Skiing That’s Skin Deep

Skinning is a sticky subject. Often it puts skinners and ski areas in different camps. Uphillers like the exercise, convenience, challenge and chance to break in new gear on ski area trails.

At the same time, profit-seeking operators are concerned about safety, grooming and snowmaking operations, the mixing of downhill and uphill traffic and liability.

Some areas outright ban it, others allow it with restrictions while there’s also something of a don’t ask/don’t tell underground.

But a few recent developments are showing some progressive ideas to freeheeling it up the mountain.

A few months ago, the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association (www.ussma.org) started posting uphill policy of ski areas across the country on its website, according to director Pete Swenson who grew up in North Conway, N.H., and now lives in Colorado.

“This is something we always talked about it, but now there is this crowd that likes to skin when they go on vacation,” he said. “It made sense.”

Included on the website are policies from areas like Wildcat, Waterville Valley, Loon, Burke, Mad River Glen and Magic.

Wildcat’s policy is also fairly easy to find on its website. Uphillers are allowed on a designated route during winter operating hours as long as they are a season pass holder, purchase a daily lift ticket or a $10 uphill ticket.

Wildcat’s Thomas Prindle says the uphill pass may be of interest to skiers planning to head down the Wildcat Valley Trail and they’ve purchased their Jackson Ski Touring Foundation Wildcat Valley Trail ticket. Wildcat operates on a land-use permit through the U.S. Forest Service

Last month, Mount Snow in southern Vermont and Sugarloaf in western Maine tweaked their policies, while Jay Peak in northern Vermont is working on a designated uphill route map.

Mount Snow, on USFS and private land, unveiled various passes for skinning, hiking and snowshoeing from dawn to dusk in winter. There’s a $10 uphill day pass, $49 uphill travel season pass and free endorsement for those with a regular season pass.

“With the new popularity of uphill travel via skinning and snowshoeing with the goal of skiing or snowboarding down, it was decided that for safety and education purposes that we treat both the same regardless of whether they are going to ski/snowboard or snowshoe back down,” said communications director Dave Meeker.

Sugarloaf, with its expanding sidecountry offerings, started making its policy more visible on its website and recently started selling a $10 uphill ticket.

The Loaf directs uphillers to designated routes and asks they don’t ski down until the mountain opens at 8:30 a.m. Skinners must be visible at all times and are not permitted to stay overnight on the mountain.

“This speaks to our core skiers,” said spokesman Ethan Austin. “We are a skier’s mountain. People come to ski and be outside. We attract kind of a more rugged type and want to encourage that.”

Jay Peak is currently developing a policy.

“Safety is our biggest focus, “ says JJ Toland.

Skinners are often on the mountain in darkness while groomers are using winch cats that have long cables to allowing them to essentially rappel themselves down. The cables are tough to see.

Magic Mountain in Londonderry, Vt. has its “Earn Your Turns” program and embraces uphillers around the clock while Mad River Glen only allows skinning when its lifts are not operating.

Burke Mountain asks skinners not to do it when the lifts are running, and recommends against it when lifts are closed. However, they post a number of safety tips on their web site that go a long way to safe skinning.

People are asked to avoid travels with active snowmaking or grooming and stay away from recently groomed runs.

Be sure to wear bright and reflective clothing, and a bright light at night (like a headlamp and/or flashing lights). Never ski or ride over snowmaking hoses. Don’t venture into closed terrain, including terrain parks.

Also, don’t expect ski area employees to be there for you during an emergency.

Showing respect for the mountain and those who work there go a long way for the tight uphill community of skinners.

Perusing a ski area’s policy online and checking in with ski patrol or guest services can help avoid confusion before taking those strides up the hill.

Syndicated columnist Marty Basch can be reached through www.onetankaway.com.