The growing popularity of strapping skins on skis and climbing uphill could soon come at a price at some ski areas.
The U.S. Forest Service is working on new rules that clarify that ski areas that lease public lands for their operations can charge people for uphill travel. The directive could affect fitness fanatics that use skis with climbing skins, snowshoes and stabilizers.
The proposed language would authorize a fee “for facilities and services the holders provide, such as lifts, parking lots, and slopes and trails that have been cleared, graded, groomed or covered with manmade snow.”
The directive “encourages” ski area operators to provide access to some slopes without a charge so that there isn’t a “de facto entrance fee.”
Rich Burkley, Aspen Skiing Co. vice president of mountain operations, said ski areas in the eastern U.S. requested the authorization for fees. They had low snow two seasons ago and encountered scenarios where uphill adventurers were vying for the same narrow ribbons of man-made snow where resorts’ paying customers were descending.
Burkley said Skico at this point isn’t interested in charging a fee for uphill travel at its four ski areas. “We have hopefully been accommodating,” he said.
Skico has had policies in place for roughly 20 years because “uphilling” has been so popular at Aspen and Snowmass. Burkley said the growth in the number of people skinning or walking up has grown “exponentially” in recent years. On the morning of Nov. 16, before the lifts were fired up for the first time this season on Aspen Mountain, he saw 46 people heading uphill before he quit counting.
Skico requires that uphillers reach the summit of Aspen Mountain by 9 a.m., when the chairlifts fire up. People who are still climbing will get a polite reminder from the ski patrol that they must turn around.
At Aspen Highlands, uphillers are asked to be at the Merry-Go-Round Restaurant by 9:30 a.m. if they plan to continue higher.
There are designated routes on Main Buttermilk and Tiehack. There are no time restrictions at West Buttermilk or Tiehack, but Main Buttermilk is closed to uphill traffic during the X Games.
Snowmass has no restrictions on times or routes.
Burkley said Skico reviews its uphill policy twice per year. The biggest concern is safety — avoiding collisions between skiers or riders heading downhill and someone climbing. There are also some headaches involved with uphilling activities.
“Our single biggest issue is the full-moon partying,” Burkley said. The summit of Buttermilk is a popular place for people to gather around bonfires and party during the light of the full moon. Skico is concerned about their safety and the trash they leave behind.
Some Colorado ski resorts require uphillers to get a pass. Others are restricting times and routes. Arapahoe Basin and Copper Mountain require uphillers to acquire a hiking pass and sign a waiver, but there is no charge, according to a recent article in the Summit Daily News. Breckenridge will no longer allow uphill traffic while the lifts are running, the article said.
Erik Skarvan, an avid uphiller and owner of Sun Dog Athletics, an outdoor adventure company that provides guides for people interested in uphilling, said the sport continues to grow in popularity in Aspen and Snowmass. He called Aspen the “uphill capital of the U.S.” It’s not uncommon to see 300 people traveling uphill at Buttermilk on warm weekends, he said.
By his count, there are seven races and events that feature uphill travel, including America’s Uphill, a long-running event in March.
He credited Aspen Skiing Co. with embracing the uphill surge.
“Yeah, I think Skico’s been great. It’s part of their culture,” he said, noting that some company executives regularly slap skins on their skis for the trip uphill. “They’ve seen the growth and they’ve accommodated it. I really don’t know how they could be doing a better job.”
The prospect of ski areas gaining the ability to charge a fee for uphill travelers has some adventurers nervous. Colin Miller, a self-described avid backcountry skier from Denver, submitted public comments to the Forest Service about the proposed rules. The ski areas shouldn’t be allowed to charge people who are merely crossing a groomed slope but not using any resort service, he said.
“The Forest Service is giving the leaseholders private property rights,” Miller said.
In addition to charging a fee, he is concerned some ski areas will “shut off” access to their slopes to people like him, who often use a ski area to get to backcountry stashes.
“My concern is not so much with Skico because I think they’ve got a pretty good stance,” he said. He is concerned with resort operators in Eagle and Summit counties.
Kitty Benzar, president of the Durango-based Western Slope No Fee Coalition, said her organization is less focused on ski area fees than fees the Forest Service charges for access to public facilities and lands. However, she said the direction with ski areas appears to be part of a growing trend on public lands since a “fee demonstration” was approved in 1996.
The threat, she said, is “packaging access to nature as a product that can be marketed for a fee.”
“At the risk of being accused of saying ‘I told you so’, it’s really not any different from charging people for a parking space while they are off hiking or horseback riding in the Maroon Bells Wilderness,” Benzar said. “Once people accept that as reasonable, as many in Aspen apparently do, the possibilities for monetizing the backcountry are endless.”
The Forest Service is accepting comments until Dec. 2 on its proposal, as well as other rules that dictate what activities will be allowed during the summer at resorts that lease public lands. A link with the proposed directive and link to provide public comment is available at https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/10/02/2013-23998/proposed-directive-for-additional-seasonal-or-year-round-recreation-activities-at-ski-areas#h-18.