After-dark uphilling culture takes hold at Sunlight Mountain Resort
Post Independent Correspondent
To the delight of a growing group of local thrill seekers, the January full moon fell on a Saturday night last weekend. The only sensible way to make use of all that frosty clear moonlight was to grab their gear and hightail it up Four Mile Road to ascend Sunlight Mountain by foot — all 2,010 feet of it — in order to ski, sled, snowboard or bike back down in the deep, snowy dark.
Sound a little nuts? Typical American opinion would likely answer yes. But this is Colorado — the Roaring Fork Valley, no less — where locals are constantly pushing limits and seeking new ways to enjoy the mountain terrain we all love. “Uphilling,” as it’s called, is not a totally new sport but it is one that has recently seen an immense surge in popularity here over the past few winters.
Even on new moon nights, the Sunlight parking lot fills during ski season with uphillers preparing to climb the mountain after the resort has closed for the day. Some arrive in groups and others come alone, but most can be found busily strapping on Yaktrax, snowshoes, splitboards and skis. After gearing up, groups begin their ascent.
“It’s unbelievable cardio,” said snowboarder Darin Binion of Carbondale, who along with a group of friends took advantage of the full moon at Sunlight last weekend. “I’ve been coming up here to do this for 19 years,” he said. “I remember that hardly anyone else was around doing this kind of thing back then.”
So why has uphilling recently gained popularity?
“People who live here have such active lifestyles but still want to go out on the weekends — with this type of activity they can combine a cardiovascular workout with the fun vibe of going out,” Binion said.
Another explanation for the uphilling trend could also be traced to greater availability of the right gear. Nowadays, as opposed to even a decade ago, lightweight touring skis and clip-on skins that help uphillers gain traction at steep angles are widely accessible. SnowSports Industries America, a trade association representing suppliers of consumer snow gear, has reported a boom in sales of this type of equipment in recent years.
Paige Hahn is just one of many local uphill skiers who invested in a new alpine touring (AT) setup this season; she now scales Sunlight at least twice a month with her husband.
“It’s so much fun coming up here,” she said. “Before getting my AT skis I used to hike up and then sled down, but this year I’ve been skiing. It’s a great way to exercise, a great way to enjoy time with friends — we love it.”
GLOW OF WARMING HUT
The Sunlight climb can be a challenging endeavor that individuals complete in a range of times. The super-fit might reach the summit in 45 minutes or less; for others, the ascent can take up to two hours. As climbers finish, they are rewarded with the welcoming glow of the warming hut. Inside, it’s a party.
Hut camaraderie is instantly established as uphillers straggle inside the building post-climb, often to congratulatory cheers of “You made it!” Jackets are hung to dry, aching feet are pulled from boots, and snacks are eagerly devoured. Friends gather to recount their experiences and chat with others. Laughter abounds. The scene is one of such hearty alpine cheer that it could have been torn straight from the pages of an old L.L. Bean catalog.
“The hut is so laid back every time I’ve been up here,” said Carbondale resident Karl Schwartz, who climbs up about once a month with his wife. “Everyone is just here to enjoy the mountain.”
Alyssa Franklin, a local who has been uphilling for roughly five years, agreed that Sunlight has special appeal.
“I usually go upvalley to skin Ajax or Tiehack,” she said, “and this is my first time doing Sunlight for the full moon, but it has been awesome. I will definitely be coming here more often.”
Together with all four of Aspen Skiing Co.’s mountains, Sunlight has helped make the valley a kind of uphillers’ mecca, due in part to the resorts’ support of the activity both during and after operating hours. Whereas many other ski areas around the country have limited or even prohibited uphill skiing, our five local mountains have largely welcomed it. In effect, uphill culture is fastly becoming a bona fide movement here.
“We are obviously big fans of people simply having fun in the snow,” said Troy Hawks, Sunlight marketing and sales director. “There is a passion for this activity right now, and we no doubt want to see people out there going up, going down, sliding around and just enjoying themselves.”
Assistant General Manager Tom Hays agreed that Sunlight supports the uphilling trend, but remembers the days when the sport was not quite so common.
“Back in 2006 Sunlight hosted a 24-hour endurance race that was pretty brutal — we had people skinning up and skiing down the mountain as many times as they could in one day,” he said. “There was a guy who hit around 50,000 feet of climbing and skiing that day, which broke a world record. People were excited, and around that time they began training and becoming interested in the sport — I think that’s when uphilling and ski mountaineering really started to catch on here.”
Hays noted that although Sunlight is happy to host growing numbers of uphillers day and night, the resort has needed to establish guidelines to make safety a priority.
“First we ask that people get a hiker’s pass — it’s free of charge, and includes a map of the recommended route,” he said. “We need people to stick to the side of the trail near treeline, especially after dark, and always remember that downhill skiers have right-of-way. Beyond that, our primary concern is the issue with snowcats — those guys can’t see well in front, and can’t see at all behind them. Some folks like to get into that freshly groomed area right behind a snowcat, but that can be extremely dangerous. We recommend staying 100 feet away at the very least.”
Hays also reported that the Sunlight Ski Patrol has added an additional chore to its morning routine in recent years.
“Our ski patrol spends quite a bit of time scooping dog waste,” he said. “Our visitors don’t realize this is an issue, but it’s something we do. We appreciate that this season has been better than years past, but we still ask that skiers do not bring dogs to the mountain.”
Currently, visitors enjoy regulations at Sunlight that are noticeably more relaxed than even those of the upvalley mountains. As the number of uphillers grows each season, concern has mounted among some who wonder if the resort’s casual atmosphere could be compromised.
“I’d be devastated if I could never skin up Sunlight again,” said Glenwood Springs resident Hunter Causey, an uphill skier who visits the mountain about once a week. “It’s an amazing resource, and I truly can’t think of a better way to exercise in the wintertime.”
A local uphilling community initiative to give back to the Sunlight Ski Patrol is in the works.
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The Forest Service plans to replace the Carbondale Aspen-Sopris ranger district station with a newer, larger facility.