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Publishing in Jan 2004 issue of Telemark Skier Magazine

                    It Don’t Come Easy

By

Michael McGuffin

 

                               I nearly quit once.  My friend Eric Lundeen and I were drinking gritty espresso in the scrubby bar of the Gite Vagabond, a cheap hostel on the outskirts of Chamonix , when I slapped my palm on the table and declared “I quit.”  “Telemarking is just too hard.  I’ve had it.”  My frustration was justified.  We had just come off of the Haute Route – the classic out-of-bounds ski tour linking Chamonix to Zermatt – where for five days we had been subjected to snow conditions that ranged from nearly unskiable crap to totally unskiable crap.  Our three companions, each of whom had used alpine touring gear, struggled with the clop, but always managed to give more than they got.  Eric and I, on the other hand, had been totally defeated.  We had suffered for our art.

                Eric, who had only been skiing free for two seasons, listened to my rants, and when I finally prompted him for support, he drew a deep breath and said flatly, “I love it, and I’m not quitting.”

I drained the espresso.  “I know what you mean,” I replied looking into the empty cup, “I can’t quit either.”

 

                Despite the wide skis, plastic boots and beefy bindings the telemark turn remains damn hard, especially in the backcountry.  Now remember that the telemark turn is just that – a turn.  You can parallel on free-heel gear, and with modern equipment the parallel turn is quite easy, maybe even natural, but you have to bend your knee to feel the down and dirty, puff in your face, take no prisoners, fully committed, knock down drag out telemark turn.  When successfully executed the telemark turn is a thigh wrenching, breath-stealing roller coaster ride that appears as effortless as a sleeping breath.  In its illusion of ease and natural grace the telemark turn is as deceptive as ballet.  And like the dedicated dancer, the free-heel skier must posses a deep need to do something beautiful in spite of the pain, in spite of reason.

                I first released my heel in a kinder gentler time, back when skiers knew their boundaries.  If you wanted to ride the lifts you buckled into stiff, unyielding alpine equipment; if you wanted to descend remote backcountry bowls you laced into archaic leather boots, clamped them onto slightly glorified cross-country skis and readied yourself for impact.  Though I rarely managed to link three consecutive turns on this flimsy equipment, I fell in love with the telemark, and like some punch-drunk boxer I continued to answer the bell, despite full knowledge of certain punishment.  But then everything changed: alpine-touring bindings, which had long been available in Europe , began appearing in U.S. ski shops.

                Backcountry skiers now had a choice: either master the difficult and exhausting telemark, or purchase some alpine touring gear and drop into untouched bowls using traditional downhill techniques.  Over the years most of my backcountry companions have switched to alpine touring gear, and I can’t really blame them; when examined from a purely analytical point of view free-heel skiing doesn’t make much sense.  It is the most exhausting and least forgiving method of sliding down a hill, and with the modern beefy tele gear being as heavy, or heavier, than the modern ultra-light alpine-touring gear we’ve even given up the high ground when sliding uphill.  Free-heel skiing is more difficult and more exhausting than the alternatives, so why do it?  Fortunately we were born with the ability to overcome logic.

                For me, free-heel skiing transcends reason.  I’m addicted to the graceful beauty and explosive energy of the kneeling telemark, and haven’t skied any other way for over a decade.  I spent a few years atop traditional alpine gear, and though I wasn’t that good, I never once felt that in your gut, face tingling sensation which accompanies even the most modest of telemark turns.  Let’s face it, unless you go really fast, jump off stuff, or are otherwise really really good, traditional fixed heel alpine skiing is boring.  The telemark, on the other hand, is never dull.  This is the fundamental distinction between free and fixed heel skiing: a telemarker of average ability will experience the energy, beauty and grace normally reserved for the expert class alpine skiers.  I have yet to find out what it feels like to be an expert telemarker, but I’ve glimpsed at it through a crack in the door and it is marvelous.

                We the undaunted few who prefer to keep our heels free are akin to sailors who take on the oceans in small boats and high-altitude mountaineers who forsake supplemental oxygen.  Though we live in a world clouded by convenience, we recognize the value of adversity, and realize that it is better to fail at a noble pursuit rather than to succeed at a mediocre one.

                Confucius wrote: “our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall.”  By this theory the telemark turn is a truly glorious pursuit.  Simply achieving a modicum of competence on free-heel skis took more time than my masters degree, but the rewards have been unparalleled.  Though it may often seem like a cruel mistress, free-heel skiing is a love affair, and like all things worthwhile it don’t come easy.