20 years of tele-bummin’
It was 1983 in the middle of a good winter. I don’t remember the exact day or month, but I know it was textbook Taos, a sky blue enough to make you cry and about 15 inches of desert-dried snow, lighter than pixie dust, sparkling in the New Mexico sun.Standing in a glade atop West Basin Ridge, I watched a burly, long-haired freak in a red flannel shirt and baggy gray wool pants launch off the cornice. He disappeared in a shimmering cloud of crystals then re-emerged a few feet away. Snow plastered his whiskers but couldn’t hide the ear-to-ear grin as he porpoised down the throat of the gully and disappeared in the trees.A typical powder scene? Not quite! I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. "That guy was on cross-country skis," I thought. "That can’t be. Not only that, but his heels weren’t locked down."I’d heard of telemark skiing. In fact, there was a pair of metal-edged, double-cambered, 215-centimeter Rossis leaning against my bedroom wall, one of the first-generation attempts at a Nordic-Alpine hybrid.To me, telemarking was something out of the history books. But this was different. This guy was ripping some of the toughest terrain on the mountain, confidently motoring through tight gaps in the trees, cresting powder bumps with little floater turns, dropping low to steer through the troughs, all the while staying totally centered and keeping his upper body pointed down the fall line, like the headlight on a north-bound train.I watched as he traced smooth arcs down a nasty pitch with a double fall-line, veering effortlessly through buried stumps and boulders, then switching to a parallel stance and turning on the afterburners on the smooth groomer back to the chair.It’s still fascinating 20 years later. Watching a good tele skier is a study in paradox, like witnessing a head-on collision between the past and future with the evolutionary outcome uncertain. It’s a quirky blend of ritualized tradition and exuberant anarchy, like Laurel and Hardy doing Samurai. It’s an archaic form that fulfills a timeless function; an indescribably elegant dance with a trace of almost desperate awkwardness at its core.All this isn’t just part of some random reminiscence. I’ve been asked to write a story on telemark skiing for a new Telemark magazine, to be published this winter by the same folks who bring you Couloir magazine. The editor of the new mag is Matt Samelson, a former sportswriter for a Frisco-based newspaper.So as I began some research for the story a few weeks ago, I wandered into some Internet ski chat rooms with a free-heel focus, where I was surprised to find some heated discussions on the nature of the new mag, along with a debate about the nature of the turn itself.In essence, the debate was over whether you need to go to the backcountry to be a "true" telemark skier, or whether the new breed of lift-riding free-heelers will eventually give the discipline a new measure of credibility.I lurked for a while but chose not to join in. I suppose that’s worth a debate in the heat of summer when there’s no snow to be found, and maybe even a way (look out, here comes a shameless plug) to generate some buzz for the mag. But I thought to myself, "Geez, fellas, remember, it’s only a ski technique, not a cure for cancer."Regardless of the tools you use to get down the mountain, it’s all about relating to the world in certain way, not about putting down the guy who does it a little bit different. I wonder how it would go this winter if we could all just remember that.
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