My alarm goes off at 4:53 a.m. My first thought is incoherent. My second thought is that the temperature outside can’t be much higher than the hour. And my third thought is a profanity-laced version of “Dear Lord, why am I awake?”
Assuming I avoid the siren call of the snooze button and successfully ingest coffee, I’m on my way to Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) to ski uphill. No, “uphill skiing” is not an oxymoron of “jumbo prawn” ilk—rather, it’s a winter sport that puts the emphasis on the ascent as opposed to the descent. Unsurprisingly, uphill skiing is gaining popularity among the athletic masochists that make up a bulk of Colorado’s population. According to CBMR, approximately 75 people ski uphill at the resort every day, many of them before work. Today, I’ll be one of them. Reluctantly.
Let’s get something straight: I’m no couch potato. Nor am I a stranger to skiing uphill. I’ve been doing it for years, but I’ve only ever skied uphill in the backcountry: untouched snow and unmanaged terrain outside of ski area boundaries. I’ve never skied uphill at a ski resort, frankly, because I’ve never understood the point. Why wake up early to slog up a mountain that possesses a perfectly good chairlift—a chairlift that happens to crank in tune with your circadian rhythm?
Despite these doubts, I untangle myself from my comforter’s clutches and meet my buddy Mav at the base of the Red Lady Chairlift, the starting point for most uphill adventures at CBMR. During operating hours (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.), uphill skiers are limited to an approximately 1,000-foot vertical trail called the Daytime Uphill Route, which meanders from the base to the Umbrella Bar all the way to the top of Red Lady. It’s not uncommon for Colorado ski resorts to allow uphill skiers limited access before or after the lifts run. However, some forward-thinking resorts now are encouraging uphill skiing during the day.
Monarch Mountain, for instance, has allowed uphill travel outside of operating hours for years, but 2016-17 is the first year the family-oriented resort is opening their doors to uphill skiers around the clock. Monarch launched three daytime uphill routes, the highest of which offers 1,062-feet of elevation gain. “The growth in this market as a whole, and interest from our current client base, is what pushed us to move forward with this new policy,” says Scott Pressly, Monarch’s vice president of mountain operations. “So far, we think it’s successful. I see people skinning up just about every day.”
While I personally would prefer sleeping in and giving either Crested Butte or Monarch’s daytime routes a shot, Mav is a working stiff. So we forsake sleep in order to take advantage of CBMR’s uphill policy, which includes access to multiple groomed trails outside of operating hours.
By the light of our headlamps, we skin up toward the backside of the mountain, gripping the freshly groomed snow thanks to sticky “skins” attached to the bottom of our skis. (See “Gear Breakdown.”) Snowcat headlights are visible in the distance as the machines lumber through their morning rounds.
“These stars are insane,” I mutter between ragged breaths. My muscles protest—they aren’t yet accustomed to the repetitive motion: step, kick, glide. “I can’t even see the moon.”
Mav has a much more efficient pair of skis—he’s on a lightweight alpine touring (AT) setup while I’m on a splitboard. He’s also in much better shape than I am. He skins up Crested Butte as many as seven times a week, often with a 45-pound pack. Both masochist and mountaineer, he skis uphill in order to train for climbing objectives. In a few days, he’ll be heading to Argentina to scale Aconcagua, at 22,841 feet the highest mountain in both North and South America.
“It’s like a nuclear fallout zone,” Mav says, gesturing with his ski pole at the dormant chairlifts, the sea of stars overhead, and the town of Crested Butte glimmering in the darkness below. “It’s such a familiar place, but in the darkness, with no one around, it feels odd.”
When skinning in the backcountry, early mornings possess a sense of belonging, every step and breath part of a fluent conversation with nature. But at the resort, traipsing across open swaths of mechanically manicured corduroy, I can’t help but think that we’re out of place, almost mischievously so. “There’s a part of me that’s really happy to ruin the groomers with our tracks,” Mav says, reading my mind. I wheeze in agreement. It’s like we’re getting away with something.
We arrive at the summit of the Paradise Express lift as the sun blankets the West Elk Range in frosty pink. Mav quickly rips his skins off his skis, and waits patiently as I transform my skis into a snowboard. “This didn’t suck nearly as much as I thought it would,” I say, gazing out at the sunrise. Mav grunts in approval.
Zooming back down the mountain at around 7:00 a.m., freezing wind lashing our flushed faces, Mav and I pass a dozen or so skiers tromping upward. Some have wide skis, wide grins and are followed by mountain dogs in down jackets. Others are dressed in spandex, and sport skis as thin as their pursed lips. One or two are on splitboards. I wave at all of them.
A few days later, as Mav is en route to South America, I wake up early to pounding snow and a high avalanche warning. The backcountry is off limits today—plus, I don’t have a partner. I go through the winter ritual: Make coffee, gather gear, scrape the windshield, dig the car out, drive to the base of CBMR. I strap into my skis, breaking trail in the gray of dawn.
This time, I’m alone. This time, there’s fresh powder. And this time, there’s no reluctance. At the summit, I assemble my splitboard, savoring the sacred moment of transition—what goes up must come down. I could be sleeping, but instead, I’m on top of this eerie mountain, solitude amplified by walls of swirling snow. I hear Mav’s voice in my head: It’s like a nuclear fallout zone. I strap into my splitboard, take a breath and drop into the storm. I make one turn, then another. There’s a smile beneath my frozen balaclava. Thoughts of the snooze button are the furthest thing from my mind—my heart is pumping fast, and I’m beyond awake.
What is Uphill Skiing?
Here are five reasons to uphill at a resort.
Safety: You don’t need to worry about avalanches, as long as you stick to designated trails. That means no need to purchase or carry expensive avalanche equipment. (If you’re eager to take your uphill skills into the backcountry, it’s essential that you first take an avalanche safety course and learn how to use basic avalanche gear, including beacon, shovel and probe.)
Solitude: You can enjoy uphill skiing without a partner, unlike in the backcountry. Plus, you’re ditching the crowds and lines that can make resort skiing stressful.
Fitness: Uphill skiing is an excellent cardio builder that sure beats the elliptical trainer at your gym. It’s also great training for bigger backcountry days.
Scenery: From sunrise over the snow-cloaked aspen groves at Crested Butte to sunsets over the Continental Divide from Monarch Mountain, the extended-hours panoramas available to uphillers are world-class.
Savings: You don’t have to earn a lot of bucks to earn your turns. Uphill passes and access are free at many resorts, including Arapahoe Basin, Aspen, Loveland, Vail and Winter Park. Others charge nominal fees like Monarch’s $25 uphill season ticket.