FERNIE, B.C.-I look up at the mountain I’m about to climb and think: chairlifts are for wimps.
I’m uptracking, also known as skinning, randonnée, alpine touring, or simply, uphill skiing. To the naked eye, it looks laborious and practically impossible, like I’m trying to glide up a hill on downhill skis. My skis, however, have “skins” attached to the bottom to stop me from sliding backwards and the heel of my boot releases from the binding, giving me free movement to walk up steep inclines.
However normal uphill skiing is, I still think it looks crazy. I ask Fernie Alpine Resort ski guide Shawn Clarke (no relation) why people do it.
“Why not? It’s just one more thing you can do in nature,” he says. “I can do this (by hiking) in the summer, but the down part is a lot more fun in winter.”
Clarke teaches me how to stick skins to the bottom of my skis and explains they’re synthetic replicas of animal skins. If you imagine petting a cat backwards, you get an idea of how the backward “hairs” dig into the powder. He also shows me how to unclip the back of my boot from my alpine touring binding and nudge the binding heel up, making it easier to walk freely up steep inclines — imagine walking up a hill in a comfortable high heel.
Then we set off for our hour-long climb.
While uptracking may be best associated with backcountry adventuring, some skiers, like me, are taking their skins to resort slopes
“I think there’s a real interest in (uphill skiing),” says Karen Pepper, marketing co-ordinator with Fernie Alpine Resort. The major benefit of skiing in bounds, versus in the backcountry, is that you don’t have to worry about dangers such as avalanches, she said, and if you choose to ski uphill, “you’re getting an amazing workout.”
Fernie Alpine Resort’s new Backcountry Basics program has been created partly with the intention of figuring out how to accommodate skiers who want to trek up the hill and ski down, says Pepper.
During the two-day course, costing $329 plus a lift ticket, a ski guide teaches participants how to uptrack, introduces them to avalanche rescue equipment and coaches them on ski improvement. The uphill aspect of the course — the part I’m learning about — will help the resort test how it can accommodate people who want to ski uphill, something that’s currently forbidden without a guide.
“To have alpine traffic coming down while people are skinning up on the same run is a bit of a challenge,” Pepper says.
The resort also plans to have a guided uptracking program in place this season, where guests uptrack on a designated route and ski down with a guide, she said.
Yet some freewheeling skiers will always find ways up the slopes, regardless of rules.
“A lot of them don’t pay at all. They sneak in there,” says Fred Korman, owner of Owl’s Head resort in Quebec. Those rogue skiers hike up the resort’s summer hiking trails, located in off-piste areas, then ski down the resort hills, he explains, noting that some do buy lift tickets.
“Our biggest problem is the patrolling part. If someone gets hurt, then what?”
Korman says the resort knows people are skiing uphill for free, and while he doesn’t encourage it, he knows it’s hard to stop climbers.
While resorts troubleshoot these issues, industry insiders say fitness skinning — skiing up a hill for exercise — is growing in popularity.
“It started as a really niche thing and now (skiers are) like, ‘I want to try that!’” says Todd Walton, director of communications for Snowsports Industries America, a trade association for the snow sports industry. “It’s easy, it’s accessible, it’s fun. I love it.”
Walton has noticed the sport taking off over the past five years. While it’s difficult to get specific figures on just how popular fitness skinning is, he points to the North American growth of randonnée races, which originated in Europe and involve sprinting up and shooting down hills while wearing tight lycra.
At Fernie Alpine Resort, randonnée racing, also known as ski mountaineering or skimo, is an annual event. Last year’s race attracted around 50 participants, mostly locals. Resorts in Alberta and Quebec hold similar races. Demand for backcountry ski equipment — including uptracking gear — is also up. MEC says its sales of backcountry ski gear increased by 21 per cent this season compared to last season.
But this growing interest in backcountry skiing has sparked controversy. Specifically, there are fears that skiers will head out into backcountry unprepared or undereducated, possibly triggering an avalanche, or getting lost. Such was the case with snowboarder Sebastien Boucher, 33, who went out of bounds from Cypress Mountain in B.C. in 2012 and was lost for two full days before rescuers saved him.
Pepper stresses that even Fernie’s two-day course isn’t sufficient for those looking to backcountry ski without a guide. Taking an avalanche skills training course is the next step to take if you want to ski in the backcountry.
My own uphill experience was easier than expected.
On the Falling Star run, I put my trust in my skis and my guide, Clarke, as I glide through powder, sinking into snow each time and popping my ski back up for the next step. Clarke teaches me how to zig-zag my way up the incline, promising me that shooting straight up the hill and falling down will be worse than the extra legwork required for our meandering route.
The worst part? When Clarke stops me mid-run to tell a story about a man who triggered an avalanche, nearly dying on the mountain, while I watch chunks of snow fall off a nearby cliff and my heart beats double-time. My new fear is triggering an avalanche.
On the peaceful side of things, I can see why people love uphill skiing. When we stop talking, all I can hear is the crunch of our skis in the snow and the swish of my snow pants. The slow pace allows me to take in the scenery: sunlit snow beneath me, tall trees beside me and jagged cliffs above me.
Reaching the top, I’m sweaty, but not exhausted. Then we peel off our skins, clip our boot heels back into our bindings and shoot down the hill.
However rewarding the uphill part is, I think we saved the best for last.
Katrina Clarke was hosted by Destination B.C. and its partners, none of which reviewed or approved this story.
When you go
Learn: Book Fernie Alpine Resort’s two-day Backcountry Basics course, available on set days, at skifernie.com. Cost is $329 per person and does not include a lift ticket. Backcountry basics program is for adventurous intermediate skiers ages 13 and up. Six people max per group. Rentals not included.
Get there: Fly to Calgary, rent a car and drive southeast for three to four hours. Another option: Fly to Calgary, catch a connecting flight to Cranbrook, B.C., rent a car and drive one hour east.
Get around: Car rental is your best option for the five-minute drive between the town of Fernie and Fernie Alpine Resort.
Stay:Lizard Creek Lodge has ski-in/ski-out access, outdoor hot tubs, a heated outdoor pool with a view of the mountains and an ice bar.
Eat: Go to Yamagoya Sushi. Order the sashimi carpaccio. Go to Nevados. Order the patacones, a Latin-American twist on bruschetta, made with plantain chips.