Confessions of a Freeheel Fanatic

When I first started telemark skiing, it was a fringe experience. Adherents of the old-school Nordic freeheel technique were almost cult-like in their fervor for this reborn discipline. Most of its adherents - at least the ones I knew - lived in Tipis or communes in San Cristobal or out on the Mesa, or in snow caves hidden deep in the Kit Carson National Forest, or in their cars - Far out, man!

That included my own mentor, raven-haired Jen. She with the strong hands and gentle soul; with pine-scented hair, lips that tasted like ripe strawberries and wisdom and patience that seemed as deeply rooted in the Earth as the pinyons and junipers growing all around us in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos.

I ended up living with her for several months, sharing cramped quarters in a '68 VW microbus. The homemade woodburner probably came close to asphyxiating us every night, but we maintained the arrangement through the coldest months of a snowy northern New Mexico winter, staving off frostbite and hypothermia with physical closeness. And the price was right. 

As things warmed up, however, the fumes from our smoke-infused Polypro, blending with the scent of our herbal teas and vegetarian meals, became a little too funky, even for the most the most passionate of lovers. I moved into an old adobe house where water from the acequia in the yard crept through the clay and up the wall, forming a blue-green mold that froze into a shimmering patina on frosty mornings. I invited Jen to live with me. She said no, in keeping with the feisty spirit of independence I'd come to expect from my newfound free-heeling, free-wheeling friends. Still, we skied together nearly every day, and made love almost every night. 

With patience and devotion, I discovered how to sustain a gentle, trusting and nurturing relationship with a woman, both physically and emotionally. And I learned how to meet a mountain on its own terms rather than relying on willpower or attacking it with sheer physical force. The lessons were related. They were a gift, born, I believe, out of the post-'60s hippie vibe that lingered on in places like Taos, Santa Cruz and Boulder long after tie-dye went mainstream. The skiing part of the lesson, anyway, has always stayed with me, probably because I have spent plenty of time consciously practicing. 

Much to my regret, I didn't hang on to the rest nearly as well, even though it may have been the more important of the two. Now I often ask myself why it's been so hard to find a love as easy and untangled as what passed between us that season. And I am learning the answer. Part of it has been neglect on my part, forsaking the pure, simple and true for the complex or convenient, and sometimes settling for just-because. And I've learned other lessons from other partners; lessons about deceit, manipulation, power and greed that supplanted trust and buried my innocence as gradually as the first snows of November cover the brown earth. I didn't even notice until it was gone.

"That's such a guy thing," Jen said with her huckleberry laugh after I tumbled and slid down Stauffenberg, a steep and bumpy Taos chute where I tried to impose my will with jump turns and torque. "Let the mountain come to you. And trust your skis," she said on the next run, before slipping over the lip and threading her way down a nasty double fall line. She crested the powder bumps with little floater turns, all light-footed finesse, dropping low to steer through the troughs, all the while staying totally centered and keeping her upper body pointed down the mountain, like the headlight on a north-bound train.

She showed me how to find the fall line, the place where water flows and fire doesn't go, by waiting, waiting … and waiting just a little longer before initiating a turn. "Once your skis are truly pointing downhill, it's easy to turn them back across the slope without fighting the mountain," she explained patiently, before sliding off once again, nailing a tight line through a sun-spangled glade and bursting back into the open snow in a dazzling spray of powder.

"I gotta learn how to do that," I thought to myself, following my teacher - my love - down the mountain. 

"It's all right in here," she said later that day, placing a hand on my solar plexus as we soaked in the hot springs by the Rio Grande. "Don't forget to breathe with each turn. Stay relaxed and breathe." We kissed and our breaths mingled as one in the steam above the water.

Before I met Jen, I knew telemarking only as something out of the history books, a semi-obsolete Nordic technique used by knicker-wearing oldsters at obscure Scandinavian touring centers or by ski jumpers trying to feather their landings after a 300-foot flight. At that point I had already been skiing on alpine gear for about 20 years, but it only took that one season to discover that this was more than just a way of getting down the mountain – it was a calling, and it’s all still fascinating 20 years later. Watching a good tele skier is a study in paradox, like witnessing a head-on collision between the past and present, with the evolutionary outcome uncertain. It’s a quirky blend of ritualized tradition and freestyle anarchy, like Laurel and Hardy doing Samurai. It’s an archaic form that fulfills a timeless function, an indescribably elegant ballet with a trace of almost desperate awkwardness at its core. 

And I still have a few free-heeling friends who live in their cars or in snow caves.

Far out, man!