By the skin of my skis
March 21, 2013
The first time I skinned up Sunlight Mountain at 6 a.m., it started with espresso and a doughnut.
Randy Young, co-owner of Cripple Creek Backcountry in Carbondale, handed me the goods as we loitered in the lobby of his shop, waiting to head for the hill. It was a civilized way to ease into a rather punishing time of day, and to warm up for one of Cripple Creek’s first organized early morning skins.
As we drove toward the mountain in the pre-dawn darkness, snow swirled. Four Mile Road was blanketed in an inch or two of fresh power – evidently, the plow driver was still in bed along with everyone else.
In the parking lot, gearing up in the beams of headlamps and the glow of car taillights, we discovered a minor gear malfunction. The skins my girlfriend, Caroline, had recently bought wouldn’t fit on her skis – which had cute little plastic caps on their tips that kept skins from attaching correctly.
We fumbled around for a tool we could use to chip the caps off, but like so many generations before us, we eventually settled on duct tape. After lashing Caroline’s skins to her skis with that sticky silver bullet, we were off.
I’ve always found it vaguely satisfying to be awake before everyone else, and I spent the first few minutes reveling privately in this sensation.
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But Sunlight’s long, flat bottom section is good terrain for conversation, and soon we were chatting as we skinned.
The sky began to lighten slightly to reveal a snowy day, and our route was straight up the middle – a run called Sun King. When the pitch got steep, talking gave way again to silence (or heavy breathing), and we began to string out along the run.
Doug Stenclik, another owner at Cripple Creek Backcountry and an avid racer, seemed to be in training mode – a mode I’ve since learned is his only setting while on skis. Dashing off up the hill at a near sprint, he disappeared over the horizon, only to ski past us minutes later.
He then donned his skins again and repeated the exercise.
He was literally skiing circles around us, which was both hilarious and annoying – probably because I was still trying to digest a doughnut.
As we slogged up the mountain’s front side – a series of steep slopes with short benches in between – I began to notice that Doug wasn’t the only one making me look bad: I was moving slower than many of my companions.
I figured there was only one possible explanation: my gear.
I ski on a prehistoric (five-year-old) set of alpine touring plate bindings, and my boots aren’t even compatible with tech fit bindings, the ultra-light, minimalist option favored by the best up-hillers.
As we skinned, I launched into a round of ski demo fantasies, a dangerous brand of hallucination for a freelance writer like myself, whose wages don’t yield extra cash for the latest, lightest and fastest gear.
The engineering geeks at Dynafit and other makers of alpine touring gear have been innovating in recent years at a rate that would make U.S. auto companies green with envy. They’ve shaved pounds off of boots, bindings and skis alike, meaning it’s now possible to feel like you’re skinning in nothing at all.
Yet, I sometimes wish they would slow it down, as the new gear is giving late-adopters of the sport, like myself, a mild case of social anxiety.
Clomping along, I was comforted by the notion that skinning with heavy gear is like running with ankle weights – in the end, I’d be stronger than all of them.
But what was I training for?
After 40 minutes in and out of this mental fog, I crested a hill and saw the top.
Within a few minutes, our crew had re-assembled in the warming shack.
It doubles as a snack bar during operating hours, and we were buoyed by the simple declaration on menu board: “Snacks $1, drinks $2, FUN IS FREE.”
We dried our gear on the furnace, packed our skins and clicked in for the descent.
Whooping as we plowed through the new snow – a few soft inches and still falling – I wondered at the growing allure of this strange sport.
Like a meal eaten after a hard day of backpacking, turns earned through skinning always seem to taste better, and I suspect that’s part of what’s drawing an increasing number of us away from the chairlift, at least some of the time.
Still, since that first morning on Sunlight I’ve fallen out of the habit of the early morning skin, since a man with my modest self-discipline has a hard time rising consistently at 5 a.m.
The other day I tried something different: a noon skin, during the mountain’s operating hours.
“We have a lot of people here from Texas right now,” said the guest services representative who handed me the free uphiller’s pass that the ski area requires.
“A very dangerous time to be on the slopes,” he said, his voice deadly earnest.
I set off, and quickly noticed some skiers – Texans? I love Texans – peering curiously down at me from the chairlift as I shuffled up the run.
A few younger skiers seemed determined to play chicken as I climbed, veering dangerously close to my skin track before skidding off to live another day.
Gone was that vague sense of superiority that comes with being awake while others sleep. Gone was the quiet, and certainly the solitude had also fled the scene.
When it comes to skinning, it seems, it’s worth getting up early.
– Nelson Harvey is a freelance writer based in Carbondale. He briefly wore white ski pants, then thought the better of it.-Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.