The rise of uphill skiing: Why more Utahns are skipping the lifts, skinning to the top — and willing to pay to do it

Snowbasin joins the growing number of resorts instituting a pass program for those wanting to “earn their turns”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jared Allen regularly skins up Snowbasin Resort and skis downhill Snowbasin, Nov. 18, 2021. Allen has skinned up and down Snowbasin five times in a single day, three times, which is a gain of more than 10,000 feet.

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If Jared Allen’s goal was to ski 10,000 vertical feet on his 44th birthday — which it was — he could have taken the lift from the base of Snowbasin Resort to the Needles Lodge five times like any reasonable person.

But Allen, like a rapidly growing number of people in Utah and the United States, has become smitten with uphill skiing — which is downhill skiing, except, instead of using lifts to reach the summit, Allen uses his legs. So at 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2018, as temperatures dipped to 25 degrees, he pulled into the Huntsville resort’s parking lot, slapped his boots, skis and lamps on by the light of a waning moon and began to climb.

The rising sun had begun painting the mountains and ski runs purple when Allen clicked his heel into his skis and prepared for his final descent a little over five hours later. The run would be a few brief moments of wobbly-legged glee down a groomer that remained mostly untouched in the half-hour or so before the lift-riding type got a crack at it. The reward, though, was the sense of satisfaction he got from going up.

“It’s not a situation where you have to think about terrain or terrain choice. It’s not a situation where you’re wearing your air bag and looking out and doing your checklist and safety stuff,” said Allen, 47, who is planning to complete the 10,000-foot challenge for the third time in four years this January. “You’re just kind of having fun — exercising on the way up and then ripping down the groomer. I mean, it’s pretty rad.”

Some might say Allen has a screw loose. And it’s true, uphill skiing has its peculiarities. Aside from forgoing perfectly good lifts, sessions are usually relegated to the cold and dark of winter’s late nights and early mornings. In some cases, participants wear little more than thin, tight, Lycra bodysuits.

Perhaps most unusual, however, is that — whereas the majority of complaints about alpine skiing converge around the rising cost of participation and restriction of access — uphill tourers are going in the opposite direction. They largely favor more resort oversight. And by and large, they’re willing — some might even say eager — to pay up.

Uphill skiing’s rise in popularity

Precise, numerical measures of the growth of uphill skiing are difficult to come by. Anecdotal evidence, however, stacks up deeper than the powder at Alta during an El Niño year.

The sport is a subset of backcountry touring, the gear for which saw a 115% growth in U.S. sales between August 2020 and March 2021 over the previous winter, according to the Park City-based industry trade group Snowsports Industries America. Backcountry skiing, though, encompasses heli-skiing and snowcat skiing as well as human-powered endeavors such as ski mountaineering and exercise skinning.

Those latter two are themselves subsets of uphill skiing, also known as skinning because the long tongues of fabric affixed to the bottom of the skis or splitboard to make ascents easier were originally made out of animal skins. And it’s their growth in popularity, especially in and around traditional downhill resorts, that is believed to be a driving force behind North America’s ski touring and splitboard boom.

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Both have long been popular in Europe. In fact, ski mountaineering, or skimo, which focuses on speed, earlier this year was added to the Olympic lineup for the 2026 Winter Games in Italy.

“I think, metaphorically, the cat’s out of the bag. People spent their season touring [while socially distancing last year] and realized, ‘This is a lot of fun,’” said James Roh, a spokesperson for the Salt Lake City-based SkiMo Company. “We kind of figured last season was going to be a banner year and this year would slow down. But so far, it’s been crazier than last year.”

As an example, Roh pointed to the physical growth of SkiMoCo, which is one of the nation’s primary retailers of uphill skiing and ski mountaineering gear. It has mirrored that of uphill skiing in that, in the past two years, SkiMoCo has moved from the founder’s garage to two increasingly larger showrooms.

Of course, as interest in uphill skiing has swelled, so have the crowds on the edges of the resorts, where uphill skiing tracks are usually placed.

Allen said that on a Saturday last season, he might see a string of about 200 people slinking up the track at Snowbasin. When he got started less than a decade ago, there would hardly be more than a couple of handfuls.

Why people ski uphill

“Earn your turns” has long been the motto of backcountry skiers and splitboarders, who traditionally have seen the arduous climbs as the penance for accessing pockets of untouched powder. Uphill skiing at a resort rarely delivers participants that kind of ethereal payoff. It does, however, offer a few more practical benefits: safety and convenience.

Resorts that allow uphill skiing set and often groom routes, so there’s no need for wayfinding devices or concern about getting lost. The trails typically are open only before the lifts start turning, so a person can get up and down and still be on time for the 9 a.m work meeting. On those more leisurely days, resorts have restrooms and delis at the ready for a ski.

But the most attractive element is avalanche control. When traveling within a ski area’s boundaries, uphill skiers face minimal risk of being caught in a slide. That’s one of the biggest deterrents for those otherwise interested in touring the backcountry — both for novices and experienced tourers.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jared Allen, left, with friend and Snowbasin general manager Davy Ratchford at Snowbasin, Nov. 18, 2021. Allen skins up Snowbasin Resort and skis downhill regularly at Snowbasin. Allen has skinned up and down Snowbasin five times in a single day, three times, which is a gain of more than 10,000 feet.

“It’s not a backcountry experience, but you still can go uphill and downhill. So, it’s a safe, great alternative to backcountry skiing,” Allen said. “Last year, when we had such a terrible, dangerous snowpack for so long — we had more blackout days than in the history of the Utah Avalanche Center — then the Snowbasin opportunity is really awesome. It keeps people safe.”

However, that same intent — keeping people safe — is the reason many resorts give for not allowing uphill touring, either during operational hours or at all.

The cross-directional traffic, some skiers going up where others are going down, is one safety issue. Another is having people traveling through the resort after hours, when groomers are working and avalanche control is being performed.

Case in point: On Jan. 29, 2018 — less than a month after Allen started his birthday tradition, three uphill skiers had to be rescued from Alta’s East Castle area, according to a UAC blog post. They had traveled there via the Summer Road, which is outside of the ski area’s boundaries, and were drawn in by the allure of untouched powder. What they didn’t realize is that avalanche mitigation was being done in the area, and they could have either been caught in a slide or injured by the chargers.

Similar incidents have prompted more resorts to put more restrictions on uphill skiing. But they haven’t gotten rid of it.

The National Ski Areas Association began polling resorts about uphill skiing during the 2012-13 season. At that time, 59% of resorts forbade it and another 13% had no uphill policy. Last season, 39% didn’t allow it and only 5% had no policy.

Utah has more or less been the Wild West when it comes to uphill skiing. Most resorts that allow it have specific routes for tourers and a green light/red light policy that informs them when they can and can’t access the mountain. Only Powder Mountain requires a pass, and it’s the same pass that would grant a skier or boarder access to the lifts and bus.

Snowbasin, however, has begun the state’s shift to more controlled access. On Friday, it unveiled its uphill pass program. To obtain the free pass, travelers will have to certify they were made aware of the routes and restrictions and will have to sign a waiver.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Uphill skiers traverse up Alta's slopes on Nov. 10, 2021. Alta allows uphill skiing before and the ski area opens for the season and in the spring after it closes.

Davy Ratchford, Snowbasin’s general manager, said he had a forum with uphill skiers before crafting the plan.

“We want to create some structure,” Ratchford said. “It’s kind of wild, if you think about it, to have all these people on the mountain that we just don’t know who they are. Like, they’re just out there.

“And I think they would like structure. They want better communication.”

Turns out, Ratchford is right.

Why would people pay to go uphill?

Rather than be miffed that their right to access the lands via their own power is being mitigated, many are breathing a sigh of relief. The reason? Allen said Snowbasin is sending a signal it sees them as part of its community and not as a nuisance. It also reduces the likelihood the resort will cut off access to its uphill routes — a fear that, despite the trend toward increased access nationwide, appears to be pervasive in the ski touring community.

“I’m happy to pay and sign a waiver and participate in organized programs,” Allen said, “for the opportunity to experience the mountain.”

Did someone say pay?

That, too, has become a common theme among U.S. resorts offering uphill access. The cost, usually about $10 per day or between $100-200 for the season, is minimal compared to a lift pass at most resorts (uphill access is often included in the price of a season lift pass). And, according to a survey conducted by Utah SkiMo, the largest skimo organization in North America, uphillers take no issue with the monetization of their previously free activity.

The survey revealed that 95% of respondents would like to see one of the resorts in the Central Wasatch create an uphill track that can be used during operating hours (generally 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.). And of those, 79% said they would favor paying $10-$20 for a day pass. Additionally, 70% said they’d pay $100-$200 for a season pass.

“It legitimizes the activity,” said John Allison, the vice president of Utah SkiMo. “When you’re paying the $15 per day use or maybe a $100, $150 for a year and on designated routes up or down, it’s saying, ‘Hey, we made a contribution. We’re paying our part for this legitimizing of the activity.’”

Allison said he would like to see resorts view uphill skiing as a revenue stream, which in turn could create more uphill access. For his part, though, Ratchford said it’s such a niche sport that he doesn’t think it has the potential to be a real moneymaker, even considering its growth. He said if Snowbasin ever charges, which is an option, it will be to cover expenses associated with allowing skinning on resort property. That could include paying someone to be at the resort at 5 a.m. with maps and waivers or to post trail conditions online.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aiden Lewis watches as skiers head up High Rustler after a day at Alta, Nov. 10, 2021.

Though Snowbasin sits on both private and U.S. Forest Service land, it is within its right to charge for an uphill pass if it wants to, according to a recent ruling by the agency. In August, a Forest Service board ruled that resorts can charge if the fee covers expenses like avalanche control and restroom maintenance and if they include it in their management plan. General access to the public land, however, must remain free.

Does that mean more resorts will start opening uphill tracks and charging for passes? It seems likely. Even backcountry skiers and snowboarders who rarely turn to resorts for touring say they can see a need for it in the future. And they expect it will cost them.

Splitboarder Eric Loosle, 29, of Cottonwood Heights does nearly all his touring in the backcountry, away from the resorts. He said “there’s no way” he would pay for an uphill pass right now. But, informed by his minor in meteorology from the University of Utah, he anticipates he won’t always feel that way.

“I think in the future,” he said, “with climate change and longer dry periods — you know, we’re in this multi-decade drought right now, and the southwest-facing slopes and lower-elevation slopes don’t have snow — it would be something that I might consider.”

How much can resorts charge before people balk at paying for uphill access? The sky isn’t the limit, but according to Allen, it’s somewhere above 10,000 feet.

“I like to go into the backcountry as much as I like to go on the resort. It’s nice to have that [safer] option, though,” he said. “I probably would pay quite a bit to go. I really like it.”