“What the heck is Upski?” I asked.
“It comes from your country,” responded Johan quizzically. “I think it started in Colorado and has been around for almost 30 years.”
Upski is a method used to ascend snow-covered mountains via parachute and wind. It differs from randonée skiing in that it’s easier. It differs from kite skiing in that it is less dangerous. Upskiing uses a harness attached to a parachute, or canopy (the preferred nomenclature) that can be completely depowered by releasing a Velcro tab that allows the wind to flow through it via an adjustable hole in the middle. This advantageous feature hopefully helps the user avoid crashing into rocks, plummeting off cliffs, or having to cut the lines.
Saltoluokta is apparently an ideal place to Upski owing to the plethora of treeless, snow-covered mountains and almost constant supply of wind. While many backcountry skiers will wax poetic about their love of skinning up mountains, most are probably lying, and too broke to afford a lift ticket. I count myself in that proverbial boat. Skinning up is a good workout and peaceful and blah blah blah. The downhill is what puts the ear-to-ear grin on our faces and the spring in our step. So Upskiing seems like a sweet deal; let the wind pull you up the mountain, then stow your lightweight nylon canopy in your backpack and ski back down to the bottom to do it all over again.
I had the opportunity to try Upskiing with a small group of beginners led by a Swedish mountain guide and two American Upski ambassadors, imported to introduce people to this newish sport. In the morning, we packed our canopies and headed up the mountain holding on to a tow rope attached to the snowmobile like a ski train.
The day started off as one of the most windless we had felt in weeks, making for perfect learning conditions that piqued our desire for more speed. During most of the first hour we traveled slightly slower than the speed of a walking penguin. There are of course no penguins here; you are thinking of the South Pole which is spelled and pronounced differently from Saltoluokta. There were moments of ephemeral excitement when a stray gust of wind would momentarily whip up the canopy, the lines would draw taught and we slide along for 20 or 30 meters (that’s right I count in meters now).
When the wind did arrive, our canopies eagerly jumped into the air, pulling us forward with a start. One can steer the canopy by edging the skis and pulling on the ropes in the direction one wishes to go. The feeling was exhilarating and with a steady wind the kilometers slip by quickly.
Due to the speed created by the wind it is extremely advisable to have fixed heel skis (not cross country skis). However, cross country skis are what most people are wearing on their feet here (sometimes even in bed!). My coworker Mats was eager to try Upskiing. Lacking the necessary equipment, he fashioned a haphazard binding system out of old telemark skis, zip ties, NNN-BC boots (not at all compatible with the telemark bindings), rubber straps, and I think I saw aluminum foil, cornichons, and bobby pins, but I might have had snow in my eyes.
The terrain where we were was only slightly uphill, so I never got to experience a wind assisted summit, but it seems like it could work under the right circumstances. Perhaps eventually a new breed of wind skiers will be born that enjoy the Upski more than the downski. Rich Upskiers could even engage in “Heliskiing” (Helicopter skiing). Instead of being dropped off at the top of the mountain, they would be picked up there!