Free the mind

Missy Votel - 01/19/2017

“Oh my god, you tele?” the millennial exclaimed. “That is so uncool.”

She practically spit her microbrew on me as the words sputtered from her mouth in disgust, as if I had just divulged something as reprehensible as supporting baby seal hunts, wanting to watch the Trump inauguration or being a Mariah Carey fan.

But I had done nothing of the sort. Rather, I had simply admitted, in casual conversation, my preferred mode of winter up and downhill conveyance.

Yes, I telemark. There I said it – snicker amongst yourselves if you must.

(*And for the record, I am not some steroid-quadded masochist who teles at all times, on hard pack, bumps and into the lift line. Rather, I like to think of myself as a discerning telemarker, only opting to drop the knee in certain situations. More of a parallel-a-marker if you will. As I once learned from a heckler at Alta, waste not, want not.)

I know we may rank low on the cool-o-meter, somewhere below snowboarders but slightly higher than monoskiers or snowbladers. The old fuddy-duddies of the skiing world who refuse to accept that our gear is the obsolete equivalent of land lines, MySpace and VHS players.
We’ve been known to unabashedly sport the classic Patagonia purple and teal way past their prime, wear kneepads on the outside and maybe even at one time gaiters and a fanny pack (extra points if it contained a bota bag and some gorp). Like thunder-thighed skiing hobbits, we eschewed hygiene and regular haircuts, and likely honed our skills in ratty leather boots, three pins and popsicle sticks. We made our way down the mountain like wobbly antenna-ed creatures from planet Double Pole Plant. We didn’t just have sore thumbs – we stuck out like them.

Ok – so not exactly the picture of cool.

I get it. I’ve been apologetically turned away with my used gear at second-hand stores. I’ve felt the sting of rejection from my own children, who recoil in horror at the thought of being caught dead in such archaic contraptions – a fate worse than flip phones or dial-up.

But then again – if skiing was about trying to look cool, I’d live in one of those glitzy resorts up north, you know, where I could spend $170 rubbing fur collars in liftlines with the rich and famous. Instead, I prefer the obscurity of southwestern Colorado, where I can ply my trade in the trees among other like-minded and equally trend-resistant social outcasts. Which I guess is another word for old schoolers.

And to be fair, it wasn’t always that way. There actually was a time when telemarking served a purpose other than being the butt of someone’s joke. Rather, the free heel was the free ticket to the backcountry. Sure, there was this Euro thing called “randonne,” which we all took as French for “can’t tele,” but we were sure it was just a passing fad. And so, in the name of virgin snow, we spent countless hours perfecting our genuflect down the mountain in order to obtain that holiest of grails: the face shot. While our stand-up counterparts were barely hitting mid-knee, we were busting out the snorkel. Sure, the stance afforded some of the more spectacular over-the-han-dlebar wipe-outs–a severed ear tip and a black eye to name a few – but the risk to reward ratio of faceshots vs. faceplants typically worked in our favor.

I guess you can say it’s also a pride thing. Which is a convenient excuse for when one is too stubborn, poor, lazy, or all of the above, to change his or her ways. Sometimes, you just gotta run what you brung. In fact, it’s sort of like the “Revenge of the Nerds” phenomenon – whereby persecution only hardens our resolve.

Mock us from the chair, taunt us in the lift line, leave us in your dust if you must, but we will not be shamed into an affixed heel. No, only time, bum knees and the siren song of converted telemarkers who have gone to the dark side can do that.

“Once you lock in, you’ll never go back,” they beckon, from their cast-like boots and space-age heel entrapments. “It’s so much fun.”

But I’m here to tell you, I’ve locked down and lived to tell. It was a few years back – a chicks trip to Jackson. It was my birthday, it was mega-dumping and we were free of

any familial obligations for four whole, glorious days – things couldn’t get much better. And then the airlines, in a last-ditch effort to cut some weight, ditched my skis.

Why me, I’ll never know. Perhaps the luggage handlers were tele-haters, too. Pressing glass the next morning, I knew there would be no time to try to track down rentals (and the humiliation probably wouldn’t have been worth the effort.) So, for the first time in 22 years, I borrowed some loaner alpines and locked her down.

OK – I’m not gonna lie, I had fun. Then again, Jackson on a powder day, it’s hard not to. But there was no religious experience; no swearing off of duckbills and heel flips for good; no massive regrets over the years spent needlessly torturing myself in a low lunge. In fact, I felt a little out of sorts, like Linus without his blanket, or Trump without his Twitter. And when I was finally reunited with my pins, it was like being reunited with an old friend. An old, dorky, uncool friend – but one who’s been with you through thick and thin; breakable crust; blower pow; San Juan cement and killer corn. One who’s always there to knock you down a notch when you get too cocky, keep you out of the back seat and on your toes, and remind you to stay balanced and centered. But also a merciful one, one who lets you pull the “oh shit” handle in sketchy

situations and, on the occasional rockstar powder day, lets you link enough turns to feel like a super stud.

And in these days of accepted persecution, now more than ever, us free-heelers need to unite. Rock it, don’t lock it, Durango Organization of Rad Knee-Droppers (DORKs). That includes you, too, Southern Colorado Heel Releasers and Leisure Parallel-a-markers (SCHRALPers.)

Because, as anyone who’s been around the bullwheel a few times knows, it all eventually comes back around again. How else do you explain neon, pom pom hats, David Hasselhoff and mom jeans?

So yes, for now we’ll take our spot at the bottom of the ski foodchain; the Nickel Back of the ski world. But you wait – and telemark my words – we will return. And even if we don’t, that’s cool, too.