A petition has been circulating in recent days calling for Purgatory Resort to allow uphill travel on its slopes.
Uphill skiing, also known as skinning, is when people climb mountain slopes with skis fitted for backcountry travel. Once at the top, skiers can adjust their gear and glide downhill.
While bypassing the convenience of ski lifts may sound crazy to some, advocates of uphill travel revel in the exercise and say the practice at established ski areas allows for some of the experience of backcountry skiing largely without the avalanche risks.
Purgatory Resort, however, does not allow uphill travel.
David Taft, a Durango resident, hopes to change that, starting a petition that had gathered more than 500 signatures as of Wednesday.
“Compounded with the ongoing (COVID-19) pandemic which is limiting lift capacity and closing gyms, there is huge demand for skiers to forgo the lifts, get a bit of cardio and earn their turns,” the petition says.
“There is a huge number of skiers in the region who would gladly take advantage of this opportunity to avoid high avalanche risk days in the backcountry (particularly in this exceptionally fatal season), test out new gear and get their fitness in top form,” the petition says.
So why isn’t uphill travel allowed at Purgatory Resort? Dave Rathbun, the resort’s general manager, said there really isn’t a reason.
“It hasn’t been a topic of discussion since I’ve been here,” said Rathbun, who took the job in November 2018. “It’s not come up as an issue. It’s interesting; a lot of ski areas do it. But at this stage, Purgatory does not have an uphill policy.”
Indeed, the rise in popularity of uphill travel has been leading ski resorts to embrace the emerging sport.
A recent “End of Season Survey” by the National Ski Areas Association said more than 50% of resorts in the country allow uphill skiing, according to a report in The Aspen Times.
In an interview with The Durango Herald, Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications for Aspen Skiing Co., which operates Aspen’s four major mountains, said uphill travel has been allowed for years.
Each mountain – which includes Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk – has its own particular regulations, such as whether people can travel uphill during operational hours and specific designated routes.
Overall, there really isn’t much of a conflict between those who purchase lift passes and those trudging up the mountain, Hanle said. But, with the “explosion in popularity” recently, the resort is looking at how to manage crowds.
In some spots on the mountain, Hanle said more people are traveling up the mountain on their own volition than people skiing down.
“We’re seeing hundreds of people every day going up the mountain,” he said. “It’s pretty wild.”
Hanle said the resort constantly works to educate all skiers, so both user groups can enjoy the outdoors symbiotically. At Aspen Skiing Co.’s mountains, uphill travel is free and seen as the next big thing in the ski world.
“It’s part of the culture and it’s become more that way,” Hanle said. “But we have to keep educating to make sure the two forms can coexist side by side. It’s a privilege, not a right, and we need everyone’s cooperation to make it work.”
Katherine Fuller, communications manager for Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, said uphill travel at the mountain is free for people with a season pass. Or, people can pay for a $59 pass for solely uphill travel for the season.
During the resort’s operational hours, access is restricted, though it’s fair game early in the morning before the resort opens and in the evening after it’s closed. Some of the resort’s remote and dangerous terrain is off-limits, she said.
“It’s super popular outside operating hours, actually,” she said. “People are good at staying where they need to be. It’s been really successful for us.”
Fuller herself enjoys uphill travel at the resort, touting the fact you can trek up on groomed trails with relatively low avalanche risk.
“It’s a much different experience,” she said. “I love it because it’s great exercise. I don’t have backcountry training or equipment, so this is a way for me to get outside and do something different.”
The same demand for uphill travel appears to be present around Durango.
Brandon Mathis, marketing manager for Backcountry Experience, said the shop that sells ski gear has seen a significant increase in sales, especially for backcountry skiing.
“The demand is incredible,” he said. “We’ve never experienced a demand like this.”
Mathis said allowing uphill travel at Purgatory would let people get some runs in before work. And, again, he stressed it would be safer than traveling into the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains, notorious for its avalanche danger.
“It’s really a way to get some exercise, raise the heart rate and earn your turns,” he said.
Steve Ward, a longtime Durango resident who recently moved to Dolores, said he signed the petition hoping to get Purgatory to change its policy.
“It allows a way for people that want to go backcountry skiing to be safe,” he said. “It’s a different cup of tea for different people.”
Purgatory’s Rathbun said uphill travel is allowed at Hesperus Ski Area (both are owned by Mountain Capital Partners, though Hesperus Ski Area has limited terrain).
Purgatory Resort is on public lands and operates through a permit issued by the U.S. Forest Service.
Forest Service spokeswoman Lorena Williams said if Purgatory were to decide to change its uphill policy there would be some details that would need to be worked out between Purgatory and the Forest Service.
“However, an amendment to Purgatory’s permit would not be required in order to offer uphill travel,” Williams said. “The changes could be addressed in an annual operating plan.”
Rathbun reiterated that a call for uphill travel hasn’t been a topic since he took the job a few years ago, but he said given the dangerous avalanche season in the backcountry, he can see why people have now called for access at the resort.
This winter has been one of the deadliest for backcountry travelers in the state in recent history. As of Wednesday, 10 people had died in avalanches, five of whom were killed in the San Juan Mountains outside Silverton.
Rathbun said it would be too late to allow uphill travel at Purgatory this season, but he would be open for a discussion with the community to possibly change the resort’s policy for next winter.
“The timing is not right,” he said. “But if people want to talk about it, we’d be happy to talk about it.”