words & photography :: Michael Fox
The malfunction happened as it always seems to—at the worst possible spot, virtually the exact midpoint of the Spearhead Traverse, a 40-kilometre (25-mile) horseshoe-shaped route between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains.
I was alpine touring (AT), and my ski partner was Mike Kubik, an unrepentant telemarker. He stopped, removed his ski, and began fiddling with his binding. I’ve seen this scenario play out more times than I care to remember. I sighed, took off my backpack, and sat down. There was nothing to do but wait. Might as well have some trail mix.
After several minutes of increasingly-frenzied fiddling (accompanied by a steady stream of grunting and occasional obscenities), Kubik threw his ski aside in frustration.
“It’s done,” he said.
“Uh huh,” I replied.
“F@#king telemark bindings!” he yelled.
“Uh huh,” I agreed.
“You’d think they could figure out how to make these things work after all these years!”
Eventually, after applying a combination of duct tape, elbow grease and ski straps, we devised a MacGyver fix that allowed us to limp the remaining 12 miles back to civilization.
A LESSON NOT LEARNED
That was four years ago. Since then, Kubik (who is a cheap bastard, by the way) has gone through three more sets of costly telemark bindings, each of which has failed in similar fashion—resulting in frustration, foul language, and, on occasion, mortal danger.
Yet he stubbornly continues to telemark. As does another close friend, Mike Gill, who has experienced similar untimely breakdowns and associated financial outlays. In fact, Gill also had a malfunction on the Spearhead Traverse, just a few seasons prior to Kubik’s, near the very same spot. Go figure.
Like just about every AT skier, I look at my friends and wonder, “Why?”
Time travel back five or six seasons, and I could have forgiven my friends for telemarking. For decades,
telemarking was the best way to access backcountry powder. AT bindings were heavy, unreliable, expensive and just couldn’t compete with the freedom that telemarking allowed.
But over the years, AT bindings have closed the gap and arguably surpassed tele bindings in terms of reliability, affordability, and ease of use.
THE METHOD TO THEIR MADNESS
So why do diehard telemark skiers cling to their expensive, frequently malfunctioning, outdated bindings? The answer, at least according to Kubik, is “soul”.
“There’s just no other feeling like dropping a knee into deep powder on a steep slope and making a turn,” he says. “That’s why we suffer the constant aggravation and heartbreak.”
“I’ve tried AT skiing,” Gill admits. “It’s fun, but it’s not the same. If you’ve ever surfed, it’s the difference between catching waves in whitewater and catching waves in the unbroken green.”
I confess that on rare occasion, watching Kubik and Gill carve turns in deep powder at high speed, seeing them get so close to the slope they could kiss it, or enveloped in a powder cloud that lingers even after they’ve completed their turns, I sometimes wonder if I’m missing out on something.
But even if I am, is it worth the aggravation?
“Absolutely not,” Gill says. “I don’t even want to think about how much money I would have saved if I’d switched over to AT five years ago. It’s not just the bindings—the boots are more expensive and there are fewer options on the market.”
“What if money was no object?” I ask.
“Oh it’s not just the money,” he says. “It’s the frustration of constantly dealing with broken bindings and the ever-present worry that your gear will crap out deep in the backcountry”.
“So why haven’t you switched over?” I ask.
He sighs deeply. “I don’t know. I’m a telemark skier. It’s just who I am.”
Kubik says much the same thing. “It’s a giant pain in the ass, it costs more money, but even knowing all that I’m never gonna switch to AT.”
“But why?” I ask him.
There is a long silence before he answers. “Because of those times when you make a tele-turn and there’s no other feeling like it. It’s like making love to the mountain!”
MAYBE WE’RE ALL STUBBORN LUNATICS
In the end, skiing of any variety (AT, telemark, or otherwise) is not a rational thing to do. You freeze your ass off all day for the privilege of flinging yourself down a mountain at high speed. It’s expensive. It’s hard work. It’s cold. It’s dangerous. We’ve been injured and had close calls. But we don’t care. We do it because we love it and there’s nothing else like it. We’re skiers—you either get it, or you don’t.
And maybe that’s how diehard telemarkers feel about us poor AT schmoes. If we don’t get it then too bad for us, because telemarkers will always be happy to carve that turn just a little deeper, shave it just a little closer, and drag it out just a little longer than the rest of us. It’s just who they are.