Your alarm starts buzzing, and you groggily reach over to your nightstand, blindly tapping your phone until it turns off. It’s 5:00 in the morning and aside from the cool blue glow of the screen, everything—including the sky outside—is black.
But then you remember why you’re awake, and the voice inside your head urging you back into your warm bed stills, as you’re filled with a rush of adventure fueled anticipation. You brush your teeth, pull on your base layers, socks, and snow pants. You head to the kitchen, scoop coffee into the machine and press the on switch.
While the coffee’s brewing, you pack up: Camelbak full of warm water (so it will last longer before freezing), clean shirt, down coat, thick gloves, granola bar, and goggles. You buckle your helmet to the strap, pour coffee into a thermos, and slide your skis into the trunk of your car. Pressing your ignition, you fire up your Spotify and take a sip of coffee, getting into the groove as you cruise towards the mountain.
Minutes later, scattered headlights greet you in the Mansfield parking lot, gleaming like beacons. The clock glows 5:30 on the dashboard, and the temperature is brutal: one degree—but with the howling wind and lack of sun it’ll feel at least 15 degrees colder. You pull on your touring boots (lightweight ski boots that hinge at the ankle), followed
by thin gloves, a hat, and a shell. For one minute longer, you procrastinate turning off the engine and blast the heat.
Finally, you pull the trigger. You grab your skis, slip on your pack, and book it to the base of the Nosedive trail, mentally steeling yourself against the fierce conditions— which you’re under-dressed for because within 10 minutes you’re going to be dripping with sweat.
You gather with your tribe, fellow thrill seekers who know that braving this harsh weather will be worth it in the end. You click on your skis, which are equipped with special bindings that allow you to lift your heels when trekking uphill, and skins adhered to the bottom—long, sticky strips made of mohair or nylon with hairs or scales that grip the snow so you won’t slide backwards mid-ascent.
You start skinning, cursing your decision to get up before the birds and throw yourself into this swirling storm. Your legs hurt, you’re out of breath, inhaling the icy air feels like needles pricking your throat. But you fall into place behind the uphiller in front of you, following in their tracks.
Once you’re over the initial hump and start going up your first pitch, sweat beads under your hat and you get into a rhythm. You zone in on the sound of your skins gliding on the trail, like a metronome, a melody that drowns out your aching legs and lungs.
Sometimes you talk; mostly, you’re quiet. Sometimes you stop for a drink of water; mostly, the lines of your Camelbak have frozen. Sometimes one of you falls behind because snow has clumped to the bottom of a ski or a binding has popped off. Mostly, you stay together.
An hour after you started, you reach the top of the double. You duck into the ski patrol shack to warm up and quickly change into a dry shirt and down sweater, peel off your skins, and stash them in your pack. Someone always brings a thermos of coffee, and you each have a capful or two and a granola bar. You talk to each other about stuff that actually matters.
The sky has been progressing from obsidian to gray to rose the higher you go, and when you emerge from the shack 15 minutes later, the clean, bright sun finally surges from behind the summit. It hits the trees, the snow, the rocks, and everything suddenly pops like technicolor. You take a breath and marvel at what you just did.
You lock your bindings and boots into place and take off downhill, carving fresh tracks in the untouched snow. In the early dawn light, your shadows are 30 feet long and you feel so alive chasing them to the bottom of the hill.
You take the Over Easy gondola to Spruce Peak and walk into the Club, drop off your skis at the valet and step into a warm shower that feels like heaven. Still charged with adrenaline, your legs seem 20 years younger, and you bound up the stairs to the alpine clubhouse breakfast buffet. As you sit down to a hot meal with friends, you think to yourself, “Why don’t I do this every day?"
The Rise of Uphill Skiing
Skinning (also known as alpine touring, or AT) is when skiers climb up the mountain before descending—either taking a quick lap or two on groomed trails before the lifts open or after they close, or heading out an all-day backcountry expedition. The sport has taken off in Stowe, and at the Club at Spruce Peak. “We’ve been seeing 15- 20 percent growth in uphill customers for the past few years,” says Don Allen, owner of Mountain Ops Ski Shop in Stowe, which specializes in uphill and adventure gear.
The reasons are manifold. For one, downhill skiing has become increasingly effortless Thanks to all the technical advances in equipment, it barely feels like work anymore—the skis practically turn for you, steering you over moguls and in and out of trees. There are plenty of benefits to that added efficiency, but one drawback is that skiers aren’t getting the same workout they did 10 years ago.
Enter, skinning—intensely aerobic, yet low-impact (your knees will thank you!). Plus, unlike the gym, it ends with a bang: the huge reward of racing downhill, with fresh tracks as an added bonus.
Speaking of fresh tracks, the lure of untouched snow is another draw. “Stowe is getting busier, so people are looking for an alternative to avoid the crowds,” Allen says.
Then there’s the word of mouth effect. “People that are talking to friends who have had positive experiences and seeing other skiers embrace uphill,” Allen says. “I tell people, if you don’t like fresh air, exercise, or being with your best friends, you might not like skinning.”
Finally, new advancements in uphill ski equipment over the past decade have made the sport more accessible and enjoyable. “Now, I get to the top and instead of being totally cooked and exhausted, I have a smile on my face and have enough time and energy for a second lap,” Allen says.
Gearing Up to Ascend
Uphill skiing is an ancient practice—researchers found skis with sealskins attached to their undersides in Mantta, Finland, dating back to 542 AD. The sealskin was oriented so that the fur would lie flat and smooth when the skier moved forward, and create friction by grabbing onto the snow to prevent a backwards movement as the fur was pulled in the opposite direction of its natural fall.
Of course, in the 1500-plus years since, uphill equipment has developed in leaps and bounds. And although you can get ultra techy with your gear or keep things super simple, the basic premise remains the same.
“Ultimately, all people need is a skin for their skis and a frame binding for their alpine boots,” Allen says. A frame binding has the ability to release at the heel so that you can lift your heel with the binding attached, making it easier to trek uphill. You lock the boot and binding back into place before going down the mountain. Frame bindings are budget-conscious because you can use your existing skis and boots, but they’re heavy, which makes your climb more challenging.
If you’re an avid uphill skier and don’t mind spending more, you might consider tech bindings. “These little fittings in the toe and heel of a touring boot were introduced about 10 years ago, and they have been a game-changer,” Allen says. “Instead of lifting up the entire binding when you ski up the mountain, you can raise just the heel of your boot. They are up to 75 percent lighter than a frame binding and allow you to pivot your toe efficiently.” Boots with tech fittings are more pliable and have a hinge at the ankle, giving you a frictionless range of motion. Once you get to the summit, you lock your boot so it doesn’t hinge and flip
the heel of your binding to hold your boot into place.
“There is a spectrum of uphill skis, ranging from ultra lightweight, nimble skis made for racing up the mountain to super heavy bomber skis for ripping downhill, and a rainbow of options in between,” Allen says.
The benefits of uphill skiing aren’t just physical. Club at Spruce Peak members swear by the mental and emotional boost a morning climb gives them.
“It’s a personal conquest to reach the top and I feel super accomplished that I was there earlier than everyone else,” says Tad Davis, 41. “It gives me a sense of satisfaction and grit. After a morning of skinning, I am quicker and more decisive for the rest of the day.”
It also deepens your connections to family and friends. “One thing that’s great about skinning is that it’s a social sport,” says Barry Lyden, age 59. “Whether you go with a group of friends, your wife, or your kids, you’re climbing—and talking—for 30 to 90 minutes, compared to the eight minute long chairlift ride.”
Davis echoes that sense of camaraderie. “My friends and I have a text chain, and there’s lots of chatter the evening before a climb,” he says. “Skinning is almost like therapy—it gives me time to talk through personal issues and I try not to think about work. My friendships have definitely grown; I can’t think of another activity that gives you as good an opportunity to catch up and bond.”
“Guys tend to interact with each other by watching a football game or a band at Tap 25, hanging out, drinking beer, and eating onion rings,” Barry says. “Uphill is different. We spend two hours together getting a phenomenal workout and having quality conversations about our lives.”
Barry adds that skinning has had a positive impact on his bond with his wife Kelly, age 50. “Our relationship is always better the more time we spend together; we get off track when we’re living in parallel universes,” he says. “Whether we go just the two of us or with other couples, that time together is incredibly healthy to a marriage.”
The excitement of skinning enhances its resonance. “It is a shared experience that is so wonderful and different that it sticks with you all winter,” says Kelly, who occasionally skins with her teenagers. “A lot of the time my interactions with my kids are reminding them to clean their room, do their homework, get their backpack ready. Uphill skiing gives me a chance to just chat with them, encourage them, and have a loving, warm, unique time together. It offers so much more than racing down the mountain and saying, ‘Did you have a good run?’ Plus, they love being able to tell their school friends they did something really cool over the weekend.”
Bill Miller, age 48, and his family got into skinning after their ski instructor introduced them to the sport. “When I go up with my son Sean, we talk for awhile and then enjoy the quiet of each other’s company, taking in the beauty of it all without pulling out our phones,” he says. “Remembering the views, which look different every time; the wind howling; how cold you were—the snapshots are in my mind, I don’t need to take a lot of pictures. It is time together that I will cherish always.”
The thrill factor also appeals to those who are outdoor-oriented. “I am much happier getting my exercise in nature, and skinning is a release on winter days when there is no
outlet to get outside,” Kelly says. “After running on the treadmill at the gym, watching CNBC, I’ll feel physically fit—but it doesn’t do anything for my mind,” Barry says. “Skinning unclouds my head and I feel reenergized. I used to work on Wall Street and people ask me all the time if I miss the buzz. The adventure of skinning kind of replaces that excitement I used to have.”
On an introspective level, skinning is a soulful, meditative practice—plus you get a rare glimpse of the mountain at dawn. “We start off all talking and telling stories, but once you get through the first climb, everyone gets quiet and reflective,” Miller says. “The mountain is so pristine and peaceful, the animals are out and about— you’re watching the sunrise and enjoying the solitude with each other while you’re at one with nature. It’s almost a religious experience.
”Perhaps best of all? “Breakfast never tastes as good as after you’ve skinned up,” Miller adds.