I spent New Year’s Eve skiing up a mountain.
I was in Jackson with like-minded winter enthusiasts at Black Mountain, kicking off a new season of the Friday Night Lights Uphill Series.
Organized by local backcountry retailer Ski the Whites, this series provides an outlet for new and experienced skiers alike to partake in uphill skiing for 10 weeks during the season.
Uphill skiing, also known as “skinning,” involves hiking uphill on skis by applying climbing skins to the bottom for traction and using special bindings that allow the heel of the skier’s boot to move up and down freely. At the top, skiers transition by removing the skins and locking their heels before starting the descent.
When I arrived at Black Mountain, it was already dark and the precipitation was finicky — it rained before switching over to wet snow. But that didn’t prevent people from gathering near the Ski the Whites tent outside the lodge, mingling and adjusting their equipment, preparing to charge up the trail.
With the energetic pulse of music playing in the background, event director and Ski the Whites shop owner Andrew Drummond directed newcomers and chatted with returning patrons as I adjusted my poles and laid my skins on the base of my skis.
Drummond started the event five years ago with the intent of sharing his passion with locals and those visiting the area for the weekend.
Dim white lights on the end of poles marked the course up to the transition area and back down a corresponding trail to the base.
The need for headlamps makes the event a different experience than night skiing at a resort: After the exertion of pushing one ski after another uphill, skiers carve down a separate trail in the dark of night, with only the glow of their headlamps illuminating the shadows just ahead.
As the event gradually kicked off, uphill travelers pushed forward toward the transition area, many at paces casual enough to hold conversations with their companions. Although the series offers a race component for those who want to go hard and challenge themselves, the event is really more about socializing.
At the top of the short 10-minute skin, I spoke with Ed Harvey, a Black Mountain ski patroller who started uphill skiing when he came to work at the resort seven years ago. He brought his 11-year-old daughter out with him while he patrolled the event on New Year’s Eve.
“The community’s just fantastic. It really is. Everybody just loves coming here. You see a lot of the same faces all the time, and a lot of the new people trying it out for the first time,” Harvey said.
For some, the vertical of the course is typically enough to complete a single lap. But Friday’s course, shortened because of limited snow cover at this early point in the season, allowed participants to enjoy several mini-laps with multiple partners. I managed a satisfying three laps up and down, taking it slowly and chatting with people along the way.
Later in the evening, I talked with Colin Wilson of Boston. He first heard about FNL three years ago during a talk Drummond gave in the city. “I just do the fun skin and ski,” Wilson said. “I enjoy coming out and getting in some ski laps with the community that hangs out here.”
The course opens to participants around 6 p.m., but the group start for those interested in racing begins at 7. Drummond said that while most people are satisfied with a few laps on the shorter courses, racers might do upward of seven laps during a half-hour period.
Intrigued by the competitive edge of the event, I watched from the sideline as 30 or so racers prepared for the group sprint uphill. Many were decked out in technical race suits and specialized helmets. Experienced racers can rip their skins off during their transitions without removing their skis.
The race start was orchestrated by Monte McIndoe, Drummond’s right-hand man. McIndoe had never skinned before when he showed up for the first event five years ago and rented gear from the shop. As the events grew, he saw the need for help and has been an instrumental part of the series ever since.
“Kids in front. Less fast kids in back,” McIndoe said as racers filled in the starting area marked by Ski the Whites flags. I watched in amazement as the contestants seemed to fly up the hill with grace and speed at McIndoe’s signal.
As the excitement subsided, other guests began hiking again alongside the racers and the easygoing feel of the evening resumed. After a few laps, skiers congregated in the Lostbo Pub for pizza purchased by FNL and aprés beverages.
A primary goal of the series is to ensure everyone’s taken care of, and that includes proper gear. Rentals — which should be reserved ahead of time — cost $30, or about half the regular price, uphill passes are $10, and headlamps are available for purchase as well.
“I got into this for the people and the community, and I think that’s really been one of those things that just keeps getting better and better with every year,” Drummond said. “It’s not to make money, it’s not to sell gear, but it’s to again provide a space and a venue for people to really enjoy what’s really changed my life and really refreshed skiing and made it so fun again.”