Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Still skiing.

This photo is from a ski tour I did with my dad in about 1977 in the Canadian Rockies (maybe Dolomite Pass?). I'm ten years old. The gear I'm on is far less supportive than modern BC NNN gear, the skis have minimal sidecut, and yet the fun level is for sure at least as high as it ever has been, was, or will be. Yesterday I was out with my daughter; I was on high-end XC classic gear, she was on plastic waxless rigs. We both had fun. Skiing rocks, it's not fundamentally about the gear but getting outside and skiing. I want to be clear on that, it seems some people are missing the point that gear is a means to an end, not an end.

That said, function and style are related. Personally, I like using functional gear, meaning gear that fits the use, no matter what the sport. If my goal is to do tricks in a kayak I'll paddle my play boat. Creeks, you want a fat creek boat. Paddling a play run in a creek boat is relatively boring. Skiing flats on AT gear with skins on sucks compared to the same terrain on well-waxed race XC gear. I can not find one place where telemark gear is, for me, more fun, more functional or better fits the "spirit" of what I want to do, at least today. That could change; I did a lot of tele skiing in resorts for a while because it was more fun than alpine skiing there for me and a real challenge, but I burned out on that eventually. That was still a good period in my ski life, no regrets, but not where I'm at now. Function and style are not all exterior, a lot of what forms the definition of "fun and functional" is in the skier's head. Some people want to run sick creeks in low-volume play boats. Cool, I'll watch. I'll skate up skis resorts in the early morning and fly on the velvet on the way down, that's fun too...

Just to clear up where I'm coming from, if I could only have one set of skis/boots I'd run a set of NNN backcountry gear with metal edges. I can ski just about any resort run in North America on that setup (not rip it, but get down OK), ski set tracks, ski the back country, do just about anything. That's the most versatile gear for a solid all-around skier who wants to ski anywhere. Not the best for skiing into ice climbs obviously (have to change boots), but it would work. The learning curve for this gear is brutal compared to AT gear, the best prep is XC race skiing. A lot of people are more into the yo-yo style skiing, or hucking their meat, great! I've got skis for that too, let's play!

Some of the comments on the Teletalk site (ten pages and going strong) seem really defensive to me, like how the insecure and religious act when their God is questioned. Those secure in their faith are fun to talk with; those who scream, "Blasphemy" get old fast. Telemark skiing doesn't need "defending" if it's working for you and you're secure in your belief that dropping a knee gets you closer to god. I just think telemark skiing has gone off in a weird direction, and so far it's not coming back.

I did some telemark racing back in the day, but gave it up when an alpine-racing friend of mine (Jim Grossman, surely one of the more talented skiers I've ever seen) tried on some tele skis and proceeded to shred the course on his first run. He did a "pretend" tele turn, but really just rode the outside ski hard and relied on his years of alpine racing experience. His comment was, "Why not just parallel?" If you have to pose to compete then it's getting closer to figure skating, and that's weak sauce. On hard, consistent snow with big gear tele turns make little sense other than to pose. Trim yer goatee.

But the telemark turn is just as functional, useful and all-around fun to do as ever even if the gear named after it now has little real relation to the turn itself. I use the tele turn more on my lightweight "nordic" gear than I ever did in the last years of my "tele" career; on heavy tele gear I generally just do some version of the parallel turn . The telemark turn is great for dealing with softer conditions on lighter gear. In consistent conditions the parallel turn rules no matter what gear you're on. Telemark skiing to me now means doing tele turns on light BC NNN gear during a big tour; works great.

I was cleaning out my garage yesterday evening (I've got a serious Cultfitter infestation going on, had to make some more room!) and found an old pair of Voile Mountain Surf skis, with cable bindings on 'em. They are my wife's, and she won't get rid of them because, "Old skis are like horses, you can't just shoot 'em!" My old "tele" skis are gone, but I can see her point, even as the dust gathers on the old boards.

And, never forget, I'm a damned ice climber, not a skier, ha ha! The super-steep plice is destroying us!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Evolution of Skiing: Tele is a zombie.

I just realized that I've been skiing now for 40 years, a hell of a long time. I sorta even remember my first few sliding steps as a kid, it was fun, and even after 40 years I still just love going skiing. I've had some side trips into snowboarding (best sliding tool ever for crusty or weird conditions!), but overall it's always been about skiing of some kind for me. I started out in little leather boots with cable bindings, then mountain touring on three-pin bindings, then a few years of resort skiing on alpine gear, then some XC racing, bunch of telemark skiing (a couple of pretty serious decades in there), then AT gear with ice climbing boots to get to ice routes in Canada. Skiing is a tool, recreation and just fun. But I'm done with modern "tele" skiing.

About six or seven years ago I did a long ski into an ice route in the Adirondacks with my friend Will Mayo. He was on AT gear, I was using some decent tele gear that I'd borrowed. Mayo is a good athlete who truly knows how to ski (he raced XC at one point also), but I got incredibly pissed off that I was having a hard time keeping up with him on my tele gear. We were on wax as it was cold, not skins, and I just couldn't get a good kick because the damn "bill" on the tele gear prevented the boot from flexing properly. Will, on his AT gear with ice boots, could get a great kick and use far better technique as he could also ride the ski with his leg vertical over it instead of having his lower leg canted forward in the stance most tele boots induce . I about hucked a lung chasing him, and cursed the tele gear for what it had become: a great thing for riding chairlifts and skiing down, but useless for actually traveling in the mountains. This struck me as somewhat ridiculous; how did equipment that had, in my childhood, been a great way to travel in winter become so useless for anything but going down?

Then I had a day where I skied out from an ice climb in my ice boots. There was a nasty breakable crust, some heavy whipped snow, and other junk. With my heels locked down I could get through it reasonably well; it would have been a pain in the ass with any but the heaviest tele gear. The light went on, and I sold all my tele gear that year.

Modern light AT gear is now more efficient, lighter, and allows more confident and functional skiing in any situation I can think of when compared to tele gear. If a day involves more up and down than flat terrain I'll use my Scarpa F1 boots, light Dynafit bindings and Black Diamond Guru skis. Somebody is going to argue that modern tele gear is better, but the bindings and boots are still heavier for an equivalent amount of function. The BD O3 and other bindings at least have hinges to allow for a more efficient stride on the flat, but locking your heel down just results in more skiing control and function for less weight than any tele combination going. End of story, tele is dead unless you have a goatee and ride a "Fixed" gear bike (which, by the way, always reminds me of neutering a dog--what's up with that name?). Tele is now about style, not function. Snowboarding is a pain in the ass in the backcountry but at least has some useful function in junk snow, tele skis don't even have that benefit.

So what to use?

I've done a few of these "ski mountaineering" races, and they are a lot of fun. These races are mainly up and down, so light AT gear makes sense. Some AT courses could probably be won by a good Nordic racer on nordic gear, but there are gear limitations in the rules, and most of the courses have serious enough terrain that AT gear is for sure faster. If your object is to "yo yo" up and down then I'd say light AT gear is the way to go. If you want to huck your meat in the back country then heavier AT gear rules. Some people are into the "it's all about the down" idea, but I'm still enough of a geek to enjoy trying to ski on light AT gear.

At some point skiing becomes more about skill than supportive equipment. Little kids can't stand on their skates well until they learn to balance, and I see many skiers who can't ride a flat ski without a lot of support. Many of the best heli-ski guides I know don't even buckle their AT boots; they just ride the board well, and ski smoothly. That seems logical to me. I am not a great technical skier by any stretch, but years of XC skiing and skiing around in the mountains on ice boots have given me some decent survival skiing skills. I still remember a Swiss guy named Michele absolutely shredding steep gullies on ancient, narrow Fischer XC skis and some 3-pin bindings 30 years ago. I don't know many people who could ski terrain like that half as well today. At some point skill at actually skiing trumps the gear. My friend Pat Morrow is a die-hard tele monster, and although not a young pup anymore he can hang with pretty much anyone in any steepish terrain. The point is that anything will work, but what's the most functional for the weight?

The logical setup for big glacier tours without really difficult terrain is, in my opinion as always, the NNN gear. Every couple of years a few friends and I go down the full Wapta traverse in a day. We've tried several different setups, but the NNN gear is by far the best for this type of skiing. People often ask me, "But don't you need big boots and AT gear in the mountains?" I first skied the Wapta when I was 12 on light leather boots with little cable bindings that allowed for a decent kick; the whole setup probably provided far less support than modern NNN gear. Heavy AT gear is overkill in almost any situation I can think of except lift-served or heli skiing terrain.

What made me think of all of this is that I just got home from London, where the trees still had leaves, and found a foot of snow on the ground here in Canmore. It's time to SKI, and I'm still as stoked about that ideas as ever. Skiing is fun. Even if you're a bark-eating, meadow skipping face-planting tele skier. See you out there, let's get the turns ON! And it's ice season too, options again!

PS--Roger Strong is an exception to all of this.