It’s after dark at Pico Mountain Ski Area in Mendon, Vermont, and from the base of the mountain, floating lights can seen be making turns down the mountain. These lights are strapped on to the heads of dedicated skiers who have a special pair of alpine touring skis they use to get to the top of the mountain without a lift.
On the bottom of their skis going up are “skins,” which are adhesive on one side and fabric on the other. They allow skiers to climb up the mountain without slipping and have clips for the tip and tail of the ski to ensure that the skin stays on.
Andrew Borden, 19, of Pittsfield, Vermont, is an avid alpine tourist. Borden can be found pushing the limits of his physical ability almost every night while searching for personal records on his timed climb of Pico.
Borden is a professional cyclist and races during the spring, summer and fall. When he is not racing his bicycle, he straps on a pair of downhill skis and races against the clock for the Castleton University Alpine Ski Team.
To stay in shape for cycling, which is a physically demanding activity, Andrew uses skins to ski up hills.
“Skinning is a great aerobic exercise,” he said. “Skinning keeps me fit. I get to go uphill and keep my arms and legs moving.”
Alex Keylan, 48, of Avon, Connecticut, had many similar reasons explaining why he’d rather climb up mountains before skiing down them.
When asked at the top of Pico why he did this sport, Keylan said it was to maintain cardio fitness.
Keylan spends three to four days in the Killington area per week, but drives right past this area during the summer, traveling the New Hampshire to complete “section hikes” in the White Mountains.
At the top of Pico, Keylan noticed that Borden was wearing a heart rate monitor and said that he too used to take measurements of his heart, also saying that he used to race bicycles as well.
Both men said another reason they take part in alpine touring is just an alternative to taking the chairlift and also on busy holiday weekends, skinning in the backcountry allows a skier to avoid crowds.
“I wish more people did it,” said Keylan who was by himself at Pico on the night of Feb. 6.
Keylan did mention, however, that a few ski shops in the Killington area host group touring sessions during the uphill travel season. Mountain Travelers Hike and Ski Shop, located on Route 4 in Rutland, is one.
“Skinning at the actual ski areas is a recent phenomena,” said Peter Kavouksorian from Mountain Travelers.
Kavouksorian said that many years ago, the main use for alpine touring equipment was just for people who were interested in a more efficient way to get into the backcountry. This could include Mount Washington or any other mountains worthy of skiing that don’t have chairlifts.
“We have many professionals (like doctors) in the area who are 35 or 40 years old who are going to Pico at six or seven in the morning just to get exercise,” he said.
Much of Mountain Travelers’ business comes from local people who are looking for an alternative way to get good exercise during the winter months. Like Borden, Kavouksorian said that many of his customers are cyclists who during winter use skinning as a way to stay in shape.
Of course alpine touring isn’t only for exercise, it is also very fun and rewarding, participants said. Upon reaching the peak of the mountain you just worked your way up, the skins come off, layers of clothing are stripped and replaced with dry ones then you make your way down the mountain.
After skinning up a mountain, the turns on the way down are much more cherished, enthusiasts said. Every turn is appreciated because it was earned using human power. On Feb. 7, Andrew Borden and this reporter skinned up to the peak of Pico and were surprised to find that there was a substantial amount of snow on the trails.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” said Borden in response to the powder turns he just made the whole way down the mountain.