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This season, the resort owners hope, there will be a choice. But even if there is a good load of snow on the ski runs, ski mountaineering has found a crowd of new loyalists. There are a number of ways of enjoying it. One is to strike out with pack, tent and sleeping bag, climbing and gliding and schussing wherever the trails look best. Another way is to strap downhill skis and boots to your back and hike into the hills, climbing rocks or kicking steps in the snow where necessary. Then, having reached a point a couple of thousand feet higher than where you started, you put on your Alpine skis and swoosh down through the snow. Or you can use light cross-country ski equipment to hike to some likely peak, then come down through powder, hard-pack or corn snow on the skinny wooden skis, wearing the soft boots, light knickers and windbreaker of the flatland cross-country hiker.
One important development makes this possible, the rediscovery—or the reinvention—of that most grandmotherly, most elegant ski maneuver of them all, the Telemark turn. The likely creator of this old-fashioned bit of mountain ballet was a Norwegian ski jumper named Sondre Norheim. He came upon it in the 1860s as a way to land with maximum stability after a jump. The landing position could also be the first move in a sweeping turn if such was required. It was the first technique for turning on skis without the use of the balance pole—or without the ancient Norwegian trick of grabbing a tree to change direction. Norheim named the turn the Telemark after his home county, and it was the ultimate in classy skiing for 60 years or so. Then when Hannes Schneider invented the far flashier and faster Arlberg technique, with the boot heel planted on the ski, the Telemark was relegated to the attics of the ski world.
Rick Borkovec, 28, the Nordic director at Crested Butte, was perhaps the first American to stir renewed interest in the Telemark. He recalls, "In 1971 I was on the ski patrol here and we used light wooden cross-country skis to check the trails for avalanche problems in the mornings. It was easier skiing along the top of the area on cross-country skis than on heavy, rigid Alpine skis. But once you were up on the mountain, you also had to get down, and you couldn't just schuss a couple of thousand feet to the bottom—and you couldn't snowplow all the way down. So we got to wondering about the old Telemark turn. But there was nothing written on it. Can you believe it? Nothing. Not a word, not a diagram in any of the cross-country instructionals. We had to start from scratch and rebuild the whole thing by trial and error. But once we found it again, it was as if we'd invented a whole new sport."
Borkovec says the reason the Telemark had vanished from the techniques of most cross-country racers and skiers was that they did most of their skiing in relatively flat country. "They'd do a step turn or snowplow turn going down a hill. But, you see, they taught turns just as a way to get past a downhill section and back onto the flat or the uphill. But with our snow, we do a Telemark turn because it will let us do downhill skiing. It's a whole different emphasis. It's the purest of all turns."
There is, indeed, a purity to the Telemark. The movement looks like a cross between a ballroom dip and a curtsy as it might have been executed by that old mail carrier Snowshoe Thompson, who dragged his pole and dipped slightly on turns in the manner of those days. In the complete Telemark, however, the front ski is pushed forward until the point of the rear ski is even with the front foot. The front knee is bent at a right angle, the foot flat on the ski. The rear heel is lifted, the knee dropped in another sharp angle to the ski so that only the ball of the foot rests on the ski. The arms are raised in a graceful, even theatrical way, and the turn—a lovely carving arc if properly done—is executed by driving the front knee inward. Although these turns can be performed with immense dignity and even on steep drops with plain old wooden skis, it is best to have skis with steel edges if you are going to be Telemarking downhill a lot. And you might be prepared for every bit as many goggle-eyed stares as any hot-dogger draws. Rick Borkovec says, "I'll tell you, the sight of a skier linking a snaky series of Telemarks down a lift-line run sets up a real sensation on the hill."
Although a few resorts refuse to let people on their lifts if they are wearing light cross-country equipment, Telemark skiers have been appearing all over the West. Borkovec thinks the phenomenon may be less popular in the East because of the ubiquity of ice on the mountains, something that even the most practiced Telemark skier has trouble with.
Beyond the novelty of the Telemark and the back-to-purity aspects of using much the same equipment as the Rodoy Man, the greatest advantage of ski mountaineering is the fact that so much more exciting terrain is opened for the intrepid skier. No longer is downhill skiing tied to heavily traveled, groomed slopes and long queues in the lift lines. No longer is the Nordic sport confined to tame flat-track touring through gentle woods and farmland. Now the meanest and steepest mountain ground in the West is ski-able. By using the miles of narrow roads and trails that still crisscross every mountain from the days of the gold miners, even a mediocre skier can make his way into the backcountry to places so remote and so beautiful that they seem to be from another planet. Danny Hirsch of Telluride says, "These are the youngest mountains in Colorado, steeper and sharper than most other places. You can get to some really radical places here. Most of the normal touring places are pretty tame, but you can climb to places here where you can see the whole San Juan mountain range. You can see to Utah. And after you admire the view, you can make a run down the mountain that might go for three miles. You might hit some pretty radical drops and some bizarre snow, but it is some kind of an exciting trip."
It also can be dangerous. Hirsch is head of the Telluride volunteer search and rescue group, and no one is more aware of the terrible things that can happen to unwary skiers in the mountains. Already this autumn, before even a fraction of the year's snowfall has accumulated, one man has been killed in an avalanche above Telluride. Another man, an ill-equipped California hiker, is still missing. The victim was an experienced skier from Telluride who touched a normal-looking bit of snow, which suddenly set off a massive slab avalanche above him. While his companion watched helplessly, the man was swept into the slide. Smart ski mountaineers never go into the high backcountry immediately after a storm; they wait instead until the snow has had a chance to settle. They also carry safety equipment such as the transmitters, the telescoping ski pole and the avalanche cord.
And a smart mountain skier never goes into the bush without a shovel to test for dangerous snow conditions. It is a simple matter to dig a pit in the snow and check the layers to see whether the fall is stable. "You can see pretty much each layer of snow that has fallen," Hirsch says. "What you look for mainly is what we call depth hoar. This is a layer of ice crystals that get to be like a whole layer of ball bearings in the snowfield. They are what make the snow unstable. A whole mountainside can slide if there is a lot of depth hoar in the snowfall."
One cannot exaggerate the dangers of an avalanche. "Even the most experienced climbers get caught," says Hirsch. "You can never be sure you're safe."