On any given day, there’s a stream of people hiking up the Aspen Skiing Company’s ski resorts, usually before making turns down. The physically demanding activity is part of a growing trend of uphilling, or hiking up ski areas instead of riding chairlifts. And it could expand further, as one of Aspen's elected leaders envisions an industry uphilling. Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher hiked up the Tiehack section of Buttermilk, and files this story.
Pulling into the parking lot at the base of Tiehack, it’s so packed there’s barely room to squeeze another car in. Tom Dimpfl is putting his skis and skins in the back of his Toyota Tacoma. I ask him what inspires him to walk uphill-- instead of getting in lots of runs by riding the lifts. He agrees that a day full of turns is enjoyable. But, "once in a while I like to go uphill. I know at least once a week, you know.”
Dimpfl is the first of eight hikers I’ll see today. He hops into his truck, and I get ready to walk uphill. First I attach climbing skins to my skis. They have synthetic fur, on one side and sticky glue on the other. The glue attaches to the bottom of the ski and the fur provides traction, so my skis don’t slip as I trudge uphill. With music playing at the bottom of the Tiehack Express, I dig in my poles and the hike begins.
Ahead of me is another uphiller in green ski pants. We’re following small, bright orange signs. The Aspen Skiing Company plants them on different routes on all four mountains, showing the designated uphill route.
A ways up Tiehack is Alex Garcia. He’s tackling at steep section-- and instead of skis and skins, he’s walking in snowboard boots, with a snowboard strapped to his back. Garcia laughs at his slow going, explaining he lives in Aspen, but has been relaxing for the past week at sea level and eating junk food. Plus, this is a new experience for Garcia-- he's never uphilled before. “Couldn’t afford the ski lift ticket," he laughs again. "Luckily I got some lightweight boots, so that’s helping,” Garcia explains the heavy load. His biggest lesson today, after getting really hot, is to wear fewer layers while walking up
But Garcia's enthusiasm for trying something new... even though it’s really hard... is part of the reason Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron is hoping to expand the business side of uphilling in the Upper Valley.
"It’s really to make Aspen the epicenter of this exploding niche of the ski industry," he explains. "And that means attracting the businesses to Aspen in some capacity."
Skadron hopes to convince outdoor gear companies like Dynafit, SCARPA, or others to relocate some of their North American offices here. “Generating the jobs that follow, and then generating the income and revenue that comes from those jobs. It’s like a classic economic development program without the development.”
Aspen's Mayor envisions designers sketching out the latest boots and skis in a storefront window downtown. He’s heard from a few companies that they’re considering moving employees to Aspen, which in some cases means downright stealing people away from their current offices in Boulder.
Skadron knows Boulder has an edge over the Roaring Fork Valley, “they’re close to DIA of course, their cost per square foot is much less, they have warehousing capabilities we don’t have.” So he's pitching that companies could spread out those facilities along the Roaring Fork Valley, benefiting several communities.
That’s the long term goal. For now, the City of Aspen has a worker to organize the first steps, which include a festival in mid march around the annual America’s Uphill on Aspen Mountain. The City is putting twenty thousand dollars towards the effort.
Back at Tiehack, I arrive at the top and take the skins off my skis. After tightening my boots-- and enjoying a Godiva milk chocolate truffle-- I start making turns downhill.
On the way, there’s a steady stream of hikers following my path. One of them is Amy Olson. She used to live in the Aspen area, but left a few years ago. "When I was here, full time, I probably walked up five days a week during the winter," she says wistfully, "but now I live in New York City, so I’m just here for the holidays, so I’m trying to get it in every day that I’m here.”
I ask Olson what the appeal of uphilling is for her: “I do it just because I love getting outside, and good exercise. I think it’s kind of fun to have to work for skiing back down.”
Exercise was the primary motivator for two sisters I interviewed earlier about uphilling at Tiehack. And it played a role for Tom Dimpfl, whom I met down in the parking area at the beginning of today’s hike. Time will tell whether it’s popular enough to bring major manufacturers here-- or other kinds of economic development tied to walking uphill.