Going Up — A Tribute to the Painful Joys of Skinning by Jim Harris

words and images by jim harris

As backcountry skiers and split-boarders, we hike up just to slide down. The more time we spend gaining vertical feet in deep, powdery snow, the better the ride will be. So what gets us through those difficult hours spent slogging to the top?

I asked a handful of the country’s most prolific backcountry skiers and riders to share their thoughts on going up. Here’s what they said.

— Jim Harris

Tyler Jones

Tyler Jones
UIAGM/IFMGA Mountain Guide
Bozeman, Montana

Noah Howell

Noah Howell
Powderwhores Productions
Salt Lake City, Utah

Liz Daley

Liz Daley
Athlete & Guide
Chamonix, France

Adam OKeefe

Adam OKeefe
Athlete & Writer
Salt Lake City, Utah

Brody Leven

Brody Leven
Athlete & Writer
Salt Lake City, Utah

Solveig Waterfall

Solveig Waterfall
Ski Mountaineering Guide
Seattle, WA

mountain_glyph_grayTyler Jones
UIAGM/IFMGA Mountain Guide — Bozeman, Montana

I usually begin my uphill missions by queuing up a killer reggae tune with a fat baseline. Upon settling into a nice, rhythmic pace I begin to ignore the lyrics and start stressing about which aspects will have the best snow. 

At some point, I inevitably complain that there should be a chairlift—that the terrain clearly lends itself to one. But those thoughts eventually fade into the flow of the tour and I settle back into enjoying my time in the mountains. Next thing I know I’m daydreaming about how I would build my perfect house and of those ice-cold PBRs waiting in the car. 

At the end of the day, looking back at a skin trail that’s so tidy it looks laser-cut gives me as much joy as reviewing my ski line. I find that every step up is worth the effort regardless of the quality of the turns on the way down.

Photo by Jim Harris

mountain_glyph_grayNoah Howell
Powderwhores Productions — Salt Lake City, Utah

When my head is down and my legs and lungs are pumping I often go into a meditative state. I don’t get to pick what thoughts pop into my mind during these times. Like passing scenery, I just absorb each one until the next arrives.

I’ve got a vivid imagination and it wanders: to remote peaks, movie segment ideas, women, music. I keep my iPhone nearby so I can take down ideas. Other times I’m just sucking wind trying to keep up, cursing at myself for drinking too much the night before.

People don’t typically celebrate what they’ve skinned. But climbing and suffering offer their own cleansing reward. You get to feel and appreciate the full gravity of life as you pull upward—a building foreplay followed by ecstatic release into a weightless descent.

Photo by Jim Harris

mountain_glyph_grayLiz Daley
Athlete & Guide — Chamonix, France

I wonder if my ski partners can hear me gasping while I try to both keep up and maintain conversation. I hope my butt looks as good as the chick’s ahead of me. When I’m in the front I feel super powerful, full of energy; if someone’s way ahead of me I start feeling weak and tired. Then I remind myself that all this suffering will make me look good naked.

Sometimes I scare myself with questions when approaching a big line: Is it going to be icy or rocky at the top? What are avalanche conditions going to be like? Will I even be able to make it? Why are we doing this? Should I quit snowboarding and move to the beach?

I enjoy skinning. I like the feeling of accomplishing a goal, getting to the top by my own power, and feeling worked. It makes the riding even more satisfying and there are rarely snow conditions I don’t enjoy riding.

Photo by Jim Harris

mountain_glyph_grayAdam OKeefe
Athlete & Writer — Salt Lake City, Utah

Skinning used to strike me as something that simply stood in the way of skiing. Raised on chairlifts, I viewed ‘earning your turns’ as a silly idea. Now, ten years later, I seldom ride chairs. What changed? Everything.

It started out that skinning allowed me to reach cool ski terrain, so I tolerated it. But as time went by, my fitness improved and friends began to join. Skinning took the place of riding chairs—I could catch up with friends, plot ski descents, eat, or do whatever when trudging uphill. If we couldn’t ski the line for some reason, no big deal. Skinning was no longer a chore.

Skinning has become my thinking time. Much as others think in the shower or on the toilet, my brain runs at high speed on the skintrack, working on every conceivable topic. Everything—and I mean everything—crosses my mind out there. From memories of Paris to dream-interpretations to corporate acquisitions to veganism to space travel to solar panels to electric transportation to sun exposure, the skin track allows my mind to catch up to itself.

Photo by Jim Harris

mountain_glyph_grayBrody Leven
Athlete & Writer — Salt Lake City, Utah

I’m not “going skinning” or “backcountry skiing.” I don’t head out with intentions of exercising. I’m just going skiing. In order to do this, I try to not make it much harder than resort skiing. I put my skins on and have my pack loaded the night before. I just walk out the door in the morning and remember to grab my pack the same way someone else may remember to grab their season pass.

It takes a while every winter to get my muscles and mind right. My hips may object to the modified-walking motion for the first few days. Maybe I don’t bring enough food, but too much water. I forget the names of mountains, how long it takes to skin somewhere, that hardshells don’t breathe, and who my favorite partners are.

Conditions are so different every day. Maybe I ski some zones two or three times a year. Or three times a week. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s different every time. On the majority of days, I don’t worry about heart rate, number of laps, or vertical ascent versus descent. I’m just going skiing, talking on the uptrack like others talk on the chairlift, and NEVER thinking “I just hiked for X hours for ONE run!?” Because that’s a good way to ruin a good day. Or to make fun of how inefficient this type of skiing is.

Photo by Jim Harris

mountain_glyph_graySolveig Waterfall
Ski Mountaineering Guide — Seattle, Washington

While skinning, my thought pattern loops. I start out worrying over the business at hand: observing the sensation of the snowpack under my skis; checking the air temperature; looking for sun effect; calculating wind loading. Then I run through my OCD checklist: Zippers zipped? Buckles buckled? Do I have both my boot tongues? Where did I put those ski crampons? Which Shot Bloks should I consume at the top: Cran-Razz or margarita flavor? Or maybe I should go straight to the chocolate almonds?

With the important questions answered, and if it’s early in the day, my ski pole probes and hand shears settle into auto-pilot as I focus on turning my anxiety and uncertainty about the descent into excitement and stoke. As the day progresses, I enjoy longer and longer skin-track daydreams.

Some days setting what feels like a never-ending skin track—or chasing my friends up one the morning after a big night—is masochism. Other days, wandering uphill amongst massive peaks in the wildest, most beautiful places, skinning feels like an end unto itself. But there really is no end to the beauty, only the perpetual pursuit of pow.

Photo by Jim Harris

mountain_glyph_grayJim Harris
Writer & Photographer — Salt Lake City, Utah

After instructing wilderness mountaineering courses for seven years, Jim Harris was hired for a photo shoot in 2011. Since then, he’s written about and photographed expeditions for National Geographic, Powder, Backpacker, Men’s Journal, and others. He’s found a niche shooting Type-II Fun and wilderness trips in places like Mongolia, Bolivia, and Antarctica but also loves tromping around his home mountains in Utah. In his private time, Jim freestyles lyrics to the zip-zop beat his climbing skins make while slogging uphill.

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