December 13, 2016
Skinning Meadow Mountain for turns, views and exercise
A peaceful January afternoon was falling into the muted dusk of a winter evening as we ascended the last mile of Meadow Mountain to its wide-open crest.
"I definitely feel like I am part of a secret club up here," says valley local Julia Clarke, catching more than a foot of distance with her skis on every upward glide. "It just feels like I automatically have something in common with everyone I see up here."
Meadow Mountain is an outdoor haven in every season, but the area has seen more non-motorized, uphill winter traffic since skinning has grown in popularity over the past several years. Skinning, also known as uphilling, is achieved by attaching friction-filled "skins" to the bottom of alpine touring skis or a split-board to go uphill first, then downhill (sans skins).
I DEFINITELY FEEL LIKE I AM PART OF A SECRET CLUB UP HERE.”
— JULIA CLARKE
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The area does allow snowmobiles, although the two snow-play genres generally maintain their distance from one another. The number of people who cavort on Meadow Mountain does make it feel a little less like the backcountry, which has its pros and cons.
"I feel completely safe out here," Clarke says as we make our last push up to the Line Shack at the top of Meadow Mountain, well over an hour into our ascent. "It's the backcountry, so I make sure to always go with a friend or make sure someone knows when I am going and when I expect to be down. But I don't think there's any danger of it sliding here — I don't think it's steep enough."
And because there are usually a lot of other skinners and snowmobilers around, she says that if she did get into trouble, it's likely that someone would be along very quickly.
"So, I actually feel safer here than I do on Vail Mountain, where I am concerned that I'm going to get into a collision with another skier," she says.
But the only thing we run into on this perfect day is a rustic cabin, or the Line Shack, on top of the Meadow Mountain. The ridge it sits on rests between vistas of the Gore Range and Beaver Creek ski area.
"There really seems to be this shared appreciation of the backcountry and the sport of uphilling, and the wide open space," Clarke says.
It's true. Those who have been on Meadow Mountain keep going back for good reason.
Access The Backcountry
Max Forgensi, mountain sports administrator for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, says Meadow Mountain is a "very accessible" backcountry area.
"I would say it's relatively safe if you take the standard routes up and down," he explains, "but obviously if you get off route or go over towards Beaver Creek, you could be putting yourself into an area with dangerous chutes."
From the Line Shack, that threatening territory isn't far away. Go up and over a ridge, and you're in Beaver Creek, but that's not a route that Forgensi would recommend. Stay on the standard routes, which remain facing east as you climb up toward the Line Shack, and the danger is manageable.
"I would consider it low avalanche hazard, and a relatively safe place to enjoy some aerobic activity without getting into avalanche terrain," he says about Meadow Mountain's common courses.
Forgensi says the Meadow Mountain skin tracks often vary.
"When we're talking about uphill routes," he explains, "it really depends on who sets the original skin tracks. They change over time, and they change after snow storms."
Even in areas like Meadow Mountain that are not avalanche prone backcountry areas, Forgensi suggests getting into the habit of checking the avalanche forecast.
"Even though it's not backcountry terrain, just get the forecast and understand what's out there," he says. "And I would highly recommend that those who do not have have extensive knowledge of Meadow Mountain, or any particular area, to stop in the Forest Service office and get a map."
To access the Meadow Mountain trailhead from Vail, travel west on I-70 to exit 171 for Minturn, Leadville and Hwy 24. Exit and turn right (south). Just past the interstate, there is a large parking lot on the right. The trail begins from the south end of the parking lot near the white house.
From the trailhead sign, you can follow the tracked road that winds behind the site house at the end of the parking lot. This road climbs gradually through open snow meadows, aspen and spruce-fir forests. Forgensi says it's generally not smart to follow summer routes in the winter, however, since sometimes you can cross avalanche terrain. But Meadow Mountain is an exception, he adds, and someone could follow the summer route to the top.
It's through the open snow meadows that winter routes are formed, heading in more direct lines up toward the top of Meadow Mountain. Another winter track option is often broken closer to the Forest Service office, just north of the trailhead, where the building backs up to the hillside.
On the summer hiking and mountain biking trail, it is 4.5 miles, one way, to get up to the structure. Mileage is cut off in the winter, with more direct snow routes, but the elevation gain of just over 2,000 feet stays the same.
Clarke says she loves the cardiovascular benefits of skinning uphill, paired with the fun of hitting powder stashes on the downhill.
"I used to have to choose every day between skiing on the resort and snowshoeing, and if I wanted to get exercise, then I wouldn't ski," she explains. "Skinning really provided that perfect solution for me — where I can get my uphill in, and go a little further even, and I can enjoy skiing even on the days when I am getting exercise."
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