NEWRY — Today like never before, the ski and snowboard industry continues to improve and alter ski equipment technology. But sometimes nothing beats the old-school approach.
While Alpine touring skiers, or “hill climbers,” constitute a small number of downhill skiers today, their enthusiasm is changing policy across the state and even the nation.
This year Sugarloaf and Sunday River instituted for the first time an “Uphill Access” policy that requires a $10 lift ticket for those who use synthetic “skins,” a rug-like mat applied to the bottom of skis that allows skiers to hike up on their boards.
And at Saddleback, where the fifth annual hill climb race (or Randonees Race) will be held Feb. 9, free uphill access lift tickets are an option, making the choice to ski without lift access an official offering.
“This is the first year we are requiring people to acquire a free uphill access ticket. However, we believe that during the ski season a couple hundred people snowshoe, hike or skin up Saddleback,” said Bethan Perkins at Saddleback.
Nationally, this niche group of Alpine enthusiasts is growing, said Troy Hawks, spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo.
Recently Arapahoe Basin in Keystone, Colo., put out an online survey about the uphill access it should offer. And Hawks said locals chimed in on the new policy.
“Now they have designated routes and signage indicating what routes (to hike up),” Hawks said. “The demand is among the local public. When you talk about locals from Denver, Boulder or the surrounding towns (in Colorado), more often than not they’re the ones skinning up because they’re acclimated to the altitude. Someone flying in from Atlanta or Texas might not think of doing this,” Hawks added.
At Sunday River and Sugarloaf, uphill climbers are not confined to specific trails, and locals like that. It’s the locals in Maine who demanded the policies here. While their numbers are not large at either ski area, folks skinning up in the early morning hours at the two ski areas now are a common sight.
“We still don’t see too many uphill skiers these days, maybe a small handful on the busiest days, but we recognized that it’s a growing part of the sport and something that the core Sugarloaf skiers are going to be interested in,” said Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin.
At Sunday River every Wednesday a group of locals from Gould Academy – dubbed the Earn Your Turns Club – skin up and even keep track of the vertical feet they’ve climbed. Once a winter the group of five to 10 go for a 10,000-foot day, said Bob Harkins of Bethel, who works in admissions at Gould.
“I am nearly at 60,000 vertical feet this year. I’d like to get to 100,000 this year,” Harkins said.
“He’s ridiculously fit,” joked ski mate Elizabeth Ormiston of Bethel, who was skinning up at Sunday River with Harkins on Friday.
Without a doubt, the earn-your-turn approach is a workout, requiring leg and upper-body strength as well as cardiovascular fitness.
“It’s harder than anything I do at the gym,” Ormiston said.
Callie Pecunies has been skinning up mountains for most of a decade, and she said after a trip up Sunday River’s Dream Maker trail on Friday, she’ll enjoy skinning up the entire mountain range now that it’s permitted.
“I like to go at 6 or 6:30 a.m. It’s so peaceful before the lifts start running. It’s beautiful,” said Pecunies of Albany Township.
Despite more skiers skinning up, this Alpine group is expected to remain a rugged but happy minority.
“As far as interest is concerned, there has been a fair amount, but mostly from locals who use it as a way to get in exercise being outdoors,” reported Sunday River spokeswoman Darcy Morse.
Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: