Aspen Is Serious About Uphill Skiing Business

Post by blogger | August 31, 2016      
Uphill festivals such as this one in Aspen tend to be associated with races. I'm pushing for festivals more oriented to newcomers rather than emphasis on racing.

Uphill festivals such as this one in Aspen tend to be associated with races. I’m pushing for festivals more oriented to newcomers rather than emphasis on racing.

Where is the “uphill ski capitol” of the United States? Is it Jackson Hole with its abundant sidecountry gates and super accessible backcountry terrain? Or is it Salt Lake City with a giant population center close to the amazing Wasatch, along with a vibrant local’s race series? Well, right here in the Roaring Fork Valley, home of Wildsnow HQ, Aspen is making a hard play to put their city at the top of the list.

As co-owner of Cripple Creek Backcountry (just a short drive from Aspen) I had an obvious vested interest in attending a TAC (Technical Advisory Committee) hosted by Aspen city officials a few weeks ago. The plan: brainstorm steps to make Aspen not just a destination for the rich and famous, but an exceptional place for skiers who enjoy going the wrong way.

The city of Aspen and the Aspen Skiing Company (known locally as the “Skico” and branded as “Aspen Snowmass”) are already in a unique place for uphill traffic. The four Skico mountains as well as nearby Sunlight resort have been incredibly accommodating to uphill traffic: designated, uphill routes at Buttermilk and Highlands ski areas, an open range policy at Snowmass and Sunlight resorts (at all times of day) combine with a local population that loves motoring uphill.

It’s common to see 200 skiers climbing these mountains, especially Buttermilk, and a day’s total uphill traffic can trend into the thousands! These resorts are also home to the famed Power of Four ski mountaineering race and the finish line for the Grand Traverse, two of the largest “ski touring” races in the country.

With all these features going for the Roaring Fork Valley, it is no wonder that mayor Steve Skadron wants to make it official. The city of Aspen gathered local providers of ski touring gear, guides, athletes and of course representatives from the local ski mountains to be led by RRC Associates, a market research firm out of Boulder CO, to brainstorm the next steps in this uphill evolution.

The Goals
Bring the companies that define the sport to Aspen for product R&D and perhaps even manufacturing.
Enhance our uphilling infrastructure to easily accommodate increased traffic.
Provide a unique experience and more entry points for the new uphill skier.

The Challenges
The first challenge we discussed was what to call the sport. This has been a battle within the industry for years. How do you define the fastest growing part of the ski industry without being exclusive or limiting? “Backcountry skiing” or “ski mountaineering” are not accurate, and they intimidate the entry level uphiller. “Ski Touring” is a term used worldwide but English speakers tend to associate it with backcountry, though in Europe people will tell you they “ski toured” up the resort. In my opinion, “uphilling” is the term that could be the most accurate for in-resort or sidecountry uphill traveling on skis (with the additional benefit of keeping the concept open for folks who hike without skis, a common occurrence at resorts with dense “walkable” snowpacks). Clearly, the nomenclature is evolving.

Regarding the business location component of the goals above, it’s obvious the high rent district of Aspen Colorado is inappropriate for a ski gear distribution or manufacturing business. I suppose if the political will existed, the wealthy Aspen government could put together an incentive package that was impossible to refuse. But I don’t see that happening in reality. It’s too controversial for a town that’s often mired in controversy anyway.

The greater “Aspen” area, however, does have a few places where costs are more reasonable, located “downvalley” on Interstate Highway 70. Problems with those areas are many, for example a small potential employee pool and the challenge of relocating personnel from the city to rural western Colorado. Perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of ski companies are based in Europe and their distribution centers here in North America are located to be expedient — not because of nearby uphilling or how cool the town is. Likewise, most R&D is done near home offices. Examples being Salewa in Europe working out of the cities of Munich and Bolsano, and G3 in Canada having their strong connection between Vancouver and Nelson.

Barrier to entry for beginners is a challenge in the sport of “snow uphilling.” This was particularly obvious when we assembled our all-star advisory committee of guides, shop owners and elite athletes to do the planning. Most of us are heavily involved in working with newcomers to the sport, and their numerous issues varying from cost to safety. In terms of existing amenities for beginners, Aspen Mountain has an incredible lodge, the Sundeck, at the top of a mere 3300 foot climb. As fun as it would be to have uphilling dinners at the summit, that is no stroll for someone new to ski touring. Buttermilk has a better situation with their summit restaurant on top of a reasonable climb, they’ve already been experimenting with successful night dinners for uphillers. We’d like to see that trend continue.

Mutterer Alm chef making sure his guests are happy.

This resturant in Austria does more than 600 plates at night, for uphill skiers. Mutterer Alm chef making sure his guests are happy. The food is excellent, with average prices. One assumes that the sheer volume of business makes for a successful business endeavor. In my opinion, could happen here with the right mix of location and menu.

Caveats with on-mountain restaurant services for night uphill skiing are of course many. Perhaps the biggest concern is guests being over-served with alcohol then being involved in an accident when they ski down. At first glance, that might seem like a serious obstacle. Actually, it’s not. Restaurants have been dealing with this issue for years. Specifically, on-mountain restaurants have thousands of guests who drink and ski during the day. Dealing with that at night shouldn’t be a big deal.

As always, to get full cooperation from the powers that be, there needs to be a way to monetize an activity that will require added infrastructure and resources to enhance to experience for all. Charging for an uphill pass, or added food and beverage sold through before and after hours skinning could help this. Restaurants in Europe that cater to uphilling can actually do quite well, perhaps that’s part of the solution here. All considered, everything from tickets to meals seem like a drop in the bucket when lift tickets are closing in on $200 a day, but a well managed “guest” oriented business is more successful when it gives guests what they want. Perhaps that’s the compensation.

At the meeting, I suggested developing uphill single-track trails that will give uphillers an alternative route up the mountain rather than just pounding groomers. Over past years, I’ve heard others voice this goal as well. These runs could use the same green, blue, black rating system of the downhill crowd with blacks having steeps with mandatory kickturns and possible booters. Special uphill routes would also relieve some of the stress that having hundreds of skiers going the wrong way on the mountain and the impending collisions that are bound to happen.

Another idea: An uphill festival separate from the competitive race oriented ones that have become the standard. Every race I attend has only a dozen locals out of the thousand that own skinning equipment that make it out. The non-competitive festival could welcome hundreds of new people into an amazing sport.

This was the first round of brainstorming so it remains to be seen what a true actionable plan will be, but some very cool ideas were tossed around. Whatever becomes of Aspen’s uphill initiative, it is an amazing step to bring guides, local business owners, the city government and of course the mountain together in one room to talk about the challenges of this growing sport.

(Wildsnow guest blogger Doug Stenclik is co-owner of Cripple Creek Backcountry, the Wildsnow “hometown” ski shop. This winter of 2016-2017 we’re partnering with Doug to publish a variety of uphill skiing and general “shop perspective” ski touring articles that will broaden the scope of


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28 Responses to “Aspen Is Serious About Uphill Skiing Business”

  1. GeorgeT August 31st, 2016 7:34 pm

    Uphill single tracks on every mountain makes sense for both winter and summer. Convert the track from ski uphill in winter to mountain biking in summer. Snowmass and Buttermilk have trails that could be rerouted and Highlands just begs for a Power of Four uphill that is open all winter.

  2. Aaron Mattix August 31st, 2016 8:08 pm

    @GeorgeT – I’m not sure that the crossover between skin track, and singletrack would be that direct. Mountain bike singletrack generally winds along countours, while skin tracks tend to follow more of a fall line route. Uphill skiers would likely find a mountain bike friendly route to be too “meandery.” Even a fairly moderate “green” skintrack would likely wind up as a very steep “blue” mountain biking trail. Nordic ski routes are generally closer to the average grade of mountain bike trails.

    I love the concept of alternate skin trails off of the main runs, but this also seems to but up into another mountain bike related management question: How is two-way traffic to be managed? Cut a skin trail through the woods, and you’ve also cut in a great alley to bomb down on a powder day. How will non-uphillers grasp the concept of someone coming up that sweet chute they were bombing down? Should uphill routes be fenced off?

  3. Craig Henry August 31st, 2016 8:24 pm

    I just started last year going uphill on skis,and i like the idea of the uphill festival for people like me who just like the great workout. Still would like to find more equipment at some better prices, or someone put together a web page ,so you would not have to search the whole web look for equipment.

  4. Charlie Hagedorn August 31st, 2016 8:36 pm

    The two-day Alpental Vertfest seems to work nicely for many strides of uphill-skiing life. There’s a competitive race, sure, but different divisions, the best demos of the year, clinics, a party, and more. It attracts a healthy crowd of beginners alongside the regulars.

    Furthermore, I spent the first half of the longer two-lap race last year trying and failing to stay ahead of a guy in the one-lap ‘recreational’ race who was wearing a cow suit.

    It’s a good time.

  5. XXX_er September 1st, 2016 12:48 am

    At Hudsons Bay mtn there is an annual 24 hr event where teams or solo skiers have 24 hrs to ski up and ski down 27500 ft so they go all night.

  6. Lou Dawson 2 September 1st, 2016 7:05 am

    I like the term “single track” for the dedicated uphill ski trails we’re considering. I’ve been advocating that for a long time, usually to deaf ears, but the concept is starting to resonate with the powers. It makes so much sense. Most uphilling issues are caused by folks sharing piste downhill runs. Dedicated uphill that goes through the beautiful forest that’s usually present on our Colorado resorts, for example, make so much sense it’s actually pretty weird we don’t have them already.

    That said, it’s nice wandering up the piste on skins when the lifts are closed. That’ll always be part of the deal, other than when the resort wants uphillers out of the way during grooming and avy control.

    As to sharing bicycle trails, what would probably work is the sharing of sections to avoid the skin track being too low of an angle. I’d agree that using most modern mountain bike trails in their entirety would be too “meanderey.” On the other hand, folks who like going straight up on skins will probably have to accept a bit lower pitched trails, as the resort uphill routes would probably be at “guide track ” angles.


  7. Ronald September 1st, 2016 9:02 am

    Mont St Ann outside of Quebec city has a dedicated skin track that climbs 2000′ through pine forest.When at the summit one can ski the north face and skin back to the summit on a second skin track(1000′ ). There is a summit restaurant for some poutine and a beverage and then a ski down the south face. A Skin pass is purchased at the ticket kiosk for $8.00.

  8. Mark W September 1st, 2016 9:11 am

    Well put, Doug. I, too, understand the enjoyment of “…going the wrong way.” Hope to see more ski mountaineering races, events, and uphilling everywhere as time goes on.

  9. Lou Dawson 2 September 1st, 2016 9:31 am

    Hey, are the comments working for you guys? Our caching system was having some trouble regarding how the comments are displayed in the sidebar.

    If anything annoying is going on I’ll continue to tweak.

    Let me know.

    Thanks, Lou

  10. Lou Dawson 2 September 1st, 2016 9:49 am

    Ronald, that sounds terrific! Thanks for chiming in. Lou

  11. Doug Stenclik September 1st, 2016 2:40 pm

    XXX_er we used to have the 24 hours of Sunlight locally in the valley and we would love to get it going again. The mountain was having a hard time making money off it with the added operating expenses. I would be interested to how Hudson Bay pulls it off.

  12. Lou Dawson 2 September 1st, 2016 3:37 pm

    Bring back the 24!

    It’s a problematic race. Not only the expenses, but participants need better medical monitoring. Too many people ended up in the hospital in my opinion. And the downhill needs safety fences etc. The first year was insane, people skiing a run with unpadded trees in the middle, 60 mph… it’s amazing things didn’t go bad. Testimony to how good the skiers were… Lou

  13. Lou Dawson 2 September 1st, 2016 3:39 pm

    BTW, the BCA contest is live, they made a special one for WildSnow! Visit the BCA “Cheers” banners and enter to win two BCA Link radio sets. Pretty good. They say they’ve got more contests coming. Lou

  14. regulus September 1st, 2016 4:20 pm

    It ain’t Jackson Hole, they allow no uphill access whether lifts are open or closed and skinning anywhere there is likewise not allowed. They arrested a senior citizen a couple of years ago for trying to go uphill on skis, I think to watch a ski race…brought the cops in, arrested/alpine style cuff-n-stuff and stretchered the old gent off the hill, evidently too much for the teams of highly-trained profreshionals on the scene to handle. JH is a great gig for the well-heeled downhiller in spankin new outfit looking for steep terrain that plays well on the GoPro back in Jersey and an even better apres scene with boatloads, and I mean cruise ships, of ne’er do well trust-fund/vacationing mountin’ resort wives dangling keys to the mansh for any dude with a set of quads and a goggle tan…but I digress. Get your uphill at Snow King and then after banging out your vert, rehydrate and carboload during the 45-60min of traffic you will suffer on the 12mile trip to JHMR for the aforementioned apres workout. Jokes aside, SLC skimo crew with that sherpa-family handing out turkeys and post-race gifts is unique though best US town for the uphill/backcountry lifestyle-terrain-attitude might be Crested Butte. JH resort/side/front/slack and the hyped Pass backcountry is an increasingly foul melange of tracked-out terrain, drunkerhigh skitourist crowds and money. There’s some gems there but you gotta get up real early or head out real far for the goods in that town.

  15. XXX_er September 1st, 2016 9:18 pm

    “XXX_er we used to have the 24 hours of Sunlight locally in the valley and we would love to get it going again. The mountain was having a hard time making money off it with the added operating expenses. I would be interested to how Hudson Bay pulls it off.”

    The 1st guy to do the 27500 did it on his own, had a mtn bike accident & became a quad 3 months later which bummed us all out big time. From that a local retailer organized an event to raise money/awareness for the disabled and stoke grew for a fundraiser

    HBM supports the event but nobody makes any money, and skiers pay to enter, from the start Dynafit/ DPS/ Patagonnia/ a bunch of local businesses have been major supporters and a very strong local voly crew makes it happen

    the money raised has gone to help recently disabled people get back to riding the mountains sooner

    if you google extreme everest challenge there are lots of hits

  16. Werner Koch September 4th, 2016 1:36 am

    Hi out there, great to hear things are developing so fast in the US. We will try to contribute through our distributor CAMP USA.
    Find out what is happening in Innsbruck \Austria regarding uphill skiing here if you can read some German…
    Regards Werner

  17. Lou Dawson 2 September 4th, 2016 10:13 am

    Thanks Werner, Innsbruck area uphilling is indeed impressive. Huge. Can’t wait to visit again and do some of it. This time I’ll remember my boots (smile). Lou

  18. Tahoe Mountain September 4th, 2016 4:00 pm

    Hey Doug et al –
    We (Tahoe Mountain Sports) have been working with our local hill Diamond Peak to put on a Nachtspektakel (Night Skiing Spectacular) for 5 years now attracting mostly folks new or young in their “uphilling” careers. We do a 3 course meal, open bar, 2 uphill routes (1 longer, 1 shorter) and have leaders on each group. We have maxed out and sold out at 50ppl every single year. This proves to me and the resort that these things are possible and this season Diamond Peak is even going to run them themselves, without our guiding and help, which proves it makes financial sense to them and we don’t have to keep operating them at a loss;) If you want to hear more details, I am happy to share. Diamond Peak also offers a free “uphill pass” as long as you sign their waivers. Getting them to do festivals and such is the next step along with an informal, evening race series. I am working on all the above and would welcome the sharing of ideas between our 2 regions. Maybe at OR we could convene a panel or discussion group to talk about all these options and issues and get some best practices going that could help our greater “uphill communities”? In the meantime, be well and keep the fire burning!!

  19. XXX_er September 5th, 2016 10:12 am

    ” Diamond Peak also offers a free “uphill pass” as long as you sign their waivers.”

    It appears my local hill is going to allow up hill skiing by people with a lift pass which means they have signed a waiver, liability is always the big one, so is just signing a waiver valid, no money is exchanged if that means anything ?

    So talking to a number of ski hill operators their attitude seems to be that they spend a lot of money (salaries/diesel/expenses) to make the hill run and if somebody wants to ski without paying screw them

    My counter is that the only area of skiing that is expanding IS uphill skiing, so if you don’t welcome those skiers to ski uphill at your resort it doesn’t make them buy a ticket they just go elsewhere so you will never get any money out of them , SO welcome the uphill skier they ski a run or 3 tops but at least they are there for the hill to sell food & booze

    so are you saying there is money in uphill skiers?

  20. Adam Olson September 6th, 2016 1:46 pm

    A great start for this whole uphill movement in the Roaring Fork Valley would be for the SkiCo to acknowledge that uphilling on United States Forest Service land is a right, not a privilege. (Proven in Colorado courts). Lets not even get into the bigger conundrum of who owns the snow….
    From that perspective the “powers’ should be more than happy to accommodate, even supply, after hour activities as long as;
    1) They are perceived to have come up with the idea
    2) They make the lions share of the money
    3) They are absolved from any liability

  21. Lou Dawson 2 September 6th, 2016 1:54 pm

    Hi Adam, thanks for dropping by! It comes down to legal stuff about private property and special use permits, philosophy doesn’t apply very much except as a foundation for making changes in the laws due to public pressure etc… as for liability, due to Skier Safety Act they already have it pretty good, only risk is negligence that can be proved in court. Lou

  22. GINO September 7th, 2016 2:50 am

    Hi from Europe, great to hear that Aspen area want to take uphilling seriously, if we can help with our Community Touring Club ecosystem, it would be pleasure.
    Check our event BIG uP & Down & especially the video. we try to federate all practices : from ski-mo to free-rando with this event. We set up a 3 days events with ski-tests, a challenge around kilian, a challenge around Enak (europe free ski pioneer ) & a non competitive uphill session open to beginners called “la belle montée”. As a paradox , industry is really active here in Europe but resorts (in France especially) are questioning a lot regarding this practices & new population. I would be pleased to exchange with you & share our vision. GINO

  23. Doug Stenclik September 7th, 2016 7:12 am

    @Tahoe Mountain Sports

    Yeah lets work together to setup that best practice panel at OR. We are very lucky that we have resorts near by that are excited about this, but as others here have pointed out many resorts just see it as a nuisance.

    We also work heavily with the series and have setup informal races at both Aspen Highlands and Sunlight Mountain. Always need some tricks to get people motivated. Salt Lake City definitely has the best turnouts for their series, but I am sure having a major population right in the mountains doesn’t hurt.

    I do think the big focus needs to be in noncompetitive events as described above.

  24. Doug Stenclik September 7th, 2016 7:26 am


    Those videos look great as does the whole event. I would be very interested to hear more about the vision and all around plan of the Community Touring Club.

    We have the follow up committee meetings scheduled for the beginning of October and hopefully we will have some more concrete ideas to implement by then.

  25. Aaron Mattix September 8th, 2016 8:34 pm

    @Doug Stenclik – how about something like a scavenger hunt in the Sunlight / Williams peak area? Navigate/orienteer/route-find between checkpoints collecting poker chips/raffle tickets for a prize drawing held at the lodge?

  26. Sam F September 9th, 2016 6:44 am

    Jackson Hole is more focused into terra forming as many blacks into blues as possible.

  27. Lou Dawson 2 September 9th, 2016 7:12 am

    Sam, I’m sorry to hear that. So the yellow steel has been going at it up there?

  28. GINO October 3rd, 2016 7:12 am

    (Editor note: Please everyone, do not place email addresses in blog comments, doing so just attracts spambot email harvesters we have to battle, and will get you on spam lists. If you have trouble contacting someone, Facebook usually works well. If all else fails, contact us here at WildSnow and we’ll help with behind the scene contact.)

    @doug Stenclick
    sorry for late answer, just saw your comment, feel free to drop me an email will be a pleasure if we can help


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