Wolf Creek Ski Area is in a precious gem of a storm track that conspires with a prominent ridge of the southern San Jan Mountains to consistently produce powder days as fat as Oprah in the ’90s. It is as puckeringly steep as it is maddeningly bench-ridden. Though something of a planetary chakra for old-school freeheel wisdom, Wolfie also represents one of the more hotly contested territories in Texas’ long-running campaign to annex the best parts of Colorado. Like all places where disparate energetic currents mingle and intertwine, it constitutes a liminal space: a place of transition where the self must simultaneously delineate and expand its boundaries in order to survive, grow and evolve.
So I’m gingerly picking pow-circles from my beard at the bottom of Alberta Lift, waiting for a buddy on a snowboard who is undoubtedly cursing those benches as he swims (or whatever you call what snowboarders do in navel-deep snow) across the flats. As I wait, a guy in a Carhartt tuxedo pizzas his way over to ask if my bindings are broken.
“Nah bro,” I assure him, “They ain’t broken. Not yet at least.” I’d stopped skiing G3 Targas years ago, so I actually had a prayer that my telemark bindings would make it through the rest of the day.
The cowboy inquires about telemark skiing, about why I do something that looks, as he put it, “so damned ridiculous hard!”
It’s a good question. Why do we choose to ski in this manner that’s athletically inefficient, nearly impossible to become an expert at, and, even if expertise is achieved, makes a face-down-in-the-pow moment more likely than it is for a first-grade nerd who encounters a bully in a snowstorm?
I wonder if I should I summarize for my Texan homeboy the aesthetic purity of the freeheel turn or the magical rhythm of dropping knee after knee down an unlined alpine face. Or might I describe the practicality of moving with ease through all varieties of winter terrain, especially those nasty benches? And what about our history? The telemark turn as an epoch-making moment: a first-ever smoothing of skis across the fall line instead of just down it; the initiation of an era where we could descend a snowy hillside with something like control, maybe even grace?
Or do I ask him to consider the more spiritual implications of telemarking? The ecstatic partnership between the mountain and the freeheeled skier; that cosmic extend-float-compress-slarve dance of pinning in pow; the enhancement of one’s personal vibrational frequency through the maverick dynamism of changing lead skis; that time on the hut trip I ate too many magic mushrooms and the Great Spirit of the Mountain manifested to inform me, “Alpine skiing is absolutely soulless!”
But those are gaper answers, cliched and empty of insight into something real as the narrative of a Warren Miller movie. You could probably say the same things about monoskiing. About snowblading.
So I do what Socrates would do, what Jesus would do, and flip the question back to him.
“I dunno, dude. Why do you ski?”
He scratches the corner of his mustache, licks at the chap of his lips.
“It’s an excuse to get away from the wife when there’s nothin’ to hunt.”
And in the gathering clouds above Alberta Peak, the Great Spirit of the Mountain smiles, confident in the knowledge that She will continue to sell lift tickets; $18 cheeseburgers; jester hats with little bells on all the points; and shiny, immaculately machined, totally bomber telemark bindings—with ski brakes, alpine-style step-in, seventy degrees of resistance-free touring, and the sweetest, most badass progressive flex—forever and ever, amen.
We tele because The Great Spirit of the Mountain loves us the most.