Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Now that backcountry skiing is finally looking attractive, my telemark skis beckon for a fling or two on corn snow. Coincidentally, the revival of the telemark turn is celebrating is 40th anniversary this year.
“Free the heel, free the mind” was the mantra when the telemark emerged from the dim recesses of skiing lore. Telemark skiers are accepted today, but back then we were often disparaged as “forest fairies” by alpine ski snobs because we wore funny clothes and bemused smiles while frolicking in the woods on wooden skis.
A typical telemark ski outfit included woolen pants, canvas gaiters, woolen sweater, anorak and a thick woolen cap. Skis were wooden, with cable or three-pin bindings. Boots were leather lace-ups, often with little more support than a bedroom slipper. It was all very organic back then.
I found the story in a yellowed back issue of the Crested Butte Chronicle in an interview I had done with Rick Borkovec in 1980. As one of the fathers of modern telemark skiing, Borkovec described it like this:
“The setting is the old, dilapidated patrol shack at the top of the gondola at Crested Butte Ski Area in December 1971. Rob Hunker, Steve Allen and I were making up some bombs so we could do our control route above Paradise Bowl.”
In ’71 Crested Butte had an ancient, three-person gondola it had purchased, used, from Italy. The cars were shaped like lozenges, and the knees of the three passengers interlocked as they faced one another, two on one side, one on the other. It was very cozy and amenable to passing joints, which I might have witnessed once or twice but of course never inhaled. It became quite a challenge to hold my breath for the entire 15-minute ride.
On that fateful day, Borkovec suggested to Hunker and Allen that they do their control work on cross-country skis: “We could get done in half the time,” Borkovec reasoned, praising the versatility of lightweight, free-heel skis.
“It might be great going up, but good luck coming down,” cautioned the patrol leader. Borkovec was persuasive, however, and the patrol leader acquiesced, with a warning: “Okay, but if you blow it, you’ll never see cross-country skis on this mountain again!”
Through trail and error, Borkovec and his buddies reinvented the turn that day, skiing with bombs in their packs and faith in their hearts. There was no going back. “Not only did we get our avalanche route done in half the time,” recalled Borkovec, “but we began to redevelop a technique that would revolutionize the cross-country skiing world with the granddaddy of all turns, the telemark.”
Reflecting upon his skiing origins, Borkovec labeled himself a “narrow-minded alpine skier” who, as a youth, looked askance at innovation. When he saw an old-timer in his local ski club demonstrate the telemark turn, he wrote it off as a quaint oddity.
“But between my memories of this old-timer and some friends who were trying to figure out the same thing, we were able, by process of elimination, to come up with a technique that worked,” Borkovec acknowledged. “We had no one to teach us, and any books on cross country skiing described the turn as antiquated and useless.”
Crested Butte’s gentle backcountry, with its wide glacial valleys, became the perfect proving ground for honing the telemark.
“As we tried various shoulder positions, weight distributions, and other subtle movements, we were amazed at how fluid and efficient the turn could be. Not only were we amazed, but the alpiners on the mountain couldn’t believe their eyes.”
Despite resistance from the prevailing alpine bias, the telemark turn spread far and wide, with celebratory telemark races and telemark festivals. An article describing the phenomenon appeared in Skiing Magazine in 1976 – the first journal to feature the revived, classic turn. In 1979, a book by Steve Barnett – “Cross Country Downhill” – announced the telemark to the world.
Seen mostly as a backcountry technique (many ski areas prohibited telemark skiers as “unsafe” until the early 1980s), advances in equipment and perfection of form made the telemark a revolutionary trend that rejuvenated skiing.
Borkovec summed it up: “The telemark gives us freedom and versatility. …We can go up, down or on the flats with equal skill. … We can ski on the lifts or in the backcountry with the same set of equipment.”
Free the heel, free the mind! What a concept – hatched 40 years ago.
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