VAIL — Ski instructor Gerald Coleman skied up a hill, not down, for the second time ever during the National Brotherhood of Skiers summit, and called the experience invigorating.
“It’s part mental and part physical, and I would say even spiritual, expanding and going beyond the confines of the resort, and that is what I’m looking for,” said Coleman, who teaches skiing at Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Vermont.
He found the uphill clinic he participated in on Tuesday morning helpful as it trained him to hike about half a mile up part of the Golden Peak Race Course on skis, earning his turns back down the hill at Vail. It was useful, he said, to learn about avalanche mitigation and the gear needed to venture beyond ski area boundaries and ski freely on public land.
For people of color, the idea of skiing at resorts can seem foreign, with white skiers accounting for a vast majority of the sport’s participants. But venturing into the backcountry on untracked terrain can seem even more unfamiliar.
The National Brotherhood of Skiers summit works to expose more people of color to skiing and snowboarding each year. Introducing more people of color to ski touring and backcountry travel is important because it creates access to a niche sport that many people don’t even know is available to them, instructors at the summit said.
More than 220 people signed up for uphill clinics and gear demos offered this week during the National Brotherhood of Skiers’ 50th anniversary summit in Vail, up from about 40 who showed up for clinics and backcountry tours during the summit last year in Aspen.
The ski industry is supporting the surge in interest with special clinics for women, introductions to telemark and backcountry skiing and demos of snowsports gear.
Uphilling is one of the fastest growing corners of the snowsports industry. But just as resort leaders are working hard to diversify downhill skiing, they’re trying to attract more people of color and younger participants to uphilling and backcountry to increase vitality in snowsports.
“The industry needs to make sure that when we look at how we’re becoming more inclusive and more equitable and more diverse, that we approach folks who participate in uphilling with the same welcoming mindset,” said John Plack, senior communications manager for Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort.
Uphilling used to be a skill of necessity
Skiing began thousands of years ago, not for the thrill of racing down slopes, but as a mode of wintertime transportation across frozen wetlands and marshes while ancient humans hunted for food.
Centuries ago, early skiers placed animal skins underneath their skis for better traction to help glide forward and avoid sliding back downhill, in snowy conditions.
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Now people use a synthetic material — also called skins — placed underneath their skis or splitboard, which is a snowboard cut down the middle so that each half can be used independently to travel uphill.
When they finish their ascent of the mountain, the skins are removed and participants ski or snowboard down.
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Sales of backcountry ski equipment exploded during the pandemic, as ski resorts shuttered in the middle of March 2020. The first months of the 2020-21 ski season saw sales of backcountry equipment surge by 76% compared to the previous year, according to the NPD Group, a market research company, which tracks retail sales and trends across all global industries.
As skiers began exploring snowy hills beyond resort boundaries in the past two seasons, sales of alpine touring skis, bindings and boots, splitboards, avalanche safety tools, Nordic equipment and snowshoes reached all-time highs.
The frenzy carried through the 2021-22 ski season, with U.S. sales of backcountry gear reaching $3.4 billion from August 2021 through March 2022, which compares to $2.9 billion from August 2020 through March 2021.
But sales of backcountry gear have tempered as the pandemic fades and resorts return to regular operations. Sales from August through December reached $1.69 billion, compared with $1.71 billion for the same months in 2021, according to the NPD Group.
Why get people into the backcountry anyway?
Responsibly introducing more people to uphilling is important for many reasons, including safety.
Uphilling is safer when it occurs at a ski resort, but is more dangerous if it takes place in avalanche terrain, said Michael “Tele Mike” Russell, a backcountry, big mountain telemark skier living in Colorado, who is working to expose more people of color to uphilling at ski resorts and, eventually, backcountry skiing on terrain outside of resorts.
“I would argue that 90% of the time, when someone dies in an avalanche, they’re white. It’s only a matter of time that someone from our group has that misfortune,” Russell said of Black people. “I try to be safe about it and I want to teach people safety.”
Access to uphilling and the cardio exercise that comes with it also increases mental and physical wellness, especially beneficial for Black people, who have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, he said.
As lines at ski resorts become longer and longer, people are increasingly looking to get away from the resort to “mix it up” and try more scenic, quieter and sometimes slower days on the mountain, said Mackenzie “MK” Phillips, an NBS backcountry instructor living in Chicago, who is teaching an all-day women’s uphill course Thursday. The day includes a moonlight meditation and a reduced-cost, apres spa trip to “sweeten the deal,” and encourage participation from an unlikely demographic, she said.
The allure of the backcountry is the promise of powder. When ski areas don’t have fresh snow, travel into the backcountry tends to grow as skiers chase softer turns. Phillips sometimes prefers the easy access of skinning resorts over the backcountry, even if it comes without those powder turns.
“You can just go up for a quick skin and ride down and that’s your thing for the day,” Phillips said. “I think it just opens up the options for you for experiencing the mountain, which can just be a beautiful place to get away from everything.”
“You can bring your food. You can bring your music. It’s just a different vibe,” she said.
Rising costs on the slopes
Teague Holmes, a former professional skier who has made thousands of backcountry tours, was co-leading an introductory uphill clinic for many first-time uphillers with NBS on Tuesday morning.
He helped people adjust their boots, put on skins and walk up the mountain with the new equipment. He taught an intro to uphilling course last year at the NBS summit to many people who had not heard of the concept but were excited, he said.
Uphill skiing requires expensive equipment but it is more accessible to advanced skiers and splitboarders who understand the risks and requirements of participating in the backcountry.
“It’s free to use our public lands, and our public lands are open to all,” Holmes said. “Human-powered skiing is for everybody and we, the industry … want to make it more accessible to everyone.”
Uphill skiing requires specialized equipment, like lightweight ski boots, bindings that allow a person’s heel to rise as they ascend the mountain, climbing skins and adjustable ski poles, for example, Russell said.
Backcountry travelers also need to carry avalanche safety equipment, including a transceiver, which helps skiers find buried partners in an avalanche, a probe pole for locating buried skiers and a shovel. Skiers skinning at a resort don’t necessarily need the avalanche safety equipment that is essential in the backcountry.
“Why aren’t Black people doing this? Why don’t they hear about it?’ Russell asked. “Well, that whole setup that I just described is like $3,000, and that’s just for your equipment. And all that training I took, I spent thousands. … They’re $600 to $800 a pop for those trainings and certifications, all to keep you alive.”
To encourage participation from people who aren’t fond of the hiking portion of uphilling, Russell offers to take them to the top of the mountain on a snowmobile, so they can at least try skiing on the AT specialized boots and skis.
“I find with our culture, it’s black or white,” he said. “Either people are like, ‘Oh, hell no, I’m not hiking; I bought a lift ticket, not a hike ticket.’ Or people are like, ‘Oh, man, I love this idea.”’
Russell is working to get people of color uphilling or into the backcountry at a price that is affordable. He works with other instructors of color who share the same mission of usually offering those trips for free.
“I’m not trying to make any money from this,” Russell said. “It’s my passion project, if you will.”
Henri Rivers, the president of NBS, and Kim Miller, CEO of Scarpa North America, an athletic footwear manufacturer based in Boulder, approached Russell to lead a formal uphilling and backcountry program at NBS each year. This week, Russell led the courses formally for the second year, this time in partnership with Backcountry Magazine, and with help from several other backcountry brands.
“I’m intrigued by it. It’s a new frontier and a new challenge that is different from resort skiing,” said Coleman, the Vermont ski instructor, after his day of skinning at Vail Tuesday. “That new challenge and expanding my horizon as a professional skier, and being able to feel and experience what I see on some of these YouTube videos and having that exhilarating feeling of being outside, being on the mountain, is me rising up to the challenge that I put before myself.”
Over the past 15 years, Russell and a group of other Black people have been chasing a goal of backcountry skiing 14,000-foot peak mountains on every continent. Russell has already ticked North America, South America, Asia and Europe off his list.
In March, Coleman will join the group and participate in his first international backcountry ski trip with Russell as a guide. The group will ski the central Atlas Mountains in Morocco. In 2024, the group plans to ski the southern hemisphere in Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica, Russell said.
Making up for years of missed opportunities
Vendors from Osprey, Atomic, 22 Designs, Bishop and other companies offering ski and snowboarding equipment loaned their gear for free at the summit this week to help increase access and awareness about uphilling and backcountry sports. Those who performed best in uphill races received free gear from the companies.
Bryce Barnes, of Maine, who is part of the nonprofit, Inclusive Ski Touring, aimed at getting people in underserved communities to uphill ski and splitboard, was helping teach an uphill clinic Tuesday morning at Vail.
Barnes said one of the best parts of the clinic was seeing many first-time uphillers support each other as they learned. “Climbing up a mountain and then skiing down is a different level of reward, and it’s therapeutic in so many ways.”
“A lot of opportunity has been missed over the years with people of color being excluded from almost all points of outdoor contact,” he said. “Every day, I hope that there’s more Black people out here because it is incredible being out here, and anytime I do see anybody of color out in the backcountry, it just lights me right up.”
Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins and Colorado Sun photographer Hugh Carey contributed to this story.