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Tougher in Leather | UNITED STATES, CALIFORNIA | 02/17/2009, by McKerrow
My favorite telemark boots- Scarpa T1s - are about as heavy as tele boots get. Although I love the downhill performance, they recently caused me horrific pain on a long tour. Ok, maybe hiking five miles of rocky trail off Mt. Adams while wearing those monstrous boots was asking for it, but at least I was able to rip tight lines all the way from the breakable fine-china sastrugi ice mélange at the summit, through the perfect mid-mountain corn, and right over the wet cement snow just above the snowline.
I wasn't always a heaviweight slave. In fact, I learned to telemark with Merrill Supercomp leather boots. They had a buckle and a plastic cuff, which made them about the stiffest leather boots ever. Still, they forced me to learn proper telemark technique if I had a prayer of keeping up with anyone using plastic boots on the downhills. Even with all the technique I could muster, there was never really had a chance...
I looked at my friend's original T2's like I used to look at the most coveted Lego sets in the toy store. And when he moved on to bigger, stiffer boots I got those same T2's. They changed my ability level overnight. At last I could almost keep up, and the kinds of snow I could effectively carve up expanded to about 75% of what's out there.
But I still had to have decent technique. My mantra became "Crush that pinky toe!" If I could just get most of my weight on that uphill inside edge, those skis would come around. I learned to point myself down the fall line with those boots, jumping from pinky to pinky. I had to wrench the straps down hard at the top of each difficult pitch, knowing my toes would be numb by the bottom, but I was skiing like I wanted to. It just took every ounce of strength I possessed.
The next logical step was to the heavy setup I currently use. To put it simply, I can't even feel my pinky toe in the new boots. They're just too stiff around my leg. The snappy performance was something that a leatherhead could only dream of! It's almost exactly like jumping on a long-travel-suspension freeride mountain bike and rolling through a rock garden at speed. You plow into things that'd buck you right off lighter bikes without feeling like you're anywhere near the edge of control.
However, hiking and climbing in a pair of T1s feels like walking up an endless stairway in cement shoes. Wouldn't it be nice if I could ski well on lighter equipment without having to grit my teeth to do it? I can, if I'm in good shape and have excellent technique. But how am I ever going to perfect my technique when my boots are rendering most input below the ankle irrelevant?
I had to find out just how bad my technique really is. Fortunately a friend recently gave me his old Garmont three-pin all-leather boots. I have a set of straight metal-edged cross-country skis that work with them, but I once tried to telemark on straight skis and couldn't get them to turn at all. So I grabbed my old long skinny Telepathic skis and put the boots to the test.
My girlfriend is just learning to telemark, so we went up to the resort to try it out. It seemed best if we both had our hands full just getting down the mountain. I think it worked out pretty well. Right off the bat I almost fell getting off the lift. I tried to nudge the skis onto their edges with slight pressure on the side of my legs and...nothing happened. I just kept accelerating straight forward.
Spinning through all the files on how to tele ski in my brain, I finally put together a multi-step strategy for turning. To put them on their edges I had to shift the weight to the side of my feet, using what felt like every muscle below my ankles. Then I rolled as much weight onto that inside pinky as I could, which was made easier by how distinctly I could feel it pressed up against the leather, while dropping my leg back. I felt the pressure on my outside big toe and pushed back. A turn happened. Then I rolled it all the other way, and back again, and kept up the rhythm until my legs were too shaky to continue smoothly. This was usually about three or four turns.
Talk about getting back to the fundamentals! If one ski started to get away from me and I couldn't get the other around in time to follow it, I went right down. There was no bringing a wayward ski back. I couldn't go too fast because I didn't want my skis to have that much momentum in them. I had to anticipate a whole turn ahead to prepare for every maneuver.
Effective skiing required constantly repeating to myself all the tips I knew. "Crush that pinky, drop back instead of pushing forward, short pole plants, shoulders pointed downhill, pinch a $100 bill between butt-cheeks and don't let go, stay upright, little hop from turn to turn, crush that pinky!" It felt just like the first time I ever got on tele skis, only this time I knew exactly what I was doing.
I learned enough that afternoon to keep me occupied for a good while. First of all, I have confirmation of the inverse relationship between technique and strength. The better your technique, the less strength you require. And lots of strength can make up for poor technique.
There were other lessons too. As I expected, hiking in the leather boots felt like walking rather than clomping. I'd hike all the way around Mt. Adams in them just for the fun of it. Also, for the first time ever, I experienced all of the complex foot manipulations needed just to stay in control for the first time ever. In my 1988 copy of Paul Parker's Free-Heel Skiing, from the days before plastic boots or even shaped skis, he talks a lot about this stuff. NOW I understand everything he was writing about!
Although this was an interesting experiment, my leather boots belong in the attic. Hopefully technology will allow the boot manufacturer's to cut the weight without cutting the performance of hard plastics. Until then, no pain no gain.
For more telemarking fun, check out this video of Nick Devore: