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Hooked on Telemarking

By Michael McGuffin

I nearly quit in Chamonix. It happened at a table by the door of the Vagabond Hotel; Eric and I were drinking the first of several gritty espressos when I declared, "I quit. Telemarking is just too hard. Iíve had it." My frustration was justified. A day earlier we had finished the Haute Route Ė the classic out-of-bounds ski tour linking Chamonix to Zermatt Ė where for five days we had been subjected to snow conditions that ranged from nearly unskiable crap to completely unskiable crap. Eric and I were nearly the only two free-heel skiers on route, and both of us had suffered greatly. Our three companions, each of whom had used alpine touring gear, struggled but always managed to give more than they got, while Eric and I, on the other hand, had been completely defeated.

I began free-heel skiing, more commonly known as telemarking, in a kinder gentler time, a time when skiers knew their boundaries. If you wanted to ski the lift areas you buckled into stiff, fixed-heel alpine equipment, and if you wanted to descend remote backcountry bowls you laced up 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 graceful telemark, and like a punch-drunk boxer I continued to answer the bell even though I knew I was going to get punished. But in the early nineties 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 continue using traditional downhill techniques. Most of my backcountry companions switched to alpine touring gear, and I couldnít really blame them. Telemark skiing is exceedingly difficult and exceedingly exhausting, and even now, with eleven years of experience and the best gear available, I still canít keep up with my fixed heel friends. So why do it?

To argue which is better, fixed heel or free, is a waste of time Ė no different than debating beauty or taste. But if taken from a purely analytical point of view, however, I would have to concede that free-heel skiing doesnít make much sense, as it is, to my knowledge at least, the most exhausting and least forgiving method of sliding down a hill. But fortunately we can overcome logic.

For me, free-heel skiing has transcended reason. Iím addicted to the graceful beauty and explosive energy of the kneeling telemark, and wouldnít ski any other way Ė well I probably would, but I wouldnít have as much fun. I skied on traditional alpine gear for years, and though admittedly I wasnít that good, I never once felt the in your gut, face tingling sensation that comes with an even mediocre telemark turn. Letís face it, unless you go really fast, jump off stuff, or are really really good traditional fixed heel alpine skiing is fairly boring. Why else are the ski area lodges full by ten thirty? The telemark, on the other hand, is never dull. This is a fundamental distinction between free and fixed heel skiing: an average telemarker will experience the energy and beauty of turning on snow, while it takes an expert alpine skier to achieve the same aesthetic. I have yet to find out what it feels like to be an expert telemarker, but Iíve glimpsed at it through a crack in the door and itís marvelous.

When successfully executed the telemark turn is a thigh wrenching, breath-stealing roller coaster ride that appears as effortless as a sleeping breath. Free-heel skiing is as deceptive as ballet. A free-heel skier canít cruise - every turn must be fought for and won Ė and this penchant to do something beautiful in spit of the pain is a defining characteristic of the backcountry telemarker.

Skiers who venture into the backcountry with free heels are kin to sailors who take on the oceans in small boats and high-altitude mountaineers who forsake supplemental oxygen. Though they live in a world clouded by convenience, telemarkers recognize the value of adversity, and realize that it is better to fail nobly than to succeed somewhat easily.

Confucius wrote: "our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall." By this theory free-heel skiing is a glorious sport. 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 unduly cruel, free-heel skiing is a love affair, and like all things worthwhile it donít come easy.

Prior to the Haute Route Eric had only been skiing free for two seasons and compared to him I had gotten off lightly. He listened to my rants without interrupting, and when I finally prompted him for support, he drew a deep breath and said flatly, "Iím not quitting." "I know what you mean," I replied into my empty cup, "I canít quit either."