Paul Andersen: The last telemark skier in Crested Butte
The ski posse formed up last weekend at the Washington Gulch Trailhead a few miles from Crested Butte. Most of us were senior citizens and longtime locals. All of us were originally backcountry telemark skiers.
As boots were clicked into bindings, I noticed that I was the only one on tele skis. Crested Butte, the birth place of modern telemark skiing, has gone to lightweight alpine touring — at least among my friends in the old guard.
At 69 years old, I am one of the oldest tele skiers I know — followed closely by Art Burrows, Ned Ryerson and a rare breed that still chants: “Free the heel, free the mind.”
As an avid backcountry skier since I launched my first telemark turn up the Slate River over 40 years ago, my skiing has evolved with the gear. That first turn was on Asnes Tur Langren, a Norwegian hickory ski with cable bindings. I wore leather boots and wool everything (except underwear).
That first turn awakened a neural connection that resonated. I felt that turn in every muscle and synapse, as if my body were designed for it deep down in my Scandinavian roots.
But I had no experience for where those skis would lead, and so I took blind risks skiing huge avi runouts in the most remote places I could go. I survived by luck long enough to gradually gain appreciation for the risks.
I’ve watched avalanches rip from mountain peaks. I’ve skied across avi debris laid down by fresh slides. I’ve seen my out-tracks filled in with fresh avi debris. I’ve skied without beacon, probe, shovel or concern. I have never been caught in an avalanche nor seen anyone get buried. Lucky me.
Soon, my original wood Asnes with lignostone edges were exchanged for Europa 99s, then Kazama Mountain Highs, then Atomic Telemarks, followed by brands and models that would today adorn the walls of a ski museum. Now I’m on Volkl lites for backcounty — nicest, lightest skis I’ve ever made a turn on.
It was the same evolution with boots, starting with a flimsy pair of low-top, leather, single, lace-up boots, then a beloved pair of Galibiers with the classic black and white saddle shoe stripe, then Fabiano leathers with an instep strap. Most recently, I’ve been on a variety of three buckle Scarpas — best boots ever.
Bindings started with ABC cables, then Targa G3s, then an upgrade to Design 22s and, for my current lightweight teles, a set of no-frills Switchbacks. Almost all my gear was bought used from Aspen ski swaps and used gear stores. My investment has always been minimal, but with huge returns in euphoric ski experiences.
I’m skiing more now with retirement flex in my life than ever before, and most of it off-piste. But my risk has probably never been lower. That’s not because I’m an expert avalanche forecaster or experienced snow analyst; it’s because of route decisions.
Many years ago, ski touring with my dearly departed friend, Randy Udall, I once asked if he had a beacon. Randy smirked, “I’d just as soon wear a bear claw talisman.”
Why? I asked. “Because,” he said, “I have no intention of skiing anything that will slide.” And so it was on most of our tours — Pearl, Star, Taylor, Spruce Creek, Richmond Ridge, Sopris, Hay Park, Hagerman Pass, Capitol Lake, Hawk Peak, Haystack, etc. — route-finding was our essential safety.
Breaking trail on long, enduring tours is what Randy and I did, often with a group of friends. We were not in it for GoPro turns, but for aesthetic purity and physical challenge. What turns came were a utilitarian bonus.
Randy, skiing on long, straight boards, was a lousy downhill skier, anyway. He could contour perfect routes, but downhill runs were a kick-turn affair. And yet he had skied from Crested Butte to Steamboat in the ’70s with Bill Frame, without incident, and he loved touring the Sierras.
And so I launched into the steeps last week off Coney’s ridge and matched powder turns with my CB friends, appreciating with focused bliss what telemark skiing has given me all these years.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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A faithful reader, known to his internet friends as “Ski Bum,” sent me the following quote after my last column. It seems fitting this week.