Skiing is Believing

Last Saturday was opening day of the ski season (for chairlifts, that is) and I couldn’t be happier. This is my third decade of sliding around on snow and opening day never loses its allure, despite long lines and limited terrain. This season marks my seventh year as a passholder at Whitefish Mountain Resort, formerly known as the Big Mountain. I moved to Montana to ski. And ski is what I do.

Over the years I’ve weighed my ski aspirations against my weak career options. I didn’t move to the mountains to be a successful ______ (insert profession here). I moved west because I’m drawn to mountains and snow and feeling free and wild in those sacred places. I’m also a very good product of my childhood: growing up in northern Michigan, careers and professions were not things my parents or their friends or even my friends discussed. Sure, we knew folks who were lawyers and doctors and my parents certainly worked hard to make a living but when winter rolled around there was one thing my family did well: ski. I grew up watching Warren Miller movies and reading Powder Magazine–I aspired to ski in the mountains and little else.

Each ski season, I have a wealth of good memories that I tap into and cherish: the long touring day under blue skies, the perfect race run, the deep snow that tickles my face, run after run, and the good times with friends darting between trees and toasting beers at the end of the day. Riding the chairlift on opening day (pretty much a sacred holiday in our household) I thought back t0 my very first day as a season pass holder on Big Mountain, a few years back in 2005. It was my first real winter in the mountains and I was young, anxious and thrilled.

That year, the mountain opened before Thanksgiving and I met up with a group of guys I met earlier in the week at the Great Northern Bar & Grill. The previous winter I was living in Bigfork and there was barely any snowfall, so I’d only skied at the Big a few times. I didn’t know the mountain well and put my trust in a group of locals, beard clad and all too willing to tour the new girl around the mountain. As the day progressed and the inversion brightened on the summit, the group shifted and sorted until it was just myself and Eric, a man 20 years older and a telemark skier. He asked if I wanted to ski NBC. Not knowing what NBC was but thrilled to be skiing, I said yes.

“Just don’t get caught,” he said, as we got off the chair. He raced down the Ant Hill and I followed behind. I barely saw the orange rope closing off East Rim before I ran into it. Eric instructed me to hurry across the traverse.

Up until this point, the novice that I was to big mountain skiing, I knew very little about closure and cliffs and chutes. Oh, I knew a lot about red and blue paneled gates and how to teach people how to ski, but my knowledge of Rocky Mountain skiing was limited. However, chasing after Eric, I didn’t want him to know this, whatsoever.

Eric led me to the top of NBC a narrow chute. I gulped. I knew I was a good skier, but it was the first day of the ski season.

“Don’t fall,” he joked as he hopped into the tight chute.

I watched him hop through the chute and I noted a few trees and logs sticking up out of the snow. It was still very much early season and the coverage was thin. Eric disappeared into a copse of trees at the apron of the run. I nudged the tips of my skis off the edge and gave way to the pull of the terrain.

I made a few slow jump turns and thought, This is it! I’m doing it! Yes!

Half way down the chute, I augered into the snow. I flipped over and rolled, like a ragged doll, down the chute. One of my skis fell off. Don’t slide, don’t slide, I told myself. I kicked my boots into the snow, trying to stop my fast descent. I gripped the snow with my hands and looked for Eric. I didn’t see him. I caught my breath, took off my other ski and boot packed up the chute to locate my other ski. It stuck out of the snow, tip first, like a fence post. I was mortified and tried as quickly as I could to click back into my skis and save whatever face I had left and negotiate  the rest of the chute.

Eric was watching me from below and I found him hiding in the cover of the trees.

“You can’t fall there,” he lectured.

“Okay,” I quickly said. “I’m sorry.”

At the end of the day, Eric invited me to the Bierstube. The cold beer assuaged my embarrassment over my messy wreck in NBC and as the night wore on and I drank more cheap beer, my excitement for almost-skiing my very first chute overcame me. My lips became very loose and as I wandered around the ‘Stube and met more and more ski bums, I bragged that it was my first ski season in Montana and I had just skied my very first chute in my entire life.

Standing in front of a small circle of bearded men, I told them the whole story of how I met this guy Eric and how it was the first day of the ski season and how he took me down this run called NBC. I explained my wreck and how excited I was to ski my first chute. It was great! I felt great, especially after my fourth PBR!

Two of the guys chuckled. “NBC, you say?”

“Yes!” I said.

One of the guys grabbed my forearm. “Hi, I know you’re new here and this is your first day on the mountain but we’re on ski patrol and NBC is closed. As in, you should not be skiing it and you really shouldn’t be bragging about it at the ‘Stube.”

Oops. Insert foot into mouth. I drank the rest of my beer and walked away from ski patrol. Good move, new girl.

I learned to ski NBC, when it was open, of course, and to not fall down it (although some days I don’t ski it well). Now, I try and make it a daily habit and when I enter the notch, I think back to my first day on the mountain. I was so happy and eager and willing to explore the mountain that I’d knew be my home that I’d follow anyone anywhere. Now in my 30s, I’m no less excited but a bit more cautious about who I follow and where.

Let it snow!


Skinny Legs Didn’t Get You Here

There are days when I hate my thighs. I hate my ass. My thighs are large and lumpy. My butt is round and it makes it difficult to locate a pair of pants that actually fit over my curves and don’t gap at the waist. I tend to curse my thighs and butt and then have to remind myself that 1) I could actually exercise more and eat less pain au levain dripping in olive oil or 2) come to terms with my curves, because under the cellulite there’s muscle. Skinny, weak legs, don’t get you anywhere on the ski hill, save looking nice in a pair of Bogner stretch pants, but the looks the ski bunny gets and the ones you get through North Bowl Chute are entirely different.

One would think, after nearly 28 years of skiing, that I’d worship my legs. That I’d kiss them nightly, thankful that both haven’t broke, torn, or ripped. That I’d be proud of their strength and power. That they’ve gotten me to a podium spot in telemark racing. That they helped me skin to the top of a peak in Alaska. That, standing tall or bent kneed, my legs have carried me to the Alps, the high trails in Glacier National Park, and sliding down a slope, teasing a fellow teammate only to stand, again on those same two legs, dimples on the backs and all, and face said teammate and pledge my life to him in marriage.

You’d think, for a girl who had braces on her legs as a child, she’d be nice to her legs.

I was born with tibial torsion and when I was just learning to walk — which is when this is typically diagnosed– my parents noticed my legs were twisted. This small chapter in my childhood is not documented well; braces were screwed into my legs and my mother didn’t take one picture of me from the waist down during this painful year. I would thump across the wood floors, hollering at the top of my lungs. My mother was so terrified and so upset but knew that without the braces, my legs wouldn’t straighten. The braces were necessary and although I don’t remember this time in my early years, my mother feared that any photos of the braces could cause further duress. In my twisted and unruly childhood, my mother honestly had little to worry about when it came to photos of my small legs strapped in braces, but I was her firstborn and how could she know, after just one year of my existence, that this procedure would perhaps be the least of her concerns? I mean, I wasn’t even seventeen and willful. Oh wait, I was completely willful at one. I just didn’t know how to drive.

Imprisoned in my braces, I would lie in my crib and slam the contraption into the bars of the crib, the clang of BANG. BANG.BANG. ricocheting off the high ceilings, until I’d fall asleep from exhaustion. One night, I  thrashed so fervently  that I launched up and out of my crib and landed on my feet, braces righting my expulsion. Upright and in a terror, I wobbled and BANG.BANG.BANG down the hallway waking my shaken parents. Never one to be quiet as a mouse, I shrieked and cried through the rest of the night. The next morning, my parents returned to the pediatrician and asked for the braces to be removed from my legs. They told Dr. McGeath about my leap from the crib and he agreed with my parents that perhaps it was time to free the legs.

I’d like to argue, because arguing is what I do, that first year my legs were weighted down and while the bones were twisting back into correct position, my muscles were learning how to build strength and power. I don’t know if the braces or my genetic makeup are the result of my full thighs and round ass, but I’d like to believe that the night I freed myself from my crib and ultimately from the braces, that I was preparing for a lifetime of testing my legs. I’d like to think of those heavy metal braces as my first experience with weight training.

I wish I could admit that the size and shape of my body doesn’t occupy as much of my mental capacity as it really does. I do feel lucky that I have a healthy body image and a some-what healthy relationship with food (I have zero willpower, so I’m not good at saying no to seconds or eating a plate of fries) but sometimes I fret and worry about my legs. Why don’t they fit into jeans? When I start down that nasty little trail of critiquing my legs, I have to realize that underneath the fat, there really is muscle (and there will be more muscle the more I continue to squat). And that muscle got its first burst of stamina and sturdiness when I couldn’t use my legs without braces.

Skinny legs are not a part of my body makeup, and skinny legs didn’t get me out of that crib and skinny legs certainly won’t help me perfect the telemark turn.

From the Sidelines

In early March the US Telemark National Championships were held at Gunstock Mountain Resort in the quaint Lakes Region of New Hampshire. For Cole and me, it would be our first experience skiing on the east coast.

For Cole, the 2012 championships proved to be his career  best , placing 8th overall. He skied incredibly strong and made impressive improvements in his Achilles’s heel of tele racing — the jump. He skied, skated, and jumped notably well over four days of racing on little snow and lots of sunshine (also, not to mention, Cole did not have many days of training prior to flying east).

For me, this year’s race was a completely different experience than what I experienced last year in Steamboat. While Cole and my teammates gunned for the title, I humbly watched from the sidelines.

My own Achilles’s heel is a longstanding streak for injuries sustained during the month of February and this year proved to be no exception. On a bluebird day on the Big Mountain while skiing groomers with good friends, I took a good fall and landed hard on my right side. Not wanting to look like a goon and fending off embarrassment from my gaffe, I ignored the ache in my ribs, continued my way down Inspiration, loaded Chair One, and attempted to make my way down the backside of the mountain. Half way down the bumpy run, it became difficult to breathe. The pain in my ribs were sharp. It felt as if my entire rib cage and shoulder blade were shoved about a foot further into my body.

On the chair ride back to the summit, I vocalized my pain and Cole directed me to the ski patrol shack at the summit. Guided by a patroller, I was downloaded off Chair One and sent promptly to the urgent care clinic. A series of X-Rays determined that my ribs were bruised, perhaps cracked, and my scapula had “about a B-Cup’s worth of swelling”.

That exact quote was deftly delivered by my doctor. He seriously compared the lump on my scapula to a breast. I would have laughed much harder but it hurt too much.

The nurse, after scanning through my records, pointed out that I’d been admitted to the urgent care clinic for three ski related (or dare I say, induced) injuries during the month of February since  2006. She looked at me and offered that perhaps I should not ski during February. Lovely advice that I will not heed, no matter the bruised ribs, torn shoulder or broken wrist.

In one fell swoop (pun completely intended), I realized my ski racing season was over before it even started. I would not be able to attend the World Cup series in Steamboat the following week and it would be a long shot to recover and train in time to make a go at Nationals.

Last year, while training I partially dislocated my left shoulder but I was still able to heal and compete in Norway at a World Cup race series and finish in third place at the US Nationals. This year, a much longer recovery period was in order. Also, with my full-time job, training had been completely and utterly thrown to the back burner.

I was upset, annoyed and angry. I also came to the realization that I possessed a raging accident prone gene. Although early in the season I had eschewed my concentration from racing to working full-time, I was still saddened that my race season had come to an abrupt end on what seemed like an innocuous ski run down Inspiration.

Luckily, work kept me occupied. I focused on physical therapy, a weekly activity I’d been participating in all winter for other injuries in my neck and shoulder. My winter season was directed to healing my body in all of its imbalances. I didn’t understand how my own body could be so beat up, down trodden, and kicked to the curb.

I wanted nothing to do with the National Championships after my rib injury. I told Cole to go without me. We’d save money — one less plane ticket, registration fees, hotel reservations, and lift tickets to purchase. Without competing in one single race this season, I felt so utterly removed and separated from my teammates. I wanted to focus on work — who actually says that? — since it offered me my most immediate distraction. I wanted to forget about racing and move onto life with the symphony and reengage with my writing self in preparation for grad school. I was ready to throw in the whole speed suit towel. As I typed out an email to the USTSA Board of Directors explaining my injury and how it wouldn’t allow me to compete at Nationals, I thought of how dramatic the changes in the last year had been. Last winter the complete and utter focus was on telemark racing. This season, I followed the journey of my teammates through the channels of the Internet and YouTube and cried when two of my teammates, Madi and Zoe, made it to the podium at the World Cups in Steamboat.

The Board, while concerned for my injury, encouraged me to attend the National Championships and hoped I’d volunteer for the race. Cole wanted me to come as well. So while he packed up his race gear, speed suit, and wax equipment, with a scowl on my face, I threw in my race jacket that hardly saw any use this season into my dufflebag.  I kept telling myself that I’d go to the race, cheer on Cole, and that I’d hardly blink an eye about the actual race. I’d put the racing experience out of my heart and mind.

Nice try, wise gal.

Arriving on the east coast and hugging my teammates in the hotel lobby, I realized that I foolish to think that I no longer cared about the sport. It was a tough nut (it was actually more like a shard of glass) to swallow to watch the racers take the course, navigating through the gates and skating to the finish. As a gate judge, I watched every single competitor race. A huge New England contingency of telemark racers showed up to compete against the US team. I stood on the sidelines for four straight days in my team jacket, watching, judging, and cheering. The first two days were the most difficult, and I choked down tears as the women’s elite division took to the course the first. It was a lot harder than I anticipated to be a mere bystander than a racer. I desperately yearned to slide through the course during inspection run among my teammates, visualizing my line, and I wanted nothing more than to enter the skate section — my strongest discipline in the race. But my body was not going to allow me to slide through the start gate and wait for the signal, “Racer ready? Three, two, one – GO!”

Prior to heading east to Gunstock, I told my co-workers that I’d formally bow out from racing at the Championships, using the venue to say goodbye to my friends and teammates, leaning on my well worn excuses of injuries, age, job, and graduate school. But  from the moment I gathered with the team at the base lodge, slapping hi-fives and catching up on the past year, I realized that my biggest fault was not that my  body is prone to breaking frequently, but rather I possess a nasty and debilitating  habit of giving up. I may not ever have a year like I did in 2011, competing in three different countries on the World Cup circuit and ending the year with a bronze at Nationals, but it still doesn’t mean that I don’t absolutely love chasing blue and red paneled gates on a free heel.

And my lame excuse that I’m getting old is completely unfounded as Charlie Dresen, aged 48, took home the gold in the men’s division. I may be getting older but that doesn’t mean I’m any less fast.

A Winter Solstice Celebration


Although the daylight hours are not long on this first, true day of winter, hope now lies in Winter Solstice.

While Snow hasn’t really made her grand appearance in the Flathead Valley, Winter Solstice did not disappoint. The sun made a shining brilliant appearance, although low on the horizon. When the sun set on the first day of winter, it cascaded its rays across the tops of the mountains, shooting ribbons of pink and purple across the snowy peaks. Darkness settled into the valley around 5pm and like any decent worshiper of the earth and its magical changing of of the seasons, I stripped down naked in the crisp air and then promptly jumped into our hot tub, soaking my sore muscles from a day reveling in the sunshine and snow at a small resort south of Whitefish that has benefited from some recent snowfall. As I sat and stewed, the starts began to emerge from the dark. It is going to be a cold, cold start to Winter.

With a beer in hand, I toasted the day of good turns and greeted the new season. I spent the day with Cole and his mother skiing and relishing in the bounty of snow this small ski hill boasts in addition to its expansive views of Flathead Lake and the Swan and Mission Mountain ranges. What a day to bear witness to Winter and to life in the cold. Among the fir trees, we whooped, hollered, and shouted “Happy Winter”.

This past fall I wrote with much anticipation for this day: even though today is short on daylight, tomorrow and each day forward only means a longer day, minute by minute. I will no longer waste my gloomy fall days, brooding with a book along with the crack of the wood in the fire, and hope for days spent under the Winter sun or July heat. Fall is my respite and it is in Winter when this girl soars from the pages of a Jim Harrison novel and races to the ski hill to spend her days skiing.

While I’ve been expecting this day and for the flakes of snow to blanket the mountains where I roam, Winter Solstice and the general holiday season seems to have rushed up on me. There are just a few short days left of the year. And what a year it has been…

Without going into too much detail or for fear of sounding like one of those over-the-top Christmas card letters beaming with accomplishments, I just want all of you to note that  2011 was my banner year. I would love to bottle this year. To seal it all up, forever. But that’s now how life works. It commands us to remember, to cherish and to celebrate these good years. Scrapbooks and photo albums attempt to cement the memories, but it is my challenge, as always to not only live in the moment, but reflect on the moment — especially when those moments, like sitting in the July sunshine on the deck of the Many Glacier Hotel with a huckleberry margarita in hand after climbing in a mountain with the people I truly love, compile into many good moments and memories that can quickly fade and become lost in the recesses of the brain, floating around with reminders to schedule a dental appointment or mail in my health insurance payment. I may savor a good beer, a steak on the grill, and a cone of homemade ice cream but I’m not always the best at holding my finest memories in the forefront of my memory. Perhaps this is because, lately, I’ve had so many wonderful and true memories that  stack on to each other. Like the Princess and and the Pea, I want to feel the littlest, smallest experience among the weight of the mattress.

Perhaps that is why I’m a writer, forever worry about losing a line, a moment, a story…

In a quick attempt, on the ever forgiving Internet (harr harr), here is my public moment to share with you my year.

2011 began at a ski race in Steamboat Springs, took me across the world on my telemark skis, saw me reuniting with my college friends in Chicago in the spring, delivered me to the Bob to spend a week with cross-cuts saws and my best of Montana friends, moved into my dream home, schlepped me to the top of a few mountain peaks in Glacier with my best climbing companion, and then in a summer snow and rain storm near Hole in the Wall, gave me my heart, forever.

I hoisted a stein at Oktoberfest in Germany, roared across Lake Huron to touch the Island, hugged my mother in both Montana and Michigan, wrote my heart out in both my fiction and freelance lives, and on the final day of 2011, I will once again be on my skis. I won’t be at a race this New Year’s but, rather, on the eastern flanks of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in a tiny cabin celebrating a dear friend’s major birthday and toasting to 2012.

The year, much like my time in the gates on the race course, has raced by. On these dark nights, sky cast aglow in a smattering of light from the heavens, I toast the courage and the hope that lies in all of us, whether we know it or not, to love fiercely — whether that is man or woman, mountain or river, book or pen, food or wine, and both the good and evil inner selves.

Happy, Happy Winter Solstice! May there be light. May there be snow. May hope lie in a single snow flake.

The Waiting Game

Someone is very late. She’s missed her date. She is late.


Oh where oh where is the snow?

In years past, I used to do many things to will the weather gods in Montana to change from fall to winter. I would host pray for snow parties, spend the entire month of November wearing my snowflake pajamas during all hours of the day (this was when I lived in the North Fork and could get away with such peculiar behavior), walk around the house in my ski boots, watch ski movies at night, and stalk the online weather service to see if snow was in the forecast. Now that I’m almost 30 (gasp!) I’ve realized that I have little sway over the weather, no matter the chants to Ullr or chopping firewood in a torn pair of snowflake PJ’s. My snowflake duds went into the rag bag last summer after the crotch was completely blown and the elastic waist was stretched beyond repair. Now I wonder, did wearing my flannel pants adorned with snowflakes help convince Mother Nature and Ullr to deliver snow to the mountains?

I’m 90% certain that Mother Nature, Ullr and Snow could care less what I’m doing but right now there’s no snow in my yard and the mountain, Whitefish Mountain Resort, has a mere 24 inch base. Snow is late and she doesn’t seem to be in any rush to make her grand appearance.

So, I wait. And I say some chants to Ullr and I wonder about climate change and I try to not worry about the lack of snow. It will come. Right? Snow, you do plan on making a showing this winter?

While the grass in our yard is exposed, I try and focus on the other aspects of winter, like ski conditioning for the race season (which is less than a month away!), seek out great cross-country and skate skiing conditions at nearby places like Essex and Blacktail, and make a feeble attempt at not worrying that my legs aren’t used to their tele boards and I haven’t made a turn around a gate since last March. Now that I’m a ski bum chasing the telemark racing dream, waiting (hoping, wishing, and praying too) for snow is a serious business. No snow means no race training. Sure, deep powder would be great, but I’m just asking, pleading for Snow to hurry up to Whitefish and give us some good coverage so me (and the rest of the ski bums in the Flathead Valley) can get down to the business of winter and skiing.

I don’t know if Snow reads blogs, but I sure hope she gets my message. Or else I have to search for my old pajamas and horrify the neighborhood…

Team Captain?

Exercise is the best medicine — the best cure for the fall blues. As I’ve mentioned earlier, fall is  the period when ski training kicks into high gear. After ignoring the gym for much of the summer, I’m now a regular at The Wave, our local gym. After breakfast, Cole and I spend a good chunk of the daylight hours lifting heavy things. Well, I should note, Cole lifts extremely heavy things with his freakishly large quads and I try and lift sort-of-heavy things and hope that I don’t fart loudly while doing squats.

When I was first toying with the idea of competing in telemark, it was a personal challenge — I just wanted to race at my home ski hill and I didn’t expect that I’d make the US team. Telemark racing looked like a lot of fun and I met some really incredible people who also raced so I thought I’d join their clan. In fact, I even brought chocolate chip cookies to practice to earn their favor. It worked! At the 2010 Nationals, I did OK. I was surrounded by talented athletes, young and old, and they all cheered for each other and drank beer at the awards ceremony (the older ones did. Not the high school students). I knew immediately that I wanted to be like these people, clad in a speedsuit, and panting through the skate section after rushing through a set of complicated gates on a steep slope. What I really wanted was to be an athlete again, a member of a team. I asked to join their club and they said yes.

In high school, I played a lot of sports. I wasn’t particularly good but I loved to play basketball, ski race, run track, and attempt to play softball. I liked moving my body and as any of my teachers at Boyne City High can attest, I had a lot of energy that needed a healthy outlet. I also loved being on a team. I loved sharing my experiences with my teammates — it made all those difficulties from running endless wind sprints to wrecking on the slalom course much easier to digest. I loved everything about sports: from practices after school, to traveling to other cities across northern Michigan and competing against rival schools, to having to maintain good grades to play, to team huddles, and hanging up motivational posters in my locker. Many nights were spent having serious life chats with my teammates on the late night bus ride home. I may not have been the best athlete — I sat the bench a lot — but I just wanted to play. But what I wasn’t good at was being a good team captain.

By my junior and senior years in high school, I was nominated team captain for my basketball and ski teams. I had plenty of leadership experience serving as the class president of the Class of 2000 but titles alone don’t make you a good leader. I was elected to student council and honored with the role of team captain because I’m outspoken, loud, challenge authority, and am not afraid to share my opinion. I truly cared about the Class of 2000 and how we functioned with the rest of the student body and I absolutely loved my teammates on all of my sports teams because the other magical thing about teams is that they become your tribe; but all of this didn’t equate to being a good leader. Now, I wasn’t a terrible leader. It’s not like I siphoned funds from the class treasury to buy popcorn or put gas in my ’92 Buick Century station wagon, but I was all talk and little walk.

When I was a freshman, all I wanted was to beat the upperclassmen in ski racing; I worked my tail off. As a (small) forward on our basketball team, I trained all summer so I wouldn’t get cut from the team. But when it came to motivating and encouraging my other teammates, I fell short. I delivered a lot of empty promises about summer workouts and extra time in the gym during the off-season.  By the time I was a senior, I fell into an apathetic state — I didn’t work so hard in the summer and once winter came upon us, I spent more time in the moguls than I did in gates. I didn’t do what I said I would. I let a lot of people down. I thought that after fours years of competition, I deserved to slack off, to not work so hard. I was wrong. I hadn’t earned anything.

Sure, that’s all 10- plus years in the past, but much to my amazement, I’ve had a second revival on the athletic track. And while I don’t necessarily remember how I placed at track meets or what my season record was during my varsity basketball years, I remember how I let people down. How I was boisterous in words but silent in action. I’m playing on a much bigger playing field and it not only requires more rigorous training — far beyond anything I did at our “Breakfast Club” morning weight lifting sessions — it requires a massive commitment from myself, and my bank account (there is zero funding to be on the US telemark team), and to my teammates who are flung about the country.

I’m not in anyway the team captain of the telemark team. Hell, we don’t even have a coach. But I am fully aware of the consequence of my actions — both the words I say and what I do on the ski hill, be it in Whitefish, Montana or Norway. OK, so no one would ever mistake me for Lindsey Vonn and I won’t be attending any Olympic games as an athlete anytime soon, but what I’ve realized since my Rambler days is that when you say something — something to people who look up to you and who count on you — you’ve got to be there.

So this fall, while I’m lunging across the gym, I’m working on how to be that person I should have been when I was in high school.

The Tele Way

Ask the general public about telemark racing and they’ll look at you and wonder if you’re talking about some new competitive form of telemarketing. Ask many skiers about telemark racing and they give you: “Huh? I know about telemark. But telemark racing? I’ve never heard of that.” While telemark racing might be a fairly new concept, say about 30 years young, telemark skiing is the oldest form of skiing. It predates twin tips, fat skis, 210cm K2’s, the pro mogul bump tour, Alberta Tomba, Suzy Chapstick, Stein Erickson, the 10th Mountain Division, any sort of neon clothing from either the 80s or now, or Spread Eagles–skiing first began with a free heel.

Folks in winter climes have been sliding on snow on skis for a good 4000 years or so. It’s a good method of travel. In the 1870s a Norwegian named Sondre Norheim from Morgedal, Telemark, revolutionized the telemark turn. Instead of using skis as a method of travel, skiing became a sport and Sondre led the way with his curved skis, his telemark turn down a slope, his new approach to telemark bindings, and his enthusiasm for the sport. Essentially, telemark skiing is taking a pair of cross-country skis and applying them down a ski hill. Like a cross-country or Nordic ski set up, the heels are free to move. The technology with telemark skiing has a changed a bit–the bindings aren’t made of willow and people don’t typically wear leather boots any more–but the movement of the turn is still the same: the lunge down the hill. Some people say telemark skiing is like a dance down the mountain, and although personally it doesn’t always look like I’m dancing (I’m not that graceful) down the hill, telemark skiing does involve a fair amount of skill, technique and balance.

Telemark racing is kinda like its alpine counterpart with some major exceptions: while we ski around gates just like those alpine racers do with their fixed heels, our sport combines two other disciplines aimed at the heart of skiing–nordic jumping and skating. I’m hoping most of you have seen a ski race–either in person or televised, like during an Olympic year. So, alpine racers turn around gates and are timed on their runs. The fastest person down the mountain is the winner. For us crazy telemark competitors, we not only have to be the fastest down the mountain, we also have to (IN THE SAME COURSE) clear a set distance line on the Nordic style jump, land in telemark position (the back heel is lifted), continue to ski around the Giant Slalom gates, ski a 360 degree banked turn, AND end the race with a skate section. We do all of this in one race. Ski, jump, skate. On the World Cup level, there are these disciplines as well but they are their own, individual sport. There’s Nordic jumping. And there’s Alpine racing. Nordic skating is its own sport too. But with our free heels, it allows us to experiment a bit and truly test the most athletic limits by combining all three.

And that bit about being the fastest down the race course? Well that’s important but telemark racing is also a judged sport. Since the heel is free there tends to be some variances with the telemark turn and position and to make up for these variances, judges are assigned to watch each racer down the course to ensure proper technique. If you fail to make a turn in telemark position you’re assigned a penalty. The penalty? One second is added to your total time per penalty. There’s also a penalty if you fail to make the distance line on the jump (which can be, at the World Cup level, for the women a distance of 30 meters) you’re given a 3 second reward for your mistake. And, if you don’t land your jump in telemark position, add another second to your time. Races, in the world of telemark, aren’t always won by fastest (or “raw” time in telemark speak) but how clean you can ski your run. Conceivably you can earn a penalty for each gate and the jump. Ouch.

Sounds a bit complicated, doesn’t it?

It does and at times, a bit silly. But let me tell you that it is one of the best sports in the entire world. The competitors have to be strong, balanced, and fearless. Not only does a racer have to be well-versed in the art of racing around gates at high speeds, the racer also has to be physically strong to launch off a jump and then have some lung power left to charge through the skate section. Its demanding, very challenging and is a sport that truly demonstrates the athleticism of the racer.

So, its an Olympic event right? There are major corporate sponsors funding teams and athletes, right? Everyone in the world knows who Eirik Rykhus, Amelie Reymond, and the Lau brothers are, right?

No. No. And unless you’re involved in telemark racing you wouldn’t know that the telemark world is dominated by one tall Norwegian, an unbeatable Swiss woman and three French brothers.

To date, telemark skiing is not an Olympic event. For years, all of the countries involved in telemark racing have been making great efforts to bend the ears of the IOC with no avail. Our sport is not always spectator friendly (I don’t agree with this opinion) and apparently, we’re not television friendly because we’re too nice.

Yep, telemark racers are too nice of competitors and instead of demonstrating fierce rivalries between different nations, we actually cheer each other on at the finish, train together, offer advice and insight, eat meals together and have one hell of a party after each World Cup race series. 

I once believed that the Olympics were staged as an international event bringing together athletes from all over the globe not only in athletic competition but also to demonstrate sportsmanship and unity. Telemark racing doesn’t need the Olympics to prove these qualities. The racers, without the hopes of an Olympic gold medal, still continue to pursue their dreams on the World Cup level. Telemark racing is an FIS World Cup sport and races take part in Europe and America (maybe Japan someday soon too!).

Stateside, telemark racing is actually run by a non-profit organization, the United States Telemark Ski Association. The US Telemark team doesn’t boast any major corporate sponsor (although our main sponsor is Montana’s Big Sky Brewery and that ain’t too shabby of a sponsor!), athletes aren’t fully funded nor is there a large cash purse or shiny new sports car waiting for them at the finish line. Our sport is run by a group of dedicated (and I mean dedicated) parents, volunteers, ex-racers and athletes:  young and old. Our European counterparts do receive a bit more attention and funding but because our racers make their own path to the World Cup races, we also command a lot of respect within the global telemark community. Oh and back in the early part of the decade, we had a guy, a really nice and humble guy from Whitefish named Reid Sabin and he was the World Champion. Twice. We’ve had several other men and women compete on the World Cup level and have delivered podium and top ten results. We’re an impressive group and no one really knows about us.

I discovered telemark skiing three years ago and found myself racing at last year’s US National Championships all because a certain 5-time National Champion named Kelsey told me I could do it and it’d be fun. I believed her and it was fun. A year later, I’ve raced in three countries including Sondre’s Norway and I’m really proud to say that I claimed the bronze at this year’s National Championships in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The racing was extremely tough and I sat in last place a few times in Germany and Austria. But, for those of you who haven’t been a part of this extremely nice community, you’d be amazed how tightly knit this group of competitors are. Telemark racing takes sportsmanship and camaraderie and elevates it to another level. The top racers in the world share tips with the newcomers. The competitors can be found at early hours before a race helping to set up the course and then at the end of the day, rolling up the orange safety net. At the end of the Classic race, the most difficult and enduring race, the previous racers wait in the finish area and help the next racer out of their skis because they are utterly fatigued to do so themselves. During the skate section, other competitors line up and ring cowbells and cheer loudly for their teammates, their competitors–the fastest and the slowest.

Perhaps soon, now that I can focus a bit more on writing as the racing business has come to an end, I can really put forth into words how incredible this sport is. It has changed my life. Sure, there’s tough competition everywhere you look and we all want to be winners in this sport but we all know that to keep the sport alive we truly have to act like Olympians, even if that means our sport will never receive the invitation to the official Winter Games.