Now I know what skiers did before lifts were invented — they huffed and puffed a lot.
It's taken me an hour and 15 minutes to trudge from the base of Peak 8 at Breckenridge Ski Resort to the Vista Haus Restaurant, halfway up the mountain. I'm using a pair of skis covered with skins — strips of slightly bristly mohair-and-synthetic material that allow them to glide forward but not slide backward.
Here at Breckenridge, a whole contingent of folks skins, as it's called, before the lifts open. Besides our group of seven, we've seen another dozen or so people (and half as many dogs) doing what we're doing — elevating their heart rates and enjoying the sunrise over the Rocky Mountains.
It's incredibly beautiful, and that's part of the reason that Breckenridge resident Carly Grimes skins twice a week. As we work our way straight up an intermediate-level ski slope, the sky turns from gray to pink to soft blue.
"It's like going up stairs," she says, blazing up the incline like she's being towed.
Stairs, I should note, that start at an elevation of 9,950 feet and finish at about 11,000 feet.
We started our adventure at about 6:30 a.m., when we drove to the mountain base and donned special boots, skis and skins. For the ascent, we released the rear bindings of our skis to allow our heels free movement.
Here at the Vista Haus, we peel the skins off, tuck them into our pockets and latch down the rear bindings so our heels stay firmly attached to the skis. Then we tighten our boots in preparation for the payoff part of this exercise session.
The swooping trip down takes about 5 minutes. The pine trees I had so much time to study on the way up are now a blur. My upper legs are so tired from the climb it feels like someone tied cinder blocks to them.
Even though I've spent the past five days downhill skiing, I feel a little unstable. These skis are lighter and the boots less rigid than the traditional downhill setup. That makes things a lot more comfortable for the ascent, but a little wobbly on the way down.
Skinning is an amazing workout; just ask my lungs and quads. And here's a tip: Let your body adjust to the altitude before you jump into it, if you want to maintain the slightest shred of dignity among your mountain-dwelling friends. The climb had me gasping for breath, my quads burning and heart pumping.
"It equates to almost a stair-stepper workout, because you're constantly going uphill and it doesn't let up," says Chris Tennal, owner of Mountain Outfitters, where we rented our gear. "And you get your reward with a nice ski descent at the end."
Tennal says he likes the early morning solitude of skinning. "It's just a great way to get out in the Rocky Mountains on your own terms," he says.
Skinning got its start in the back country, where adventurous types skinned up mountains without lifts, exploring remote terrain and sometimes camping or staying in rustic huts along the way. Eventually, some skinners started practicing at resorts when avalanche conditions made it too dangerous to skin out-of-bounds at certain times of the year.
Now fitness skinning has grown into a sub-sport of its own, with packs of enthusiasts meeting early in the morning and skinning before the ski lifts open. Tennal says he saw about 80 people skinning here the morning after Thanksgiving, presumably to burn off the extra calories they'd taken in.
Not all resorts allow skinning. At Breckenridge, skinners can use the runs as long as they go before or after lift-operating hours. Even then, they should keep a watchful eye out for snowmobiles and grooming equipment. If you decide to skin, make sure you contact officials at the resort where you are staying to learn its specific rules.
Skinners need basic skiing skills before setting out, too. "The going uphill is no more difficult than walking, but for the descent you want the ability to ski safely down the slopes you just walked up," Tennal says.
If you are coming from someplace like Austin, with an altitude of about 550 feet, you should be relatively fit before attempting to skin. And I, for one, think skiing uphill is tougher than walking.
We glide back into the ski resort's base area just before 8:30 a.m., moments before the lifts fire up for the day.
I'm eager to get back out on the mountain, but right now I need two things: food and a nap.
We head to a slopeside restaurant for eggs, biscuits and potatoes. I'm famished, and I gobble it down.
Afterward, I've got an appointment with my hotel room bed.
I shuck off my ski jacket and crawl under the blankets. An hour and a half later, consciousness returns.
The mountain awaits.
But this time, I'm taking the lift.