As I packed up the first new mountain bike I had owned in fifteen years of riding for shipping to its new owner, I realized I had crossed a line. Mountain biking had been my raison d’etre for moving to Colorado; winter was the great white inconvenience that nearly drove me crazy as I waited for dry dirt.
Now I was selling off (at a great loss) a very carefully curated collection of two-wheeled parts to afford two sticks and associated equipment for exploring the very season I had once loathed.
Two seasons into my late-blooming ski career, it had gone from something to awkwardly pass time while waiting for dry dirt, to something I didn’t want to imagine being without. Now, as snow begins to pile up in the high country, I put off the maintenance and upgrades my bike needs and begin thinking about spending money I don’t have on more new ski gear.
Last season, I upgraded to tech bindings. This season, better clothing is my priority. As a mountain biker, Dickies shorts and pearl snap shirts are my go-to choices; I don’t find the 10x price increase for specialized “ride apparel” results in clothing that performs 10x better.
Ski touring does not allow such indifference. The softgoods, as much the hardware, make or break the experience when exploring the world of winter. Several sweaty tours, lugging a small thrift store inventory of layers in an over-stuffed pack made me realize lightweight, packable technical apparel is worth the premium price it commands.
Keith Bontrager probably wasn’t the first to say it, but in the bike world, he is credited with popularizing the the euphemism, “Light, Cheap, Strong — pick two.”
My bike component choices have rarely prioritized “Light,” and with ski touring I started on the same track. Muscling a chunky bike up the climbs seemed like a worthy reward in order to be able to charge the descents, but the more I lugged my frame bindings and four-buckle boots around the local woods of Babbish Gulch, and Williams Peak, the more I began to contemplate the lightweight merits of a tech set up.
Three strides into my first outing on my new Dynafit set up, I understood why the tech binding has come to define ski touring. Dragging around less beef on my feet resulted in longer tours, and deft maneuvering in all conditions that I care to ski in. Uphills are obviously where the wonderfully light weight of the tech system based ski touring setup shines. Yet, while it is often assumed this same lightweight advantage is a hindrance on the downhill, that’s clearly not a given. If your style is more dance and weave than charge and stomp, having less mass on your feet is just as fun on the way down as it is on the way up. More, the tech binding system has of course evolved to provide the full range, from tiny skimo race bindings to full-on freeride.
The tech binding arms race, combined with the evolution of ski design and construction, is pushing the capability of the ski-touring gear to a convergence similar to the current crop of sub 30 lb 5” trail / 6” enduro bikes. Innovations such as dropper seatposts (and before them, suspension forks) added weight, complexity, and maintenance requirements, but enhance the riding experience, and broaden the range of terrain accessible to such a significant degree riders have accepted them as indispensable. The newer generations of freeride oriented tech bindings such as the Marker Kingpin, and Fritcschi Vipec follow a similar paradigm. Not as lightweight and minimalist as a stripped-down race binding, and perhaps not the cliff-hucking burl of frame bindings (or is that perception rather than reality?), but capable over a broad range of conditions that the average ski tourer is likely to encounter.
On the other end of the spectrum are telemarkers, who are are essentially the Singlespeeders of the Skiing World, never missing a chance to tell you how they are having so much fun while you waited for them to catch up. Both telemarking and single speeding enjoyed peaks in the mid-late 90s, and carry on as a subculture impervious to outside opinions.
Singlespeeders tend more towards whiskey binges and punk rock; telemarkers prefer herbal remedies, and noodly jam bands. Singlespeeders and telemarkers both have an advantage in rolling terrain of moderate grades; except in the case of the preternaturally gifted who are unaffected by the inherent limitations of their archaic gear, and make everything look easy. Yes, those guys exist and command respect. (And if you think this is simply another anti-tele rant, please keep reading.)
As a singlespeeder, and natural-born contrarian, the more invective I heard hurled against telemarkers, the more intrigued I became. My first singlespeed was built as an alternative to my 7” freeride bike, which had rendered local trails less challenging. The same trails were totally different experiences on the two bikes, and each led to complimentary skills: The freeride bike showed me lines I never knew existed, the singlespeed taught me to make the most of the one that was there.
When the February drought hit, and conditions went from “all-time powder dreaminess,” to “at least it’s not as bad as last year,” I swapped a box of nearly obsolete bike parts for a Black Diamond telemark set up at the Gear Exchange in Glenwood Springs, CO. This was the first appeal in telemark gear; it’s even cheaper than trying to find a 26” singlespeed.
Learning the telemark turn made green runs on lunch break an exhilarating learning curve all over again. By the time I could make it down blue runs snowfall returned, and the concentration I had learned to focus on my edges made my fixed-heel charging more aggressive than before.
Much like riding a singlespeed, telemark skiing forced me to project much farther ahead. A singlespeed teaches you to conserve your momentum by anticipating upcoming obstacles, whether it be sprinting through a rolling dip to make it up the climb on the next side, or pacing yourself on a flat section to conserve energy for the tech rock move coming up. In a similar vein, your position in the telemark turn you are in dictates the shape of the next turn you will be able to make much more so than the fixed-heel control of alpine skiing.
I didn’t quite become a full-blown televangelist; I’m still sold on the tech binding for the precision and control it offers, and an equally elegant simplicity. Telemarking or singlespeeding can be a great way to broaden your experience, but if you like your knees, and keeping up with your friends, it shouldn’t be your only set up.
Ski touring (and yes, telemarking) changed my priorities by adding a new season of exploration, and causing me to re-evaluate my gear needs. Enjoying the benefits of lighter weight ski gear has inspired me to look for a similar weight reduction in my next bike, as I look to transcend the boundaries of my steel singlespeed. Once winter is done.
(Guest blogger Aaron Mattix grew up in Kansas and wrote a report on snowboarding in seventh grade. His first time to attempt snowboarding was in 2012, and soon switched over to skis for backcountry exploration near his home in Rifle, CO. His skill level is “occasionally makes complete runs without falling.” In the summer, he owns and operates Gumption Trail Works, building mountain bike singletrack and the occasional sweet jump.)