My good friend Kathleen Doehla wrote this fantastic post about skinning. Since the snow conditions in Vermont are about as good as they get, and since I’ve been dying to go skinning, AND since her post made me laugh out loud, I got her permission to share it here. Kathleen is a physical therapist extraordinaire here in Stowe, who is currently helping me rehab from knee surgery (which is why I haven’t been skinning…yet!). In addition to being the best PT around, she’s a mad swimmer, a triathlete, a great writer, a super mom…and she has a wicked sense of humor, all of which she shares in her own blog at Points North Physical Therapy.
I am an expatriate flatlander in northern Vermont. This is probably immediately obvious from my non-crunchy hair, my propensity to drive like a maniac, and my lack of enthusiasm for social events involving the Stone Hut on Mount Mansfield. So it should come as no surprise that when we first moved up here 7 years ago, I was shocked to learn that some people actually hike UP the mountain to ski down. Why would anyone do that? I wondered. I mean, what is the point when you have the lift right there?
Seven years later, I have a slightly different perspective. I freaking love the mountain and spend as much time as I can there. I run and mountain bike up it in the summer and fall. I’ve loved skiing and I’ve kind of gotten the hang of it. But I have become rather particular. I don’t enjoy weekend craziness, crowds, and long lift lines. I also am one who gets cold! Waiting in line and sitting on the lift in January and February and then blasting downhill in chilly wind just sends me straight into hypothermia. If I could just buy a half-season pass for March and April, that is what I would do.
But a girl can’t just hang out inside for 3 long months of winter–that is a recipe for cabin fever and insanity. So getting outside from December through February involves finding activities that keep me warm! And I can thank Mark, as well as Luke at AJ’s in Stowe, for setting me up with a skins package as an anniversary present. Otherwise, I might never have come up with the idea myself.
For my fellow flatlanders who have no idea what I’m talking about, skins are an adhesive covering that you can put on the bottoms of your skis, and that have some friction to keep you from sliding back down the mountain. They enable you to hike uphill by turning your alpine skis into big, clumsy cross country skis or snowshoes. They start around $80 a pair and can go up to $200 a pair or probably more, depending on where you’re climbing and what you need. Their shelf life tends to be a couple of years, although I imagine this varies based on how much skinning you do as well as how you care for them. Some other things that you will need include all-terrain bindings on your skis, which allow you to free your heels for mobility while skinning up the mountain and then lock them down (if you choose to do so) for skiing down. You need ski poles—I have an adjustable set which allow me to lengthen them for skinning up and shorten them for skiing down, which is a nice feature. And I have been told by my seasoned skinner friends that one who is truly committed to skinning can purchase ski boots that actually have ankle mobility and make the whole experience easier and more comfortable. But shout out to hardcore skier friend JA who told me that keeping my top two buckles on my ski boots unbuckled also makes the climbing experience easier and more comfortable. I’m truly not sure that I would have figured that out on my own, either.
Some other things a beginner skinner will need: Either an experienced friend who can show or tell you some safe off-piste trails to try where you won’t get lost or killed by an avalanche; or an alarm clock, because an important thing to know is that you just can’t strap on your gear and charge uphill into oncoming downhill ski traffic. Skinning during the hours of lift operation is unsafe and is not permitted in Stowe, and probably not anywhere (if it is then you wouldn’t want to ski there). So your choices are to skin when the mountain is closed but there is still snow on the trails, take some backcountry trails, or skin early in the morning or at night, when the lifts are not operating.
You will need a backpack and, if skinning in the dark, a headlamp. I recommend carrying an extra jacket and an extra pair of gloves (you will be soaked by the time you get to the top); a helmet, unless you’re already wearing it; a phone; water, and maybe something like a protein bar for a snack. Dress comfortably and in way more lightweight layers than you would for downhill skiing. I wear a lightweight base layer, ski pants and a lightweight jacket and gloves, and I pack my down ski jacket and warm gloves for the trip back down.
It takes a little practice getting used to muddling around with the gear. I recommend for your first trip up, that you not go up too far, especially if you’re by yourself, in case you have any trouble with locking down the bindings (if that is what you do) or managing any other components of the gear. The order of what you should do at the top is: 1) Put your dry, warm jacket on over everything; 2) put on your helmet; 3) remove your skis and lock the bindings; 4) remove the skins and put them away; 5) put on your warm, dry gloves; 6) put your skis back on and adjust your poles if necessary.
Because I am a morning person, and because if I don’t get my workouts in early in the day then my life seems to not allow them to happen, I am unafraid to get up at 4:30 or 5 am on a weekend to skin up early. Plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead. A lot of people talk smack about how they’re going to join me, but the only one who put his money where his mouth is so far is great guy friend CH. So if I don’t have anyone to chat with, I put in my ear buds, listen to music and enjoy the early morning cold air, the beautiful scenery and different view of the mountain—it is totally different going up versus going down—and working up a major sweat. And because I am new to skinning I am not very good at it yet, which is actually kind of fun! I feel no pressure to hold a pace or to keep up with anybody. It took me several tries to actually stick it out all the way to the top. And I am getting faster! It’s fun to see improvement. And the following is the typical stream of consciousness that I experience on every climb:
- It’s cold. It’s windy. Is this safe? Should I even bother today? Maybe I should wait and go tomorrow. Well, I’m here with all my stuff, I’ll just go about 50 feet and if it’s too windy I’ll just go back down.
- Oh wait, it’s fine. That was just a gust of wind at the bottom. But I hope I dressed warmly enough.
- OK, already sweating. I need to take off some of this stuff.
- It’s actually quite nice out.
- AAAAAAHHHHH!!! Monster truck snow groomer!! Heyyyy, dude.
- Whew! I must be making some progress, it’s steep! Moving right along!
- Oh. There’s the midway lodge. I’m still at the base.
- Wow, it’s beautiful up here, how is it possible that I’m the only one up here? I rock.
- Ughhhhh, getting steeper. I am actually hot. I need to stop for a minute but—shit!! I’ll slide backwards down the mountain!
- Oh wait a minute, I’m wearing skins. No I won’t.
- Good to keep going….hello, random mountain guy on a snowmobile.
- Oh. Right! I can make turns! Just like going downhill.
- Is that the Cliff Trail? I think it is. No, actually I don’t think it is. It’s just some random trail. The Cliff Trail must be up just a little farther.
- Nope, I can see the top of Nosedive. That definitely was the Cliff Trail. I think—if I can just turn around and see, but I’ll slide down the mountain!
- Oh right, no I won’t, I’m wearing skins.
- Never mind! Forget the Cliff Trail! New plan. Just hike all the way up Nosedive.
- Oh my gosh! I’m at the top of Nosedive. That was fast!
- No, I’m just at the top of the 3rd turn. Keep going.
- Hey look! Another skinner left some tracks! Someone was up here before me? How is that possible? Well, I’m hopping in those suckers and doing a little less work for the last part of the climb…
- Oh my gosh. Holy smokes. That’s the top of the quad. I’m almost there.
- I’m here. I can’t believe I made it. Check out the sunrise.
- Should I take a selfie and post it on Facebook?
- Forget it. I’m not that kind of girl and anyway, I’m 44. And now I’m freezing! Time to throw on the warm jacket and rule the 1st tracks!