Getting Outside and Getting Vertical

Here in the northeastern United States, we’re still firmly planted in winter. January and February freeze-thaw cycles give us the familiar frost heaves on our roads that make summer riding more adventurous than most of us care to admit. It also can make the monotony of traditional triathlon training a bit tedious – it’s either adding layer after layer of additional clothing, or going into your basement / garage / gym and firing up your trainer or treadmill to get your mileage in.

Frankly, I think that’s the wrong approach. We have a current forum thread talking about Taren Gesell’s pivot away from triathlon. And on that, he talks a lot about burnout within our sport, and having to go outside it in order to be able to re-find his joy in exercise and lifestyle. It’s not an unfamiliar tale: person tries triathlon, gets the bug, does every race and distance under the sun for a couple of years, burns out, and sells their bike.

Variety is the spice of a multisport life – in both event selection beyond “traditional” triathlon races, as well as in training. In the winter months, at least those of us in northern climates where winter means “not race season”, we’re looking to build basic fitness to prepare us for the work to come that will be more race specific. That lever doesn’t always need to be pulled by the same series of rides and runs. And heck, don’t take my word for it – look at Jan Frodeno’s Instagram, or this recent episode of That Triathlon Life:

I’d argue that it’s time for us to get back to embracing getting outside and doing activities that align with the seasons. And, for my money, I’d say one of the best ways to build fitness over the winter is to fall in love with alpine touring / ski mountaineering (SkiMo).

What Is It?

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus in on in-bounds touring. But speaking generally, we’re talking about a set of skis (or splitboards, or snow shoes if you really wanted to) that are apt for both climbing up the mountain, and then ripping your way back down. It’s a pretty easy way to get your heart rate up for a significant period of time. It also will give you a brand new appreciation for just how steep beginner terrain can be rated at your local mountain (as, more often than not, the designated uphill routes are on wider, gentler terrain).

SkiMo, meanwhile, takes this and adds racing to it. It includes uphill skinning, bootpacking, downhill skiing, and of course the needed transitions between the two of them.

What Gear Do You Need?

For inbound touring or even SkiMo racing, you’re looking at the following new gear if you’re already skiing or snowboarding:

–Alpine Touring Boots and Bindings
–Uphill Touring Pass (if required)

On the ski front, there’s a couple of different directions you can go in. You could go for a race ski – it is limited by rule to certain length and width underfoot. It is, by design, almost exclusively made to go uphill as quickly as possible. Or you could opt for a touring ski that is still quite light, and still prioritizes the uphill, but is actually skiable coing back down. Lastly, there’s your heavier skis that very much prioritize the descent over climbing.

I personally went for the middle of the road option – Hagan’s Ultra 82 is a lightweight ski that can still hold an edge on New England boilerplate when needed, but also play in a variety of conditions. Combined with their binding and boot combination, It is pounds lighter than my normal alpine set-up (Volkl M5 Mantra’s). Although the heart-rate will still climb plenty high during the ascent, my legs don’t feel completely bricked when getting to the top and getting to ski on down. Others will opt for a heavier set-up that might make climbing more difficult, but the descent more playful.

The other nice part about opting for a Hagan ski is that they also offer pre-cut skins, which make your life quite easy. Attach to tail, make sure they’re centered, bring the elastic over the tip, press down. It’s idiot proof. I can do it. I’m the village idiot. You can make this work.

The thing that is not idiot-proof is stepping into a touring binding for the first time, as well as removing yourself from it. What stays the same? You put your toes in first. But you’re just aligning yourself with two pins, versus a frame around the front of your boot. You WILL miss. It happens. Reset. Try again. It’s the same in the rear when you’re in ski mode – two little pins to step into. When removing yourself from the ski, it’s a release at the front – push down on that, get your toe free, and then remove the heel.

I may or may not have stood at the bottom of Stratton for five minutes trying to figure this out after descending for the first time, desperately trying to find a YouTube video that could save me.

Hagan offers a wide variety of options for bundling a ski, binding, and even a boot together. If you currently are in a lower-volume ski boot or shoe (think: less depth over the top of the foot), a Hagan boot is going to be a very easy online purchase for you to make. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you may need a different option.

(Editor’s Note: Hagan offered a touring set-up of skis, bindings, boots, and skins at a discount, which I purchased with my own money. There was otherwise no guarantee of coverage or financial consideration during the course of writing this article).

What’s It Actually Like?

In a word: outstanding.

At my home hill, the season-long uphill pass is free. There are a few designated uphill routes, and you will see people every single day heading up those trails. Whether skinning, snowshoeing, or hiking with a set of crampons when needed, you’re bound to find somebody else climbing up the hill.

The technique of going up resides somewhere between walking and classic cross-country skiing. It’s pretty easy to pick up the basics that will take care of 99.8% of situations you’d encounter going up (assuming you’re inbounds). The big limiter will be your fitness. And trust me, dear reader, your fitness will be limited the first couple of times going up. Uphill routes, even on gentler slopers, can average north of 15% grade. Make sure you bring hydration, and have layers – you’ll be very warm going up, and if it’s like any normal New England day skiing, very cold on the way back down.

There’s a tightknit community of uphillers. As you pass or get passed, you’ll almost always have some type of conversation with your fellow uphiller – getting info on best descents of the day, or what to expect on your next lap, or just enjoying the solitude of going up. Attitudes melt away when you’re going up, replaced by gratitude for the experience with others.

It’s that community, that sense of camaraderie, that most of us search for when it comes to our respective sport. That often can get lost in the winter months and being indoors. It’s far easier to allow it to flourish when you embrace the season instead.

Photo Credits:
#1 courtesy of Kurt Perham
#2 Ryan Heisler
#3, #4 courtesy of Hagan Skis USA