Welcome to ThinkVail – we hope you find this article about alpine touring in the Vail Valley helpful.
Alpine touring, also known as skinning, uphill skiing, splitboarding, off-piste or randonee skiing are all different synonyms for backcountry skiing that embraces the idea of “skiing” or “touring” the mountains, and there is no better place than Vail for this type of adventure.
When skinning, specialized bindings leave your heel free and allows the toe portion of your boots to pivot so you can move like you are hiking, but with skis on your feet. With this freedom you can “skin” uphill and then ski down or across mountain terrain.
This fun, Nordic activity shuns the ski lift and embraces climbing to the top of each run without mechanical assistance, under your own power and then gliding back down the slope.
In order to go up the mountain you will employ “skins”. Skins are two long pieces of material – one for each ski – that allow your skis to move up the hill without sliding back down. One side of the skin is a mohair or a nylon blend material, and the other is a sticky adhesive.
The adhesive side sticks to your skis and the mohair side goes towards the snow and allows for traction as you ascend. Skins clip securely to your skis so they don’t fall off as you go up the hill. When you are ready to ski down, just remove your skins and tuck them in your pocket or backpack.
Skinning in Vail, Colorado is a wonderful way to access the beauty of the back-country and get some great exercise at the same time.
Alpine Touring is not for the inexperienced, you must have the knowledge and skills to safely navigate back-country terrain. Backcountry can be dangerous, including avalanches, rocky cliffs, steep pitches, tree wells, boulders, stumps, fallen trees, fences, creeks & streams, changing weather conditions, snow, low visibility, frostbite, wild animals and more. In addition, you should never go into the back-country without a probe, a shovel, a beacon, a first aid kit and the training to know how to use them in an emergency.
To check for avalanche danger, visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC)
Bindings – To be successful at alpine touring or backcountry skiing, you will need alpine touring (AT) specific bindings with heels that detach for hiking uphill and clip in for downhill stability and performance.
There are two kinds of AT bindings. The first type is a binding that looks and acts similar to a regular downhill ski binding but the entire binding component can lift off the ski when in tour mode. You can wear your regular downhill ski boots in this type of binding.
However, there are more technical backcountry binding that are super light and efficient. They pair securely with specific AT ski boots.
Boots – Alpine touring boots are lighter and not nearly as stiff or constraining as regular ski boots, they have fewer buckles, and offer different settings and extra mobility in the ankle that make them way more comfortable for skinning.
Skins – Skins are the magical ingredient that allow ascent up the mountain. They are made of nylon or mohair “grip strips” that are smooth in one direction and roughly textured in the other. Skins allow your skis to glide in the upward direction and cause friction and traction going the downhill direction and prevent backsliding. When you are ready to ski down you just remove them.
Skis – There are so many options for alpine touring skis, lightweight with a skinnier waist makes for an easier trip up the slope or a wider heavier ski for downhill performance.
You will also need touring poles, a helmet, an avalanche beacon, shovel, probe and a backpack.
Alpine touring, skinning, off-piste or rondalee can be done on almost any terrain flat, moderate or steep. Generally, when touring, you do not go straight up the mountain, instead you move uphill in a zig zag or switchback pattern, this makes the incline you are skinning more moderate and controlled. You can alpine tour on steeper terrain, rolling hills and on level ground, like unplowed roads or snowy hiking trails.
You can also alpine tour and skin at many ski resorts in both North America and Europe including Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts. Uphill skiing at resorts is becoming very popular. And many resorts allow access after normal operational hours and limited access during operational hours.
Resorts usually have two different policies; one for business hours, when the ski mountain is open to regular downhill skiers and one for after the lifts close.
Skinning uphill at resorts during the day can be challenging because people are skiing and snowboarding down the hill fast and not expecting that somebody might be skinning up. It’s important if you are skinning up at a resort to hug the edge of the slope near the treeline and never stop where you can’t easily be seen.
However, after hours skinning at a resort offers other challenges. People are skinning up in low light or darkness with headlamps, in larger groups, with dogs and hanging at the top but this is a busy time for mountain-ops activities such as snow-making, snowmobiling and grooming. You must stay out of their way, as they may not see you and may not be expecting anyone to be there at that time.
Keep in mind, policies change from resort to resort so you check with each individual resort to confirm they allow uphill skiing and the details of their specific policy.
To learn more about skinning visit ussma.org
The Vail Valley enjoys the world-class downhill skiing and snowboarding resorts of Vail, Beaver Creek and Arrowhead but popularity is growing for some to forgo the chairlifts and head uphill on their favorite ski trails with synthetic skins on their skis, and climb up under their own power, this is known as “skinning.” The advancement of back-country and alpine touring products is making the ascent easier and more fun than ever before.
Vail Resorts has embraced this type of activity and allows uphill access and skin tracks on Vail and Beaver Creek Mountain. However, keep in mind, this activity is demanding and challenging and you must constantly be on the lookout for hazards. When skinning up a ski trail you should expect to encounter snow cats, snowmobiles and snow-making equipment both day and night.
Check out the Vail Uphill Facebook Group page for current information and tips and to join a group of skiers heading up the mountain. Vail #Skiuphill or contact The Vail Trails Hotline 970-754-3049 for information and details about what trails are open and daily trail recommendations.
Always adhere to Vail’s full uphill access policy and stay in compliance. You can view the entire policy online at www.vail.com but here are some important key points:
Call before you go Before accessing Vail Mountain, call the Vail Trails Hotline 970-754-3049 to find out where there may be construction and where you can safely access the backcountry- it does change daily. Also inform yourself of the latest snow conditions by contacting CAIC.
Restricted signs are VERY important If a sign says restricted, there’s a reason. Whether snow making has laid a series of hoses, construction is underway or the snow is just not ready for skiers and riders, for your own safety, stay out of closed sections of the mountain.
Reflective Materials, Headlamps, and Whistles. It is strongly recommended that all uphill access users use reflective materials on ski poles, clothing, and/or packs to increase visibility. Headlamps, LED lighted dog collars and leashes make it easier for fellow skiers and ski area personnel to see you and your party in the dark. Lastly, a whistle is recommended if the need arises to send an audible warning or signal.
Seasonal Uphill Access As the season progresses and more of the mountain opens, you will be free to go uphill during operating hours.
Hiking and Skinning with Dogs Hiking and skinning with dogs is allowed only during non-operational hours. Dogs must be on a leash at all times on Vail Mountain.
Vail Mountain Uphill Access Policy Cross-country skiers, snowshoers and hikers, etc are bound by Colorado Skier Safety Act, as amended, and should abide by Your Responsibility Code. Skiers must not impede or obstruct ski area operations at any time.
Alpine Touring During Daytime Operations
Alpine Touring During Nighttime Operations
Colorado Ski Safety Act
The Colorado legislature, recognizing risks that are inherent in the sport, has passed the Colorado Ski Safety Act, which provides inherent risks of the sport and relative responsibilities of the skier; and the ski area. You must obey the Act. Under the Act, any person using the facilities of a ski area is considered a skier.
Nestled in Minturn, Colorado, Meadow Mountain is a popular place to back-country ski, and it is a great beginner’s area that is very accessible. Years ago before Vail was even a gleam in Peter Siebert’s eye, this was a small, popular ski resort, complete with chairlifts. The resort has since gone away but awesome terrain remains. This is a perfect 1-3 hour tour. Keep alert as this is a multi-use area and snowmobiles may be near.
Head up to the rustic Line Shack at the top of Meadow Mountain while enjoying beautiful views from the ridge. However, if you pass the Line Shack and head up over the ridge and into Beaver Creek things can get much more advanced quickly and that route is not recommended by the Forest Service.
Meadow Mountain has a very low occurrence of avalanche but it is still a good idea to check the avalanche forecast before heading out.
Meadow Mountain is located just outside of Minturn and West Vail at exit 171 on U.S. Highway 24. There is a large parking lot to the right. The trail begins from the south end of the parking lot near the white house.
From the trail head sign, follow the tracked road at the end of the parking lot. The road climbs gradually through open snow meadows, aspen and spruce-fir forests.
In addition to Meadow Mountain, Minturn Colorado also boasts great back-country skiing on Grouse Mountain and Cougar Ridge.
Camp Hale is about 20 minutes south of Minturn and was home to the famous 10th Mountain Division backcountry ski training area back in the day. Today, it is home to some of the best huts in the 10th Mountain Division Hut system, such as the Fowler Hilliard Hut, the Eismann Hut, and Jackal Hut. There are literally tons of backcountry trails out here to explore but again always check the avalanche forecast before heading out on these trails.
10th Mountain Division Huts offer the perfect base camp for some incredible first tracks alpine touring. Just remember when in the back-country:
The south side of Vail Pass allows motorized vehicles, such as snowmobiles but the North side of the pass is non-motorized travel only, so access is limited to skinning or hiking. The Shrine Pass Ski Trail is only 2.5 miles and is relatively easy for beginners. This backcountry trail takes about 2-4 hours to complete depending on conditions and experience. Close by are the Shrine Mountain huts of Jay’s, Chuck’s, and Walter’s make accessing this trail really convenient.
Corral Creek, Resolution Mountain to Resolution Creek Road and Wilder Gulch along with many other trails are located in this fun-filled recreation area that is perfect for backcountry adventure. For more information and details about all of these trails visit the US Forest Service Website
Arapahoe Basin Pick up an annual A-Basin uphill access pass + armband ($30 for the season/free with A Basin ski pass) to access all their designated uphill routes. Armbands must be worn at all times. During operational hours uphill access is restricted to the eastern edge of High Noon between the Base Area and Black Mountain Lodge. Less restrictive uphill access is available after hours. arapahoebasin.com
Aspen Snowmass welcomes skinners and is home to America’s Uphill Race in March. All four Aspen mountains (Aspen, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk) allow uphill skiing during operational hours; Beginners may be interested in two-day Uphilling Clinic, to get their learn on. No pass is necessary. aspensnowmass.com
Breckenridge only offers uphill ski access during non-operational hours. No pass is required but keep in mind that black diamond runs are restricted from use. Breckpark.com
Copper Mountain only allows skinning during non-operational hours, as long as you’re sporting the Uphill Access Ski Pass and a reflective arm band (both free), with a variety of routes starting from East Village, Center Village and Union Creek. coppercolorado.com
Keystone Resort also limits uphill access to non-operational hours, with ascent trails that will get you to the summit. No pass is required.
Steamboat Resort requires you to sign a waiver and wear a reflective armband (free) for uphill access. They offer skinning on designated trails during operational hours and access during non-operational hours too. However, you must avoid lighted, night-skiing terrain and terrain parks and always watch out for mountain ops activities. steamboat.com
Ski Cooper The Uphill Access Ski Pass allows access from 9am-5pm on designated uphill routes. These routes change so make sure you contact Ski Cooper to find what routes are being used. They also offer access during non-operational hours from 5pm to 9am on all trails except those that are closed and those on which grooming operations are taking place. Dogs are prohibited here. skicooper.com
Ski Sunlight in Glenwood Springs offers the Uphill Passport Program for aspiring alpine mountaineers. This season pass allows you uphill access both day and night on designated trails. Free for Sunlight season pass holders, small charge if you are not. Dogs are prohibited here. Be cautious and watch out for all mountain ops activities and keep in mind that skinning is closed during snow making operations. sunlightmtn.com
For more information about Uphill Access at other US ski resorts visit the United States Ski Mountaineering Association’ website: ussma.org
We hope you find this article about alpine touring and skinning in the Vail Valley helpful. Have you skinned up any of these slopes? Did you love it? Hate it? Was it the memory of a lifetime? Do you skin regularly for exercise? We would love to hear your thoughts, comments and stories about this exciting, challenging winter activity. Thank you for reading.