I am an expatriate flatlander in northern Vermont. This is probably immediately obvious from my non-crunchy hair, my propensity to drive like a maniac, and my lack of enthusiasm for social events involving the Stone Hut on Mount Mansfield. So it should come as no surprise that when we first moved up here 10 years ago, I was shocked to learn that some people actually hike UP the mountain to ski down. Why would anyone do that? I wondered. I mean, what is the point when you have the lift right there?
Ten years later, I have a slightly different perspective. I freaking love the mountains and spend as much time as I can there. I run and mountain bike up them in the spring, summer and fall. I’ve loved alpine skiing and I’ve kind of gotten the hang of it. But I have become rather particular. I don’t enjoy weekend craziness, crowds, and long lift lines. I also am one who gets cold! Waiting in line and sitting on the lift in January and February and then blasting downhill in chilly wind just sends me straight into hypothermia. If I could just buy a half-season pass for March and April, that is what I would do.
But a girl can’t just hang out inside for 3 long months of winter–that is a recipe for cabin fever and insanity. So getting outside from December through February involves finding activities that keep me warm! And I can thank Mark, as well as Luke at AJ’s in Stowe, for setting me up with a skins package as an anniversary present 4 years ago. Otherwise, I might never have come up with the idea myself.
For my fellow flatlanders who have no idea what I’m talking about, skins are an adhesive covering that you can put on the bottoms of your skis that have some friction to keep you from sliding back down the mountain. They enable you to hike uphill, and when you get to the top you can remove them to ski downhill. They start around $80 a pair and can go up to $200 a pair or probably more, depending on where you’re climbing and what you need. Their shelf life tends to be a couple of years, although I imagine this varies based on how much skinning you do as well as how you care for them. Some other things that you will need include all-terrain bindings on your skis, which allow you to free your heels for mobility while skinning up the mountain and then lock them down (if you choose to do so) for skiing down. You need ski poles—I have an adjustable set which allow me to lengthen them for skinning up and shorten them for skiing down, which is a nice feature. One who is truly committed to skinning can purchase hinged ski boots that actually have ankle mobility and make the whole experience easier and more comfortable, but it makes sense to try out the sport a few times to see if you like it before making that kind of investment. Shout out to hardcore skier friend JA who told me early on that keeping my top two buckles of my alpine ski boots unbuckled makes the climbing experience easier and more comfortable. I’m truly not sure that I would have figured that out on my own.
Some other things a beginner skinner will need: Either an experienced friend who can show or tell you some safe off-piste trails to try where you won’t get lost or killed by an avalanche; or an alarm clock, because an important thing to know is that you just can’t strap on your gear and charge uphill into oncoming downhill ski traffic. Skinning during the hours of lift operation is unsafe and is not permitted in Stowe, and probably not anywhere (if it is then you wouldn’t want to ski there). So your choices are to skin when the mountain is closed but there is still snow on the trails, take some backcountry trails, or skin early in the morning or at night, when the lifts are not operating.
If you are in the Stowe area and want to skin up Mt. Mansfield or Spruce Peak, you should know that the resort has implemented an uphill program and that there are rules now regarding hours and trails designated for skinning. People love to grump and groan about the restrictions, which have in some ways turned skinning up there into less of an adventure and more of just a workout. But the goals of the program are for everyone to safely enjoy the mountains and to allow the amazing snow groomers and mountain personnel to safely perform their jobs, and the uphill program is doing a great job of meeting these goals. For information on which trails are available for uphilling and the hours during which they are accessible, you can call the Stowe Trails Hotline at (802) 253-3690. The hotline is updated daily.
You will need some additional equipment for your skinning workout. You’ll need a backpack. If skinning in the dark, you will need a headlamp, for your vision and even more importantly, for your safety, so you can be seen by mountain vehicles and descending skinners who got up earlier than you. I recommend carrying an extra jacket and an extra pair of gloves (you will be soaked by the time you get to the top); a helmet, unless you’re already wearing it; a phone; water, and maybe something like a protein bar for a snack. Dress comfortably and in way more lightweight layers than you would for downhill skiing with lift service. I wear a lightweight base layer, ski pants and a lightweight jacket or sweatshirt and gloves, and a lightweight waterproof outer layer which frequently ends up tied around my waist. I pack my down ski jacket and warm gloves for the trip back down. The pack may feel heavy at first, but you will get used to it, and it just adds to the intensity of the workout and makes you stronger for it!
If you’re prone to blisters, consider duct taping or kinesiotaping your heels and ankles for blister protection. Silicone heel protectors also are available online. In my experience, however, they tend to roll up in socks and ski boots. Another useful thing to have is a pair of stretchy, knit gloves that you can wear when removing your skins and adjusting your gear at the end of your uphill ascent so your hands don’t freeze. Packing a set of hand warmers just in case is a good idea.
It takes a little practice getting used to muddling around with the gear. I recommend for your first trip that you not go up too far, especially if you’re by yourself, in case you have any trouble with locking down the bindings or managing any other components of the gear. You also do not want to get into a situation where you are so cold that your hands have trouble managing the gear or it’s hard to get your boots into your skis. My skinning threshold is 15 degrees or warmer. You may have better cold tolerance than I do, but when it’s 15 at the base, it’s frequently 5 degrees or colder at the top, which is very, very cold when you’re drenched with sweat, especially if the wind is blowing. The order of what you should do at the top is: 1) Put your dry, warm jacket on over everything; 2) put on your helmet; 3) remove your skis and lock the bindings; 4) remove the skins and put them away; 5) put on your warm, dry gloves; 6) put your skis back on and adjust your poles if necessary.
Because I am a morning person, and because my life frequently does not allow workouts to happen if they don’t occur early in the day, I am unafraid to get up at 4:30 or 5 am on a weekend to skin up early. Plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead. A lot of people talk about how they’re going to join me, but only three people have joined me in 4 seasons—my strongman husband Mark, awesome swimmer/Nordic skier girlfriend ST, and great guy friend CH. So if I don’t have anyone to chat with, I put in my ear buds, listen to music and enjoy the early morning cold air, the beautiful scenery and different view of the mountain—it is totally different going up versus going down—and working up a major sweat. I am addicted. I have time to think and breathe, and I feel no pressure to hold a pace or to keep up with anybody. I feel safe up there in the dark and cold by myself; the mountain now feels like a second home.
It took me several tries to actually stick it out all the way to the top during my first season, but I quickly built endurance and speed with practice, to the point where I won a skin to the top of the mountain for the women’s division my second season. And the following is the typical stream of consciousness that I experienced on every climb when I was just getting started:
- It’s cold. It’s windy. Is this safe? Should I even bother today? Maybe I should wait and go tomorrow. Well, I’m here with all my stuff, I’ll just go about 50 feet and if it’s too windy I’ll just go back down.
- Oh wait, it’s fine. That was just a gust of wind at the bottom. But I hope I dressed warmly enough.
- OK, already sweating. I need to take off some of this stuff.
- This is horrible. How does anyone enjoy this sport? I hate my husband for buying me this stuff!
- It’s actually quite nice out.
- AAAAAAHHHHH!!! Monster truck snow groomer!!
- Whew! I must be making some progress, it’s steep! Moving right along!
- Oh. There’s the midway lodge. I’m still at the base.
- Wow, it’s beautiful up here, how is it possible that I’m the only one up here? I rock.
- Ughhhhh, getting steeper. I am actually hot. I need to stop for a minute but—Eek!! I’ll slide backwards down the mountain!
- Oh wait a minute, I’m wearing skins. No I won’t.
- Good to keep going….hello, random mountain guy on a snowmobile.
- Oh. Right! I can make turns! Just like going downhill.
- Is that the Cliff Trail? I think it is. No, actually I don’t think it is. It’s just some random trail. The Cliff Trail must be up just a little farther.
- Nope, I can see the top of Nosedive. That definitely was the Cliff Trail. I think—if I can just turn around and see, but I’ll slide down the mountain!
- Oh right, no I won’t, I’m wearing skins.
- Never mind! Forget the Cliff Trail! New plan. Just hike all the way up Nosedive.
- Oh my gosh! I’m at the top. That was fast!
- No, it’s just the top of a turn. Keep going.
- Hey look! Another skinner left some tracks! Someone was up here before me? How is that possible? Well, I’m hopping in those and doing a little less work for the last part of the climb…
- Oh my gosh. Holy smokes. That’s the top of the quad. I’m almost there.
- I’m here. I can’t believe I made it. Check out the sunrise. This sport is amazing! How is it that no one else is up here? I love my husband for buying me this stuff!
- Should I take a selfie and post it on Facebook?
- Forget it. I’m not that kind of girl and anyway, now I’m freezing! Going to throw on the warm jacket, crush the 1st tracks, and do it again tomorrow!
–Kathleen Doehla, M.S. P.T.