In the 1970s, telemark skiers were called the free heelers, telemarketers, and the Lunatic Fringe. But these skiers performing the historical telemark turn down the slopes at alpine ski areas were seen as “the vanguard of the slopes” by many of their alpine skiing contemporaries for their ability and skill descending the runs at high speeds, in the moguls, and landing aerials on their cross country skis. But telemarkers were often heard commenting that they were only riding the lifts at alpine ski areas to improve their downhill skills for the backcountry. Some claimed “free the heel, free the mind” but many of them became intoxicated with riding the chairlifts rather than returning to getting their thrills in the backcountry.
These days, as alpine touring and backcountry skiing have become more popular, the telemark subculture may be a declining breed at the alpine ski areas, but there was a time when they were racing down through the gates and partying hard and celebrating their differences based on what was perceived as their retro ski techniques. They were dressed in wool pants or knickers with ear flapped knit hats with elongated tassles (designed by Vermonter Poppy Gall, a women’s entrepreneur, designer and currently a co-director of the Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum).
Today, telemarkers, or what is left of this group are no longer counter culture, but in their heyday, telemark festivals, traveling clinics and workshops, and more were the brainchild of the North American Telemark Organization created in 1975 by Richard (Dickie) Hall of Waitsfield, Vermont. In 2017, Dickie Hall was inducted in the Vermont Ski Hall of Fame, which is a long way from his first time telemark skiing with a dozen others as a group at Pico Mountain, Vt. in 1974.
According to author David Goodman, who wrote an article about telemarking in Powder Magazine “the telemark turn was invented in 1868 by Sondre Norheim in the Telemark district of Norway. As alpine skiing and the associated techniques took over it was not until Rick Borkovic of Crested Butte, Colorado sparked a telemark revival and a number of Nordic skiers rediscovered the old technique.”
I found out about telemarking from the 1977 book “Skiing Cross Country” by Canadian Ned Baldwin while I was living in southern Vermont. Most of us regarded Steve Barnetts’s “Cross-Country Downhill” as the bible of telemarking as it covered downhill techniques in depth. As I improved, I got to know many of the telemarkers in the region comprised mostly of men but there were some women, too. We ran a race series, but beside the competition, it was really a clan of telemark skiers who met on scheduled dates at different ski areas. The local telemarker would often show us the hidden gems (now called glade runs) at the ski area. Some of the guys in the series who lived in Vermont included Peter K of Mountain Travelers in Rutland, Telemark Phil Pagano, who owned the Nordic Inn in Londonderry, Jeb Porter the stone wall builder who mastered “telecopters” in the air on telemark skis, and John Tidd, of the Mountain Meadows XC Area, who became a member of the PSIA Telemark Demo Team. These guys always beat me in the races but when Dickie Hall participated, he usually won.
As a racer I felt disadvantaged on my Trucker Light Edge skis, which were narrower and softer compared to the Rossignol Randonee skis, which handled the ruts and hardpack better and were used by most of the other skiers. Always blame the equipment. But Dickie’s motto “Ski Hard. Play Fair. Have Fun” was not so much about winning as it was about living, and spreading the telemark gospel.
Hall developed the North American Telemark Organization (NATO, according to Hall, it’s the peaceful one) to conduct workshops, training courses, expeditions, and festivals. He traveled as a telemark evangelist from his home in Waitsfield, Vt. and visited the states in the northeast, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Colorado, California, and Alaska among others. These NATO telemark events would feature instructional clinics for all ability levels, and equipment suppliers’ gear for demo use. Hall created the telemark ski school at Mad River Glen as one of the first in the US and he helped others to become telemark instructors across the country. Over the years, Hall estimates that he has introduced, instructed, or just shared his love of telemark skiing to about 40,000 people!
In 2015, NATO held its 40th and last telemark festival at Mad River Glen, which attracted about 200 participants, a far cry from the 13 attendees at the original Pico event. The races held at the festivals were usually the focus point at these events, but the “group telemark turn” was an activity we all shared together. The telemarkers in Colorado and Alaska would try and top the eastern telemarking crew of deplorables at Mad River Glen but it is believed that 128 eastern telemarkers in a group turn is the standing record.
Forty years later, I still have a welt on my thigh from a group telemark turn at Bromley Mountain. It happened with two other telemarking cronies. Our 3-man group held hands and the outside skiers each held three poles (taking the pair from the middle skier). During the descending turns the skiers build speed causing somewhat of a whiplash effect. Before we crashed to the snow, I remember the other outside guy was hanging on for life when he whipped the poles around the front of the group and nailed me on the thigh. Since that day, many a massage therapist has been thwarted by my thigh knot contusion.
At Mad River Glen, Dickie was a task master when it came to the group telemark. In Dickie’s mind, it was paramount that we link two telemark turns for the attempt to count. The photo in the 1984 NATO Eastern Telemark Festival Series poster (and used in many other NATO materials) exemplifies one of those record-breaking group telemark attempts. On the day of that photo (I was there) many of the telemarkers who were near the end of the line got whipped into a gully and it ended in a yard sale of significant proportion. No injuries, lots of laughs – indeed we played hard and had fun.
NATO is now defunct but Dickie Hall’s telemark videos are still available via email request at firstname.lastname@example.org