I was 40—okay, 40-ish—when I bought my climbing skins. I'd spent the past 15 years getting good enough at skiing to enjoy steep stuff, deep stuff, trees and even hiking into untracked terrain. I wanted more.
Motivated by old skis and a death that now seemed palpably closer than when I was in my 30s, I decided to buy alpine touring bindings. Mine were built mostly for downhill, but flip a lever and the heel is free enough to mimic the motion of a cross country ski. I wouldn't be trekking to ski the Truchas Peaks, but I could now do stuff that was previously inaccessible.
I bought the skins the next year. (Find them for $115-$250 at REI or backcountry.com.) Slick facsimiles of old-school animal skins, they attach with straps, hooks and, most importantly, a layer of glue on one side that bonds temporarily to the ski. They also have a cutting tool to shape them. Soon, I could haul myself uphill without having to sling skis over my shoulder. I'd earn my run down the mountain and slide myself back uphill as I pleased.
I was ready.
That was three years ago.
When I finally decided to try "skinning" this November, I opened the carrying pouch and stared at the skins that had spent the last 36 months folded neatly onto themselves. I still had to cut them, which I knew I'd screw up.
Luckily, a few of the guys at the Mellow Velo bike shop next door skin. Owen Haggard is one such guy. He's spent half his life on the snow, including time as a guide. He agrees to help, and adds, "If you want some company up there, let me know."
I want company; if for no other reason than to have someone who can call for help. Ski Santa Fe opens the next day and Haggard expects most of our path will be groomed.
But first, the cutting. Haggard explains that I'm free to use the special tool, but he prefers a cheap utility knife.
"Most people get really nervous when they do this because they're afraid they'll …" Haggard pantomimes a slice across the skin and the base of the ski while I mentally count myself as the very person he's talking about.
He suggests a smooth, deliberate cut—not slow—along the entire ski, using the edge for a guide. He does one ski; I do the other. It's somewhat tedious, as we repeatedly trim the skins to just less than the width of the ski. I'll have an edge if I need to stop on a steep slope on the way up the mountain, which of course I will.
We meet at the base of Ski Santa Fe to start our trek uphill, and Haggard is right: The mountain is almost completely groomed along our route. Ski Santa Fe is one of the few ski areas that allows uphill climbing in season. This is a great place to learn before touring into the backcountry. And it's free.
I peel the skins, place them on my skis and start walking. Which is ridiculous. It takes about five steps to realize I'm supposed to be sliding. Once I do that—with Haggard sneaking a sidelong glance—I'm feeling much better. It's crazy: uphill on skis. We're tracking up the bunny slope, so it's as flat as a mountain gets, but I can feel the skins grabbing the snow before I flick each ski forward.
As the terrain gets steeper, we use risers that are tucked under our heels in the bindings, turning huge uphill strides into something more manageable, like a never-ending staircase. We heat up in a hurry, so a backpack for a helmet and water or shedding layers is a must. Haggard explains the benefits of keeping my eyes up for balance while I wheeze away beside him.
This is fun, though. There's a peaceful rhythm—even after the ski area opens—to skinning; breath and the shush of the skins with each step. You see the mountain slowly and differently. It's hard, but it's not impossible.
At an access road, Haggard takes mercy. We stop, snap a picture and peel off the skins. By this time, I've been so obsessed with learning and going uphill and not dying that I've forgotten we get to ski down. The entire way—which isn't far today—I have a huge, stupid grin on my face.
So far this year, I've started every day on the mountain with progressively longer treks uphill before locking my heels down and using the lifts for the day. I don't know if that will continue, but I can't see a reason other than my own laziness that it would not.