Aspen’s most grueling competition, The Power of Four, is this weekend. Inside the appeal of skinning, one of Aspen’s oldest pastimes.
The top of the Tiehack uphill route, a welcome sight! Photo by Etta Meyer
A Bit of History
Even as skinning (a.k.a. uphilling, a.k.a. ski touring, a.k.a. ski mountaineering, a.k.a. SkiMo, a.k.a. pick a name people!) continues to gain popularity – carving swiftly from fad to mainstream – there remains plenty-a-flat-lander who raises a confused eyebrow at what seems a ludicrous endeavor.
To clear up a few details: Skinning refers to the practice of attaching animal skins to the bottom of your skis so that you can glide smoothly forward and then grip the snow as you pull yourself up the hill. Seals were the hide of choice back in the day. Today one uses a synthetic, which feels not unlike a horse’s coat. A special binding and boot allow the heel to remain loose for ideal purchase on the ascent and then is locked in for the descent.
Photo courtesy of Dairinn Bowers, an avid skinner, wearing Montura technical pants and an Ortovox jacket from Performance Ski.
Now, that covers the what, but it’s the why that really seems to stump people. Isn’t skiing hard enough withchair lifts? Didn’t I, “earn my turns,” when I forked over a small fortune for the lift ticket? To understand the passion of the uphill we must travel back to a time before lifts, before America, before Christ, possibly before Ullr, god of snow.
For millennia humans have strapped wood to their feet to traverse snow and mountains, often with the assistance of animal hides. In the mid-19th-century, Aspen was “discovered” on a SkiMo slash mineral exploration trip out of Leadville. In early 20th-century Europe, skinning took a sporting turn. The French, Italians and Germans did a sort of “Military Patrol” game along their mountainous borders which would later evolve into the biathlon. Sporting became warring when Aspen’s 10th Mountain Division used skins to fight Nazis in Norway.
In 1946, the newly founded Ski Corp. built Lift One, ushering in the modern ski industry. 60 years on, while the average pass holder seems to think ski lifts were carved by the glaciers, the avid outdoors people never forgot the old ways in their pursuit of untouched terrain. With bindings, boots and clothing getting better every year, and more “on-piste” options courtesy the Aspen Snowmass Ski Company, skinning has become a routine exercise for locals and visitors and alike.
The Passion of the Uphill
Skinning is a beautiful mix of stone age and 21st-century technologies. It’s the oldest and the newest way to experience the mountain.
Photo courtesy of Dairinn Bowers
“I actually enjoy the uphill just as much, maybe even more than the downhill,” explains Jack Linehan, a Crested Butte native and competitive uphiller. He averages 53 minutes to the top of Ajax (which is, like, really good). “It's fluid. And something about climbing towards the light, towards the top of mountain … it's dark when you start, and then you meet the sun at the top.”
The fluidity and tempo are actually quite something. The motion is smooth with a satisfying, silent pop as the skins grip the snow. The whole thing is very, very quiet – no wind rushing or feet crunching. It’s gentle, exhausting, but connecting. The balance of power between you and the mountain becomes very present as one slowly traces its curves.
What’s more, not since suburban housewives started to power-walk in groups, has there been an activity so perfectly made for couples and thruples.
“When the bodies are synced in motion, it’s easier to connect mentally and emotionally,” sports psychologist Kathleen Callahan explains.
On any given day, you’ll see friends and couples alike lost in conversation, feet in sync, climbing towards the sun (or moon during one of the Buttermilk full moon evenings). In fact, the Power of Four is a pairs competition, two people to a team. "Having a partner is one of the best parts of the experience," says local Sotheby's broker, Lex Tarumianz (love-aspen.com
A sunset skin on Tiehack. Photo by Etta Meyer