Going Up: The rising sport of UpSki
May 9, 2013
UpSki is a wind canopy designed to pull skiers and snowboarders uphill and can even be used going downhill. The company started production in 1985, stopped in 2004, and resumed in Carbondale in December 2012.
Kevin Passmore was kite skiing on the Continental Divide near Eisenhower Tunnel in 2005 when something blew by him and changed his life. It was the first UpSki he ever saw.
"I was kiting, having a difficult time, when this guy blew past on an UpSki, towing his wife," said Passmore, who was a 21-year-old engineering student at the time. "He made it look stupidly easy compared to what I was doing. I hollered at him, asking what it was. He stopped on a dime, came back to talk to me and then zoomed back up the hill."
That guy was Phil Huff, who made the original UpSkis with John Stanford in 1984 while they were both living in Summit County.
In 2007, Passmore graduated from college in Boulder, moved to Glenwood Springs to work for Fiberforge and bought a used UpSki setup.
I was kiting, having a difficult time, when this guy blew past on an UpSki, towing his wife
"You couldn’t just buy an UpSki then, they weren’t making them," said Passmore, who is now 29.
He soon crossed paths with Huff again, met Stanford and the three became friends. By then, Passmore had already been tinkering with ways to improve the rigs.
"I’ve always repaired my own gear and modified things to suit my needs," Passmore said. "It wasn’t hard to improve a product made in 1990, with all the material advancements of the last 20 years — everything is so much lighter now."
He researched and designed eight canopies by the time he became the third official partner in the company late last year. Based at 1945 Delores Way in Carbondale, he’s now the driving force to get UpSki off the ground.
"Kevin breathed new life into the company. We always kind of hoped a young guy would come along and carry the torch," Stanford said. He and Huff are both 67. "Kevin is a huge asset with his mechanical engineering background. He does a good job of — what do you call it?"
"Process control," Passmore said.
"Yeah. He takes detailed notes on everything," Stanford said. "Plus he’s into mountaineering and skiing, which is what UpSkiing is all about."
What is UpSkiing?
UpSki canopies are designed to pull a skier or snowboarder straight up a hill. The uninitiated might confuse it with kite skiing, but a kite-ski canopy is different and does not generate the same power for going uphill. An UpSki canopy also has a vent that allows a rider to slow down rapidly by opening or closing the canopy.
"Phil and I were skiing off the backside of Keystone in 1983," Stanford said. "At the bottom, we said, 'Wouldn’t it be cool if there was something to pull you back up?’ Then Phil saw a picture in a magazine of a guy holding onto a parachute, getting pulled uphill by the wind."
Stanford’s entire career is rooted in sky-diving. He was a paratrooper in Vietnam and eventually made a living as a master instructor and then a parachute repairer/manufacturer. Now he lives in Texas and specializes in making photography equipment (www.vertexphoto.com). So, it wasn’t hard to replicate the parachute/ski experiment after the men saw the magazine photo.
"Sure enough, it worked just holding onto the parachute, but you had to let it go when you needed to stop," Stanford said. "We needed a device to control when it was inflated."
UpSki was born in 1984 and production started the next year.
"Our original intention was just to get to the top and pack up the canopy so we could ski down," Stanford said. "We discovered it was so much fun going up — and that we could use the canopy going down — we don’t put away our canopies at all. Going down, the canopy acts like a drag shoot."
Passmore said skiing down is more enjoyable without the canopy but not nearly as efficient.
"It’s nicer not dragging it, but the amount of vertical you can do — going up and down without stopping — makes it better to leave it open," he said.
Before they gave up on production in 2004, Stanford said most of the UpSkis they sold went to Europe, especially Norway. Passmore thinks there are only about 30 rigs in Colorado.
Considering the rise in the number of people who do extreme sports, Stanford said this generation might have more interest in UpSkiing.
"It is pretty extreme," he said. "You’re out in the backcountry, so you need those skills, and you need the ability to ski and handle a sailing type of device."
An UpSki rig costs $2,800. That includes the canopy and a special harness that has a vent control, a quick release that detaches the canopy with a single pull, and a knife to cut cords in an emergency.
"I don’t think any of us anticipated that I would set up production right here in Carbondale," Passmore said. "It proved easy enough and once the ball got rolling it was hard to stop. We found it’s more economical to do small-scale production locally than large-scale production overseas, and the quality control is much better."
Passmore uses about seven sewing machines to build all the different parts for each rig. Those industrial sewing machines were made around the 1940s or earlier and are still going strong.
"There isn’t any plastic in them," said Stanford, who used the machines for his parachute business. "Of course it turns out that Kevin is from Dallas. A year ago, he came down to my house in Texas and we turned the place into a factory for a few days while my wife was gone."
Stanford taught Passmore how to use the machines and then sent them off to Carbondale.
"We’re kind of unusual in that we manufacture equipment for a sport that very few people know about," Passmore said. "We’re the only people doing this particular product."
Where to UpSki
The ideal UpSki conditions are wide-open areas with upslope wind.
"It’s most fun on a sunny day with 20 mph winds," Passmore said. "The best day I’ve ever had was after a good storm. There was good wind and I was ripping rooster tails through powder uphill."
Passmore said the company offers demos and some basic instruction to prospective buyers. The company’s website, http://www.upski.com, says most advanced skiers feel comfortable with the control of an UpSki within an hour of practice.
"If you give yourself a margin of error, things won’t jump out at you," Passmore said. "If it’s a low visibility day, you can’t go as fast and you have to be careful not to lose your bearings above treeline."
Passmore has ridden an UpSki to the top of 13,000-foot peaks and made it to the top of Mount Sopris for his first time April 13. Sopris is 12,953 feet and has one of the biggest vertical elevation gains of any peak in the state, rising more than 6,000 feet in a few miles. A YouTube video can be found on line by searching “Sopris UpSki Ascent.”
Passmore isn’t aware what the UpSki record might be. He said there is a good chance that one of his friends, a snowboarder, has gone the highest.
"I just found out that the logo we created was made from a photo of him — a snowboarder!" Passmore said, laughing. "I seriously considered changing it."
So, ski or snowboard, UpSkiing introduces a fresh way to think about snow-covered mountains.
"We’re geared most toward skiers who are looking for a new experience," Passmore said.
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