Skiing Up the Hill
Ski mountaineers ski up mountains to ski down.
For many it is the perfect blend of skiing skills. Climb, or skin, up the mountain on free-heel skis, then let gravity do its thing after clamping down the heels in a special binding.
Call it ski mountaineering, randonnée or Alpine touring, it's all about huffing uphill before zooming downhill. Free-heeling skiers have long taken to the state's famous backcountry haunts in the White Mountains like Mount Washington's Tuckerman Ravine.
But the sport is undergoing a metamorphosis. According to the New York Times, randonnée (the French term for ski touring) competitions became popular in Europe in the 1990s, with the first world championship held in France in 2002
Now European races consume much of the snow season, from local events to trying competitions like Switzerland's Patrouille des Glaciers held every two years where thousands of skiers climb some 13,000 vertical feet over a 33-mile course.
In the United States there's a growth spurt in the West, home to North Conway-raised U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association Director Pete Swenson. Not only can skiers practice their craft in the backcountry but also at select ski resorts.
The discipline is starting to pick up with New England races, including several in New Hampshire, but skinning up at Granite State ski resorts is largely stiff-armed. Vermont's Magic Mountain embraces it.
Swenson says it's a cultural thing.
"In the East it's not so common yet," he says. "Ski areas haven't seen it and unfortunately don't allow it. In this sense skinning is just like snowboarding; at first it was 'outlawed' but then ski areas understood it's just another way of sliding on snow and generating income."
Editor's Note: Though this story was originally published in January 2012, the events below have been updated for 2014.
Try it at uphill-downhill events like the early morning Winter Wild series (run or snowshoe, too) before the lifts open at Ragged Mountain (Feb.1), Pat's Peak (Feb. 15), Mount Sunapee (March 1), Black Mountain (March 8) and Bretton Woods (March 15). North Conway's Cranmore hosts the EMS Randonee Night Tour 17th annual Hannes Schneider Meister Cup Race on March 7. Swenson says ski mountaineering is as healthy as Nordic skiing or any similar vigorous aerobic activity.
Pete Swenson's skiing roots trace back to North Conway where he was raised. The three-time U.S. ski mountaineering champion is now the U. S. Ski Mountaineering Association director. Living in Colorado, Swenson, 44, often visits family in New Hampshire and last season led a ski tour up Cranmore Mountain during the Hannes Schneider Meister Cup weekend.
Skiing up a mountain sounds hard - is it? It's only as hard as you make it. A nice route with friends is pretty easy if you're not in a hurry.
How is ski mountaineering/randonée different from other disciplines? Ski Mountaineering is a combination of Nordic, Alpine/telemark skiing and climbing: skinning up is very similar to Nordic skiing and skiing down either telemark or AT (Alpine Touring) style isn't any different (except hopefully your skiing powder). And sometimes getting to the top of a peak means putting skis on a pack if there's a section that is windswept or doesn't hold snow.
I'm not sure if I want to do this recreationally or competitively. How do I choose and where do I start? Most people come to it as pure recreation; there's no better ski experience than skinning around the woods, up a mountain and skiing down. Good snow, food and some friends and you have a perfect day of touring. People that have a Nordic or aerobic background and want to skin and ski faster will gravitate towards ski mountaineering racing.
What gear do I need? Skins, skis and boots: I recommend renting for the first trip to figure out what the gear's all about. Telemark skiers should make sure to rent/buy "free-pivot" telemark bindings. If you're an Alpine skier you'll want to invest in AT boots/bindings and skis. For touring/skinning, AT gear is more efficient than telemark gear but it all depends on what kind of turn you want to make on the way down. It's all skiing whatever you choose.
What exactly is a climbing skin? Climbing skins are made of mohair (goat hair) or nylon, or a combination of the two. The non-hairy side has glue on it that sticks the skins on the skis. The hairy side only slides one way and grips the other, which allows us to skin up a hill. A climbing skin allows us to skin up the hill. We peel the skins off at the top and ski down.
Might it catch on at New Hampshire ski areas? Having grown up in North Conway I look forward to skinning catching on at ski areas in New Hampshire. It could also revive some smaller ski areas with a whole new crowd of skiers that want to skin up in the woods. There'll be some fantastic winding skin tracks up through the woods on the sides of ski areas that'll dump out on the top. Similar to the mountain bike trails ski areas build in the summer; a few maintained skin tracks and [we] can see the activity become quite popular. Like a terrain park, half pipe or Nordic trails, it's another amenity ski areas will start to offer skiers and make money on.
The lightweight Dynafit Manaslu Ski ($699) can handle a variety of terrain and conditions from the steeps to New England powda-on-chowdah.
Grippy G3 Alpinists ($144.95) climbing skins will help you get to the top.
Atomic's Renu Tracker 100 is a ski touring boot ($499) with support for the skin up and slide down.