An Uphill Skiing Community Unique to Aspen

Early mornings and steady climbs can't discourage this group of avid uphill skiers.

Uphill skiers climbing up Buttermilk on a bluebird day

By Tess Weaver
Most winter mornings, after local businessperson and KSPN radio host Ryan Koster, 42, drops his first grader off at the bus stop, he heads to Aspen Mountain. In around an hour (thanks to locally grown lungs), he can ascend the mountain’s 3,267 vertical feet on light alpine touring skis with skins affixed to their bases, warming up with the sunrise and saying good morning to friends and strangers along the way. Before guests load the first gondola, Koster has already skied a top-to-bottom run of fresh corduroy—or, if he’s lucky, untracked powder.

“Not all of us can ski all day, so this is the most efficient way to earn a hard and enjoyable outdoor workout early, then get one quality run down before heading to work,” says Koster. “Aspen Snowmass has done such a great job keeping this activity accessible—we have so many routes, so many mountains… we’re really lucky here.”

Aspen Snowmass has long welcomed uphilling, and with perhaps the ski industry’s most accommodating policies: All four ski areas are open to uphilling with multiple, well-marked routes; three of them allowing access during operating hours; and even pups are welcome—as long as you show up after last chair. Plus, with the efforts to maintain groomed uphill access throughout the pandemic—even when the lifts stopped running—people are starting to recognize and appreciate the resort as much for its uphill allure as its downhill fame. With uphill lessons and clinics, user-friendly lightweight gear on offer, and social events like Friday uphill breakfasts, full moon dinners and races like Summit for Life and Power of Four, Aspen Snowmass and the local community both embrace and nurture an unparalleled uphill culture that’s easy to jump into.

Just the Right Dose of the Outdoors

Just the Right Dose of the Outdoors

“Not all of us can ski all day, so this is the most efficient way to earn a hard and enjoyable outdoor workout early, then get one quality run down before heading to work."

–Ryan Koster, Uphill Skier

Like many locals and visitors, Koster increased his uphilling with the onset of the pandemic. He started skinning up the slopes a decade ago on heavy equipment, when it was common to make it all the way up Aspen Mountain and not see anyone but ski patrol. These days, around 7am, you might notice what looks like a row of ants climbing up Little Nell. Hundreds each day ascend Buttermilk, which, like Snowmass and Highlands, allows uphilling all day long. Due to this surge in popularity, Aspen Snowmass enacted an uphill pass this season; its $69 annual fee supports the maintenance and management of uphilling at the resort, with $10 from each purchase going to Mountain Rescue Aspen. Uphill pass holders can opt into email communication from mountain operations regarding uphill closures, route changes and more—and the Aspen Snowmass App shows open uphill routes each day.

Koster skins six days a week, and since he ramped up his skinning volume two years ago, he’s shaved about 20 percent off his personal record up Aspen Mountain. But not everyone is in a hurry. Yes, some of the fastest uphillers in the country train here—some even with their eyes set on the 2026 Winter Olympics, when ski mountaineering racing (the formal name for a ski genre that combines ascending and descending mountains) joins the Olympic roster. But most are seeking a casual winter workout that combines cardio, fresh air and a fun finish. Many are in it for the social aspect, meeting friends in a healthy, outdoor setting and celebrating the skin with pancakes at Bonnie’s or a full-moon dinner at the Cliffhouse. Others seek the meditative benefits of skiing uphill and enjoying the solitude—that peaceful rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other—and the connection to nature in a controlled setting.

Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race

Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race

The Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race.

It’s easy to see the allure. And Aspen Snowmass instructors like Ted Mahon, a ski school veteran of 24 years and accomplished ski mountaineer (he, along with his wife Christy Mahon and local pro skier Chris Davenport, was one of the first to ski Colorado’s 100 highest peaks), share the sport with newbies via private uphill lessons and monthly locals’ clinics. Mahon is one of some 15 Aspen Snowmass instructors qualified to take clients up the mountain. “It’s great to work for a company that’s forward thinking enough to be out in front when it comes to uphill policies and culture,” says Mahon. At the locals’ clinics, never-evers show up with new, used, or rented set-ups from Four Mountain Sports or Cripple Creek. “It’s exactly the right setting for those lacking an entry into the sport,” says Mahon. His clinics start with a session going over the equipment, planning the day, packing, and layering. Then, he goes over the minutia of technique and the rules of uphilling at the resort. “The finer points make a difference,” says Mahon. “Skinning is about efficiency—if you’re not efficient, it can be really hard. We go over the length and cadence of your stride, the limits of your skins, when and where to switchback and how to follow the rules and guidelines for uphilling.”

Whether it’s at uphill clinics, Friday uphill socials or competitive events like the Power of Four, this sport fosters strong community bonds. When the Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race started more than a decade ago, only 70 competitors signed up to skin, hike, and ski 24 miles (with more than 10,000 feet of elevation gain) across Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain. Now, hundreds of racers, from recreational to elite, test their mental and physical strength each March. Aspen Snowmass also hosts Summit for Life, a nighttime race up Aspen Mountain held each December to benefit the Chris Klug Foundation.

“As a company we truly believe in inspiring adventure, journeys, and physical and personal growth,” says Katie Ertl, Senior Vice President of Mountain Operations for Aspen Skiing Company. “It ties into the Aspen idea of mind, body, spirit—and really hits the mark for us as company and a community. We want to encourage the idea of walking uphill for exercise and inspire people to get together in a healthy way. Après-ski is a big part of the ski world, and uphilling offers is a healthy alternative people can do before or after work to socialize or just decompress and unwind.”

Like most of Aspen Snowmass’ management team, Ertl is an avid uphiller. She skins twice a week, mostly on Buttermilk, so she can get exercise with her dog and get to work by 8am.

“I love the movement of the ski across the snow—that it sticks so you can move yourself up the hill,” she says. “It’s so empowering to know you can walk straight up a slope on skins. Whether it’s to the top or halfway up the mountain, there’s always a sense of accomplishment.”

Uphilling means something different to everyone. For some, it’s a winter-long gym membership to maintain cardio fitness during ski season. For others, it’s a social outlet and a way to connect with friends in a healthy setting. Visitors enjoy adding another mountain activity to their ski trip. Many appreciate the low-impact motion of gliding uphill under their own power—or the peaceful meditation of a solo skin under a bright moon. Whatever you’re looking to get out of it, there’s no better place touphill than Aspen Snowmass—and no better time than now.

Our Uphilling Guide

Three friends reach the top of Buttermilk on uphill skis

Three friends reach the top of Buttermilk on uphill skis

Ready to give uphilling a shot? Get all of the details with our Uphilling Guide, including details on our uphilling clinics.

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