Feb 13 2014

Sugar Bowl adapts to fitness skinning


Two locals keeping their lungs and legs in shape for the BC season.

Two locals prep for the BC Season by keeping their lungs and legs in shape at Sugar Bowl.

When Sugar Bowl announced it was changing their Uphill Skinning from free to paid I wasn’t surprised. The buck and a half price ($149 in Federal Reserve monopoly notes) seems a bit of an over reaction to poor revenues for the season, but saying it was because of costs associated with skinners who weren’t following the rules didn’t add up.

Everyone who I know personally that skins at Sugar Bowl has been using the “don’t ask, don’t tell” trails for years. That’s where we don’t ask if we can, they don’t tell us we can’t skin up on “their” land. The result is we have respect for their property, the chairs, buildings, equipment, and their liability, while acknowledging we are “trespassing” on land they don’t own, but are leasing from the USFS. No doubt we are taking advantage of the fact that at its root the land is ours. But it isn’t like Sugar Bowl has to let us. Fortunately for the Truckee backcountry community, they have. It’s a simple balance. We aren’t flagrant with our permissions to travel uphill. We’re selective and stick to the shadows. After all, part of the allure of skinning is the solitude of walking through the trees without a human cannonball swooping down on us. Thus, the lure of skinning in-bounds is hardly a backcountry experience.

It IS about having reliable, convenient parking with a hill that doesn’t require a pack full of safety gear. Usually when I go I carry some water, tunes and a spare layer for wind at the top. Otherwise, it’s nice to be able keep it simple so my feet can do the slow steady skin shuffle that makes the motor hum going uphill. It really is a great workout!

As a promoter of earning your turns I’ve enjoyed a few conversations with folks at Sugar Bowl who wanted to know what the deal was. A snowboarder who happened to be slightly off the trail asked as JFB and I as we meandered through an island of trees near Henderson’s Bowl.

“Hey, whadya call that stuff that you’re doin,” he asked.”

“Depends,” I answered, continuing, “alpine touring, A.T., backcountry skiing, randonnee, tele…”

“Yeah, that’s it, what do you call it again, rando…nay?”

We showed him the key ingredients: a free heel and climbing skins. Skins are what never-nevers don’t understand ‘cuz they’re hidden from view, unlike the free heel.

That’s part of what I like about skinning in-bounds. It’s the opportunity to share the secret to skiing on the backside of beyond.

It seems a lot of new folks are hearing the cry and joining in. Kim Miller, president of Scarpa USA says, “Skinning in-bounds has become the climbing gym for backcountry skiers. It’s a place to learn your uphill moves, and it’s a great workout to stay in shape.”

Unfortunately it seems the etiquette of the skinning gym is different as well, or needs to be established. That’s what Scott Ferguson, Sugar Bowl’s operations director has noticed. “Skinners are routinely heading uphill four abreast, not single file along the sides,” he said. This causes huge liability headaches for potential collisions, not only with down bound skiers, but employees on snowmobiles, or snowcats.

The number of people who have obtained their Uphill Ski Pass, over 500, was far more than Sugar Bowl expected. Whereas patrollers used to notice one or two skinners on a given day, on the periphery of the resort, now each patroller routinely sees roughly a dozen a day. Even that wouldn’t be too much if everyone either obeyed the rules they agreed to abide by, or acted like they were on the DADT plan. Nowadays a high percentage are heading up in the middle of the resort, and routinely getting in the way.

Besides changing the cost of an uphill pass, another result has been a series of email notices to Uphill Pass holders. To the seasoned backcountry skiers they appear well intentioned, but overstated. Taken individually they are polite enough, but after a few more cluttering the already annoying load of spam in the in-box, locals were turned off at being told what they can or cannot do when skinning in-bounds. It’s simply anti-thetical to our skinning experience, albiet out-of-bounds. In Sugar Bowl’s defense though, if uphill skinners are not using common sense, then the nanny notices will continue and the cost of in-bounds skinning will not go down.

John Monson, Sugar Bowl’s Director of Marketing said, “We’re all learning about this.” The number of uphill passes issued and the number of skinners using the limited number of available slopes shocked everyone with how it affected operations, from causing confusion to downhill skiers to creating liability issues with snowmobiles, cats and snowmaking equipment. Perhaps if the season had begun earlier and stronger the increased costs of managing a new type of skier might have been overlooked.

Most backcountry skiers I spoke to when the Uphill Ski Pass was free couldn’t believe it was free. Especially when they saw how nice the Uphill Pass appeared. They naturally figured you had to at least pay for the badge holder, right? No, its part of the free package. Zip, nada, nothing. Just sign the waiver and get your picture taken. However, with meager snowpack in drought stricken California the value of Sugar Bowl’s expensively grown water crystals may have created more demand for less space than anyone anticipated. $149 may seem a bit steep, but clearly there is a cost to offering it in-bounds, and thus a value in uphill skinning beyond health dividends. Now the market needs to define what the reasonable cost is.

If you’re not sure what the rules are for uphill skinning at Sugar Bowl you can either read ‘em and actually obey them, or operate by the old DADT guidelines. In other words, act as if skinning in-bounds isn’t legal, yet know that it is with an uphill pass which is still free to season pass holders, all others pony up.

Related Posts
Sugar Bowl offer FREE Uphill Pass
Sugar Bowl charges $149 for Uphill Pass

© 2014

  • Keith Lindsay

    Oh, and by the way, Sugar Bowl is now closed to uphill skinning on storm days. Told us it was about AC concerns. Thank goodness we can now ski anywhere we want above 7000 ft. without the MAN watching us. Good bye man made!!! Hello BC!!!