Stairway to heaven | SteamboatToday.com

Stairway to heaven

The growing trend of climbing on skis for one sweet downhill slide

— When Susie and Paxton Jones agreed to a Valentine's lunch date last month, counting calories wasn't a consideration.

By the time they had reached the dining room at Four Points Lodge high on Steamboat Ski Area, the Steamboat Springs couple had climbed almost 2,700 feet of vertical. Clipped to their lightweight boots were specialized Alpine touring skis fitted with climbing skins to keep them from slipping backward. It's safe to say the Jones had earned their lunch, along with the turns they would make back down the mountain.

Steamboat Ski Area rules

Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. permits uphill traffic with "limited restrictions" (closures) and also requires uphill skiers follow guidelines. They are intended to promote safety and minimize conflicts with snowmaking and grooming operations (including winch cat), snowmobile traffic and any other activities that might be taking place at any time on the mountain, day and night.

Ski Corp. has an uphill access pass system to educate users about the risks of uphill skiing and asks skiers and other to download the Uphill Access Pass Policy and User Guidelines. They ask users to read through the document and bring a signed copy into the Information Center in Gondola Square before heading uphill. They will be given a highly reflective armband to either wear or attach to a pack, serving as an uphill pass.

Guidelines include the following.

■ Respect all closures, warning signs and ropes, no matter the time of day or season.

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■ Avoid night skiing areas 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. (5 to 6 p.m. during spring hours) when snowcats are working in those areas.

■ Fat tire bikes are allowed but restricted to use outside of operating hours. Bikes are restricted to a list of cat-track type runs designated by green circles on the trail maps and signs.

■ Keep to the side of runs and remain visible from above at all times.

Complete guidelines are available at the ski area's website at steamboat.com.

But there's more to it than that.

Whether you refer to it as "uphill skiing" or "skinning," the trend, which is motivating people who mix aerobic exercise with skiing inside the boundaries of lift-served ski areas, is on its way to becoming an established part of American skiing.

"It's just fun. You get up there, you have an excuse to eat and one run down is plenty," Susie Jones said. "I'm a competitive cyclist, and (skinning) is a quick, easy way to do cross-training for other sports. For me, it's more fun to go up on the mountain in the snow, versus running or just going to the gym. And it's a real easy way to practice for the backcountry. We climb a lot of 14ers (14,000-foot mountains)."

Public-private partnership

In its 2014-15 end-of-season report, the National Ski Areas Association reported that, including the ski areas that operate on private as well as public lands, 43 percent of resorts allow uphill access, 51 percent prohibit it and another 6 percent don't have a policy on the practice. Of the resorts that do allow uphill skiing, 53 percent charge, according to NSAA.

However, among ski areas in the Rocky Mountain West that operate under a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, access to the upper mountain is the norm, but the terms can vary from ski area to ski area.

Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest Spokesman Aaron Voos said his agency wants to ensure there is some level of public access to the forest in general, which includes the "special use permit areas" many Western ski areas operate on.

Hahn's Peak Ranger District Snow Ranger Erica Dickerman said the Forest Service manages uphill access through the operating plan attached to a resort's permit that covers varied uses, such as sledding and snow bikes.

"What it boils down to is the Forest Services makes the ski area show us how they are going to provide for the health and safety of their guests," she said. "We want to make sure there are rules in place to manage risk."

However, the guidelines the Forest Service applies to uphill access are far from a case of one size fits all ski mountains, Dickerman said. Instead, the Forest Service tailors permits at ski areas to conditions on the ground, including the conformation of the base area terrain and activities such as snowmaking and avalanche control, as well as to the owner/operators' tolerance for risk.

Mount Crested Butte, for example, charges $10 per day for uphill use by skiers and fatbikers. The operating hours at Crested Butte are between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. only.

Steamboat Ski Area does not charge for uphill access and does not routinely limit the hours the sport can be practiced. However, it asks uphill skiers to register at the information office, sign a waiver and receive a reflective armband before setting out to climb the slopes at no charge, whether it's on snowshoes, skis or split snowboards. The armband serves as a way for ski patrol to know whether an uphill skier has received safety information, Dickerman said.

By the way, Steamboat President and COO Rob Perlman has been known to skin up the mountain after work.

Growing snow sports trend

Cathy Wiedemer, who oversees public relations for Moots Cycles in Steamboat, said she and her husband, Glen, are among an enthusiastic segment of local skinners who sometimes head up the mountain to enjoy the Thursday Sunset Happy Hour at the ski area, even though they have the option of riding the gondola.

Other times, they catch one of the last gondola rides of the day, with plans to ski to the top of Storm Peak and descend all of Steamboat's 3,668 vertical feet at twilight. Wiedemer is in it for the tranquility.

"Once, we went right before the full moon," she said. "The stars were just amazing. At night, it has a whole other element to it."

Kelly Davis, research director at the Ski Industries of America, which works on behalf of hard good and soft good manufacturers, said skinning is a growing trend, particularly in mountain towns.

"Many active members of the snow sports community are skinning up in the morning," she said. It's "like the yoga/Crossfit of the mountains."

Skinning is not only a local phenomenon. Visitors from the Front Range are beginning to blend some form of skinning into their weekend getaways.

Amy Thompson, who recently relocated from Aspen to Boulder, visited Strawberry Park Hot Springs on a Saturday in February and skied up the mountain Sunday.

Joe DiVito, who runs a construction business in Arvada, visited Steamboat last weekend and spent Sunday enjoying lift-served skiing. After returning to his family's condo at the Rockies, DiVito, who is a triathlete, persuaded a brother and brother-in-law to trek back up to the top of Thunderhead.

Local fitness instructor Sarah Coleman, who grew up in Steamboat on Alpine skis from the age of 2 and still carries a season pass to ride the lifts, enjoys skiing up Buffalo Pass as well as the ski area. She recalls her first foray into skinning as a mixture of wonder and suffering.

"My first skin was a full moon skin," she recalled. "It was simply magical with the light and no sounds and no people except for me and my friend with headlamps. But it was super hard and painful, and anyone who tells you different is lying."

Why ski uphill?

So, with high-speed chairlifts available to skiers at Steamboat, why would anyone work so hard for only one run?

Retired middle school teacher Matt Tredway is a dedicated skinner but also carries a season pass with him when he skins up the mountain.

"There's nothing better than a morning on Whiteout," he said. "I appreciate that those are groomed slopes and lift-served terrain."

Building contractor Chris Rhodes has a similar outlook. In addition to skinning up the mountain, he spends time on his split board — a snowboard that can be separated into wide skis for skinning up the mountain, then reconnected for the trip down.

Rhodes has been known to skin up the mountain before dawn to get first dibs on a deep powder day, then return to the mountain to ride the lifts and often make a side trip into Fish Creek Canyon.

Rhodes epitomizes the busy young Steamboat business owner and parent who rises early — 4:15 a.m. early — to skin up the mountain, where he can indulge his passion for powder while still putting family and career first.

He owns Soda Mountain Construction with his wife, Mara, and Rhodes says their three children, their business and his employees come before his recreation. But after that, it's about squeezing as much into life as possible.

"There's a fine line between being selfish and taking care of wife, kids and colleagues," he said. "But you've got to make yourself happy before you make others happy. At 4:15 a.m., my brain starts working. I say, 'rather than just lay there and drive yourself nuts, hit the floor.'"

On a snowy school day, Rhodes leaves the house at 4:45 a.m., parks his truck, clicks into his split board and often sets out straight up the See Me Trail with his friend Andrew Miller. From there, it's on to Heavenly Daze for the main climb. Rhodes typically reaches Thunderhead within 50 minutes.

If it's a special day in the depth of winter, he and Miller sometimes experience powder skiing in the dark.

"You can see where you're going, but the snow is like feathers, cold smoke. And when the snow blows over your (headlamp), it's kind of surreal going down in the dark getting face shots," Rhodes said.

About 75 minutes after setting out, Rhodes is back at his truck.

"My kids get on the school bus at 7:30 a.m., so I have to get back to the house by 6:30, because I make them breakfast, unload the dishwasher and get them on the bus without hurrying."

If might seem like a tight schedule, but for Rhodes, uphill skiing can mean the difference between a great day and a stressful day.

"When I don't go, I'm not as patient," Rhodes said. "I have people asking me questions throughout the day, and I'm dealing with problematic situations that would drive a lot of people nuts."

Somehow, climbing the ski area in the dark to watch the sun appear above the mountain and light up the still-sleeping town makes everything else manageable for Rhodes.

Tredway understands what Rhodes is talking about.

"There's something about the endorphins (you produce), when you ski a lap," he said. "Man, the rest of the day, lots of stuff can go wrong, but if you've got that under your belt, you can live with anything. Because, you know what? I've had a perfect day already, and nothing that happens is going to take that away from me."

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

Skinning by the numbers

■ Forty-three percent of resorts allow uphill access, including 6 percent on an unlimited basis and 37 percent on a limited basis — for example, limited to to proscribed routes and times of day, etc.

■ 51 percent of resorts prohibit uphill access, while 6 percent of resorts don’t have a formal policy on the trend.

■ Among resorts allowing uphill access, 53 percent require a paid ticket or pass for access, while 47 percent allow unpaid access.

Source: National Ski Areas Association 2014-2015 Kottke End of Season Report

Steamboat Ski Area rules

Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. permits uphill traffic with “limited restrictions” (closures) and also requires uphill skiers follow guidelines. They are intended to promote safety and minimize conflicts with snowmaking and grooming operations (including winch cat), snowmobile traffic and any other activities that might be taking place at any time on the mountain, day and night.

Ski Corp. has an uphill access pass system to educate users about the risks of uphill skiing and asks skiers and other to download the Uphill Access Pass Policy and User Guidelines. They ask users to read through the document and bring a signed copy into the Information Center in Gondola Square before heading uphill. They will be given a highly reflective armband to either wear or attach to a pack, serving as an uphill pass.

Guidelines include the following.

■ Respect all closures, warning signs and ropes, no matter the time of day or season.

■ Avoid night skiing areas 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. (5 to 6 p.m. during spring hours) when snowcats are working in those areas.

■ Fat tire bikes are allowed but restricted to use outside of operating hours. Bikes are restricted to a list of cat-track type runs designated by green circles on the trail maps and signs.

■ Keep to the side of runs and remain visible from above at all times.

Complete guidelines are available at the ski area’s website at steamboat.com.

Count me in

Pete Van De Carr said this month the uphill skiing revolution has transformed the compact shop — Backdoor Sports — on Yampa Street in downtown Steamboat. The shop has morphed from one that specialized in Telemark skiing equipment to one that now attracts mainstream Alpine skiers who are intrigued with the possibilities of hiking uphill on skis, then turning back for a long, rewarding downhill run.

It’s all been made more accessible by Alpine touring gear and, especially, the lightweight ski bindings that allow users to unlock their heels for better climbing ability on the way up, then lock them down for more control while carving turns on the way down.

“There’s such a wide range of Alpine touring equipment out there, and don’t forget split-boards (versatile snowboards that break down into two wide skis),” Van De Carr said.

A set of boots and skis cost $1,800 — about $900 each — before bindings are included, but Van De Carr has skis in the $400 range. And it’s still possible for skiers to re-purpose fat Telemark skis into AT gear.

There is featherlight equipment for people who want to compete in races such as Steamboat’s Cody’s Challenge, super wide skis for big powder days, rockered skis for all-mountain Alpine skiing and, of course, ski and boot combinations intended for the backcountry. There’s even viable options for Telemarkers who use the three-pin binding that was the standard in past decades.