The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 31: Freeheeling Ski Festival

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Backcountry skiing requires a variety of skills and techniques. There's an event where you can get a jump-start on these skills. This week on The WildeBeat; a Freeheeling Ski Festival.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number thirty one.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: When I started to do more skiing in the mountain backcountry, I discovered that my cross-country skiing skills weren't always enough to get me where I wanted to go. Ski touring guides told me, I should learn the Telemark turn if I really wanted to get into the wilderness. They said I'd learn it faster if I went to a downhill resort.

Skiing wasn't always a sport. It was basic transportation in Europe and Asia for thousands of years. In Russia, there's some five thousand year-old cave paintings showing hunters on skis. But skiing changed drastically starting in the late 1800's. In the county of Telemark, Norway, Sondre Norheim demonstrated a new way to turn on skis. Before Norheim, skiers steered by dragging a long pole behind them. They leaned back on that pole and steered it like a boat rudder. Norheim dropped the pole, and turned by using the skis as two tangents of an arc. One ski was more forward, and the other ski was back, with the heel up, and the knee bent. This became known as the Telemark turn.

Telemark skiing, or Tele for short, is also known as Nordic Downhill skiing, or sometimes, free-heel skiing.

The Bear Valley Telemark Festival is a gathering of free-heel skiers. And it's the largest of it's kind on the west coast. For three days, beginners and experts alike, gather in this village and it's associated ski resort. They come for the camaraderie. But mainly, they come for the two intense days of lessons, clinics, and workshops.

ALAN HOBBS: My name is Alan Hobbs and I'm from Mountain View. I did my first tele turn in 1985. A very shaky one.

STEVE: And, what got you started doing it?

ALAN HOBBS: Ahh, just friends, I suppose. I was living in Australia at the time, skiing in the Australian Alps. And everyone I knew did tele skiing and it was the thing to do. I just loved it. For ski touring it gave me a lot more freedom, being able to turn properly.

STEVE: What do you think you're going to get out of the festival today?

ALAN HOBBS: I want to correct a few bad habits. You know I've got a few things I know I do wrong, and I want to try and see what I can do about those.

STEVE: What do you think you're going to be able to do once you leave here?

ALAN HOBBS: Probably fall over less, maybe make tighter turns. Not be so cautious about going down the hill.

STEVE: Is this all about spending more time in the backcountry, or spending more time at the resort here?

ALAN HOBBS: A bit of both. You know I started out as a backcountry skier, but I've kind of turned into a bit of a resort tele skier, which I'm a bit ashamed of, you know. But to be honest I'm a bit more of a resort skier now I think. But I want to be able to be better too for touring.

STEVE: Gear manufacturers were there, loaning out their latest for the skiers to try.

RAMSEY: Getting fitted out here. A beautiful ski, blue.

JUSTIN SINGER: ...let's have you pop-in here...

RAMSEY: OK. He's very, very helpful and attentive, even with the boa in his eyes.

STEVE: So you're trying these out mostly for resort skiing or for backcountry skiing?

RAMSEY: For all around. You know, I have, I just got some new G3's last year, but you know you just want to check out different skis and see how they ski. I'm actually looking for some bigger powder skis, even though mine are mid-fat.

STEVE: The G3's she mentions are a brand of ski. Her name is Ramsey from South Lake Tahoe, and she tried the blue skis in one of the classes.

STEVE: So do most of the people who come to you, are they expressing mostly resort skiing interest or backcountry skiing interest?

JUSTIN SINGER: A little bit of both. Most people want one ski that can do everything. So that's always a trick; something that's good at the resort, something that's good in the backcountry. Lightweight, stiff enough, not wiggling around at the resort. So we got skis that can do that, we got some that are better for other things, and a mixed bag, you never know.

STEVE: Is this the only event of this kind that you show gear at like this?

JUSTIN SINGER: For the most part, for tele festivals this would be the one thing. We do demo days throughout the season for dealers and public, but as for festivals this would pretty much be the highlight of the season.

STEVE: Can I get your name and where you live?

JUSTIN SINGER: Justin Singer, Karhu Sales Rep, and I'm in Truckee, California.

STEVE: All right! Thank you very much.

JUSTIN SINGER: Absolutely.

STEVE: Nobody had a chance to get bored. There were all-terrain races for the most advanced skiers. And then there were avalanche rescue races, called the Beacon Olympics.

BRANDON SCHWARTZ: Yeah. You know you want to keep it simple, it's a rescue situation, and you want to find the signal, you want to follow the signal, you want to probe, you want to dig.

GARY BARD: OK, ready? Go!

SPECTATOR: Run Penny, Run! Run Penny, Run!

STEVE: Earlier in the day, the judges buried several avalanche beacons attached to body-sized wood planks. Beacons are special radios you wear in avalanche-prone terrain. This contestant is using her own beacon as a receiver to locate the buried beacon. Once she gets close, she'll use a rod called an avalanche probe to confirm the location of the buried beacon.

BRANDON SCHWARTZ: ...there's a piece of plywood on top...

MAN: Strike!

GARY BARD: Got it! A minute fifteen.

STEVE: She found the buried beacon in one minute and fifteen seconds. In a real rescue, it would still take many more minutes to dig the victim out. Being fast could save a life.

For most skiers, the telemark technique is not very easy to learn. Alpine skiers have to get used to a different kind of balance, and a constantly changing stance. Cross-country skiers, like me, have to get used to the big hills, the speed, and what feels at first like some loss of control.

Marty Simpson is the instructor of an advanced-beginners clinic.

MARTY SIMPSON: We're going right to Tele. Jump into it here. Tele used to be, when I started out in leather boots and double-cambered skis... Woaaah yeah!

STEVE: Marty kneels down, sliding one ski back so far that his knee is almost resting on the ski. His heel sticks straight up.

MARTY SIMPSON: ..and this was awesome. This used to be awesome. Big ole long skis leather boots. The skis didn't want to turn. They weren't built to turn. They go straight really efficiently. This was awesome, it worked. But it was a lot of hard effort to make it happen. These skis, everybody here is on a nice, shaped ski, a couple pounds of plastic on each foot, these let us use these skis much better.

STEVE: Unless you look carefully at the boots and bindings, It might be hard to see the difference between a modern Tele ski and an Alpine ski. But just watch how they move on the slope. Alpine skiers look to me like they're relying on brute force. Skilled tele skiers move more like they're in a graceful dance. They shuffle their skis back and forth, making a little curtsy on each turn.

MARTY SIMPSON: ...just think about dropping my pelvis about two inches, and just scissoring my feet to let that happen.

STEVE: This move is much more subtle than when Marty kneeled the first time. His rear ski is only about a boot-length behind his front ski. One knee is only slightly behind the other. It's just a gentle dip, with both knees bent, and his rear heel a couple of inches off the ski.

MARTY SIMPSON: We use our stance to load the ski, and our switch in stance to unload it. OK? So when I'm right here, in a nice tele, what I want to see, feet still fairly wide apart.

STEVE: Marty starts to shuffle. He slides smoothly between the curtsy with one ski forward, and the opposite with the other ski forward.

MARTY SIMPSON: Front-to-back, what I'd really like, scissored I'm sinking down between my feet, but I look down, at my front knee, I'm getting good cuff pressure, I'm covering the toe of the boot. If I can see the toe of the boot I'm peg-legged feet. I'm out here doing this...

STEVE: But there are a lot more subtleties to the tele turn, that we just won't get right away.

MARTY SIMPSON: If you look back, my rear heel, you'll see a lot of really good skiers out here today, you could fit a cantaloupe under their heel, standing on their tippy-toe and this ski isn't doing all it could. Good stance? I'd like to put a baseball or a tennis ball under my heel. Two and a half, three inches of my heel being up. And my bum is hanging out right over that back heel. I'm right here.

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STEVE: So with that, we skied. Some of us fell down a few times. We got a little better. And we moved ourselves toward that goal of being able to tackle those bigger, steeper hills in the backcountry.

You'll find links to information about the Telemark festival, and about freeheel skiing in general, on our web site.

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We're going to take a week off to line up some new shows for the next few months. Please check our web page or blog feed for updates.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number thirty one. Thank you for listening.

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