Skinning

Aspen local Victor Major skins up the Highland Bowl on Feb. 4.

Whether it’s accessing ski terrain in the backcountry, traveling to a hut, traversing a mountain range or climbing Ajax, I appreciate the efficient, low-impact, natural motion of skinning. But when it comes to Highland Bowl, I always bootpack. I don’t have a good reason why I like to double-step an 800-vertical-foot Stairmaster in alpine boots to the Bowl’s 12,392-foot summit, even on the deepest days, except for that it’s been working for 15 years. That’s the kind of stagnant thinking that gets innovators like Strafe’s Pete Gaston fired up. So, when my editor asked the question, “Why are so many people skinning the Bowl these days?”, I knew who to ask.

“If you’re trying to hike to the top of Highland Bowl on a powder day, it’s much easier and much faster to skin,” Gaston explains. “You see really fit people wallowing in the boot pack. When the rope drops on a powder day, we follow the patrol skin track and, generally speaking, we are two peaks in front of the first hiker.”

So, you’re saying post-holing in thigh-deep snow while murmuring obscenities trying to pass the conga line isn’t efficient? Asking for a friend.

Gaston didn’t always skin the Bowl. He, like many of us, emphasizes downhill performance and prefers skiing the Bowl in a stiff boot. But when Salmon Shift bindings hit the market last winter, accommodating both alpine boots and touring boots and offering a lateral toe release (much safer than average touring bindings), he started skinning the Bowl about 70 percent of the time.

Fellow Bowl-crusher Whit Boucher agrees with Gaston: “You’ll always be faster skinning if you have to break trail,” says Boucher. “But on a normal day where the booter is set in, I think it’s just as fast to hike as it is to skin.”

“I have seen a huge increase in the number of people skinning up,” says Surefoot manager Austin Nelson, three-time Battle of the Bowls champion. “I personally think people should stick with booting simply because Highland Bowl is all about the descent—it’s demanding terrain with variable snow conditions. Most days, stronger boots and bindings and bigger skis are going to enhance your experience.”

Aspen Highlands Assistant Snow Safety Director Mike Spayd says ski patrol skins in the morning or when the boot pack has disappeared, but patrollers are split 50-50 for the remainder of the day. Spayd says it comes down to personal choice and equipment preferences. “Once the track is in, I bootpack,” he says. “While I’m not trying to set any land-speed records, I think double-stepping the bootpack is faster.”

Patroller Trevor Doty follows suit. “It’s nice to bootpack once the track is set—there’s really no reason not to at that point.”

Inexperienced skinners might want to heed that advice. The terrain between the cat drop and the rock outcropping is not friendly skinning terrain, especially in firm conditions. “It’s easy to fall while skinning that section and slide a couple hundred feet into Maroon Bowl or hopefully the Bowl,” says Gaston. This is the same section of ridge that Spayd says is so tight on space that no one should worry about who’s skinning in the bootpack or booting in the skin track. While skinning, Gaston is conscientious of hikers. He likens the setting to a break where shortboard surfers and stand-up paddlers have to share waves. “As a skinner, you want to get out of the way of bootpackers—it’s just a respectful thing.”

Boucher says proper etiquette spans all uphill modes. “If a skinner is coming up hot behind you while you’re bootpacking in a narrow part, move over. If there’s someone hiking fast behind you, move over. It’s being conscious of others and letting people pass accordingly.”

Tess Weaver Strokes is a freelance writer, editor, mom and lover of all things outdoors in the Elks. You can follow her adventures @tesswstrokes.