Paul Andersen: My first telemark experience
The first telemark turn I ever made was on a low-angle powder slope along the Slate River near Crested Butte in the mid-70s. My skis were 210 cm wooden Bonna 2400s with lignastone edges and Swedish ABC cable bindings.My pants were wool, my jacket was wool, my sweater, socks and gloves were wool, my boots were leather, my poles were bamboo. I was an organic, gorp-eating, free-heeling, pine tar-burning backcountry skier who dropped a knee, raised a heel and discovered magic.The memories of my equipment are vivid because I skied for years on that funky old gear throughout the Elk Mountains. Crossing 12,700-foot Pearl Pass on wooden skis without skins or metal edges was a rite of passage in those pre-Scarpa, pre-GPS, pre-Barryvox days of yore.My first and only telemark instructor was Charlie Gillis, a Vietnam vet who had moved to Gunnison to attend Western State College on the GI Bill. I don’t know where Charlie got the idea to telemark, but he introduced me to what looked like the most awkward physical contortion I had ever seen on skis.In preparation for my lesson, Charlie and I and a girl named Sandy toured from Crested Butte with backpacks, sleeping bags and shovels, kicking and gliding a few miles north of town, past the Peanut Mine, into the backcountry.Sandy was a comely strawberry-blond roommate of mine in Crested Butte, where we lived in an old miner’s house that we shared with a half dozen of our best friends. The floors were slanted, only two rooms had heat, and the plumbing froze regularly. We paid about 30 bucks apiece for rent.The snowpack was huge that year, so we dug into a drift and soon had a comfortable snow cave. With candles lit in carved snow niches, we were warm and toasty through the night, sleeping on sepulchral benches of snow.In the frosty morning, I had the bright idea of lighting a fire in the snow cave. I made a vent in the roof, but as soon as the kindling got going, a belching cloud of smoke choked us and we scrambled for daylight like coal miners from a cave-in. While the smoke cleared, we decided that Charlie should teach us the telemark.We traversed up the nearest hill and gained the top of a virgin powder run. Charlie crouched with bent knee and described the telemark, the image of which Sandy and I found rather amusing. Our mirth turned to guffaws when Charlie launched himself into a spectacular face-plant, his skis in the air, his head stuck ostrichlike in the snow.Sandy went next and executed a successful turn before self-destructing. On my try, three turns came together in what felt like a holy miracle before the inevitable face-plant had me digging snow out of my nose and ears, and laughing uproariously. We carried on like that all day long.The next weekend, Charlie and I waxed up the ski area, looking like total aliens. Despite hoots of derision from the alpine downhillers, Charlie assured me we could handle this. Our run was a humbling demolition derby.But I was bitten by the telemark bug and never again donned alpine gear. I eventually upgraded to Galibier boots and Europa 99s, and in a few years was skiing Crested Butte’s North Face. “Free the heel, free the mind” became the mantra for a new wave of telemark skiers inspired by pioneers Rick Borkovec, Scott Morrel, Craig Hall, Jack Marcial and others.Later came the “Stein Comps,” ancient lace-up alpine boots retrofitted with flexible soles by a Gunnison cobbler as prescribed by telemark masters Don and Steve Cook. Kazama improved on Europa, Trucker improved on Kazama, Phoenix improved on Trucker, and the telemark began to snowball.Today, my boots are plastic, my skis are plastic, my clothes are plastic, my poles are telescoping aluminum, and the only thing organic on me is my skin. The telemark, however, remains my turn of choice, knee bent in supplication to the mountain gods, heel free for versatility, and one good turn always deserving another.Paul Andersen still eats gorp and granola, and occasionally tracks around on his old wooden Bonnas, which still hold wax the best. His column appears on Mondays.@ATD pullquote1:Despite hoots of derision from the alpine downhillers, Charlie assured me we could handle this. Our run was a humbling demolition derby.