Uphill skiing has gained an edge in the ski and snowboard community in recent years. While riding the lifts and getting the most possible downhill laps is something most every skier and rider loves, an increasing number of them are choosing to use human power to reach the top of their line.
Uphill skiing, or “skinning,” which utilizes synthetic skins that slide forward, but not backward, to assist in sliding uphill, is gaining traction due to a combination of things, including increased lift ticket prices, improved touring gear and an elevated interest in finding solitude in the mountains. In fact, according to the National Ski Area Association’s Kottke End-of-Season Survey Report from the 2020-21 season, 57 percent of U.S. ski areas now allow some sort of uphill access. That’s a 28 percent increase from the 2012-13 season, when the survey first began inquiring about uphill policies.
Ski resorts nationwide are recognizing and taking advantage of this trend, offering uphill passes and uphill-specific routes. And a small, independently-owned area — Black Mountain — is arguably at the leading edge of this curve.
Every Friday night during ski season, Black Mountain hosts an uphill ski-mountaineering, or “ski-mo,” event organized by Ski the Whites’ Andrew Drummond. Skiers and splitboarders from around the Mount Washington Valley and beyond show up with their own agendas. Some are interested in the beer, pizza and social experience that comes along with the weekly event, while others are looking to quench their thirst for competition. Others simply want to push themselves, getting into better and better shape as the season progresses.
The scene at Friday Night Lights takes on a festive characteristic, with the social component being just as, if not more, important than the skiing itself (although some are more serious about it than others). Skiers line up on the designated uphill slope, and headlamps illuminate the quiet stretch ahead, giving the event a more authentic feel than if the slopes were bustling with lift-served night skiing. As the event begins, some skiers shoot to the front, pushing as hard as they can to win the race — be it against their own time or other competitors. But most take a more casual approach, talking and laughing with friends as they make their way to the summit during the two hours the course is open.
Now starting its fifth season on New Year’s Eve, the event has become more than what Drummond initially had expected when he launched it with six events over the course of the 2017-18 season.
“During the first year, if we had 50 people show up it was a good night,” Drummond said. “Now we’re getting an average of over 150 people per night. And what I’ve learned is it’s not just my demographic. It’s families, 60-year-olds, kids, and everyone in between.”
Ian Ferguson, a North Conway native and owner of Intervale’s Ledge Brewing Company, made it his goal to attend as many Friday Night Lights as he could last season.
“It’s such a great community event for skiers,” Ferguson said. “It’s a great way to stay in shape and get a couple of quick post-work laps on the snow, but it’s also a fun and unique event that draws the backcountry ski community together.”
East Coast skiers might hate to admit it, but unreliable snow in the backcountry can make post-work off-piste laps difficult or impossible. This is another major draw for Ferguson.
“It’s usually groomed and open so there’s typically better snow during a low snow year than you’d find in the woods,” Ferguson said. “Either way, it’s fun to get a group together and go on a night tour by headlamp.”
With the pandemic having become a major factor last ski season, the event, and trend as a whole, is showing no signs of slowing down.
“It seems like the event is growing each year, and last year was another unique one,” Drummond said. “Some of the participant base had the ability to work remotely and join on Friday and Saturday nights.”
But for Drummond, the event isn’t about how many people show up, or even skiers competing against one another. “From day one, I used to count numbers. But then I realized it’s not about numbers,” he said. “It’s about providing the space for people to go out and have a good time. And this is a unique opportunity, to go ski with a headlamp, to try out ski touring and try to break down that barrier. And to provide a venue for people to go out and have a good time and kick off their weekend.”
For those who are looking to explore ski touring for the first time, Drummond’s ski shop, Ski the Whites, also rents touring set-ups for the event.
This season, Friday Night Lights will be taking place every Friday night from Dec. 31 through March 18, with the exception of mid-February, when it will take place on Saturday, Feb. 12. On Feb. 25, there will be a bonfire and live music. On other nights, aprés will consist of beers and beverages served by Lostbo Pub. The entire event runs from 6 until approximately 8 p.m. The course opens at 6 p.m. and the race starts one hour later. Aprés is at 7:30 p.m. There is a daily $10 fee to cover costs associated with the event, and a $70 season pass is available.
If a weekly event hosted by Drummond and Black Mountain isn’t enough, the two have collaborated on an additional event that has had some buzz around it in recent seasons. The event, aptly named, “Last Skier Standing,” is a true test of physical and mental endurance in which, quite literally, the last skier standing wins.
During the event, each skier has one hour to ascend and descend the 1,000 vertical feet to and from the summit. At the beginning of the following hour, the skiers line up before starting their next lap together. With this unique format, only one lap is allowed per skier per hour, and the lap must be finished within that same timeframe. The process repeats until only one skier is left the victor. When Drummond started this event nearly three years ago, it was an evolution of a similarly formatted foot race he called “Bubba’s Backyard Ultra.”
“Someone brought up applying it to skiing as part of event feedback,” Drummond said. “So, of course I brought it up with some friends and the idea was born. But we had no idea if (the 1,000 vertical feet) was the right level of difficulty, because it takes into consideration both fitness and endurance along with sleep deprivation.”
Now entering its third year, the one-of-a-kind event has proven to be wildly successful, with Black Mountain’s 1,000 vertical feet serving as the perfect venue.
During the event’s first year, the winning skier skinned and skied for a total of 34 consecutive hours — or 34 laps — which exceeded the winning Bubba’s Backyard Ultra time by nine hours. From Drummond’s perspective, this opened the floodgates for what’s possible. During the 2021 Last Skier Standing event, the winning skier skied for a whopping 61 consecutive hours, defying what many thought to be humanly possible. The accomplishment gained recognition in major publications such as Ski Magazine and Outside.
“Adding that much more time threw us for a loop,” Drummond said. “But it’s just a proof of concept that once you have this barrier broken down, people just push beyond it. It opens up the doors for them to realize what’s possible.”
Last year, participation nearly doubled from that of the first year. What’s more, many participated in the form of following along from the comfort of their own homes. Those interested in the event who were unable or uninterested in participating followed with live updates and live timing on social media through the event’s conclusion on Monday night.
This year, the event will take place at Black Mountain on Feb. 12. And with a number of people already signed up prior to any advertisement, it’s shaping up to further push what’s possible.
While Last Skier Standing has a more competitive edge than Friday Night Lights, it’s still about personal goals rather than the bottom-line winner. The event is an opportunity for people to push themselves beyond what they thought was possible, whether that’s six consecutive laps or 60.
“It is a competition, but the reason I (wrote off the idea) in the first place was because I thought, ‘Who wants to be in their ski boots for that long?’ ” said Drummond. “But the other Backyard Ultra I have is all about personal goals, and that’s something I missed.”
According to Drummond, there are really only a few people truly hunting down a finish. Most participants use it as an opportunity to push their personal boundaries and test themselves.
These events, and similar uphill-specific events and resort policies nationwide, foreshadow the future of skiing and snowboarding. And while cutting-edge, detachable high-speed quad lifts, advanced grooming technology, and expanded lift-accessible terrain once was at the forefront of the ski industry, many are proving that skiers’ real desires are focused on simplicity and returning to skiing’s roots. ′
Josh Laskin can be reached at [email protected].
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