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Original Issue


The dearth of snow on the slopes drove them into the hills and when they came down ski mountaineering was on its way

There was a time in the Colorado Rockies when skiing was less a sport than a necessity. In those days, a ski was not even called a ski but was known as a "Norwegian Snowshoe," Aspen was still named Ute City and a heavy snowfall was sometimes measured as being "six ponies deep." Avalanches were known as "the white death," and the winter mountains were alive with the raucous sound of miners risking their lives in pursuit of precious metal.

These were times—from the 1860s through the first couple of decades of the 20th century—when to ski was to survive and it was no matter of fashion or fun. Most everything essential in winter, from the delivery of mail to basic camp supplies, moved by Norwegian Snowshoe. During the great blizzard of 1899, perhaps Colorado's worst storm ever, it snowed constantly from Jan. 30 to Feb. 20. At least half of all the cattle in the state froze to death and the citizens of many towns had to chop up outbuildings and dismantle their barns for firewood. A hundred miners and their families were trapped at Hunters Pass, 19 miles from Aspen. When their food ran out, they tore down the shacks they called homes to construct crude skis. They made 75 pairs, then set out en masse into the teeth of the blizzard toward Aspen, many of the men carrying children on their backs. To alleviate the fear and bring some humor to the dangerous situation, someone posted a sign announcing the trek as "THE ANNUAL RACE OF THE HUNTERS PASS TENDERFOOT SNOWSHOE CLUB," and ruled that each "entrant" had to bring one ham sandwich as an entrance fee. The whole town fought through the storm and arrived in Aspen in a day.

That they could cover any ground at all, let alone breach a blizzard with the skis they made, was something of a miracle. Jack A. Benson, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Colorado, devoted a chapter of his thesis to the Norwegian Snowshoe as a major form of 19th-century transportation in the Rockies. In an article in The Western Historical Quarterly. called "Before Skiing Was Fun," Benson describes the crude techniques used to make skis: "To construct the eight-to-12-foot-long skis, prospective travelers began by cutting long boards from hickory, ash or pine trees. They then planed the slats from four to six inches wide and an inch thick. Next, they attached broad leather straps—primitive boot bindings—near the center of each board...[and] curved the front ends upward by bending them around logs or by boiling the tips in five-gallon tins of water. In order to minimize friction, they sanded the bottoms as smooth as possible and waxed them."

The only other equipment needed was a single eight-foot pole. It was used to maintain balance, to slow down—by dragging it in the snow—and to turn, sometimes by straddling the pole and shifting weight from leg to leg. On the flats, skiers could skate along pretty much as cross-country skiers do today. To climb, they attached animal skins to the skis, and to careen downhill, they used something called "the early American ski technique." This is interpreted by Benson to mean "stand up and pray the snowshoes will go straight." Turns were executed only for the most practical or pressing reasons—to avoid trees, rocks, sheer drop-offs and wandering bears.

There may not have been much beauty to skiing in those days, but there was a kind of purity. Indeed. Colorado's 19th-century Norwegian Snowshoes had their roots deep in the snows of the Stone Age. A rock drawing from the northern Norwegian village of Rodoy shows a stick figure on skis. Curators at Oslo's Holmenkollen Museum have dated the drawing back to 2000 B.C.

Ah, but we have come a far piece from all that. The purity and practicality of skiing for transportation was replaced quite a while ago by something sleek and fashionable, perhaps even a bit effete by the lights of the tough old Norsk birds who skied Norway 4,000 years ago—and certainly the miners who skied the Rockies 100 years back. What we are dealing with now is a $2.47 billion industry, a soupedup sport spun out of equal parts of the 20th century's technological revolution and its leisure boom.

However, something new is happening to skiing. Or rather, something very, very old. In Colorado, many skiers who were once hooked on downhill runs have begun to head deeper into the hills, reliving some of the same thrills—and many of the dangers—of oldtime miners and prospectors. The activity is called ski mountaineering, which is a blend of both Nordic and Alpine skiing.

It is fitting that Telluride and Crested Butte in particular have grabbed on to this old-new sport the hardest. They are a couple of charming, semi-seedy villages that were once full of Norwegian Snowshoers. Telluride sits in lovely isolation deep in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Thanks to a wild optimism about the hoped-for success of the ski area there, a land boom is going on in Telluride that matches the wildest strike-it-rich days of the 19th century. Lots measuring 125 feet by 25 feet are going for $17,000 each. No one seems too sure just why people are paying this kind of money for so little land, but one resident says, "I guess they figure that if there's a big building boom here, and lots of people move in, they'll be on the ground floor to cash in on it. And if there isn't, then they've got themselves a nice, peaceful place to live far away from the big-city crowds and hassles."

Crested Butte sits in a cul-de-sac in the Elk mountain range, once the last stop on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad line. Though the lure of gold and silver brought the first fortune hunters into the area, it was the more mundane discovery of coal that kept the town alive through the early 20th century. Then in 1952, the main coal mine shut down and Crested Butte came close to becoming a full-fledged ghost. The ski area was opened in 1962 and, though it has never quite returned Crested Butte to the boom-town economy of the 19th century, it has kept the place alive and added considerably to its charm.

These aren't the only two places in the West where ski mountaineering has taken hold; it is widespread. One reason for the new interest in this oldest of skiing forms was the drought of 1976-77 when resorts throughout the West almost went bankrupt. Danny Hirsch, director of the Nordic skiing program at Telluride, says, "Everyone got more and more into mountaineering and cross-country skiing, because there was no other place to ski except back up high in the mountains where there was snow. The resort area was no good at all, so everyone got a pair of cross-country skis and some skins and went off to wherever there was snow. They had no choice."

This season, the resort owners hope, there will be a choice. But even if there is a good load of snow on the ski runs, ski mountaineering has found a crowd of new loyalists. There are a number of ways of enjoying it. One is to strike out with pack, tent and sleeping bag, climbing and gliding and schussing wherever the trails look best. Another way is to strap downhill skis and boots to your back and hike into the hills, climbing rocks or kicking steps in the snow where necessary. Then, having reached a point a couple of thousand feet higher than where you started, you put on your Alpine skis and swoosh down through the snow. Or you can use light cross-country ski equipment to hike to some likely peak, then come down through powder, hard-pack or corn snow on the skinny wooden skis, wearing the soft boots, light knickers and windbreaker of the flatland cross-country hiker.

One important development makes this possible, the rediscovery—or the reinvention—of that most grandmotherly, most elegant ski maneuver of them all, the Telemark turn. The likely creator of this old-fashioned bit of mountain ballet was a Norwegian ski jumper named Sondre Norheim. He came upon it in the 1860s as a way to land with maximum stability after a jump. The landing position could also be the first move in a sweeping turn if such was required. It was the first technique for turning on skis without the use of the balance pole—or without the ancient Norwegian trick of grabbing a tree to change direction. Norheim named the turn the Telemark after his home county, and it was the ultimate in classy skiing for 60 years or so. Then when Hannes Schneider invented the far flashier and faster Arlberg technique, with the boot heel planted on the ski, the Telemark was relegated to the attics of the ski world.

Rick Borkovec, 28, the Nordic director at Crested Butte, was perhaps the first American to stir renewed interest in the Telemark. He recalls, "In 1971 I was on the ski patrol here and we used light wooden cross-country skis to check the trails for avalanche problems in the mornings. It was easier skiing along the top of the area on cross-country skis than on heavy, rigid Alpine skis. But once you were up on the mountain, you also had to get down, and you couldn't just schuss a couple of thousand feet to the bottom—and you couldn't snowplow all the way down. So we got to wondering about the old Telemark turn. But there was nothing written on it. Can you believe it? Nothing. Not a word, not a diagram in any of the cross-country instructionals. We had to start from scratch and rebuild the whole thing by trial and error. But once we found it again, it was as if we'd invented a whole new sport."

Borkovec says the reason the Telemark had vanished from the techniques of most cross-country racers and skiers was that they did most of their skiing in relatively flat country. "They'd do a step turn or snowplow turn going down a hill. But, you see, they taught turns just as a way to get past a downhill section and back onto the flat or the uphill. But with our snow, we do a Telemark turn because it will let us do downhill skiing. It's a whole different emphasis. It's the purest of all turns."

There is, indeed, a purity to the Telemark. The movement looks like a cross between a ballroom dip and a curtsy as it might have been executed by that old mail carrier Snowshoe Thompson, who dragged his pole and dipped slightly on turns in the manner of those days. In the complete Telemark, however, the front ski is pushed forward until the point of the rear ski is even with the front foot. The front knee is bent at a right angle, the foot flat on the ski. The rear heel is lifted, the knee dropped in another sharp angle to the ski so that only the ball of the foot rests on the ski. The arms are raised in a graceful, even theatrical way, and the turn—a lovely carving arc if properly done—is executed by driving the front knee inward. Although these turns can be performed with immense dignity and even on steep drops with plain old wooden skis, it is best to have skis with steel edges if you are going to be Telemarking downhill a lot. And you might be prepared for every bit as many goggle-eyed stares as any hot-dogger draws. Rick Borkovec says, "I'll tell you, the sight of a skier linking a snaky series of Telemarks down a lift-line run sets up a real sensation on the hill."

Although a few resorts refuse to let people on their lifts if they are wearing light cross-country equipment, Telemark skiers have been appearing all over the West. Borkovec thinks the phenomenon may be less popular in the East because of the ubiquity of ice on the mountains, something that even the most practiced Telemark skier has trouble with.

Beyond the novelty of the Telemark and the back-to-purity aspects of using much the same equipment as the Rodoy Man, the greatest advantage of ski mountaineering is the fact that so much more exciting terrain is opened for the intrepid skier. No longer is downhill skiing tied to heavily traveled, groomed slopes and long queues in the lift lines. No longer is the Nordic sport confined to tame flat-track touring through gentle woods and farmland. Now the meanest and steepest mountain ground in the West is ski-able. By using the miles of narrow roads and trails that still crisscross every mountain from the days of the gold miners, even a mediocre skier can make his way into the backcountry to places so remote and so beautiful that they seem to be from another planet. Danny Hirsch of Telluride says, "These are the youngest mountains in Colorado, steeper and sharper than most other places. You can get to some really radical places here. Most of the normal touring places are pretty tame, but you can climb to places here where you can see the whole San Juan mountain range. You can see to Utah. And after you admire the view, you can make a run down the mountain that might go for three miles. You might hit some pretty radical drops and some bizarre snow, but it is some kind of an exciting trip."

It also can be dangerous. Hirsch is head of the Telluride volunteer search and rescue group, and no one is more aware of the terrible things that can happen to unwary skiers in the mountains. Already this autumn, before even a fraction of the year's snowfall has accumulated, one man has been killed in an avalanche above Telluride. Another man, an ill-equipped California hiker, is still missing. The victim was an experienced skier from Telluride who touched a normal-looking bit of snow, which suddenly set off a massive slab avalanche above him. While his companion watched helplessly, the man was swept into the slide. Smart ski mountaineers never go into the high backcountry immediately after a storm; they wait instead until the snow has had a chance to settle. They also carry safety equipment such as the transmitters, the telescoping ski pole and the avalanche cord.

And a smart mountain skier never goes into the bush without a shovel to test for dangerous snow conditions. It is a simple matter to dig a pit in the snow and check the layers to see whether the fall is stable. "You can see pretty much each layer of snow that has fallen," Hirsch says. "What you look for mainly is what we call depth hoar. This is a layer of ice crystals that get to be like a whole layer of ball bearings in the snowfield. They are what make the snow unstable. A whole mountainside can slide if there is a lot of depth hoar in the snowfall."

One cannot exaggerate the dangers of an avalanche. "Even the most experienced climbers get caught," says Hirsch. "You can never be sure you're safe."

So the risks are real when you venture into the Rockies on skis. But for the ski mountaineers the rewards make it worth the danger. They may not be measured in gold and silver as they were in the old days; but anyone who has experienced the sensation of whizzing along on his Norwegian Snowshoes over a six-pony snowfall knows they are real rewards indeed.


Climbing out of Telluride, Jack Coffman will don all his ski gear for the ride home.