Early storms have dropped more than 50 inches of snow on the Vail Valley so far in November, and powder-hungry skiers and riders have taken advantage, hiking up the mountain to enjoy fresh tracks.
“It has been really good so far this year,” said Delya Schock, a local telemark skier who has been touring nearby mountains for the past eight years. “The snow has motivated a lot of people to get up on the mountain early this season.”
This uphill action, called randonnee, but also known as skinning or touring, is in full swing at local resorts and popular backcountry areas. Randonnee utilizes equipment specially designed for going uphill and downhill. The activity extends to telemark skiing, alpine skiing and snowboarding.
“It’s a different attitude — you have to be laid back about it a little bit,” Schock said. “People are in it for the adventure and the conversation and the stories of all the things that happen along the way.”
The rapid evolution of randonnee equipment, the promise of powder and a group mentality have caused the activity to become more popular over recent years, said Sean Glackin, owner of Alpine Quest Sports, a retailer in Edwards that specializes in alpine touring, telemark and backcountry gear throughout the winter.
“People have been wanting to get out as soon as the snow started falling,” he said. “The equipment has gotten much better for alpine skiers, telemarkers and even snowboarders with split boards. There are suddenly a lot of people to go with and the right equipment to get you out there.”
UPHILL AT LOCAL RESORTS
Before Vail opened Friday, uphillers enjoyed full access to the mountain, day and night. Skin tracks, the trails uphill traffic follows, were set all over the mountain.
At Vail, a popular skin track left out of the Golden Peak base area and followed the Tourist Trap and Riva ski runs to the top of the mountain. The track was just more than 2 miles long and gained 2,400 vertical feet, opening access to ski down Riva and Prima. Other tracks were set up Lindsey’s and catwalks out of Lionshead.
At Beaver Creek, popular skin tracks aimed toward the top of Larkspur Bowl or the top of Centennial, gaining nearly 2,600 feet over 2 or 3 miles of hiking. The track opened up access to ski Larkspur or any run serviced by Beaver Creek’s main Chair 6.
“We were up at Beaver Creek after the first big storm three weeks ago,” Schock said. “We’d skin up to Spruce Lodge and then past there to ski some of the upper pitches on Cinch (Chair 8). At Vail, Riva and Prima have been the most popular spot, but there have been some tracks out at Chair 10, even though it is a little more of a hike.”
However, with Vail operational and Beaver Creek soon to follow, the policy toward uphill traffic shifts out of respect for mountain operations and skier safety. Due to early-season work on the mountain, uphill travel on Vail Mountain is currently limited to Simba on the west end of the mountain, which can be accessed from Lionshead. Those climbing up the mountain must obey all signage and should expect to encounter snowcats, including winch cats, snowmobiles, snowmaking equipment and other traffic both day and night.
Right now, uphill travel at Vail is not permitted between the operating hours of 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. As the season progresses and more of the mountain opens, uphill travelers will once again be free to go up during operating hours, but you may only bring your dog along once the mountain closes for the day.
“There is some summer construction that is wrapping up, groomers out on the mountain and snow making,” said Sally Gunter, senior communications manager at Vail Mountain. “We encourage everyone to read the policy on our website, call the hotline and know their responsibilities on the mountain, really so everyone can be safe.” The uphill policies can be found at www.vail.com orwww.beavercreek.com (Find the uphill access rules for Breck, Keystone and A-Basin atwww.summitdaily.com) and include information on use of ski-area facilities, year-round mountain operations, vehicles, snowmobiles, mountain bikes, winter camping, hiking and uphill etiquette.
During daytime operation, uphillers are encouraged to call the trails hotline for updates on mountain operations. Stay toward the side of the trail, position yourself so you are visible from above, wear bright colors, obey signage and avoid areas where machinery is in operation. Also, dogs are not allowed.
Evening uphill access etiquette includes calling the trails hotline for evening mountain operations, abiding by daytime recommendations and wearing reflective material. All dogs must be on a leash, and you must carry a light or headlamp and be aware that ski-area emergency services are not available.
Vail, Beaver Creek and all Summit County resorts do operate on public land and have a permit to do so, which raises questions of whether or not the resort can restrict access. Therein lies a gray area where regulations are substituted for mutual respect and common sense.
“A lot of situations are conditional,” said Max Forgensi, mountain sports administrator for the Eagle Holy Cross Ranger District, the section of the U.S. Forest Service that oversees the land upon which local resorts operate. “It is your land, it is my land, it is everyone’s land. People can access the resorts uphill, but they have to abide by certain terms and conditions in the resort operation plan.”
While it is public land, if someone traveling uphill interferes with operations of the ski area, then the resort has the authority to do something about it, he said.
This includes trying to board a lift without a pass, which is considered “theft of services” and opens that individual up to legal prosecution. However, the resorts do not have exclusive use of the land and, therefore, the land is open for all to enjoy.
Forgensi said the uphill policies that are recommended by the resort allow the individual traveling uphill, the skiers traveling downhill and mountain operations to all exist alongside one another.
“We do encourage the use of public land,” Gunter said. “But we want users to be aware of the areas they are entering, their responsibilities and abide by the rules that are in place.”
Local extreme sports photographer Bjorn Bauer has already made runs on Vail and Beaver Creek, but also on Vail Pass and back in Lake Creek near Edwards. Backcountry spots, such as Vail Pass, reflect the origins of randonnee, as skiers look to conquer peaks and explore terrain not served by lifts.
“Hiking at a resort is usually much shorter, much safer and much cleaner,” he said. “In the backcountry, there are obstacles and rewards you don’t find in a resort.”
These obstacles and untamed nature of unmaintained terrain deter the crowds that hike the resorts. He sees this as a benefit — in the backcountry, you likely won’t run into many other skiers and obviously no mountain operations.
There is etiquette to backcountry skinning and skiing, as well. It, too, centers on skier safety.
“You need to be prepared,” he said. “You can be out there for much longer than if you were going to a resort. Avalanches are a real possibility, and you have to be able to recognize a situation and act appropriately if something happens.”
He also said it’s important to ski with the right partner. When it comes to hiking and skiing, the people you set out with need to be good skiers and in good shape. If you are going to the backcountry or skiing dangerous terrain, then the entire group needs to be trained and capable in an avalanche or emergency situation.
Despite being early in the season, when avalanche conditions should be calm, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has already posted videos about how the early-season snow has set up in a dangerous way in certain areas.
Popular backcountry destinations include Vail Pass, Loveland Pass, Mayflower Gulch and areas around Summit County and Leadville.
“There are risks, and there are rewards. I would pretty much always choose to hike or ski in the backcountry,” Bauer said. “You can escape the crowds. You can find fresh snow, and that snow doesn’t get skied out.”