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 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.
The Choice of Pros
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.”
Because many ski mountains put restrictions on the hours for uphill access, the skimo faithful are privy to some of the most stunning sunrise and sunset views.
“It was a new form of training for me, but I was drawn to the hard work and peacefulness of it,” Vargo says. “I just love being on the mountain at sunset.”
What to Know Before You Skimo
What do you need to know before you hit the slopes? We asked a few runners who are also skimo devotees.
Hone your 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.”
Learn about the gear.
Skimo might save you a few bucks on lift tickets, but the gear can get pricey. And while weight is important, if you’re just getting started and have no plans to race, it’s better to find gear that fits well and matches your skill level than to buy the lightest, fastest setup.
It’s best to visit a local ski shop with experts who can guide you through the options and outfit you in the gear that is best for your goals, size, and ability level. The gear is called “AT” for “alpine touring.” Here’s what you’ll need:
Boots — Fit is most important for ski boots. If your feet and lower legs are uncomfortable, you’re not going to last long up there. AT boots have a “unlock” feature that regular ski boots don’t have, which allows then ankle and lower leg to move freely on the climb. Then you lock in for the way down.
Skis — The options are endless for skis, but it’s important to pick skis based on your ability level, weight, and height. Again, lighter isn’t always better if you don’t know how to maneuver safely on your skis.
Bindings — The bindings on your skis are a critical piece of the puzzle for skimo. During the uphill, AT bindings allow you to lift your heel freely, then you lock in your boots for your downhill turns.
Skins — This is the easiest part of your purchase. Skins are typically made of synthetic materials that provide the traction to get you up the mountain. They attach to the bottom of the skis with super sticky glue. As long as your skins fit your skis, you’re good to go. When they lose their adhesiveness you can “re-glue” them.
Poles — Any ski poles will work.
Pack — You’ll want a lightweight pack that can hold your layers, water, your skins during the downhill, and of course your phone to capture the views.
Helmet — As always, protect that noggin.
Headlamp — Depending on the mountain’s rules, often uphill travel is done in the dark, so make sure you have a light with you.
Clothing — Dressing for skimo is tricky business. You’re on a mountain 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.”
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 5–8 a.m. and 5–8 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. “Snowbowl does this because it’s a great thing for the community and perpetuates our mountain town culture.”
If you’re not sure, give the ski resort a call and ask. The United State Ski Mountaineering Association also keeps a list of access policies for ski resorts across the country.
The Benefits: Mechanics, Muscles, Heart, Lungs and Fun
For Vargo, who coaches many athletes who live in proximity to ski areas, she recommends mixing up the training schedule to include skimo 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 or 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.”
Tusso loves spending three hours on the slopes and feeling like he could do even more.
“It’s a nice combo of Type I fun and Type II fun,” he says. “Flying down the mountain on skis is the best Type I fun and going uphill is that Type II, which is hard while you’re doing it but feels like a good fitness benefit. It’s pure cardo exercise with no impact.”