My Introduction To Alpine Touring/Skinning

While triathlon consists of three sports….swim, bike, run…I’m a big believer in alternative training. Whether it’s mixing it up with some erg (rowing) workouts, cross country skiing, elliptical, whatever, so long as it builds strength or endurance, it's all good. It just helps to keep things fresh. So, this past weekend, I tried something that I’ve been wanting to try for a long time…..alpine touring (AT) skiing. AT skiing basically combines alpine and Nordic skiing. While normal alpine (downhill) skis can be used (although there are specific back country skis), it requires special bindings and boots. The bindings allow the heel to lift and swing on ascents, and the boots are more flexible and have a variety of settings. However, on descents both have settings that mirror typical alpine skis. The other “tool” used for AT skiing are skins. Skins are cut specific to the length of the skis and lock onto the bottom. They provide “grip” that allows the skis to ascend. While AT skiing is not really a new sport, it’s relatively new to the masses…and to the ski resorts, who are now seeing many early risers at the mountain before the lifts open.

Downhill skiing is something that I grew up doing. However, after college, I didn’t ski for 10-15 years….before getting back into it sometime around 2008. After I tore my ACL in 2016 (which preceded my knee surgery), I didn’t ski again until last January. Skiing is something that we really want to do as a family. We love the vibe and it’s something we can ultimately all do together. So, in November, we planned a trip to Stowe, Vermont….one of our east coast favorites. With kids, we typically always stay at the Stowe Mountain Lodge, located right at the mountain, for ease. In fact, back in 2014, my daughter took her first “walk” across the lobby of the lodge. She had taken steps before, but this was her first time walking. So, the place holds a special place in our hearts! After we booked our trip, I kept seeing Instagram posts from my old triathlon buddy, John Spinney (@spinneyvt), who lives in the area. Stowe was getting bombed with snow, and John was posting epic pics from his AT ski excursions. I reached out to him, telling him of my plans to visit and try AT skiing, and he was nothing but excited to get me out for a try!

Our trip to Stowe was over a 4 day period (Thursday, January 24-Sunday, January 27). Our plan was to meet at 5:50am at the lodge on Friday. So, on Thursday night I headed over to Mountain Ops to pick up my demo gear. John races on their team (think AT ski racing…called skimo). So, the guys at Mountain Ops knew I was coming and set me up with a decent setup, knowing I was going with John. It was pretty seamless. On Friday morning, I woke up around 5am. I honestly felt like I was preparing for a race, getting my nutrition in, and getting nervous! John picked me up and we headed over to MidWay (which is located just above the gondola base. Many resorts now acknowledge AT skiing and have policies in place for doing it before operations, during operations and after operations. Basically, they select specific slopes in which to use. While the mountains want to facilitate the skiing, they also have to get the slopes groomed. They also want to make sure the skiers are safe. At Stowe, they allow uphill travel before operations on Perry Merrill, an intermediate run. After John helped me with getting my equipment on, we started up. Remember, it was still dark, so we had headlamps on. Right away, I knew this was going to be hard. It felt like I was going uphill on my bike. In fact, John, who also moonlights as a coach for QT2 Systems coaching, mentioned that he equates the uphill effort to that of low cadence, strength work on the bike….good, good stuff! I also realized that I was overdressed. The temps were hovering around 10 degrees or so. So I had started with long underwear, my lightest ski pants, a t-shirt, base layer, base jacket and shell. I also had two sets of gloves (light and heavy)….and I wore my backpack with water. After about 5 minutes, I stopped to take off the shell as I was beginning to sweat. John took it pretty easy on me, but it was still taxing. He was very conscientious of the snowcats grooming the mountain. When we would see one, we would step off the slope to the side and wait. During one of those stops, I stripped off my base jacket. Now I was down to a t-shirt and light base layer (and I was still sweating).

The total ascent is about 1.5 miles (based on my Garmin). As we made our way up, John and I were pretty conversational….talking about AT skiing, triathlon, life, etc. It was great! We took a little turn off of Perry Merrill as we approached the top. As John said, it’s a bit steeper, but a little shorter. It actually took a bit of effort to get over the final lip to the top. As we made it to the top, the sun was just coming up.

We transitioned beneath the Cliff House restaurant located next to the top of the gondola. We clipped out of the skis and removed the skins. The mountain leaves a small entryway door opened underneath the decking. While you can’t get into the building, it does offer shelter and a light so that you can transition for the downhill. We had some water and food, and put on some layers for the descent. It definitely takes some time to understand how to get into and out of the bindings. But, after getting the skis on, we started down. Coming from downhill skis/boots, the AT skis and binding definitely take some getting used to. They’re similar to downhill skis, but different. It could have been that my boots were a little to loose too. After working so hard to get up, the down definitely feels more rewarding. We reached the bottom, and John could see that I was pretty excited about the trip. Since it was a Friday, John had to get to work, but since the lifts didn’t open until 8:30, he suggested I go up half way and ski down again. I figured, what the hell….let’s do it! So, I headed up again.

This time, on my way up, it was light out. But, it was also pretty cloudy, so the views weren’t good. I would love to say that it was quiet and serene going up, being by myself, but the snow guns were going off and super loud! That said, I loved every minute of it. My plan was to go half way, but as I approached the half way point, I decided to just keep going. I took the same line and made it all the way to the top. It felt great! It was a total of just over 3 miles of ascent, 4000 feet climbing at an average 25% grade. Without John there, I had to remember all of the different settings for the way down. Again, the downhill felt like a reward! Afterwards, I made it back to the room to see Jenn and kids in time to drop them off at ski school. I was so wiped out that I didn’t head out to ski until 10 or 10:30. Later that night, I was literally falling asleep in the lobby of the lodge around 7:30pm! But, my plan was to get up the next morning to do it again, by myself!

I woke up around 5:30am on Saturday morning, and prepared the same way I did the day before. Since the lifts open earlier on the weekends, I knew that I’d only be able to ascend once. Also, I had to hike over, since John wasn’t there to pick me up. Fortunately, one of the guys from the valet/bell service saw me and offered me a ride over, which likely saved me 15-20 minutes. It was colder on this morning, with temps in the single digits. I got dropped off at Midway and got ready to go up. There was a layer of new snow, probably around an inch or two. As I made my way up Perry Merrill, I could see that a couple of people had already started up, and I could see a headlamp up ahead of me. About a quarter of the way up, I was closing in on the guy in front of me, and I could see another guy pretty far ahead of him. I noticed that as I climbed, the snow kept getting deeper. I passed the first guy in front of me before the half way point….and the new snow was getting deeper, at about 5 inches. There was a point about half way where it was pitched pretty steep and I kept sliding down. So, I had to do an “S” turn to get up (basically zig-zag up). One other noticeable difference between Friday and Saturday was that the snow guns were off. So, it was very quiet and peaceful. As I approached the final third of the ascent, I saw a skier come down to fresh lines (about 8 inches of powder). I started to get excited! I didn’t take the short cut that we had taken the previous day as no one else had gone that way….and I just didn’t feel confident enough to take it. So, I took the longer way up. As I was approaching the top, the other guy that was in front of me began his descent with a huge smile on his face….as he was skiing through at least 10 inches of the fresh stuff…it just kept getting deeper the higher we climbed)! Just before the top, there was an opening in the clouds with bright red coming through….I’ve honestly seen nothing like it before, and the pictures just don’t do it justice!

Red popping through the clouds at the top.

Red popping through the clouds at the top.

I quickly transitioned and started down. I was number 3 coming down for the day to fresh lines of my own. It’s not that often that you get to ski fresh lines in the east, so I savored it. It was light and powdery. On my way down, I passed a bunch of other AT skiers heading up. You could tell that they were both excited about the snow, and bummed to see another person coming down to take what could have been their fresh lines….with an earlier start! As I approached the bottom, the lifts were beginning to run so I knew that I couldn’t get another ascent in. But, I also knew that it was going to get crowded, so I quickly headed back to the room to change and swap out my skis and boots to get some turns in. I will say that my ability to ski hard is greatly diminished after “skinning” in the morning. I just don’t have the same legs. But, that’s okay, as it’s totally worth it!

Although we didn’t plan to ski on Sunday, I still woke up to make the ascent one final time. However, it was not to be. As I tried to get my boots on, I realized that my heel was too blistered from the previous two days. Despite bandages and lubricant, it hurt too much. I didn’t want to rip my foot apart, so I bailed. We were able to do one more fun “Vermont” type thing…..a sleigh ride at the Trapp Family Lodge!

After trying AT skiing at the resort, now I want to try back country. Of course, this requires going with people that know the terrain….and getting gear again. Unfortunately, with an aggressive 2019 race schedule, I’ll likely put off any more AT skiing until next season when I hope to buy my own equipment….which also includes ventilated clothing for the ups and downs. But, suffice it to say, I’m hooked! If you get the opportunity to give AT skiing a chance, DO IT!