Ski mountaineering has its ups and downs

Skiing on a mountain can seem… counter-intuitive. But people still looking for a new fitness challenge may want to skip the lifts and earn their descent by “skinning” the climb first.

Kaitlyn Archambault was introduced to ski mountaineering, also known as “skimo,” when she moved to Crested Butte, Colorado, last year. It’s about skiing both downhill and uphill. Skiers attach a pair of strips of fabric called skins to the bottom of their skis for traction when climbing.

“People were talking about going skinning like they were going spinning,” says Ms. Archambault, a 32-year-old paralegal with Huckstep Law, LLC. “It’s a very foreign concept if you don’t live in a mountain town.”

more What is your training?

Ms. Archambault is a lifelong alpine skier, and after attending a ski mountaineering camp, she decided to train for the Gore-Tex Grand Traverse. The ski mountaineering race takes place on March 25 and 26, starting at midnight in Crested Butte. The 40 mile traverse with 7,800 feet of vertical gain reaches its finish in Aspen. It requires at least 10 hours of uphill and downhill movement and is done in teams of two. “My boyfriend bravely signed with me,” she says.

“It’s very meditative to be outside in the fresh air and taking in incredible views,” says Archambault.


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Ms. Archambault was a runner, but suffered from iliotibial (IT) band pain after running a marathon in 2011. “Ski mountaineering gives me the same cardio boost as running, but its impact is less,” says -she. Being in the backcountry – on unguarded, ungroomed terrain – surrounded by nature, away from the crowds, is what appeals to him the most.

“It’s very meditative to be outside in the fresh air and seeing incredible views,” she says. Recently, she says, she and her boyfriend, Zach Guy, director of the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, went out for eight hours. “It’s the best thing in the world to be in nature, to cross the mountain with full power.”

Archambault says the main components of ski touring are learning the basics of backcountry avalanche safety, as well as how to layer and refuel properly. Going from uphill to downhill takes practice. “Some people can just lift their foot, rip the skin off the bottom of their skis, and then roll down the slope,” she says. “When I need to put my skin on or take it off, I use it as a chance to catch my breath.”

In ski mountaineering, skiers make the transition from uphill to downhill skiing, including overhead by removing the skins from the underside of the skis.


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The training prompted her to exercise during the winter months, says Ms. Archambault. “When you leave work at 5 a.m. and it’s dark, all you want to do is go home. But once I climbed the mountain under the stars with my headlamp, I completely decompressed. It’s a great way to end the day.


Ms. Archambault flays two to three evenings during the week. After work, she typically heads to Crested Butte Mountain Resort and aims to climb for 45-60 minutes before descending. “The trails are groomed and safe,” she says. “I ride with a headlamp. It’s chilly, but once you get moving, it’s invigorating. On weekends, she makes longer rounds in the hinterland, four to eight hours, with Mr. Guy.

Ms. Archambault on the downhill part of a training session. When she does uphill training intervals, she says, “it feels like hell to me, like an hour-long anaerobic nightmare, a red line.” But I go into a different mindset and push myself harder.


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Some days she takes her dog and her skins on a trail through the woods of Snodgrass Mountain. Many Tuesday nights, she encounters a group of women doing uphill interval training on skis. “It’s like hell for me, like an hour-long anaerobic nightmare, a red line,” says Ms. Archambault. “But I’m going into a different mindset and pushing myself harder.”

Two mornings a week she rides 45 minutes on a training bike, and once a week she appears in a yoga DVD. “I’m not good at stretching, but my body feels the difference and thanks me when I do yoga,” she says.

Equipment and cost

Ms. Archambault says that ski mountaineering is not a cheap sport. Alpine touring skis can cost between $600 and $1,300 and technical bindings cost between $300 and $800. She uses lightweight La Sportiva RSR carbon skis with low-tech ATK bindings. She is looking for offers on a Facebook hardware swap page. Skins range from $100 to $250 and posts from $75 to $200. She says super lightweight racing alpine hiking boots can cost up to $2,000, but you can find them on Craigslist for $400.

Kaitlyn Archambault’s ski mountaineering gear includes lightweight La Sportiva RSR carbon skis with low-tech ATK bindings; adjustable sticks; Dynafit lightweight pack; helmet; lightweight Dynafit PDG boot, which buckles in “walking” or “skiing” mode; bitten; warm hat; a light layer to wear when skinning uphill; skinning gloves; goggles; skins; bottle of water; down mittens; ski strap; Headband.


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“If I paid $200 a month for a gym membership, it would probably cost more in the long run,” she says. “It is, for the most part, a one-time investment on the main gear.”

She’s wearing a Lululemon Swiftly Tech long-sleeved base layer, which retails for $68. “I usually spend a lot of money on a shirt, but staying warm is worth the extra cost,” she says. On top of that, she’s wearing a Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoodie, which is $149. His Aether Apparel ski pants are selling for $375 and his shell is selling for $695. She usually wears two buffs, one around her neck and another as a headband/earmuff.

The system of government

Ms. Archambault tries to make scrambled eggs for breakfast, but often rushes out the door with peanut butter on toast. She packs a salad topped with cottage cheese, apples, pears and feta or goat cheese for lunch, and keeps nuts at her desk to snack on. She always has a piece of dark chocolate in the afternoon. Dinner is salmon with couscous and broccoli, or a curry over quinoa. Her boyfriend races mountain bikes in the summer. “He’s encouraged to eat well, and that touches me,” she says. His ski bag is filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Honey Stinger energy chews, trail mix with extra M&Ms, a thermos of tea, and another with soup. “After a long day in the mountains, all I want is a good beer,” she says.

The reading list

“When I have skin at night, I like silence and solitude,” she says. Whether she’s flaying during the day or getting on the workout bike, songs that get her going include Dr. Dre’s “Next Episode,” Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” and the Ying Yang Twins’ “Dangerous.” “If one of those three songs comes up, I get a second wind,” she says.

Write to Jen Murphy at [email protected]

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