Skiing: The Uphill Pursuit

uphill travel
photo courtesy Cora Lubchenco

by John Perkins

We love to earn our turns and make new tracks, whether it’s in the solitude of the backcountry or the safety of the resorts.  In the Roaring Fork Valley, we are fortunate to have so many opportunities to travel uphill and ski down on some stellar terrain.  Though the snow gods are holding out on us this year, we still highly encourage giving the whole alpine touring (AT)/ski randonnee tradition a shot.  There’s nothing quite like enduring a brutal skin up to enjoy stunning views and some fresh turns back down.  Something about the uphill effort makes the ski down that much sweeter.  It’s like honey in your tea.  Or a roaring fire after a long days work outside.  If you’re tired of lift lines or just want to try something new and get some cardio exercise, then check out the AT and randonnee world.  We’ve compiled some resources for you to get out there.  Check them out below and feel free to leave any comments with additional areas/suggestions.

The gear:

1)  Skis.  Any ski will do.  They make them lighter than you can imagine nowadays, but if you still want to rip it on the downhill, stick with the fatter all mountain skis. We like ’em ~100mm underfoot.

2)  Skins.  These will help ya go up.  It’s tough to find used skins, but they don’t have to fit perfectly.  If you do buy new skins from Black Diamond, here’s a how-to video (fitting skins)

3)  Alpine Touring (or telemark) bindings.  There’s quite the spectrum here, but basically it comes down to weight and performance.  Dynafit tech bindings are super light-weight, but also expensive, whereas Marker and Diamir both make aggressive, mid-range AT bindings that perform solidly on the downhill.  If you go the telemark route (arguably more noble) then look for a binding with a touring mode and climbing wires.  The Black Diamond O1 binding is a stalwart in this field.

4)  AT Boots.  These are not absolutely necessary, but oh boy do they make a difference.  AT boots are unique in that they offer both a walk and ski mode, as well as a more comfortable fit for those long touring days.  These boots come in all shapes and sizes, so be selective.  Boots are always the most important part of a ski setup.

5)  If you’re heading into the backcountry, an avalanche beacon (3 antenna at a minimum), probe, and shovel are a must.  We should include a certified avalanche safety class on this list, but sometimes learning with an experienced backcountry traveler is the way to go. Colorado Mountain College, 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, and Aspen Expeditions all offer AIARE Level 1 avalanche safety courses.

Lou Dawson’s Wild Snow blog offers a plethora of information and resources about choosing the right setup.  In the winter season, we have a variety of AT and telemark options in the shop, including boots and full setups.  Skins are harder to find used.

Uphill travel at the resorts:

The resorts in our valley are awesome about uphill travel, so long as you follow the guidelines.  Sunlight Mountain Resort asks that you obtain a free uphill pass and follow designated routes (they have an awesome warming hut up top that is open 24/7).  Buttermilk and Snowmass both have little to no rules, whereas Aspen Highlands has designated routes and Ajax prohibits uphill travel during open lift hours.  If you’re just starting out, following the Tiehack lift up Buttermilk is the way to go.

In the future, we may see more organized guidelines and rules regarding uphill travel.  Steamboat has just started requiring a waiver/uphill travel arm band, and Crested Butte is considering more stringent uphill procedures.

The Backcountry:

If you’re prepared to go into the backcountry, there are endless opportunities in the valley.  William’s Peak  just past Sunlight Mountain Resort is a great mellow backcountry spot.  The snow stays fresh, there is almost zero avy danger, and it’s really the only possible dawn patrol area around.

The huts.  We can’t say enough good things about the huts.  They are rad.  In the valley, we have access to numerous 10th Mountain Divison and Braun Huts around Aspen.  We closed the shop for a couple of days in mid-January to visit the Lindley Hut in the Braun Hut System.  It was a blast.  Reservations fill up fast, so get on it.  Visit the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association website for more details.  Lou Dawson’s Hutski blog site offers a wide range of advice and suggestions about every hut around.

Marble and McClure Pass both offer advanced backcountry terrain, but be wary this season.  Our base layer is super weak, and a big snowfall will create some ripe avalanche conditions in this area.

If you’d like more information, stop by the shop.  We’d love to help you get into this rapidly growing side-sport of the skiing world.

Written by Jenny