uphill, Nordic, and snowshoe racing. Ryan Petry tried his off-season legs with other Nighthawks last February. “I have a bunch of friends I run and ride with, who are all pretty experienced at skinning. They have all of the fancy lightweight gear, so when they asked if I wanted to do it, I knew I was in for a rough day. My setup isn’t meant for racing, it looks more like everyday resort skis. With my fitness from mountain biking I was able to get to the top of the first hill mid-pack, but was so slow with the transition to downhill mode that I’m pretty sure I came in last. It was such a fun night though, and I really enjoyed the vibe. I learned a lot and was humbled, but I loved it.” Learn More

And if you want to take your racing to the next level, the COSMIC series is all about competitive ski mountaineering racing in the Rocky Mountains and beyond. Each race is designed for all levels and features a variety of locations. Their goal is to challenge and bring out the best in everyone. Learn More

Keep the season going
Many ski resorts in Colorado lease their land from the U.S. Forest Service, which means that when the regular season of operation ends, anyone is permitted access to it, just like any other public land. So when spring hits and the lifts stop running, but there’s still plenty of snow on the mountains, having the equipment and the fitness to skin up really pays off.

If you decide to venture up the mountain outside of the resort season, or into the backcountry, always be aware of your environment and know the risks. Taking an avalanche class is smart for everyone. Talk to someone who has skied the area, pack the right equipment, and avoid going out alone. Visit the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education for more information and snow safety.

Ryan Petry skiing