Yes, even ski tourers can benefit from chairlifts
In my last post, I discussed the need for resistance training. Despite the pleasant sensation of skiing, the reality is that gravity and your body weight combine to put tremendous force on your muscles, tendons, cartilage, and bones. So a training program that includes both power and endurance is critical to a skier’s general well-being in the short and long term. Many skiers have a list of friends who were diehards, but after a youthful life in the sport find themselves changing ski adventures for golf adventures. After a decades of ski mountaineering, I can attest that this notion runs even deeper for people who have spent a lifetime climbing to obtain their ski turns.
As a committed in-bounds skier as well as a ski mountaineer, one trend that I’ve noticed is how the mantra “earn your turns” is frequently the basis for related problems. Too often, the hardcore skimo or backcountry enthusiasts jump to the conclusion that the only way to go is to earn or climb to obtain their skiing. Chairlifts are a perceived opportunity to forego the needed training to gain peak performance for what these folks truly love: skiing down. Bluntly, there is a feeling in the ski touring world that using the ski lift is for “fat” or “lazy” people that don’t have what it takes to “earn your turns.” There’s some truth to that, not that all people who ski resorts are fat or lazy, but that many people who ski have no interest in the backcountry or earning turns. And that’s ok in my mind. Different strokes for different folks.
But, something is lost in this almost unwritten battle: the missed opportunity for diehard backcountry skiers to take advantage of a lift to enhance their overall ability to “access the goods”, and — more importantly — to make every hard earned turn even more satisfying. Lift-service skiing is not only enjoyable, but critical for success in skimo, and climbing and skiing the backcountry and high peaks. The farther and higher you plan to go in the backcountry, the more important the need for lift-service skiing becomes.
There are basically two reasons lift-service skiing is critical. First is to generate solid technique. The second is to develop the power and endurance that all downhill skiing requires.
Chairlift skiing for technique
At a gathering of backcountry enthusiasts on an evening years ago, a legend of backcountry skiing approached me and asked if I could take his aspiring young son out for some skiing. He was not asking me to become a ski instructor, but just to go skiing so the lad could see solid alpine technique. I don’t consider myself the greatest thing to grace alpine skiing, and having grown up in a family of Olympic ski racers, know all too well I am not. But this guy proceeded to tell me that my brother and I brought a very solid technique into the backcountry and that we seemed to handle difficult conditions, sastrugi, ice, mush, crud, you name it, better than most in the high peaks despite the limits of AT gear. In fact, we actually sought the unavoidable conditions with our passion to ski the highest peaks in the world where in general, the higher you go, the worse the skiing will be. The guy went so far as to suggest that his lack of skill was the culprit of some age related debilitations with his joints, knees, ankles, back etc. I assured him his technique was not the problem, but rather that lift service skiing made all the difference to me. It developed technique and power which enhanced my body’s ability to have a bit more “left in the tank” at the end of a long climb which then eased the load on my tendons, cartilage and bones by shifting the burden to muscles which may get strained but recover.
Solid technique aides in overall efficiency thereby allowing for conservation of movement on tired stressed out bodies after long, demanding climbs. The good news is you don’t have to take a ski lesson or read boring technical journals to hone the skills. In fact, my Olympic racing father offered advice on technique, but his mantra was always, “miles, miles, miles…. Great skiers can ski any conditions, and to ski any conditions, the more you do it, the better you will be….” He would come off the mountain after a day of dust on crust and when we asked him how it was, he would simply say “boys, that was gooooood practice.”
His premise was that with enough miles, your subconscious mind would “figure out the technique.” So as kids, that’s what we did. We looked for the worst possible conditions and we practiced. When we experienced, thank gawd, ideal conditions, it was amazing how that practice translated to ease of skiing beyond the conditions. We learned to embrace the less ideal with a mantra that suggested “there is no such thing as bad conditions, just bad skiers.”
Chairlift skiing for power
In the process of developing that mantra, we also started to realize another benefit. Skiing difficult conditions often not only develops better technique, it also develops enormous power! In the last piece I wrote for WS, I also said that the only way to train for skiing is to ski. That becomes clear with miles as well. I have found this proven again and again in my own backcountry ski expeditions. For a few years, I bought into the notion that ski mountaineering was mostly endurance related. Before a few major expeditions, I started climbing and skiing at the expense of lift-service skiing and I paid the price. On a couple trips where I found myself with burning legs barely able to keep up, I had to at times actually (gasp) sit down to recover. My identical twin brother Steve who hadn’t fallen for such nonsense, railed me and explained simply “you need to pull your head out of your ass and ski more before these trips…” So for the next trips, I did. It made all the difference in the world.
How chairlifts can compliment endurance training
This is not to say lift service skiing should replace endurance. That’s not true. What I am suggesting is that you need both. Lift-service skiing is critical for total training and satisfaction of backcountry skiing, but obviously you need to also train to get to where you want to ski. So the question becomes: how much of each? Unfortunately, not being a professional trainer, I don’t have the exact answer. But the good news is that in today’s ski resorts, we have the relatively new concept of side and hike-to terrain. This allows a ski mountaineer to get a bit of both.
Consider Highlands Bowl here in Aspen. Coupled with the reality that AT gear has advanced so far as to enable a skier the technology for gear that works well in both the backcountry and in these quasi-off-piste areas, one doesn’t have to purchase two sets of gear as we did even only 10 years ago. Today, I can head to the Bowl, hike for 30 minutes, then do a non-stop alpine run back to a lift to repeat. After three or four laps doing that, I achieve a blend of endurance training at 12,000 feet with the benefits of a power workout that forces me to ski as efficiently as possible. The scenario almost identically mimics the fatigue of climbing at altitude and the following aspects of descending on skis. Burn is an understatement!
Then, a day or two per week, I will do one or two non-stop ski runs top to bottom on Aspen Mountain on the most difficult bump riddled terrain I can find. In the words of Glen Plake, “if you can’t ski bumps, you can’t ski sh#t.” The benefits are described, but the one aspect I haven’t mentioned is the absolute fun this type of training results in. The challenge is enormous, and when you’re standing at the top of a peak, it also has a mental benefit that you can ski “anything”. The bottom line is we are all skiers. Whether we earn our turns or ride the lift, it’s about skiing. Skiing demands power, and it demands practice. So buy a ski pass to your local area or get the IKON or Epic or Mountain Collective pass and just get out there. Ski ski ski!
Then, when you find yourself out in the backcountry — obviously a must if not the goal for many who are reading this — I can guarantee what you will find is more efficient, enjoyable, and satisfying skiing. Don’t discount lift-service skiing, but embrace it as part of your plan. Without even hesitation, I know it has been if not the key element, a significant one for the success I have found in my passion for the sport of skiing in the high peaks.
Still need to get your IKON pass? They’re available for purchase through CCBC and TBS Travel Company.