In recent years I have noticed an increase in people skinning up the piste under perfectly good lifts. I always wondered whether they were cheapskates not wanting to buy a lift pass, fitness freaks or just nutters. Like lots of unknown or untried activities, I have been through the thought process of ‘disinterest’, ‘must be nutters’, ‘OK but not for me’, ‘well lets give it a go’.
Skinning, is attaching synthetic carpet-like ‘skins’ (originally seal skins) to the bottom of your skis to give you the grip on the snow needed to ski uphill. Much like a fish scale the skin is smooth in one direction and rough in the other. This enables the ski to glide across the uphill snow, then stick and not slide backwards. The skin, which can easily be stored in a rucksack for the downhill, is attached with loops at the top and bottom of the skis and has a glue-like reusable texture to attach to the base of your ski. You also need ‘touring’ bindings which act like normal downhill bindings for skiing downhill but then can be adjusted to enable the heel to lift. Similar, but not the same, to telemark bindings. This enables an efficient walking/sliding locomotion.
If you enjoy backcountry freeride these two items are standard equipment. But these are normally to help you climb an extra mountain to access some untouched powder once you’ve exhausted the lift system. However, over Christmas I found myself on family skiing holiday in Zell am See with nothing but artificial snow on the pistes and a morning to myself so I decided to give skinning up the piste a go. I chose the red run under the Areitbahn I lift from 760m to 1,400m a vertical ascent of 640m. It took me an hour and half after which I skied straight back down again in under 5 minutes and took the lift back up! A pointless exercise? Well no, I really enjoyed it, although unlike others I saw, I opted to stop at Areitbahn I, there is a Areitbahn II and III up to 2000m.It was hard work, the limited width of artificial piste meant there was little opportunity for zig-zagging which meant I had to go straight up the steep parts and grip really became a problem. I might be wrong but I’m sure artificial snow is more slippery. It was a case on two steps forwards and a big slide backwards. You also had to keep an eye on the hurtling downhillers of unknown skill level, wondering what the hell you were doing coming up!
So why do it? There are the obviously fitness benefits of long slow endurance, non-impact exercise which is great training. There is also the safety aspect of a managed piste, no avalanche risk, no getting lost and people about to help which is great if you are on your own. There is also the variety of doing something different rather than just piste skiing. But the best part is spending quiet time moving your body in the mountains with the fantastic views and fresh air. It won’t replace the thrill of downhill or the adventure of backcountry exploring but I will do it again.