At an increasing number of ski areas, particularly in Colorado, skiers riding chair lifts occasionally look down and see other skiers, adorned in knickers and knee socks, daypacks slung on their backs, cutting S turns down the slope. As they weave, they flex one knee and then the other and spread their arms like wings. If they're good at it, they'll be so graceful they'll appear to be showing off; but if they're not, they'll be as comical as gooney birds attempting high-speed landings. And after these skiers have passed from sight, whether snaking or wobbling, the lift rider will likely wonder what those queer carryings-on were all about.
It's telemark skiing, so named for the knee-drop telemark turn that is the basis of the technique. But the turn is only a small part of the style, which has also been called Norpine, for telemark as it is done today is a mating of Nordic and Alpine techniques and equipment.
People have been skiing downhill on cross-country skis—as well as uphill on downhill skis—for some time, but never very efficiently. Alpine skis are awkward for climbing because of their weight and the rigidity of the boots and bindings, and Nordic skis are wildly unstable down steep hills because they're so flexible and lack sharp edges. Telemark skis borrow from both; they're stiffened cross-country skis with steel edges. The result makes it possible to ski either on the slopes or into the back country: uphill or downhill or both. In March of 1982 an American expedition completed a circumnavigation of Mount Everest on skis, an impossible feat before the development of the new telemark equipment.
The telemark turn has been around for 120 years. It was invented by Norwegian jumper Sondre Norheim, who adapted the turn from the natural landing position of ski jumpers—one knee behind the other for stability, arms extended for balance. It was named after the Norwegian county that was then the center for jumping, and it remained the basic downhill ski maneuver for 70 years, until the parallel turn came along in the 1930s and changed everything.
April 24, 1983
Credit for the rediscovery and subsequent stylization of telemarking is generally given to Rick Borkovec, who in 1971 was a ski patrolman at Colorado's Crested Butte Mountain Resort, where he used Nordic equipment on search and rescue and avalanche-control missions. He had taught himself the telemark technique through trial and error and from a mental picture retained since boyhood of an old Norwegian skier he'd watched make telemark turns. His fellow ski patrolmen, skeptical at first—actually, they thought he was kind of weird—soon noticed that Borkovec was getting around with a lot less effort than they were, especially when they had to wear packs. Soon half the Crested Butte ski patrol was experimenting with the telemark turn. And today, Crested Butte remains the hottest telemarking center spot in the country.
The hybrid style required hybrid equipment. In 1975 Borkovec encouraged a designer for the small Trucker Ski Company, Al Burnham, to make the prototype for what is now called the telemark ski. That year Trucker sold 300 pairs; last year, the Phoenix Ski Corporation, of which Burnham is a part owner, sold 1,500 pairs and still couldn't meet the demand, largely because the two Phoenix models, Wilderness—used on the Everest expedition—and Torsioncomp, are handmade. More than 20 other manufacturers now make telemark skis.
Telemarkers accept, of course, that taking three hours to traverse up a hill and 15 minutes to ski down it may not be everyone's idea of fun. But they don't worry about everyone. Nor do they worry about lift lines or the sky-high prices that must be paid for the privilege of standing in them. Says one dedicated Crested Butte telemarker, "The thing I like best about telemark skiing is that in May and June, when the lifts are shut down, your season is just beginning. You get yourself a set of climbing skins for your skis, and you can traverse up any old slope, wearing gear that's one-third as heavy as Alpine. The trick is getting to the top early in the morning and then waiting up there until the sun warms the snow and turns it into corn [granulated springtime snow that Western skiers cherish]. Then you do figure eights all the way down, all by yourself."
One of the biggest madcap events in Crested Butte, a town full of such goings-on, is an annual telemark race called the Al Johnson Memorial Uphill-Downhill. A century ago, Al Johnson was a mail carrier whose route was over Schofield Pass from Crested Butte to Crystal, and around town they love him for that.
The Johnson is held on the 45-degree North Face and on Rachel's traverse. The race begins on Rachel's with a 400-vertical-foot traverse to the top and ends on North Face with a banzai charge down an avalanche path to the finish line, 1,200 vertical feet below. It takes the winner about seven minutes to run the race—and seven days to recover from it.
There's also telemark slalom racing, with series in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Canada and the Midwest. In March, 150 of the best skiers from those series gathered at Crested Butte for the North American Telemark Championships, and four of the top six men's finishers were from the host town. The winner was Dave Hazeltine of Keystone, Colo.
Crested Butte, elevation 8,856 feet, is nestled at the end of a long valley rich in resources ranging from elk to oil shale. Cold and dry and snowy to the extreme in winter, Crested Butte attracts only the hardiest of settlers. On starry, subzero nights the air smells of wood smoke, and the streets are patrolled by big, friendly dogs—golden retrievers, St. Bernards, Norwegian elkhounds, Newfoundlands, Labradors.
Crested Butte is known for both its character and its characters. One of the more notable is Jack Kelly Marcial, 38, a.k.a. Blackjack, a.k.a. Madman Marcial, originator of the "ski-to-die" technique, his reckless personal style. As wiry as they come, at 5'8" and 150 pounds, Blackjack has a roundish nose, an unruly auburn beard and a single gold snowflake in his left earlobe. Of the long winters in "the Butte" he says, "I could go from here to New Zealand, back and forth, just skipping between winters for the rest of my life. I could go without summer forever."
The facetious "ski-to-die" tag notwithstanding, Marcial is an experienced and respected professional guide. A carpenter in the summer, in the winter he works hard as president of the Crested Butte Search and Rescue team. He's also a member of the Colorado First Tracks helicopter rescue unit and takes his duties as an emergency medical technician seriously. His house reflects his propensity for looking after people; one upstairs bedroom has four bunks in one corner, suggesting an open-door policy for skiers, hikers and mountaineers.
One morning early last April, Marcial sat in his kitchen looking out the window. Only the crosspiece of his neighbor's swing set was visible above the snow. On the floor were two full backpacks, stuffed for a tour on which he was about to take a client: roughly 25 miles over Pearl Pass to Aspen. Marcial sighed at the thought of the 45-pound packs. Then he got an idea—you could tell from his sneaky grin.
"Thor! Loki!" Marcial called his dogs, 3-year-old Thor, a Doberman, and 12-year-old Loki, a black Labrador. In Norse mythology, Thor and Loki are brothers, Thor the god of thunder and Loki the god of mischief. But in naming the dogs Marcial figures he got it backward. Loki the Lab, conqueror of 25 14,000-foot peaks, is the no-nonsense, authoritative dog and hasn't been very mischievous since he was a puppy. Thor is most unthunderous; in fact, the Doberman is downright wimpy. And he had never been on a ski tour. Marcial decided it was about time Thor went to work. An hour later the four of them—Marcial, the client, Thor and Loki—were headed toward Pearl Pass, the dogs bearing the packs.
It is 25 air miles between Crested Butte and Aspen; by highway it's 260. In summer people hike, Jeep, motorcycle and bicycle over the Elk Range, which separates the towns. In winter they telemark and cross-country. Pearl Pass, elevation 12,705 feet, affords a spectacular view of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, topped by 14,265-foot Castle Peak. The Pearl Pass Jeep road is considered the most rugged in the Elk Range and is sometimes snow-covered 11 months a year. Pearl is the safest route when avalanche danger is high, which is why Marcial chose it. It had been just three days since the avalanche that killed seven people in Alpine Meadows, near Lake Tahoe (SI, April 19, 1982).
It is a trip that demands respect. Early that winter a skier tried the pass alone and was never seen again. "Some hiker will find him this summer, his hand sticking out of a snowbank somewhere," Marcial said. Which is exactly what happened. Marcial helped bring the body back in mid-August.
It took two days for the foursome to reach Aspen. The tour was a good one; it was just exhausting enough, about the average telemark ratio: 1½ days up, the skiers sidestepping and using skins much of the way, and half a day down, a struggle over choppy, wind-crusted snow.
But the weather was excellent; Marcial got a sunburn on his back going shirtless the first afternoon. There were no avalanches, not so much as a rumble, and Marcial was even able to speak by radio with his wife, Doreen, 8½ months pregnant, before crawling into his snow cave for the first night. Today they are the parents of 1-year-old Victoria.
Thor and Loki came through like champs. True, on the final afternoon they did get reluctant and stopped in their tracks like stubborn donkeys until coaxed along. Marcial was especially proud of Loki, the graybeard. And Thor showed promise on his first trek, if one overlooked the time he sneaked off behind a tree, shook off his pack and buried it. Thor certainly got the biggest thrill of the trip. On the ridge at the top of the pass, a gust of about 80 knots picked him up and spun him around backward. "Scared him silly," said Marcial. "After that, he was practically useless."
Exhausted and tired and dirty, Marcial gathered Moosehead beer in his beard while standing at the bar of Aspen's Hotel Jerome at the end of an especially enjoyable telemark trip. It had been what the technique is all about, and it certainly was a whole lot more fun than standing in lift lines.