Skin and Ski
With the gang of three standing behind me with encouraging words, I inched my way down the slope. My hopes were high; I tried to achieve one or two successful telemark turns, silent and awkward genuflections to Sondre Norheim, but then the gentle slope reared its rocky, uneven head. It was as if I had never been on skis before. The hill lacked the uniformity of a groomed trail, ruts and bumps bucked out any sense of pride I may have had. My arms began to pin wheel, poles flailing, as if I could push off the air if I moved my arms fast enough. My whole body leaned backward willing itself up the mountain instead of down. The tips of my skis ran away from each other, than straight toward each other, then back away from each other as if in some suicidal dance. I would make my way a few feet down the slope before inevitably losing control and tumbling over a backpack full of expensive camera equipment and half-eaten sandwiches. Despite this, I was having fun. I understood why this uneven terrain was a thrill, I understood the whoops and yells of those skiing with me, but I just didn’t understand how to keep my boots beneath me.
That morning, I pulled my truck into the Middlebury College Snow Bowl parking lot to telemark for the fifth time of my life. That afternoon was to be the culmination of a four-week long J-term project centered on finding adventure and creating a visual and prose narrative about it. I had been intrigued by the graceful style and versatility of telemark skiing and I decided to pack away my snowboard, trade in my comfortable lace-up snowboard boots for the comparatively stiff telemark boots, and fill my empty gloved hands with poles, in order to try something new. I didn’t know how far I could progress in such a short time, but I had gone into the project with images of cresting a mountain with skinned skis and a bearded face only to turn around and dip my knees through groves of stoic Vermont hardwoods. After a January light on snow, that afternoon at the Snow Bowl was as close as I was going to get.
My skiing companions for the day were the triumvirate of the Middlebury telemark club, The Free Heelers: Jeff Colt, Nat Drucker, and Riley Ebel. All three were prolific skiers far beyond my ability, but they had seemed excited to join me on this adventure if for nothing else than to have fun goofing around with nice cameras. If you descend the stairs behind Coltrane lounge on Monday evenings from 7:30-9:00, you will enter their Recess caliber hangout in the campus bike shop. Rows of uniquely named skis hang from the wall, a tangle of poles resides in the far corner, broken bike parts are strewn across the floor, and brightly colored boots huddle together as if they would lose their brilliance if separated from the pack. The club provides gear to experienced telemark skiers, people like myself new to the sport, and everyone in-between, all free of charge.
My telemark adventure had really started on a small island in Follensby Clear Pond during the third night of a week-long canoe trek in July. Anthony Chungbin, a 5’7″ chunk of muscle, was most comfortable at full speed. By day he worked as a chemical engineer, but any moment he could sneak away, he was playing outside. He arrived for the canoe trek I was leading with an incredibly light, Kevlar, four-person canoe strapped to the roof of his Subaru. He adventured in every way he could, even tandem mountain biking with his daughter. What really peaked my interest, though, was when, while waiting for our Backpackers Pantry meals to rehydrate, he started talking about skiing. In the winter months he manipulated his work schedule to enable him to slip away for a three-hour ski break during lunch every day. As the sun began to set over our small tent village, I started talking about how I wanted to hike the Adirondack mountains in the winter but I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of carrying a snowboard or a pair of skis up with me. In his fast and excitable voice, Anthony exclaimed “you should telemark.”
Having never heard of the sport, the first thing I wondered was how it differed from what I had always known as skiing. Too embarrassed to ask on the island, I had to wait until the following January to learn that the telemark boot is not as stiff as the alpine boot and it features an extended “duck bill” like toe. This piece of plastic on the boot slides into a slot on the binding that secures the toe. The connection is completed when cables coming from the front of the binding connect to the back of the skier’s boot. In this way, the duck bill part of the boot is continuously pushed into its slot. The heel of the boot is not attached to the ski directly but the pressure pushing the boot forward keeps it secure. This allows the heel to move up and down independently of the ski. In contrast, the ski itself is no different than a normal downhill ski.
Without the campus telemark club, I would have been unable to complete, or even attempt, my J-term adventure. Out of the back of my truck came my close friends Sampson and Delilah, a well-tuned pair of Black Diamond skis from the Free Heelers. As we unloaded the rest of our equipment from the back of my truck, Jeff quickly realized that he had left his boots back on campus. After briefly discussing our options, of which there were few, Jeff, who is also a member of the ski patrol, disappeared only to return with a “borrowed” pair from the ski shop. Telemark is all about flowing with the terrain that presents itself.
Although created in the Telemark region of Norway in the 1860’s, I was riding a relatively recent wave in popularity of telemark skiing. Sondre Norheim, the commonly recognized father of modern skiing as supported by the website in his honor sondrenorheim.com, began competing in ski race and jump competitions in the 1860s. A relatively new sport at the time, Norheim was the standout competitor and innovator. Not only did he win most of the first competitions but he also pioneered the dipped knee telemark turn and the shorter, curved skis that can be found on mountains tiday. Unfortunately, as skiing became popular in America in the 1930s, telemark fell to relative obscurity. As Matthew Graham describes in his Washington Post article Go Telemark Skiing, the easier style of parallel turning, the availability of accessible ski lifts, and better binding technology meant that alpine-style skiing was more palatable to new skiers and became the dominant form on American mountains.
It was not until the 1990s, that the telemark boot found its rigid plastic modernity as Shaun Sutner describes in his article Telemark Skiing Requires Rhythm. This innovation combined with better constructed skis meant an increase in control and ankle support for the skier. With this, telemark skiing underwent a renaissance; many alpine skiers converted to the new sport allowing telemark to become one of the fastest growing winter sports in the United States.
As we sat in the lodge and prepared to brave the near negative temperatures, I struggled with the final clasps of my boots, falling behind my well-practiced companions. I felt the same eager anticipation I had had before my first day on telemark skis. I walked into my first lesson on January 9th hyper-confident. Unfortunately, those first few steps out of the lodge were the most sure-footed movements I would make all day. I quickly found my instructor Katie, a senior feb of about 5’ 6” on her heels, and we waddled toward the carefully groomed and intimidatingly sloped bunny hill. Katie has what a friend of mine once described as “infectious happiness.” A smile, restrained only by the frame of her red ski helmet, spanned her face, matched only by an unfaltering positive attitude.
All confidence slipped away as I slid the toe of my boot into the ski binding. Oh shit. What I expected to feel like a continuation of my toe and heel actually felt like a cumbersome, traction-less, tripping hazard. I stomached my pride and pushed myself around the flattest piece of land I could find, trying to gain my balance under the watchful eye of Katie. I struggled to not trip over my crisscrossing skis or fall flat on my face from the lack of resistance coming from the back of my boot. I wouldn’t leave the bunny hill until halfway through my second lesson. In between hiking up the small slope and meek attempts to sink into the telemark turn, a technique requiring hips to sink, one knee to almost touch its ski and the other to bend at a 90-degree angle, we discussed our shared love of adventure. She shared my infatuation with canoe trekking and was even a talented slackliner, a sport that suffers from obscurity despite my best efforts to teach it to everyone I meet. The telemark community is home to many people looking for something different and exciting.
On the day of my adventure, I felt slightly more confident but no more elegant as I awkwardly hurried to the chairlift to catch up with the rest of the gang. We would start the day with a warm up run on what I silently considered “the really hard, terrifying side of the mountain.” Catching the chairlift without incident, I was confident that my compatriots had not yet fully grasped how terrible I was at skiing.
Gliding effortlessly to the top of the mountain, it is easy to forget the long and rich history Middlebury has with winter sports. It is a history I was unfamiliar with before pouring over David M. Stameshkin’s The Strength of the Hills. Around the turn of the century, outdoor sports were not terribly popular at Middlebury. In 1917, a group of students formed a loose “Outing Club,” modeled after Dartmouth’s, that featured snowshoeing and skiing events in the winter. Unfortunately, throughout the 1920’s, these activities suffered from “a lack of student interest.” The only notable success was when a group of Middlebury students swept a 1922 snowshoe race at McGill cementing the squad as “the foremost collegiate snowshoers” in the United States.
The school began holding a Winter Holiday in 1920 which was renamed the Winter Carnival in 1922. It was only held intermittently until 1934. It was not until the 1930s, though, especially after the Lake Placid Olympics, that skiing really took off. Following the international competition, Arthur Brown, who began coaching a Middlebury ski team in 1926 despite knowing nothing about skiing, student W. Wyman Smith, and Professor Perley Voter brought back a copy of the blueprints used to construct the Olympic ski jump. The trio raced to oversee the construction of a 27-meter jump on Chipman’s Hill in time for the Winter Carnival of 1934.
Shortly thereafter, the first trail was cut on Worth Mountain, the very mountain I was about to ski. In 1935, about sixty years before the founding of the Middlebury Free Heelers, a ski club was formed on campus. Ski fever quickly gripped the campus. As popularity increased, the college even constructed a new 50-meter ski jump at the Snow Bowl in the 1940’s. Skiing became such a part of the culture at Middlebury that a movie, Sno’ Time for Learning, was produced in 1948 documenting Middlebury students gleefully skiing and enjoying the Vermont winter. This film was shown around the country, and the world, and gained the college, what was at the time, unprecedented attention. Unfortunately, Middlebury has since lost any copy of the film. Middlebury did not lose its interest in skiing, though, as student interest caused annual improvements to the Snow Bowl. This constant care and improvement allowed the mountain to be recognized as one of the top collegiate slopes in 1983, a distinction some would argue should persist.
As we approached the end of our first lift ride, I raised the safety bar and tried to prepare myself for the first ski of the day. While Riley, Nat, and Jeff raced off to the top of the run, I did my best to not fall too far behind. Telemark skis still felt awkward; I had a hard time letting my body loosen up enough to sink into the turns. As I slid up to the awaiting trio, I gingerly applied pressure to the bent leg beneath me to start a turn. I couldn’t hide it anymore; they were finally bearing witness to the catastrophe of my skiing.
Slopes that would have been gentle rides on my snowboard were terrifyingly steep drops on my skis. I bumped, tumbled, and slid my way down icy waves of snow. Jeff stood at the bottom of one of these knolls making sure I made it without blowing out my knees or otherwise massively injuring myself. I was quick to answer his concerned questions of my health and safety with, “I’m not thriving but I am surviving.” Once we reached the bottom of this first “warm-up” run, Jeff suggested we move to the smaller and flatter side of the mountain; I headed that way before the others could even think of answering.
Jeff Colt is the kind of person the seventh-grade me wished I would grow up to be. Jeff Colt is the kind of person I still wish I could be. He is heavy on confidence and light on inhibition in a way that makes his casual weekend activities more exciting than my biggest adventures. A life-long skier with a career that includes racing, jumping and ski patrol, Jeff is quite comfortable on a pair of freeheel skis. He described turns as feeling like “spreading butter on bread” and that is exactly what his turns look like. In borrowed boots he laughed his way through runs that had me sliding on my back more than my skis. He bombed hills, skied off of 5-foot drops, and even threw a 360 all in the interest of getting me good footage.
Skiing aside, I still want to be Jeff Colt. He has a self-confidence and ease that allow him to try new things. Having taken a year and a half off from school, he has had time to discover himself and explore what interests him. He spoke of time spent in Colorado working in a bakery to pay his rent and bartering bread for pizza while playing outside every moment he had a chance. He guides in the White Mountains, races mountain bikes, works at the climbing wall, has the ability to acquire things as well as “Red” from Shawshank Redemption, and even has time to enjoy a growler of Drop-in now and again. All of these things aside, Jeff is just a really cool guy. He operates with a breezy indifference, pursuing what he likes and not worrying about what he can’t control. A smile looks comfortable on his face and is often followed by a corny and sometimes deliciously vulgar joke. Patience and a goodhearted nature meant that he always had a tip and encouraging word as I awkwardly slid my way to the bottom of a run.
As we topped the lift on the smaller side of the mountain, my spirits were high. I no longer feared impressing anyone; Nat, Jeff, and Riley had already seen me tumble and fall and they hadn’t quit on me yet. We headed down the gentler slope in a pack, making gentle turns together. When done properly, tele turns just feel right. The motion is smooth, the body rises and falls in rhythm with the mountain, the ankles, knees, and hips work together to absorb bumps and ruts. I had my first successful turn during my second lesson with Katie. I had pretended and gone through the motions for the majority of the lesson, but in the last ten minutes, I felt a real turn. I was moving from the right side of the mountain to the left halfway down the slope. I pulled my left ski back, planted my pole with my left hand, sank down in my hips, bent my left knee so it was almost touching the ski, bent my right knee at a 90 degree angle so my quad was parallel to the ground, and applied pressure to the little toe on my left foot and the big toe on my right. I began to gracefully arc to the left. As I neared the end of the turn I slowly began to stand and unbend my knees until the turn mellowed out and I was pointing downhill once again. It was perfect. My body moved elegantly and my skis reacted; there was no jarring, only the cliché telemark description of butter sliding on bread. Rather than riding across the mountain, it felt like I was moving with it. I chased that feeling for the rest of J-term.
I made it down the gentle side of the mountain with a few good turns and only one or two stumbles. I finally felt warmed up, my knees had loosened, my hips had sunk. What little confidence I had going into the day’s adventure was restored. The populated and groomed trail was not our destination though. We were looking for a real backcountry experience. Unfortunately, Vermont did not adhere to our schedule. As Jeff would later say, “In Vermont, you ski what snow you have, or you don’t ski at all.”
The passes that we scouted surrounding Middlebury were barren. The sub-zero cold had descended on Middlebury but it came without snow. For the first 3 weekends of J-term, I was worried I would not ski on anything but man-made snow all month. As the end of the short semester approached, we had to find something; the answer ended up being right beneath my skis. The lack of snow had hurt the Snow Bowl as well. The big runs were open, if not in perfect condition, but the backside of the mountain, free of snow makers, lacked the natural snow coverage to support a constant deluge of skiers. The chairlifts sat unmoving, what little snow had fallen was untouched, and it waited for four telemark skiers desperately looking for something different.
We did not know what we would find when we passed through a heavily wooded and infrequently passed trail to far side of the mountain. We slid and skated a short, rough trail to the top of a nearby slope. Once again, I found myself falling behind. I did my best to emulate the measured, bow-footed uphill walk of Nat, Jeff, and Riley, but my attempts looked more like those of a goose walking uphill with chopsticks glued to his feet.
What lay before us looked familiar. There were the equally spaced towers carrying electricity to the lift at the bottom of the hill, a wide, tree free trail down the mountain, and a white blanket of snow. The whole situation felt a bit uncanny though. The lift at the bottom of the hill sat unmoving and abandoned, the snow on the slope looked untouched aside from the occasional print of a catamount, and there were rocks and grasses peaking out of the thin layer of powder. This was not the pristine backcountry I had imagined, but it was unlike anything I had ever skied.
I made it to the bottom of my first ungroomed trail with cameras and ACLs intact. There were close calls where rocks seemed to lunge out of the snow and ruts tried to swallow me whole, but I made it. My relief was only overshadowed by my itch to try it again; I was hooked on freeing my heel. I had done absolutely miserably but I had done it. I kept thinking to myself, “this is something I could be good at. This is something I want to be good at.” The thrill I had gotten out of this mellow hill was unlike anything I had felt on my snowboard in quite some time; there is little adventure within the bland limits of the “comfort zone.”
Following the less than gentle descent, we rested on the unmoving chairlift at the bottom of the hill. I felt like I was with people I had known for much longer than three weeks. I heard once that you get to know people better when you meet them while playing rather than talking, you will not hear me disagree.
Nat Drucker is a character. He moves with a high-energy bounce usually reserved for puppies hoping to be taken home from the pet store. He balances this energy with a laid-back attitude that allows him to take opportunities as they come. He does not wallow over failed plans or missed opportunities, rather, he lunges at whatever pops up next. Nat talks fast and laughs often. He started tele skiing when he wasn’t able to bring his alpine skis to school from Chicago; rather than pay to rent alpine skis, he decided to learn a new style on skis he could get for free. Eventually he became the club’s co-leader with Jeff. As Nat explained to me one evening when I was picking up my own skis, he invests so much time into the Free Heelers because he wants the club to be a welcoming community.
Nat embodies the idea of a small campus community; Middlebury should put his smiling face on the cover of all of the Middlebury advertisement. I had never met Nat before I walked into the Free Heelers’ den for the first time. As I walked through the door he quickly approached me, his trademark Vans hat keeping down his otherwise unruly blonde hair, and introduced himself. All of the awkwardness I had felt walking into such a new environment was quickly washed away as Nat heard about my project. He was as excited as I was and began answering my questions as frequently as asking his own. Over the next few weeks I frequently experienced slaps on my shoulder at the salad bar, high fives at parties, hearty greetings, offers to provide any help I may need, and inquiries as to how my project was going. I felt welcome.
Before long, our respite was over, it was time to go up. Before that July night when I first talked with Anthony Chungbin about telemark, I had no idea there was any way to go uphill on “downhill” skis. When he started talking about “skins,” and “hiking” in skis, I was just confused. Images of furry skis as plush as a Cruelle De Vil coat filled my head.
I pulled four Nalgene sized Black Diamond bags out of my backpack. Out of the four bags unraveled four pairs of skins. The bottom of each skin has a felt-like nylon fabric that glides easily through the snow when pushed forward, but exerts enough resistance in the opposite direction to keep one from sliding back. On the opposite side of the skin is an incredibly sticky adhesive. This adhesive is resilient and strong, allowing for repeated application and removal. On the tip of the skin there is a metal D loop that slides over the toe of the ski, on the back is a small clamp that is pulled over the rear end of the ski. When Jeff realized he was missing his rear clamp, we realized how suitable a replacement a few feet of duct tape is.
Although at first awkward, walking up hill with skins proved to be amazingly easy. The free heel design of the telemark ski allows for a more natural hiking motion. Once Jeff gave me a few pointers, which mostly concerned getting me to slide my skis forward rather than picking them up, I was able to keep up with the rest of the group. If skinning was all there was to telemarking, I would be on the international circuit. Even on slopes steep enough to make Jack and Jill decide to deal with dehydration, my skins refused to slip. We were motoring. I could not help but wonder how many people had ever seen the slope from this direction, the opposite direction.
Leading our merry group was the member smallest in stature but greatest in reputation, Riley. Before this January, I had only ever heard of Riley, the best telemark skier on campus, a member of the US national whitewater rafting team, general badass. She had reached mythic proportions in my mind; she was the type of person I had imagined would be a tele skier. She lived a life of adventure and seized opportunities. Once I met her, she did not disappoint. A girl of about 5’ 6” with a straight, brown pony tail, Riley was extremely comfortable on her skis. She even credited telemarking for holding her life together.
What was more engaging than her skiing prowess was her light personality. She was clearly out to have fun. A harder person to crack, she played the perfect straight man to the ridiculous Jeff and Nat. It was not that she was quiet or awkward, rather she restrained the giddiness that sometimes so overwhelmingly poured from Nat and Jeff. Rather, she exuded a comfortable calmness as if nothing could faze her. All day she wore the casual laid-back smile that I had come to expect from a tele skier. Having met Riley, it was no surprise to find a report, Psychological Characteristics of the Telemark Skier, by Thomas Trafton Jr. and Michale Meyers that found tele skiers showed lower tension, anger, and depression than the average person.
It is this laid back, goofy, happiness that makes the Free Heelers such a great club. Riley is the Gearhead to the two Pinheads of Nat and Jeff. These are not nicknames, but rather official titles taken directly from the club’s constitution, “We the Pinheads of Middlebury College hereby declare that the name of this organization shall be the Middlebury Free Heelers.” Riley, who could more conservatively be called the treasurer, will someday inherit the reins of the club and its honored title, Pinhead. The club has a real personality, all heads want it to be more than just a rental service.
What is likely most unique about the Free Heelers is the naming of the skis. Sampson and Delilah were on my feet, Tupac and Biggie were on Nat’s, Man and Eater on Riley’s, and Colt 45 and Zig-Zag on Jeff’s. Although helpful in organizing and keeping track of skis, the Pinheads admit that there is more to the practice of creating such ridiculous pairs than just organization. They are continuing the longest running tradition of the club. Jeff likened the experience to naming your car or your guitar, something you care about. The name allows you to connect with your skis and share your experience with other people who have ridden them; it was not uncommon over the course of January for me to hear, “Oh you’re riding Sampson and Delilah? I learned to tele on those skis!” For those who work for the club, naming a pair of the handful of new skis the club buys each season is a right of passage. Jeff named Sampson and Delilah, Nat named Wallace and Gromet, Riley named Man and Eater. It allows them to leave something of themselves in the club, something that will last longer than their four years.
My coat hung off my shoulders, my unbuttoned snow pants struggled to maintain their grip on my hips. I fought to keep myself from slipping into the uncomfortable clamminess of winter perspiration after skinning for well over an hour. Crossing a flat, I caught site of the mountain’s main chairlift. Our improvised backcountry adventure came to a jarring close. I felt separated from the two alpine skiers who rounded the corner in front of us. They had probably ridden a chairlift, completely unaware, like I was only a few hours ago, of the unpopulated serenity of the backside of the mountain. We dipped beneath the yellow nylon rope that marked the junction between the well groomed and the nearly untouched. We peeled off our skins, folded them back into their small bags, zipped up previously shed layers, and prepared for a quick descent. It was an unceremonious end to a day that had been the culmination of a month’s work.
Driving back from the Snow Bowl, skis and snow gear strewn about the back of my truck, I felt tired, hungry, and happy that I had decided to go to Middlebury. The people, the places, the resources. I was reminded of a quote I read in a letter from W. Storrs Lee ’28 to the college. Storrs recounted the exclamation of John Storm ’32, the original founder of Mountain Club, after a winter hike, “We’ve had such a marvelous day, why don’t we organize a club to promote more activities like this?” Thankfully someone had the same thought for telemark. Adventure and community have long been staples of the Middlebury experience.