The free heel of a telemark ski binding has become a badge of legitimacy for 20- and 30-somethings in the Rockies — a way of saying “Hey, I live around here and I really know how to ski.”
It didn’t start out that way. In the winter of 1971, a young ski racer named Rick Borkovec in Crested Butte was simply trying to recover from a broken ankle by experimenting with the long-dead telemark ski turn. And after several falls, he finally got it, and started a revolution.
In the 45 years since, the sport of telemark skiing has been transformed from a lost art to the cutting edge of the ski industry and the spark that caused the explosion in backcountry skiing.
Borkovec couldn’t envision all this when he set out on a cross-country ski tour near Castle Peak north of Crested Butte on a winter morning.
“I was just trying to limber up my ankle. Do a little physical therapy,” said the fit, friendly then-56-year-old as he pulled on his telemark boots for a ski tour near his home in Aspen.
But as the group was gliding through the light, fluffy snow of the Elk Mountains, he couldn’t help but think of something he had seen as a kid growing up in Illinois. His dad, a fanatical skier, ran a small club ski hill called Willow Springs. One afternoon, a gray-haired Czech named Ole came schooshing down the slope, dropping down on his inside knee with each turn. Borkovec had never seen anything like it.
“I remember asking my dad, ‘What is he doing?’ and my dad saying ‘That’s a telemark turn.’”
The turn was invented in 1868 when skiing was the tiny cult sport of a few Swedes and Norwegians and all bindings had a free heel like modern cross-country ski bindings — a design dictated by the fact that there were no ski lifts. A Norwegian named Sondre Norheim came to a ski-jumping contest, and after landing a jump, arced away in a graceful, drop-kneed turn. Since Norheim was from the region of Telemark, Norway, it became known as the telemark turn.
Until the 1930s, the telemark was the main way to navigate downhill. Then bindings with attached heels came on the scene and the easier alpine turn eclipsed the telemark. By the time Borkovec started experimenting in the early 1970s, his Sierra Club guide to mountaineering referred to telemarking as an “outdated and inefficient form of skiing.”
“That really made me mad,” he said.
It was up to him to rewrite those old ideas. As he and his friends toured through the Elk Mountains, they tried to drop into the antiquated turn on every slope. Their skinny, straight skis and soft, below-the-ankle shoes didn’t make it easy.
“We were all great Alpine skiers, and here we were doing a bunch of face plants,” he said. “But then we started to get it. And every time we went out, we’d figure out a little more.”
In the winter of 1972, Borkovec got a job with the Crested Butte Mountain Resort ski patrol. One of the daily chores was climbing up Mount Crested Butte to bomb the avalanche chutes on the headwall. Instead of humping up in heavy ski boots, Borkovec shot to the top with his light cross-country ski gear, then telemarked down.
“At first everyone on patrol looked at my skinny skis and said, ‘You’re wasting your time.’ But then they saw how much freedom I had to get around,” Borkovec said.
Learning to telemark soon became a requirement for the mountain’s ski patrol because it allowed patrollers to reach all parts of the mountain with ease. That promise of being able to climb and ski down relatively easily without a lift drove the growth of the sport for the next 30 years. Borkovec became a sort of free-heel Johnny Appleseed, traveling the country teaching clinics on the lost art of tele.
“At first it was almost cultish,” he said. “It attracted what I call granola heads — young independent outdoors types who wanted to ski away from the resorts. And they all seemed to wear the same type of alpaca-wool hat from Peru.”
Hard-core skiers love the challenge
These were people who loved to hike and climb and cross-country ski anyway, and if they could have a fast ride down, all the better. The cult grew as the gear evolved from wobbly 44-millimeter skis with no metal edges and low boots to 80-millimeter skis with edges and tall, stiff leather boots, to today’s fat powder skis that are 100 millimeters at the narrowest spot and steered by skiers in stiff plastic boots.
Of course, cults only grow if they can attract followers. The ranks of tele skiers are still thin compared with the army of Alpine skiers and snowboarders. There were 600,000 tele skiers in the United States in 2005, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Not much compared with the 12 million skiers and snowboarders.
But telemark skiing continues to nibble at the majority. It grew 166 percent between 1998 and 2004, driven primarily by young men who already Alpine ski, but, according to the association’s analyses, “are turned on by the daddy of skiing.”
“You see more families buying Alpine skis. You see more hard-core athletes getting into tele,” said Jami Shipley, who sells skis at the Colorado Springs REI. “Tele is brutal on the legs. It takes a lot of practice. It’s too hard to appeal to the mainstream.”
That has given the sport a tough-guy, outsider cachet. It’s sort of the Harley-Davidson of skiing. Increasingly, it appeals to young, mountain-dwelling hipsters who are already kickass skiers and decide they need a new challenge — something that will set them apart from the invading tourists.
“Back in the day, no one saw much of a future in what we were doing,” Borkovec said. “People would stop you and say, ‘Hey, your binding is broken.’ But now it’s gone through a revolution from being a part of history to being cuttingedge.”
At the beginning of his backcountry ski tour, Borkovec ran into two young friends from his church, Noelle Larson, 25, and her husband, Drew, 27. Since they all had their sights on skiing a glorious open slope called Little Annie’s, they decided to head up together.
Opening up the backcountry
The Larsons exemplify that emerging hipster generation of tele skiers. Both came to the sport long after the days of the granolas’ leather boots and silly alpaca-wool hats. They were amazing on Alpine boards, but decided to try something new.
“I went cold turkey last year. I just liked the challenge and the freedom of being able to ski away from the resort,” Drew said. “It just hit a groove with me and I’ve never looked back.”
The group made its way up a forest road, through deep pools of shade under stands of firs, and out onto open slopes where the sun bounced off distant peaks like white sails out at sea. When they reached the steep pitch of Little Annie’s, they zigzagged up one side, leaving the middle a blank canvas of 10-inch powder.
Borkovec, who learned on thin, wooden cross-country skis, wore wide, shaped Atomic skis and sleek plastic boots. He shrugged.
“Everything has changed except that it’s still a lot of fun.”
At the top, the group paused to rest and look out at the Elk Mountains.
“This is what I really enjoy about tele-ing,” said Noelle, between breaths. “You get out here on a beautiful day, and you get fresh snow that would be all skied up by now at the resort.”
After that there was no more to say. The group aimed their tips toward the valley and flew down in a dance of deep, knee-bent turns, popping up and lunging down again. Each turn might as well have been a bow to Ole on the hill in Illinois, to Sondre Norheim, to the idea that a few people will always put in a little extra effort for the freedom of the hills.
WHAT IS TELEMARK SKIING?:
Telemark skiing is a technique that combines elements of Alpine and Nordic skiing. Generally, Telemark skiers use Alpine skis with specially designed Nordic style bindings that fix only the toe of the ski boot to the ski, thereby creating the “free heel.” Telemark turns use a distinct lunging motion to engage the ski in a powerful yet graceful arc. (Wikipedia)
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