Answers to common questions on the right to ski uphill
In late November, our local ski hill announced plans to start charging for uphill access. The fees are nominal — $10 for a day pass, $50 for a season pass, free for regular season pass holders — but the news incited a small outcry among some locals. The outcry, primarily on social media, included claims along the following lines: the resort can’t charge people for using public land; resort uphill skiers don’t use lifts and shouldn’t have to pay; the area is putting big profits over people; for tax payers, access to federal land is a right.
Ok, I admit. When I first read the news about the charge, I cringed. I’ve been skinning up Sunlight for over a decade. It might actually be the first place I ever walked uphill, back in the days of Black Diamond Joules and G3 Targas. And the ski area had, for a very long time, operated with a pretty lenient policy. Day or night, during operations or after, uphillers could ascend the area’s main blue run (despite blind rollers and steep spots) and then regroup in the open-24-hours warming hut on top.
It’s no secret that resort uphilling is having a moment. Just read the NYTimes from a few weeks ago, and the Washington Post weeks before that. Check your local ski hill’s website and you’ll likely find an uphill policy that didn’t exist a few years ago.
Regulations are wide ranging. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort completely banned it. Arapaho Basin charges for an annual pass. Aspen Mountain allows it only outside of operating hours. A few, including Snowmass, offer suggestions for uphill routes but minimal restrictions otherwise.
Over the past few years, during-operation uphill skiing at Sunlight alone has increased from maybe a dozen each day to ‘dozens and dozens,’ according to Troy Hawks, a spokesperson at the ski area. The increase in traffic and subsequent safety concerns for both uphill and downhill skiers drove the the new fees. The backlash is the unintended side effect.
As the practice of resort uphill skiing grows, it seems there are definitively grey areas surrounding whether resorts should (or can) charge, what uphillers are paying for, and generally, what rights taxpayers have if they’re accessing public lands operating under permits issued by the USFS. It’s high time for some clarity.
“You don’t own the forest” and other common claims
To break down the nuances of public land versus ski area operation, I called up our local White River National Forest Mountain Sports Program Manager and Acting Public Affairs Officer Roger Poirier.
For context, I’ll summarize the basic arrangements: ski areas on USFS land operate under a 40-year special permit for the primary use of downhill skiing. The USFS is the landlord and ski areas are tenants. Ski areas are businesses and they can propose how they want to operate as such on USFS land, so long as their proposed actions are in the interest of 1) the land being used sustainably and 2) the safety of guests. Which brings us to our first claim.
Claim #1: The resort can’t charge people for using public land.
Partly true. “Sunlight or any other resort are not allowed to charge the public an entrance fee to use the National Forest land,” says Roger Poirier, but, “they are allowed to charge a fee for the facilities that they offer. So if they’re providing groomed slopes and trails, snowmaking etc, they’re sinking their own money into that, they’re managing that experience and so they are allowed to charge.” Which brings us to our second claim.
Claim #2: Uphill skiers shouldn’t have to pay because they don’t use lifts.
While it’s true that uphill skiers don’t use lifts (unless you’re using your public access to poach, for shame), we often use a lot of other services when skinning up the local hill. For instance, if you park your car in the ski area parking lot, you’re using a service that the area maintains. If you skin up a groomed run, someone from the ski area got paid to lay that sweet corduroy. You generally don’t need to worry about avalanches while skinning up a ski area (one of my personal reasons to skin alone there) because ski areas would get sued if they didn’t control them. And how many times have you drank too much coffee en route to your morning uphill and had to run to the bathroom the moment you put the car in park?
I’ll state the obvious: ski areas offer more than chairlifts. Of course there are hypotheticals. Say you don’t park at the area’s lot, you break trail on USFS land that is adjacent to the ski area (as in, outside of operating boundaries), you pee in the woods, etc. But then you would effectively be in the backcountry, and not skinning up a resort.
Claim #3: Ski areas that charge put big profits over people.
For this one I called up two stakeholders in the game: Troy Hawks, the aforementioned spokesperson Sales and Marketing Director at Sunlight Ski Area, and Rich Burkley, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Aspen Ski Co. The areas have vastly different approaches to uphill resort skiing (all four Aspen Snowmass mountains allow variations on uphill access for free), but in terms of financials, both parties agree there’s not a whole lot for resorts to gain.
At Sunlight, the $50 uphill season pass will be applied primarily to operations and additional resources needed to ensure uphill skier safety. “The round plastic uphill discs are $20 a piece,” says Hawks. Sunlight had to order more of those, or take donated discs from Aspen Ski Co that aren’t in use anymore. The area also plans to install a larger map with designated uphill routes, as well as put money “into ensuring our slopes are safe no matter what: paid patrol staff, people making snow, people grooming snow. It costs $150 an hour to operate one grooming machine. We operate two shifts, every day for about 100 days.”
When I asked Rich Burkley what the value of uphilling is for Aspen Ski Co, he said, plainly, “ I don’t think there’s any financial gain that we get out of it. In my perspective, it’s the overall mountain culture and certainly a respect for skiing and a love of the sport.”
Claim #4: Uphilling at ski areas on USFS land is a tax-payer’s right.
Depending on your values, or perhaps political affiliation, this is a sticky topic that goes way beyond whether someone should be able to ski uphill for free at a ski area. But, in terms of the rules and overarching goals of public land management, here are some things to consider.
According to Troy Hawks, there is some grey area, particularly at Sunlight. The base area (including the lodge and parking lot) are private property, the majority of ski runs and operations are within the ski area’s operating area and then there is adjacent USFS land that is within the special use permit. Ultimately, he says, “We can’t regulate public land, but the part that people are using is in our operating area: parking lot, restrooms, grooming, snowmaking,” therefore, they can enforce rules on how people use it.
Speaking on behalf of the governing agency itself, Roger Poirier offered that resort uphill skiing doesn’t fall into either the ‘right’ or ‘privilege’ category neatly but is by and large a privilege. “Even with other USFS lands we have that are backcountry, like Marble for instance, there are requirements in terms of where you can park and how you use the land. You can’t just take a fatbike anywhere, right? We have rules of how people can access public lands so that they’re managed sustainably.”
Rich Burkley didn’t consider it an either/or. “It’s 100% a privilege. If [ski areas] have a special use permit, they can control access; that’s why some ski areas don’t allow it. I would argue that there’s a lot of federal land that you don’t have access to: prisons and the White House, Department of Defense, the Presidio those kinds of things.” Saying you have a right to public land “doesn’t really carry weight” when it comes to skinning up a resort.
No, ski areas don’t own the National Forest, but they do own special use permits that allow them to restrict access as deemed necessary. The majority of us do use some kind of facility when uphilling at a ski area, including parking lots, bathrooms, groomers, etc. that ski areas provide and maintain. While I didn’t poke around at resorts that charge higher prices for uphill passes (Eldora, for instance charges $145/season), the folks I did talk to assured me that uphill fees go to operations, not to fat wallets. And lastly, like with all public lands, the tax-paying public does have some rights, but the permit-holding ski area has the jurisdiction to regulate how uphill and downhill skiers use land within an operating boundary.
Commenters, what’s happening in your neck of the hills? Do your local ski areas charge? What’s the general public’s take on it?
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.