— by Beatrice Burack

Enfield, NH 3/12/24

When Ed Warren suits up to go skiing, he’s hoping to catch some fresh powder in the backcountry. The Lebanon, NH native holds the record for the fastest ski from Pinkham Notch to the summit of Mount Washington and back down again. But last summer, he became the founder and managing director of a group that advocates for skiing not in the backcountry: Uphill New England is a nonprofit that facilitates uphill skiing and snowboarding (also called splitboarding) on groomed resort trails.

Human-powered skiing and snowboarding—eschewing lifts and climbing up trails with adhesive ‘skins’ strapped to your skis—has seen a dramatic rise in popularity during the past few years. But this change has been quickly followed by a shift from the backcountry to the frontcountry.

“The backcountry is great. The backcountry is [...] the preference,” Warren says. “But the reality is that the snowpack in New England is extremely unreliable.”

Especially in low-snow winters like this one, when rain events are common and frequent thaws compromise snowpack, Warren and his fellow backcountry enthusiasts have no choice but to ‘uphill’ on groomed trails and manmade snow.

That means when they clip into their skis and begin an ascent, they’re often looking at the underside of a chairlift, not a breathtaking White Mountains view.

Skiing ‘on a treadmill’

Southern New Hampshire resident Justin Culligan, who has been a human-powered skier for ten years, compares uphilling at a resort to “running on a treadmill. [...] It gets the need for exercise and you’re still out in the fresh air and you’re enjoying being in the mountains.” Still, he says, “the backcountry is where I prefer to be.”

When he can’t ski in the backcountry, Culligan usually arrives at Pats Peak Ski Area in Henniker around 5:30 or 6 AM on weekdays to get a few uphill laps in before work.

He’s found himself spending more time on manmade snow “especially in the last four or five years,” he says. His “go-to early season backcountry tour is the Sherbie”—the John Sherburne Trail on Mount Washington. When Culligan first started backcountry skiing in the early 2010s, he recalls, “it was pretty regularly available to ski by, like, December 10th. The last three, four, five years,” he’s been “lucky to get up there even by mid-January.”

‘Less intimidating than I thought’

The recent focus on resort skiing does have a silver lining for those interested in trying out human-powered skiing for the first time.

Katie Berdy, 26, of Hanover, learned the mechanics of uphill skiing through an introductory event held at Whaleback Mountain in January. Berdy, who was interested in uphill skiing more for the exercise than for the adventure, was content with a few laps up Whaleback’s 700 vertical feet.

Inclusive Ski Touring trip leader Josh Chang leans down to help a beginning ski tourer strap into her skis on a January day at Whaleback.

Inclusive Ski Touring trip leader Josh Chang leans down to help a beginning ski tourer strap into her skis on a January day at Whaleback.

“It was very fun,” Berdy said after finishing a lap. “It was less intimidating than I thought.” Asked if she was interested in venturing into the backcountry, she said, “I’m pretty risk-averse to avalanche conditions, so I probably will just do things like this.”

Her experience was made possible by Inclusive Ski Touring, a group Zachary McCarthy began in 2021 to help bring new people into the world of human-powered skiing and splitboarding.

McCarthy’s goal was to break down the “holier-than-thou culture” that he felt was making it harder for newbies without the right experience, equipment, or connections to join the backcountry ski community.

“I think [...] people are realizing that ski touring or splitboarding doesn’t have to be this crazy backcountry skiing that you might see in movies, but it can be as simple as skinning up the resort in their off hours and being able to ski back down,” McCarthy explains.

Inclusive Ski Touring offers scholarships, cost waivers, and gear rental discounts for ‘Open-to-All Programs’ like the one Berdy participated in, as well as trips specifically for skiers and boarders from underrepresented backgrounds. Their cheapest option, according to McCarthy, is $45 total for discounted gear rentals, a group uphilling lesson, and an uphill pass at Mount Abram in Greenwood, Maine.