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Goggles were a bad idea.
As I ascend through the trees on Copper Mountain’s west side, they’re fogging up from my sweat, and I can barely see where I’m putting my skis. Thankfully, the trail that my instructor, Darian Fathi, is leading is pretty well-cut, but I know there’s more hard work ahead, so I decide to ditch the goggles and squint into the sun instead. (Tip for future self: Wear sunglasses.)
For those who aren’t familiar, uphill skiing is, well, exactly what it sounds like: climbing uphill on skis (or a splitboard, if you’re a snowboarder) before riding back down like you normally do. It’s also known as alpine touring or skinning, after the lengths of fabric that you attach to the bottom of your skis so you can travel uphill. The sport has boomed in popularity in recent years, but nowadays, you don’t have to venture into the backcountry to test your skinning mettle. Many Colorado resorts allow adventurers to uphill ski on their slopes (see “Give It A Try” below).
As of this year, Copper Mountain offers some of the state’s most expansive on-resort options, with 11.5 miles of uphill skiing terrain split between eight routes, four of which are brand-new. Two of them are only open before and after hours; the other six can be ridden during daytime lift hours.
I had some previous experience with alpine touring on a handful of backcountry hut trips over the years, but I’d never gone uphill skiing just for the fun of it. Copper’s new trails gave me a reason to get back into the sport.
We’d set out an hour earlier on a cross-country path in Copper’s West Village before ascending skintrack that weaved past some envy-inducing mountain homes. (On the map, it’s called the Lewis Ranch daytime uphill route.) I found the steep sections were more of a mental than physical challenge. Uphill ski bindings attach at the toe but leave your heel free to go up and down so you can walk; small lifters can be pulled forward to give your heel more leverage when the hills become more intense. Fathi’s advice was to keep my heel pressing down—to feel my whole foot on the ground—as I ascended in order to avoid sliding out. It was straightforward enough physically, but it just didn’t seem like I should be able to move up snow…at that severe of an angle…on skis. I did, though—without face-planting, thank you very much.
Eventually, we circled around back to the ski hill, crossing the West Ten Mile trail and continuing up through the trees. Though we were surrounded by resort trails, it was quiet and peaceful in our forested bubble. (Caveat: It was Monday morning.) It felt like we were off in some distant, untouched wilderness area, not slopeside.
We had to travel back across West Ten Mile once more before we made our final ascent. At this point, my right hip started to sting from the repetitive forward motion. I focused on moving one step at a time—and on the pastry in my backpack, a congratulatory snack I’d picked up earlier that morning.
Our final destination was a picnic table surrounded by nearly untouched powder. We kicked out of our bindings and took a much-deserved break. We’d traversed 2.5 miles and 1,375 feet in elevation gain in about two hours. All that was left to do was remove the skins, flip our bindings to ski mode, and descend some short, groomed green runs to the base of West Village. But first, I wanted to soak in the views. And take a bite of that oh-so-sweet treat.
If You Go
Make A Reservation: Private uphill tours costs $299 for one person and $99 for an additional skier, rental gear included. They run through April 24. Interested uphillers can also join other enthusiasts during free Wednesday morning meetups; they leave from Eagle’s Landing in Center Village around 6:45 a.m.
Get A Pass: All uphill skiers need an uphill access pass; they’re free for Copper season pass and IKON Pass holders, and $79 for everyone else. You’ll also need to pick up an armband from the Mammut Education Center in Center Village.
Gear Up: Whether you’re meeting your instructor for a tour or just need to rent gear for your own excursion, you’ll want to head to the Copper Sports location in the West Village. Plan on wearing breathable layers. Going uphill is a lot of work, and you’ll warm up quickly, but you’ll also feel the chill whenever you stop. And you’ll want gloves that allow for mobility for when you need to click on your heel lifters or remove your skins to descend.
Stay: Element 29, Copper’s first hotel, opened in March 2021. It’s about a quarter-mile walk to the base of Center Village, but it’s worth it for the cozy beds, sizable hot tubs, and spacious lobby (for when work just can’t wait). Rooms start at $169/night
Refuel: If you’re visiting Thursday through Sunday, Toast & Co. is an a.m. must for a bloody Mary and smothered breakfast burrito. Otherwise, pick up a breakfast sandwich and a cup of joe at Camp Hale Coffee. When your quads have had enough, après awaits on Downhill Duke’s patio. Dinner is nearby at the new Sawmill Pizza & Taphouse, where there are plenty of local beers on tap, and the hand-tossed pizza has a wonderfully chewy crust.
Give It A Try
Want some more uphill ski practice, but not quite ready for the backcountry? Many Colorado resorts permit the sport on their properties, though there are different rules everywhere, so be sure to check the guidelines before you head out. Some ideas to get you started:
- Bluebird Backcountry in Kremmling bills itself as an “inbounds backcountry ski area designed for learning and adventure” where you can rent gear, learn backcountry skills, and play in powder. $45 for a day pass
- About one-third of Winter Park Resort is open to uphillers (check out the trail map here). If you’re not ready to roll solo, the resort offers a three-hour Intro to Uphill class ($89/person). $25 for an armband that’s valid all season
- Uphilling is free at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Crested Butte resorts, though each mountain has a varying number of accessible trails and its own policies. This month, Park Hyatt Beaver Creek launched private uphill ski tours led by general manager Herb Rackliff; the Wednesday morning excursions are free, but guests have to pay for any gear rentals.
- Most of Arapahoe Basin’s designated uphill routes are restricted to use in the mornings and evenings (meaning before and after the lifts are running). $79 for a season pass; free for A-Basin season pass holders