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Noah Howell approaching Kroeger's Canteen along the Hardrock 100 course in Colorado; Photograph by Jason Schlarb

For More and More Runners, Ski Mountaineering Is Closing the Winter Fitness Gap

Why trail- and ultrarunners are spending their winters in ski boots.

Just after sunset on March 20, 2016, endurance athletes Jason Schlarb, Scott Simmons, Paul Hamilton, and Noah Howell skinned to the edge of Cement Creek on the outskirts of Silverton, Colorado.

They had completed all but the last two miles of their planned four-day ski mountaineering traverse of the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run course. Widely considered the hardest race in trail running, the route does an aesthetic loop almost entirely above 11,000 feet, starting in Silverton and passing through Lake City, Ouray, and Telluride before arriving back in Silverton. Strapping their skinny “skimo” (the nickname for ski mountaineering) skis to their backpacks, they ran through the freezing river in ski boots, giggling like young boys, elated that they were so close to finishing the first ever winter navigation of the San Juan Mountains racecourse.

“Skimo gives you the opportunity to get deep into the mountains,” says Schlarb, a professional ultrarunner. “Plus, it’s extra empty and beautiful in the wintertime—and badass.”

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Endurance athlete Jason Schlarb at Kroeger’s Canteen along the Hardrock Hundred course in Colorado; Photo by Scott Simmons

A Fitness Regimen Is Born

Athletes who spend their summers trail running and hiking mountains have been taking to uphill skiing in increasing numbers. Drought conditions in much of the West caused the 2014-15 winter season to be a down year overall for the $2.5 billion snow sports industry. However, data from the nonprofit trade association Snowsports Industries America indicate sales of backcountry skis, boots, and bindings were up 5 percent in all channels to $32 million (the data also show it’s not just a male-dominated movement, with women’s specific backcountry equipment sales increasing 87 percent). And, according to United States Ski Mountaineering Association, there has been a steady increase in the number of race events available in the U.S., from 42 in 2013 to more than 60 this year (an 18 percent increase).

Skinning, where you attach a directionally feathered mini-carpet to your downhill skis for uphill traction, has become an early-morning fitness regimen for mountain town residents across the country. A workout on the way up is then rewarded with the fun of alpine turns on the way down.

And more and more athletes are ditching the ski resorts entirely to head into the backcountry to “earn their turns.” According to SIA, last season one in five skiers and snowboarders (about 3.2 million people) left the relative comfort of resort lodges and lifts to climb the out-of-bounds mountain slopes they intended to ski down.

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Endurance athlete Paul Hamilton skiing down into Ophir, Colorado; Photograph by Jason Schlarb

For trail runners, the appeal is obvious—rather than trudging through snow or spending time inside on the treadmill, they can continue to climb mountains and be in nature for their winter workout fix. “I don’t want to be running on a bike path or just drinking beer and watching TV all winter,” says Schlarb. “But the real draw is accessing the mountain wilderness in long chunks of time and distance, plus it’s low impact and it’s fun to ski down.”

Where Running and Skinning Meet

The same physiological traits that make an athlete good at running mountains are the ones that propel them to the top of the climb in a skimo race or a day of backcountry skiing. “Both sports are dominated by aerobic fitness,” says Rob Shaul, owner of the Mountain Tactical Institute in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Over the last decade Shaul has refined a functional fitness approach, working with national champion skimo racers and Exum Mountain Guides. “Running uphill and skiing uphill aren’t that much different,” he says. “The athletes with a higher aerobic base succeed.”

The main difference, Shaul stressed, is the duration of the event. “An ultramarathon can last more than 12 hours, but a skimo race isn’t that long,” he says, “so the athletes don’t need as much volume in their training.” The other significant difference between the two is skimo’s use of the upper body. As Shaul explains, “Skinning uphill is a little bit more metabolic because you use your poles for the climb.” He has athletes perform exercises like step-ups and jump lunges with weighted backpacks in preparation for the backcountry.

An Ultramarathon on Skis

As soon as Schlarb, Simmons, Hamilton, and Howell crossed Cement Creek they realized they’d made a mistake. “We thought we were done skiing; our boots and legs were completely soaked.” The last stretch into town, for the ceremonial kissing of the Hardrock rock, had somehow held snow in the warm weather, which made it a mess of variable crust.

Bordering on mutiny, they punched through up to their thighs, grumbling to themselves in frustration. “We expected to have our souls crushed, and we all agreed this [was] the hardest thing any of us have ever done,” says Schlarb. “Noah’s a professional skier—he’s skied Denali—and he said this was the worst time he’s ever had on skis, and I agree.”

Skiing the daylight hours and resting in towns along the way, they covered about 94 miles with 34,000 feet of uphill in 55 hours—an ultramarathon on skis. Once burgers and fries were consumed and ski boots removed, however, all four athletes began talking about similar projects for next year. “We almost immediately started saying, ‘How about the Wasatch 100, JMT, or the Nolans route?’” says Schlarb. “As hard as it was, we all loved it.”