Before the lift-ticket holders show up and after they’ve gone home for the day, a peculiar (and growing) group of people gather at the base of the Arizona Snowbowl, the ski mountain in Flagstaff. They don’t need a ride to the top of the mountain—they’re going to power themselves uphill on skis.
The sport has various names—ski mountaineering, skimo, skinning—but its reach is expanding, especially for runners in search of a way to cross-train during the cold and snowy months without spending monotonous hours indoors on elliptical machines or treadmills. It’s also way to give the body a break from pounding while developing or maintaining leg strength. Climbing up 2,500 (or more) feet will also build a fierce aerobic engine.
Skiers attach “skins” to the bottoms of their skis, which provide traction to prevent slipping backward, then glide their way up to the top of the mountain where they take the skins off and ski back down. In skimo lingo, it’s called “earning your turns.” Don’t let the simplicity of the activity fool you, however. Skimo requires leg and cardiovascular strength, access to a mountain, and a fair amount of gear. Those who are hooked, however, say it’s all worth it.
Alicia Vargo, a running coach in Flagstaff and former NCAA 10,000-meter record holder, is a regular at Snowbowl at night. She discovered the activity about five years ago through her brother-in-law, who used it to train for various extreme adventures, including a climb up Mt. Everest. When Rob Krar, her friend and local ultrarunning star, started using it as a way to stay fit, she decided to give it a try, too.
“I was immediately addicted,” she says, “That season I think there was only one night I didn’t go. At the time, I was working through an injury that I couldn’t run on, so skimo was a way to still get outside and get a good workout in.”
For Vargo, who coaches many athletes who live in close proximity to ski areas, she recommends mixing up the training schedule to include ski mountaineering as often as possible because it keeps them moving outdoors during a difficult time of year. It also strengthens the weaknesses that develop from running during the rest of the year.
“It’s better than not running because the roads are icy or you lack motivation,” she says. “It’s really great for running mechanics—a lot of weaknesses runners have are in their posterior chain, in their hips, or maybe muscular imbalances. Uphill skiing can help balance that out—you’re really engaging your glutes, your hamstrings, and your quads in a controlled, systematic way.”
After a winter on the mountain, Vargo feels strong, as though she’s spent a lot of time lifting in the gym. Also, her cardiovascular system is bulletproof. “It’s really hard work,” she says. “You’re really pressing your aerobic system. Going uphill from 9,000 to 11,000 feet will make your lungs and heart stronger as well.”
What to Know Before You Go Ski Mountaineering
We asked a few runners who are also skimo devotees to give us the scoop on where to start.
Hone Downhill Skills First
What goes up must come down, right? Well, many rookie skimo participants forget that part and learn the hard way. Vargo remembers the first trip she took up Snowbowl with Krar. It was dark and a bit icy and she didn’t have a lot of experience on the slopes. “For me it was the trickiest part,” she says. “If I could do it over again, I would take some lessons and get better guidance on it. Because uphill skiing is often done in off-hours, it’s not always groomed and you’re on your own if you crash. It’s important for safety to have those downhill skills.”
Bob Tusso, a local 2:45 marathoner and Northern Arizona Elite board member, volunteers to help coordinate uphill access for the Flagstaff community. He started uphill skiing in the 1990s in New Hampshire and has seen the popularity explode, most notably in the past seven years, and says he’s seen his fair share of mistakes.
“You have to be honest about your skiing abilities. Runners will spend all summer shopping for gear and get obsessed with the weight of all the equipment, do all this gram-counting, and then get on the snow and not know how to ski on it,” he says. “If you can swing it, it’s good to practice your downhill skills first by riding the lift for a day.”
Mind the Rules
Every ski area has its own set of policies for uphill access. It’s critical that everybody follow those rules—as the sport grows in popularity, maintaining access is getting more difficult.
At the Arizona Snowbowl, for example, uphill access is allowed free-of-charge from 5 to 8 a.m. and 5 to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Uphill travelers are restricted to a certain route, which can change depending on conditions and grooming schedules. Although it’s free, skiers still need an armband to use the mountain, which they obtain by signing a waiver.
“You need to be aware and respect the rules or potentially you’ll ruin things for everybody,” Tusso says. If you’re not sure, give the ski resort a call and ask. The United States Ski Mountaineering Association also keeps a list of access policies for ski resorts across the country.
Dress for Success
Dressing for skimo is tricky business. You’re on a mountain, potentially in the dark, but you’re going to work up a sweat. Just like running in cold weather, it’s best to feel a little chilly when you’re starting and have layers you can add or subtract.
“Knowing how to dress so you don’t get overheated is important,” Tusso says. “If you get really sweaty, you’re toast because then you’re going to freeze on the way down. You want layering and ventilation—you’re going to feel like you’re working really hard, but you also don’t want to be drenched in sweat.”