Outside magazine, January 1997
Steeplechase to the Puking Zone
The snow is as hard as drywall, just the way racers like it, and Legge's gloved finger barely grooves the surface. His diagram is strangely intricate. Wiggles and loops, slashes, reversals, like a starry sky sketched by van Gogh. "It's got a bunch of components, and you want it to have rhythm," Legge says. "It's a challenge for a course-setter. You want it to flow." The challenge he alludes to is an extraordinary sort of telemark race called the Classic.
Though he's an old hand with alpine racecourses, Steve Legge has never before set a Classic. Neither has Prochazka, who says the whole thing is "an eye-opener" to him. Legge, having been given his instructions, his parameters, seems to view it mixedly. "There's a lot of stuff they want in there. The jump. The skate. The stupid circle." The stupid circle is more formally known as a reipelykkje ("loop of rope," as translated loosely from Norwegian), a banked 360-degree saucer bermed up by a snowcat to constitute a roundabout gate, which the racers are required to enter and exit on a single swooping telemark turn. The jump is a four-foot-high ramp of packed snow, placed just back from the brow of a steep pitch that allows long glides and gentle landings--long and gentle for the best jumpers, anyway. The skate is an uphill stretch, demanding a burst of nordic technique in the midst of what otherwise is a gravity-powered plunge. On this particular course, to heighten the drama and the ordeal sufficiently for a world championships, there will be two reipelykkjes and two skates, including a final sprint up to the finish line. Before and between all these sadistic obstacles, giant slalom gates will keep the racers on edge. The whole race is customarily skied with five-foot-long nordic poles, necessary for the skating but making the gates more problematic.
That's the essence of a Classic: a crazywild pastiche of contours, hurdles, and tasks demanding a formidable combination of strengths and skills. It's a little like a triathlon. It's a little like a steeplechase. It's a little like careening through downtown San Francisco on Rollerblades, from a start atop Lombard Street and not failing to leap a few benches. But analogy has its limits. In truth, a Classic as run by world-class telemarkers is like no other ski race on God's white Earth.
"It's GS into the jump," Legge says, "because you've gotta have speed." The jump on this course is placed near the top, just below the steep starting pitch, with gate six opening toward it on a straightaway shot. "We want those boys to get some good air." Speed plus a well-timed spring will yield good air indeed, whole balloonloads of Michael Jordan hang-time, and any racer failing to clear the required distance--about 30 meters for the men, slightly less for the women--will be penalized. Failure to land in telemark position will also be penalized. Failure to regain balance and instantly initiate the next turn will carry its own sort of penalty, namely a missed line or an ugly crash at gate eight or nine. Even jumping too far can be costly, if it means overshooting gate seven. What makes a Classic so perversely wonderful is that, with this jump-and-slalom section survived, the travails are only beginning.
Down at the first reipelykkje, Legge explains the approach line to Prochazka: "You've gotta sweep them into it." Too little momentum, and the skier can't carry telemark position all the way round, thereby collecting another penalty; too much momentum, and centrifugal force sends the skier over the berm like a runaway Indy car. Having gracefully looped the loop, racers will exit wide to another GS gate on the far left, then follow the route back through a slow-motion S-turn and into a gully off the right side of the piste. A midrace gully plunge? Sure, why not, it's all in the Classic spirit. Eighty meters of gully-running and then they'll dodge back up onto the piste, into a hairpin turn that, if deftly done, might leave a wisp of carryover momentum for the next chore, the first uphill skate. For 30 or 40 heart-whomping seconds the racers will labor against the slope, lungs burning, poles driving, coaches and teammates screaming them on. This hill climb connects telemark racing to its nordic roots and sets it apart from anything an alpine racer might contemplate. The distinction emerges even among course-setters; when Legge and Prochazka want to backtrack uphill, they click out of their bindings, like sensible souls, and walk.
By now we've been joined by two officials from the sanctioning body, the Federation Internationale du Ski. Truls Paulsen, a middle-aged Norwegian from Lillehammer with a stubble beard and a judicious demeanor behind his wraparound Briko sunglasses, is the technical delegate, charged with supervising the course preparation and the organizational conduct of the race. Parra Hansen, younger and taller, is a referee. Offering laconic but firm guidance to Legge and Prochazka about details of gate placement, Paulsen exudes the sobriety of a federal magistrate. But when I ask an ingenuous question--Is a Classic race more exhausting than a giant slalom?--his mouth crimps into a tiny grin. "Oh, ya ya ya ya." So many elements to master, so many physical demands. "You have jump. You have fast run. Reipelykkje. Bumps. Skating. You must be a full skier. You must could do everything."
Paulsen looks approvingly upon the gully run, the hairpin, the uphill skate. After the uphill comes another 180-degree reversal, from which the racers will set off again downhill, still poling and skating until gravity begins to suck them into the GS gates on the final steep pitch. "The most problem is, they be very tired after the skating section," he says. "It's not so difficult, but it takes all their power." Fast recovery will be crucial because, halfway down that pitch, they'll need to swing out through the second reipelykkje, which hangs there on the right like a swirly eddy amid a Class V rapid. Then they'll face more gates to the flat below, another full reversal, and--final cruelty--that uphill skate to the end.
Paulsen also likes this second skate. "To take the last power out of them," he comments, distant and bemused as the Yahweh of Job.
"They finish here," says Steve Legge, drawing a line with his pole. "They exit. They have to clear this area immediately." His efficient race-management mind already sees where the plastic fencing must go. Crowd control. No clumsy congestion. "There'll be a door, here. They can die all they want to out here." He points.
"Ya," says Para Hansen. "That's the puking zone."
The question is ironic because the Norwegians, over the past 150 years, have already gained (largely thanks to a ski pioneer named Sondre Norheim) and then lost (to Americans, in the 1970s) and then regained (within the past decade) preeminence in telemark skiing. More on those historical ups and downs in a moment--the point for now is that the Norwegians are slightly embarrassed by the thoroughness of their current hegemony. They harbor a certain polite, ambivalent yearning for tougher competition, fiercer rivals, a lesser share of triumph for themselves. It must be some dark vein in the Norwegian soul, perhaps not unrelated to Edvard Munch, Henrik Ibsen, and lutefisk.
"Last year, Norwegians took all the medals," Truls Paulsen tells me as we ride back to the top of the course. "That's not good for the sport."
We're on a two-seater chair, beyond earshot of the others, and he's speaking privately, not as an FIS official but as a Norwegian himself, an open-minded fellow who happens to value the cordial jumble of international racing. He's speaking so privately, in fact, that his jaw scarcely moves. There are 18 medals to be won at the World Telemark Championships, Paulsen says. "Last year, all 18, Norwegian. Year before, 17. This year, I hope, not more than ten." As we prepare to unload, his eyebrows do a little upward bounce, almost imperceptible behind the Brikos. "Tomorrow, I hope, more nations on the podium."
A la Recherche du Turn Perdu
Only two race disciplines do count toward the world championships: giant slalom and this thing called the Classic. A giant slalom race, telemark version, is ignited with a spark of magic. The skiers go unearthly fast and make shrieking turns while exerting control only, so it seems, by some combination of toe pressure, balletic balance, and prayer. The Classic is something else altogether.
For starters, it's not strictly classical; it's a newish concoction, a chimera assembled from classical elements. This neoclassicism reflects the fact that telemark skiing, like rodeo, has been molded by pragmatics, history, and a very particular landscape.
Virtually every how-to volume on telemark technique pays homage to Sondre Norheim, The Founder, a prodigious ski innovator who unveiled the telemark turn to his compatriots, and through them to the world, at a jumping competition near what is now Oslo in 1868. Norheim was from the village of Morgedal, in the province of Telemark, and the best young skiers who followed just after him were Telemarkingers too. Throughout the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, this Telemark tradition, which combined cross-country mobility, jumping, speedy runs downhill, and even slalom (from the Norwegian slal€m, meaning "track on a slanting hill"), thrived throughout its homeland. It was the basic mode of travel, as well as the basic mode of fun. But then something happened. Skiing split.
As the alpine style of fixed-boot, lift-assisted skiing rose to popularity in Austria and the nordic style of cross-country touring on extremely light, narrow skis became standard back in Norway, a stark dichotomy emerged. "There was no place for Telemark skiing in this dichotomy," according to the Norwegian ski historian Halvor Kleppen, "so it was only practised by a few crazy ski instructors when they showed off their skill to other people." Kleppen states that telemark technique all but disappeared from Norway, to be rediscovered in the early 1970s by a small gang of expert but restless alpine skiers half a world away in Crested Butte, Colorado.
Driven by a desire to extend their steep-hill skiing into the backcountry and intrigued by the unexplored possibilities of nordic gear, the Crested Butte boys "unearthed the Morgedal technique," as Kleppen puts it. Their names too have been recorded and repeated, like a roster of half-legendary heroes: Doug Buzzell, Craig Hall, Greg Dalbey, Jack Marcial, Rick Borkovec. Another ski chronicler, Art Burrows, has written, "Little did these five know that taking up this skiing technique again would lead to a renaissance of Telemark skiing." Burrows, eventually a world-class telemark racer himself, was there in the early years when the inevitable happened: the larkish rediscovery became formalized into a genre of competition.
In 1974, the first telemark slalom race was staged as part of the Return of the Telemark festival at Breckenridge. The idea took hold, at least among Colorado free-heelers, and a couple of years later Burrows and others organized the Summit Telemark Series, which drew a hundred or more competitors to venues such as Crested Butte, Steamboat, and Vail. A large fraction of those racers came from Crested Butte itself. Having been the birthplace of the telemark renaissance, that little town remained its capital.
The Summit Series entailed conventional slalom performed unconventionally on free-heel equipment; but slalom wasn't the only competitive format, even then. Asked about the origins of the Classic, Burrows says, "We really had Classic races. We didn't ever call them Classics. But they were Classics. We had one where we'd race from the top of Copper Mountain. And then we'd ski a 5k at the bottom." A pause, as he squints through the ice-fog of memory. "I think the Al Johnson has to be considered the first Classic."
The race memorializing Al Johnson, a skiing mail-carrier from early Colorado history, can be traced to an event staged as part of the Crested Butte Nordic Fest in 1974. The following year Rick Borkovec took over as organizer, naming the event after Johnson and setting it in the backcountry terrain of Mount Axtel. By 1978 the Al Johnson had moved to Crested Butte Mountain itself, with a mass start from the top of a lift, a free-for-all nordic scramble up to an overlook point called the Notch, and then a mad plunge down among the trees and the cliff bands of the North Face. "It was the wildest race you've ever seen," Burrows recalls, "a lot wilder than any Classic race these days." Borkovec himself was one early winner.
By around 1980, according to Halvor Kleppen, the merry din of these shenanigans had echoed back to Norway, and the Norwegians were reawakening. The Úsnes factory started producing telemark skis. The Norwegian Professional Ski Instructors retrieved telemark technique from the mothballs of national forgetting. In the winter of 1986, a shipowner and ski enthusiast named Fred Olsen, with support from a certain watch company, launched the Timex Skiathlom, a series of races that would each combine slalom, jumping, and cross-country. The next year, Norway hosted a World Telemark Championships at Hemsedal, about halfway between Oslo and Bergen. It was won by a 19-year-old Trondheim native named Hans Gunleiksrud.
Strides of an Affable Dinosaur
Hans grew up as an alpine racer, and his conversion to telemark was almost accidental. "I been using cross-country skis for practice, in my alpine skiing, for a long time." Why? "Balance. Position." Meanwhile his older brother had begun dabbling with telemark technique, this atavistic phenomenon that was leaking back from America. When a giant slalom for telemarkers was staged locally, Hans himself entered, on a whim, and beat the big brother, which suddenly made telemark more appealing. During the 1986 winter, he did well in a national telemark series and, despite only minimal training, won the season's last race. It seemed that he had a knack for the forgotten national art and that there was nowhere to go but up. To go up, though, he would need to go west--across the Atlantic.
"Telemark skiing at that time was at its peak in the U.S.," he says. The event at Steamboat Springs was billed as a North American championship, but there wasn't yet a worlds, and Europeans were welcome. Hans went to Steamboat and placed 14th, low enough to incite but not discourage him, and this was the butt-kicking that changed his life. "I came back, threw away my alpine skis, and became a telemark skier." Soon he quit school and returned to America--this time going to Snowbird, in Utah, where he immersed himself in telemark technique and Rocky Mountain powder. "From being a rookie, I had learned my lessons," Hans says. Just one year after Steamboat, he beat the Americans and everyone else, at Hemsedal, for the world championship.
The first Classic that Hans remembers was a wild event held in Norway in 1988. It was a demanding course, almost six minutes of all-terrain chaos. There was a jump, a long cross-country stretch through the woods, several reipelykkjes, and a downhill run on a treacherous ungroomed slope. The cross-country line was so narrowly pinched amid the trees that you couldn't skate it, you had to diagonal stride--an advantage for Hans, since he had learned his nordic technique in the primordial era before skating. "I won the race by 20 seconds. I think I crashed four times. It was a fairly different atmosphere from what we have today." He follows that understatement with an indisputable truth: "You screw up one turn today, and you're out."
At the Hemsedal gathering, the convened racers had founded an International Telemark Federation, and Hans eventually became its president. "I got involved in ITF just from being a loudmouth," he says. "Having too many opinions." As the group's leader, he set himself toward two goals and soon met them: establishing a World Cup series and getting telemark accepted by the FIS. But he left the leadership role after what he recalls as an "ugly political battle" over issues that would seem tiny in retrospect. Having suffered an ulcer at age 22, he was looking for a slightly less stressful life than what high-level international ski-racing and ski-politicking entailed.
By 1990, all the technical elements of the Classic had been fused into a single race discipline and sanctioned by the ITF. At the world championships staged that year in Aspen, Hans himself took third in the Classic. It was his last medal at a worlds.
Was the Classic his specialty? No, no, he says, laughing that notion aside like a dark joke. Not hardly. As a diagonal-striding dinosaur, Hans felt sorely disadvantaged against younger skiers who combined great jumping and slalom skills with the uphill-surge power of nordic skating. "I hated the Classic," he says cheerily. "Because I couldn't skate."
The Invisible Element
Tove Thun shares Hans's sense that skating uphill is what makes the Classic so difficult. But despite her lack of the long-leggedness (she stands only five-foot-two) that might seem an advantage, she copes. How? "I think I am a little tougher than some other girls." Coming off a jump, coming out of a reipelykkje and all that other high-speed craziness into a skating section, "you have to put inside yourself that you're not tired, and you are tired," she explains. "I have pain but I can do it." In other words--not her words--you have to be tough enough to push yourself relentlessly toward the puking zone.
Then again, the jump element shouldn't be overlooked as a decisive factor. A weak jump with an out-of-form landing can cost a total of seven penalty seconds, and seven seconds is an eternity in a ski race. The Norwegians might have an edge here, based on early experience--as testified by K€re Andersen, a patriarchal figure on the telemark scene, Norwegian-born but now transplanted to Vermont, and still skiing handsomely at age 79. "In Norway, a skier starts jumping when he's four years old," he tells me. "He builds a jump, and he jumps. That's why they're so good." Growing up near Oslo, Andersen himself jumped 45 meters when he was 11, and by his recollection, that was no big deal.
One further element deserves note. Unlike the jumping prowess and the skating power, this element is invisible, immeasurable, unteachable, ineffable, and no doubt politically incorrect even to mention, so here goes. "There's something genetically involved with tele skiing for those guys," Art Burrows says of the Norwegians, "that gives them a passion for the sport. It's so much in their blood." Ski genes? Accept or reject that notion as you choose. My own inclination is toward acceptance. It can't hurt for a Norwegian racer, in the starting gate, to recall that the serpentine of a telemark race conforms nicely with the serpentine of his or her DNA.
Nordic Pneumonia and Other Perils
At a request from Paulsen, Hans tests the jump. From a short, fast approach down the upper pitch, he pops his launch nicely, sucks his legs up into a tuck--the gel„ndesprung form that's preferred for a low-altitude race jump, delivering not as much glide as full-body extension but allowing the racer to maintain more downslope speed--and soars 60-some feet, his yellow suit flapping like a flag in a gale. He sinks smoothly into telemark stance and then swings to a quick stop, looking cooperative and blas‹, while Paulsen marks the spot where he landed. The day's distance standards, for both men and women, will be derived partly from this datum.
Hans has made it seem easy, a routine morning's perk-up exertion that might substitute for a second cup of coffee. Later I ask whether the jump element is so routine for his young racers. "The men generally loves it," he says. "The women are a little careful." Back home in Norway, he adds, the jump has always been the crowd-pleasing part of a tele race. Sometimes two jumps would be built into a single course, and a special prize might be laid on for the longest flight. If you raced slow, you might still redeem yourself with a big gutsy jump; and if you raced fast, but then you went easy at the jump, playing safe, you were... What's the word for it?" he wonders aloud. After a moment of ransacking his American-English vocabulary, a grin spreads behind his sunglasses. "Chickenshit," Hans says.
By nine, the racers themselves have begun arriving. In the start area, bibs are being issued. Muscles are being stretched. Stomachs are aflutter. It's a clear, cold, windless morning, and the course surface is like buffed alabaster: perfect racing conditions. The members of the Finnish team, in their warm-up suits, are a summery bouquet of blue and white; the Canadians look hearty in red and black; a whole garden of bright color combinations--at least nine, with more variants appearing as layers are peeled away--has sprouted here on the snow. Ski bags lay clustered in national piles. Radios squawk messages from one official to another. Tension is rising. During the next hour, the racers will be free to side-slip the course (but not run it) and required to make at least one practice jump. They'll inspect the line, confer with coaches, and summon whatever mix of fierce readiness and calm focus they are capable of summoning.
At this inopportune time I pester Neil Persons, one of the stronger U.S. racers, for his thoughts. "You've gotta play the Classic smart," he says. "You've gotta look at the course well, and think about where you might blow up." Neil, an unpretentious fellow from Whitefish, Montana, belongs to a snow-savvy family that includes his stepbrother, Tommy Moe, so presumably he knows a thing or two about performance under pressure. What you face in a Classic race, he explains drily, are periods of intense thigh burn (in the giant slalom) followed by periods of intense lung burn (in the skating). The lung burn, exacerbated by the fact that you can't warm up aerobically while you're making an anaerobic attack on the gates, Neil adds, sometimes lingers for several days afterward in the form of a hacking cough. It's a symptom I've heard other racers mention, under various labels--nordic pneumonia, Classic hack.
Patrick Ledger, the red-haired fireball of the U.S. team, won't be racing today at all. He has scratched himself from the start list, I learn, because his head is still throbbing from a bad fall he took five days ago at the season's final World Cup event, at Lake Tahoe. The Classic course at Tahoe included one especially tricky stretch near the bottom, juxtaposing in quick succession a couple of GS gates, the jump, and then several more gates, followed by a screaming left turn into the skate. Here, within just seven or eight seconds, a racer was challenged to crack off an extraordinary sequence of varied, difficult moves: gates, jump, telemark landing with instantaneous transition into a hard right turn, then back, carrying as much speed as possible into the nordic comeuppance of the skate. Ledger looked fast and aggressive when I saw him flash past at midcourse. He hit the jump well, sailed like a madman, slashed around the right gate, came back with freight-train momentum, and then rattled through some deep tracks and went down in a nasty crash. Later he told me he wished he'd been wearing his helmet.
And now, barely an hour before the start, another racer is down and hurt. It's Anne Thoresen, of the Norwegian team, laid out in pain after a faulty jump, waiting for a medic and a toboggan.
He attacks the first pitch like a man in a hurry to have fun. But at the third gate, passing tight, he shears off his left pole like a chopped stalk of celery, leaving just a two-foot stub in that hand. For some racers this might be disastrous--or at least crucially distracting. For Moeller, evidently not. He streaks toward the jump as though he hasn't noticed, pops his takeoff confidently and flies well past the penalty line, lands, reasserts his edges, takes gates eight and nine before they take him. Now, for a moment, he's a giant slalom racer. Approaching the first reipelykkje, he slips the pole strap off his left wrist without losing rhythm or line, a subtle bit of anticipation whose meaning isn't immediately clear to me. Then as he sweeps through the loop on momentum, Moeller drops the stub and, niftily as a sprinter taking a relay baton, accepts a new pole from a Norwegian coach reaching in from the sidelines. This is allowed under Classic rules. He comes out of the loop driving hard against two good poles, with no hesitation and no penalty.
Down through the gully and out again, into the hairpin reversal. As Moeller skates back up the piste, striding strongly, Hans runs beside him, shouting encouragement and clocking his skate on a stopwatch for later reference. Then reversing again, Moeller's off on the final lonely drive, his lungs presumably burning, his thighs burning, his will to win burning hotter still. Over the last brow, looping the last loop, trimming the last gates, skating the last skate, he crosses the finish at 3:09.84--and no one on this day will cross it faster. He collapses in the appropriate zone.
Crested Butte Gets the Last Word, Sort Of
Morten Moeller is more sedate. Wearing an old-fashioned ski sweater, nursing a beer, he smiles his wide farm-boy smile a little wider than ever. He's entitled to feel satisfied, having placed first in the Classic and first in the giant slalom, thereby successfully defending his title as world champion. Tove Thun, also best in everything, is celebrating modestly too.
The Norwegians have done well, commandingly well--but they haven't crushed every vestige of competition. By happy circumstance, Truls Paulsen has gotten exactly his wish: Of the 18 medals at stake, Norwegians have taken a mere ten. The powerful Barbra Albecht of Switzerland, the phenomenal young Milla Matilla of Finland, and a handful of other Swiss, Swedish, and Canadian racers have earned awards too. Of the Americans, Patrick Ledger has come back from his injury to place sixth in the giant slalom, Chris Rice has taken eighth in the men's Classic and Jennifer Borzilleri eighth in the women's, Heather Paul and Lauren Head have been consistent enough to place among the top dozen women overall. So let the flag fly proudly, if that matters, and just wait till next year.
When I first catch sight of Hans at the party, he looks vastly relieved after a long season of coaching and ski politics, his black hair standing tousled like meringue. When I see him again later, he has lost a bar bet to the Swiss coach--something about limboing backward to lift a beer glass off his forehead with his knees--and been obliged to shave his skull down to the nub. Stubble-bearded, stubble-headed, boss man of the conquering Nords, half-drunk and unshowered and prematurely retired from serious racing, he's still the most widely esteemed person in the room and the best single emissary of telemark racing to itself. He's still the man these skiers would elect as their president, if telemark racing were a democracy, which it isn't. Sometimes, I guess, vengeance can be affable as well as sweet.
Hans has possession of the microphone, if not the crowd's total attention, when I grab my bag and slip out the door.
Next morning, as I drive south from Whistler along the B.C. coast, I recall a moment during the final day's race. K€re Andersen, Truls Paulsen, and I were standing just beside the jump, watching one competitor after another blast off the lip and plummet gracefully to a genuflect landing. Swedes. Canadians. Swiss racers, Finnish ones. Patrick Ledger, his ponytail trailing out like a streamer of flame. And of course Norwegians, those soaring Norwegians. Behind us at this moment, outside the ropes, were some alpine skiers who had paused to spectate. At a lull, one man hollered: "Hey, are there any racers here from Crested Butte?" It was a long story, and we all ignored him.
David Quammen is a telemark skiier, a whitewater kayaker, and an editor-at-large of Outside. His most recent book is The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions (Scribner).
Copyright 1997, Outside magazine