One of the things I love about the snowsports industry is the spirit of innovation that exists. It seems that as every new season starts, there’s new gear, new products and new ideas to get us excited about the upcoming winter. Just when things get a bit stale, something new comes out to energize our sport. We see examples of this when the industry first started to take shape. The innovation of hard ski boots and metal edges were game changers. Snowboarding eventually came along to energize the the slopes and then shaped skis did that same a few years later. After that we got fat skis, rocker and now we have light, efficient alpine touring (AT) setups. The resorts also innovate by upgrading to faster lifts that have greater capacity, they have been upgrading to better snowmaking and creating affordable multi resort season passes.
The innovation of our sport seems to come from every direction. Despite this, there’s one innovative area that resorts are resisting. Gear manufactures have made great progress in developing equipment for uphill travel and they continue to push this aspect by coming out with better and lighter AT gear. But resorts remain resistant to this growing part of the industry. While snowsport participation struggles to grow, the one area that is rapidly expanding is an area that resorts seem to be pushing away.
From the resort perspective, it’s hard to balance this new way of using the mountain with their existing operations. It’s a change in the way they do business and does bring up some safety concerns. But snowboarding was the same way when it first came on the scene.
Think of where we would be if the resorts pushed away snowboarders and terrain parks. Would we have the participation in snowsports that we have today? Would gear have progressed to shaped, wider and rockered skis? It’s possible that all these things would have still developed but not at the pace they did because of the innovative ideas that snowboarding brought to the slopes.
Uphill skiingis a lot like snowboarding was before is became widely accepted and invigorated the industry. With snowboarding, we had to figure out whether or not to allow it at resorts. Should boarders only be allowed on certain runs? How did it effect the image of the resort? Then there was the issue of jumps and half pipes that came along with snowboarding. How would we handle this and what is the insurance company going to say? Eventually we worked through everything and snowboarding went from counter culture, to main stream, to Olympic sport. All of this invigorated the snowsports industry. Some would argue that not only did it add a much needed shot in the arm but it saved the industry. Today, uphill travel can do the same. Resorts need to stop fighting the growing participating of uphill travel and embrace it.
Uphill skiing is growing fast among the existing skiers and snowboarders out there and it has the potential to bring in a whole new segment of people. There is great potential for growth in snowsports by targeting new participants that are already active athletes. Runners and cyclist have to get through winter waiting for nicer weather in the spring to ramp up their training. Uphill skiing can give these athletes a great way to enjoy winter and continue to train for their summer sports. These summer sports continue to grow with passionate participants. Let’s show them how great winter can be and why we look forward to so much. Skiing, along with uphill travel, compliments these summer activities in a low impact, highly enjoyable way. Cyclists and runners are a great new demographic to encourage to take up our beloved winter sport.
Another reason to embrace uphill skiing is it allows us to live our sustainability values by promoting human powered travel as opposed to solely relying on lifts for our resort mountain experience. Resorts could expand and grow in a sustainable way if lifts didn’t necessarily have to be a part of it. Although lifts would never be replaced, expansion of resorts would be much more sustainable if the expansion was for uphill travelers, requiring much less permanent impact. Throughout the whole resort, the overall skier experience would be greatly improved by adding more ways to experience the mountain. In addition, with more people working their way up the skin track, there would be smaller lift lines and less downhill on-slope congestion.
Major investments in infrastructure don’t need to take place to embrace uphill travel. First, designate uphill routes that are out of the way of downhill traffic. It’s important that these routes are in areas that participants can skin up but turn around to ski down to a lift at any point. Dropping people over the backside with no lift service where they are required to skin to the top is not ideal. Use existing lift serviced areas. To add to the experience of those that choose to incorporate uphill travel in their ski day, delay lift openings in certain areas to give the first tracks to people that earn their turns.
Second, encourage guided tours, lessons and have gear rental available. Take the mystery out of the equipment and technique. Show new users how all the equipment works. Make it easy for people to get the hang of the uphill part of skiing.
Third, separate this aspect of the sport from backcountry skiing by taking the risk out of it. Just like the rest of the mountain, maintain the same safety standards in the uphill areas. There are many people that want to enjoy “ski touring” without having to worry about avalanches and other backcountry danger. We need to separate this from the backcountry experience, which takes a whole other set of skills, knowledge, gear and risk acceptance. Just like resorts do now, make sure the terrain is avalanche controlled, objects marked and assistance is available.
Resort operators may fear that encouraging uphill travel will hinder ticket sales. Embracing uphill travel begs the question, why would someone purchase a lift ticket if they’re not using the lifts? But let’s face it, after one or two laps, the majority of us are going to welcome lift accessed skiing the rest of the day and be glad to have that season pass in our pocket. The uphill part just makes it a better overall experience for those that choose to participate.
Uphill skiing is the next major innovation in the snowsports industry. Gear manufactures have already embraced it and continue to develop better gear. It’s time for resorts to stop treating this as an obstacle to their operations and embrace it as a part of the resort experience.