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More skiers are earning their turns … inside the gates

There's a blitz of uphill skiing in the backcountry, but an increasing number of athletes are also choosing to earn their turns inside the gates.

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It’s an hour before dawn and dozens of headlights bob in clouds of steamy breath.

There’s a quiet schuss of skins on snow. Heavy panting is interrupted by the rhythmic clicking of ski-boot heels tapping skis. Lycra-clad uber-athletes stomp upward in slipper-like boots, chatting as if they were strolling a beach. Snowboarders waddle in splitboards. Powder dudes with way-too-wide skis for the groomed run they are climbing fill a sort of middle ground.

It’s a typical morning at Breckenridge ski area, where several dozen uphill skiers gather nearly every day for pre-dawn workouts, climbing the resort’s immaculately groomed runs before the lifts turn.

It’s a scene that’s spreading across the country. Uphill traffic is growing and resorts are scrambling to address the sudden deluge of skinning skiers stomping uphill. Colorado resorts, nearly every one with some sort of formal uphill policy, are leading the nation. Resorts in Utah and California are rethinking outright bans or non-existent regulation as those few core fellows who always skinned on Saturdays turns into a daily horde equipped with the latest alpine-touring boots and technical bindings.

Pete Swenson, whose Cosmic ski mountaineering race series is now in its eighth year in Colorado, said it’s just a matter of time before all resorts begin to embrace uphill skiing and develop specific policies.

“Some ski areas are still trying to understand this, but it is an amenity and it can drive revenue,” said Swenson, whose first race of the 2013-14 season at Wolf Creek ski area saw attendee numbers climb from 17 in 2012 to 59 in November. “The number of vacationers who are going for little runs in the morning before they go alpine skiing is growing. People will soon start picking one ski area over another based on their skinning experience. I think offering uphill trails is no different than having a halfpipe.”

California’s Sugar Bowl this season adopted a program that requires uphill travelers to watch a video and learn about the ski area’s trail closures, winch-grooming operations and recommended uphill routes. Climbing skiers must get a free uphill pass and wear an armband so resort workers can identify them. The program evolved after Sugar Bowl began seeing a deluge of skinning skiers, especially in the early morning and after dark.

“This isn’t about revenue. It’s about safety,” said Sugar Bowl spokesman John Monson, noting how the resort’s open boundary policy spurred increased traffic beyond the ropes and led to the creation of a backcountry adventure center for out-of-bounds newcomers.

The Forest Service, which counts 121 of the nation’s ski areas as tenants on public land, in October 2013 released potential rules that allow ski areas to charge users for non-motorized use of Forest Service lands used by resorts. The potential directive allows local land managers some room to approve ski area user fees for winter hiking. The ski area can’t charge visitors for entrance to the public lands, but if those visitors use facilities or groomed trails or even manmade snow, resorts can charge a small fee.

“The need for uphill policy came as a result of increased uphill use across the board and from some circumstances in New England, where natural snowfall was low and uphillers were flocking to ski areas with manmade snow as a result,” said Geraldine Link, public policy director at the National Ski Areas Association, which worked with the Forest Service in crafting the uphill guidance. “The agency issued guidance to the field in New England due to conflicts that developed between uphill and downhill traffic.”

Those conflicts worry resort operators. Brighton Ski Resort — one of the few ski areas in Utah that tolerates uphill traffic — is crafting an uphill policy for this season after early season issues involving uphill skiers clogging downhill runs.

“Sometimes you are skiing down a run and there are people in the middle of the trail and … it goes against the skier responsibility code,” said Brighton spokesman Jared Winkler. “Other resorts have made a policy that doesn’t allow any uphill. We realize now that we need to come up with some rules. It’s always been a gray area, but now so many people are skinning up, we need to regulate it. We are trying to come up with a plan to educate them on how to do it more successfully.”

Brighton and Snowbasin in Utah are both crafting uphill policies. Many of the other resorts in Utah prohibit uphill travel, like Canyons, Deer Valley, Wolf Mountain, Alta and Solitude. Other resorts, like Park City and Brian Head, have no official policy.

“Most of our resorts don’t allow it, almost exclusively because of safety issues. Really it hasn’t been an issue. We are not hearing much about uphill from our members,” said Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty.

Out East, uphill traffic is surging and, like in Utah and California, resorts have a patchwork of policies. Some, like Okemo, Mount Snow and Magic Mountain in Vermont, allow uphill skiing and snowshoeing on designated trails. Others, like Bolton and Mad River Glen, do not allow skinning when lifts are turning.

“Uphill has place but it does fit better in some environments than others,” Swenson said. “That’s why resorts have slightly different policies. I think it’s fantastic that some resorts are charging. That means it’s real. My hope is that some day we will have our own trails, maybe winding up through the woods.”

All resort uphill travel policies designate and recommend routes for uphill travel, suggest reflective clothing, require headlights on skiers and dogs during early and late hours and generally warn skiers about grooming machines and resort operations. Some Colorado ski areas take a more laissez faire approach, adding new disclaimers every season as the numbers of uphill travelers — and potential issues — climb.

“We’ve had a written policy about uphill access since 2008, but it’s essentially a carry-over from what the unwritten policy had been for years and years,” said Steven Hurlbert at Winter Park. “We’ve seen a huge spike in skinners the last two or three seasons that has been concurrent to a similar spike in backcountry skiing on [nearby] Berthoud Pass.”

That increase in backcountry traffic is reflected at ski shop cash registers. Retailers report sales of alpine touring boots (with walk modes and rubber soles) doubled since 2012-13 and sales of climbing skins are up 10 percent, according to SnowSports Industries America research.

Uphill policies are, in part, fueling the uptick in sales, said Kim Miller, chief executive of Scarpa USA.

Those sales spur technological advancements, like lightweight touring boots capable of downhill charging, and technical yet burly bindings like Dynafit’s. Those advancements grow participation even more. It’s a glorious circle for manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike.

“A lot of people are getting kind of bored with skiing and riding on the hill and they want to do something new. That’s the adventure part that drives our sport. That push fuels innovation which turbocharges participation,” Miller said.

And resorts are the testing lab, a sort of backcountry bunny slope, for newbie skiers venturing into the intimidating and sometimes dangerous world beyond resort boundaries.

“I see a lot of analogies from when sport climbing exploded onto the scene. That started in climbing gyms, a relatively safe environment that enabled people to develop basic skills,” Miller said.

As resorts embrace uphill travel, skiers will buy more gear and companies will develop even better tools for traveling across snow, Miller said.

First those resorts need to gauge the safety of allowing skiers to climb runs in the dark and during operating hours. All the policies will differ, but it’s an important step.

“This is what customers want. They can think it through and make it a good, safe experience,” Miller said. “I have two boys who spend a lot of time in the terrain park. If resorts can figure out how to make those parks, quote, safe, they can figure out how to make uphill safe.”

–Jason Blevins