Winter Notes -- What's old is new again: the uphill skiing craze

By MEGHAN McMCARTHY McPHAUL February 22. 2018 10:00PM
Andrew Drummond explains the alpine touring skis he rents at Black Mountain. The bindings on AT skis allow free heel movement for uphills and lock the heel down for downhill control. 

There’s a half-inch of fluff on top of slightly crusty corduroy snow as Andrew Drummond and I head up the Lower Black Beauty trail on Black Mountain in Jackson.

I’m accustomed to going downhill with skis on my feet, but we have climbing skins attached to our alpine touring (AT) skis to grip the snow, providing a smooth forward glide and no back-sliding as we ski up Black.

Drummond, an endurance athlete and mountain enthusiast, operates Ski the Whites, a small outfit that rents and sells AT gear for those who want to try out the newest craze in the skiing world — hiking uphill to ski down. Once upon a time — in the days before chairlifts, rope tows and tramways — a self-powered ascent was the only way for skiers to access downhill thrills.

Well, what’s old is new again.

“I think it’s the fastest growing sector in skiing,” said Drummond. “It’s a new sport for a lot of people. The gear is modernized to the point that it’s enjoyable.”

The Fischer boots Drummond has fitted me into are considerably lighter than my alpine ski boots. They have various settings to make skiing both uphill and down safe and comfortable. The bindings are similarly adjustable, allowing for free heel movement on the climb, and locking in for the descent.

Drummond said people come to uphill skiing from a variety of backgrounds. Some are alpine skiers looking to mix things up a bit after years of riding the lifts. Some are hikers or runners or triathletes who use skinning up mountains as a way to stay in shape for their warmer-weather pursuits. Some typically ski in the backcountry, away from lift-serviced areas, but will take to the groomers when conditions are not good off-piste.

About a dozen New Hampshire ski areas, recognizing potential in the AT movement, now allow uphill skiing. Almost all of these have a designated uphill route, and most allow uphill ski travel only during operating hours.

Skiers should check areas’ websites for their uphill policies and ticket prices. As Drummond puts it, “The policies are constantly adapting.”

The mid-week morning Drummond and I skinned up Black — about 1,000 vertical feet — we saw one other pair of uphillers, and the triple chair that reaches about two-thirds of the way up the mountain was sparsely loaded with skiers. Except for the whispered glide of our skis over the snow, it was quiet, especially at the top, where the circa 1965 double chair was shut down for the day.

Black Mountain, where Ski the Whites is based, is a family-owned ski area and small by Mount Washington Valley standards. Until last winter, the mountain didn’t have an uphill policy. But Drummond and Ski the Whites have imbued a new vibe here, through the shop as well as with Friday Night Lights, a weekly social uphill-downhill event Drummond has organized to build a community around AT skiing.

“We’re psyched to be able to do this,” said Black’s Operations Manager Liz York. “There’s room for us to grow together.”

Not all Ski the Whites customers are skinning up the ski area. Many are getting gear to head out to local backcountry routes. Drummond, who grew up in the area, is also a founding board member of the Granite Backcountry Alliance, which works to educate backcountry users and to develop skiing options in the region.

As far as Drummond is concerned, whether folks are after a bit of exercise at the ski area or looking for an off-piste adventure, it’s all good.

“It’s inclusive to everyone,” he said. “You don’t have to be charging hard in the backcountry, but you also don’t have to be timid and stay on the ski area.”

For more information about Ski the Whites and upcoming events, visit www.skithewhites.com.

Winter Notes is published on Fridays during ski season. Contact Meghan McCarthy McPhaul at meghan@meghanmcphaul.com


EnvironmentOutdoorsSkiingWinter Fun

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