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Aspen: Uphill Nation

By Curtis Wackerle | November 21, 2019 | Lifestyle

Forget chairlifts. In Aspen it’s all about the ascent.


Tim Kurnos on Independence Pass with his dog Goose. Resort uphilling has introduced a practice that was previously the sole domain of backcountry skiers to a wider population of winter sports enthusiasts.

Flash back to early season 2017. Opening day on Aspen Mountain was fast approaching, but there had been little snow. It got cold enough just in time for crews to produce enough man-made to cover the Little Nell and Spar Gulch runs so lifts could spin on Thanksgiving weekend.

Not the most memorable start, but some of the best vibes to be found in the valley at the time were before sunrise, skinning up the only solid strip of snow locally available. On any given winter morning, uphill enthusiasts are skinning up Ajax, but with so few options for making turns, earned or otherwise, skiers came out in droves at the beginning of that winter, recalls the Aspen Skiing Company’s Rich Burkley.

And that has to make a man who has dedicated his professional career to winter sports happy. It speaks to a cultural piece that helps explain why SkiCo has embraced the uphill mountaineering culture, even when it potentially competes with the lift-served-skiing business (there is no charge for access to a ski slope if you forgo the lifts). In an industry where, according to the National Ski Areas Association’s 2018-19 survey, 40% of responding ski area operators forbid uphilling on their resorts, SkiCo permits the community to head up the ski runs under their own power on designated routes, if that’s what you’re into.

“What does it give us? An appreciation, the ability to experience skiing and a community. Culture and community—if you have those two things, I think that is a pretty powerful reward,” Burkley says.

The progressive uphill policy has evolved organically over the decades, explains Burkley, who started with the company in 1989 and was vice president of mountain operations from 2006 until 2017. (He is now vice president of strategy and business development.) Dating to the late ’80s, America’s Uphill on Aspen Mountain had been an annual affair and tapped into the backcountry culture where endurance and skiing ability meet. America’s Uphill is now one of what Burkley counts as seven uphill-themed events staged on Aspen resorts, each attracting hundreds of participants.

“We never set out to do this; it was never a stated plan,” he says. “It’s cultural, which gives it a fairly deep and consistent presence in the valley.”

Promoting and enhancing that culture has been City of Aspen policy since 2013, when then-Mayor Steve Skadron began touting uphill recreation as an economic driver. The city has hosted multiple conferences bringing together uphill recreation stakeholders and in April partnered with SkiCo to host an uphill-themed demo weekend at Buttermilk after the lifts closed.


A couple skinning up Tiehack to start the day

Another key factor has been the proliferation of alpine touring gear that has come to market. The original patent for the first Dynafit tech binding expired around 2005, ushering in the wave that has made uphilling gear among the fastest-growing sectors of the sports-equipment world.

For Burkley, uphilling can be a means to an end—assessing terrain in his official role or getting onto a backcountry ridge that offers a new perspective.

“I do think Highland Bowl, the culture of uphill, the Wall in Snowmass, we have this kind of philosophy that hiking is not to be avoided—it is to be embraced, and it gets you to some pretty good skiing,” Burkley says.

Uphillers will be welcome during operating hours, free of charge, on designated routes on Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass again in the 2019-20 season. Buttermilk will host Full Moon Dinners at the Cliffhouse that attract Aspenites en masse to skin up to the restaurant. Climbing crowds will flock to Aspen Mountain whenever there is a big storm before the season opens or after closing day, as well as every morning, as long as you can get up to the top of Spar before 9AM.

“It has reinvigorated the core of skiing culture and that is the winter sports culture,” Burkley says. “Were we lucky in the sense that, relatively speaking, ski mountaineering popularity coincided with our policies, coincided with our geography, coincided with our culture? Yeah—I’ll take luck as a business model any time.”


Photography by: Tim Kurnos photo by Steven Goff; uphillers photo by Matt Power