Backcountry Skiing First Descents — Censorship?

Post by blogger | November 7, 2005      

A couple of people pointed me to an amusing thread on, debating whether backcountry skiing down a mountain without your heels latched down is some kind of significant “first.” Along with that, a person contacted me and said they’d been censored on Teletips after dissing one of the tele mob’s heroes as to “first tele” descents and such, and a major thread had subsequently been deleted from their forum! And I thought I was supposed to be the “heavy handed over bearing censor” over on the Couloir Magazine forums. Bummer someone has stolen my crown (on second thought, playing God isn’t all that great anyhow, remember that movie, Bruce Almighty?)!

One such skiing “first” in question is Kasha Rigby’s recent free-heel descent of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain (in Tibet, 8,201 meters).

While arguably one of the easiest 8,000 meter peaks to climb, and certainly the easiest to backcountry ski, getting up and down ANY 8,000 meter peak is quite an accomplishment. Skiing down is notable. If nothing else, one has to admire the level of commitment this type of alpinism requires. Just rounding up the money for a Himalayan expedition is no small feat, not to mention the logistics needed for a successful trip (that is, assuming you’re not sponsored, you organize the shindig yourself, climb without oxygen, and don’t get dragged to the top by a Sherpa). But is the first free heel skiing of Cho Oyu something we should celebrate in terms of the sport of skiing, and record in the record books? (Blog post about 8,000 meter peaks ski descents.)

For more than 30 years we’ve been hearing claims of “first pins,” “first tele,” and first “free heel” when describing backcountry skiing descents. Even back when I was telemarking, those qualifiers frequently sounded like desperate cries for recognition (or free jackets) rather than true statements of any notable athletic accomplishments. These days such claims sound the same — and elicit a big yawn since the burly version of telemark gear is nearly equal to any other ski gear in performance (e.g., tele gear with huge boots, tow truck cable bindings, gigantic skis).

Indeed, after three decades of telemark skiers attempting to gain traction for “first telemark descent” claims, the concept appears to be dead, and needing a do-not-resuscitate order. Instead, what myself and many other backcountry skiers who track this stuff are interested in is who went down something first, on skis, PERIOD.

Witness Kasha Rigby’s own website, which is obviously designed to sell sponsorship deals (nothing wrong with that, by the way, but it’s important to note — if “first telemark” was that important, would it not be plastered all over her website? Perhaps that’s coming in her next redesign?). Indeed, Kasha’s bio mentions a handful of ski descents, but never states what type of gear was used. Can you assume it was all tele? Nope, Kasha also skis with AT gear. I admire Kasha for rising above this issue. More power to her for finding a “hook” and being a heavily sponsored tele icon — yet not letting her website obsess on what type of gear she uses, as some of her fans appear to do.

Enough. No need to get too serious here, as I’m sure I’ve already generated plenty of hate mail. For with, a lighthearted look at rational I’ve heard (paraphrased) on why a first free-heel descent should be considered different from a first ski descent, with comments in parenthesis from yours truly:

“Telemarking is more fun than fixed heel skiing” (With same logic: driving a Ford is more fun than driving a Chevy, therefore the first drive of a Ford should be a big event. This is true about Jeeps, but not about Fords, or telemarking, or Subarus for that matter.)

“Telemarking is fun” (Okaaaay….repeat after me while skiing free-heel or fixed-heel down 8,000 meter peak gasping for oxygen: this is fun, this is fun, this is fun…)

“Telemarking is the most fun you can have with your cloths on” (nude photos of Kasha posing with skis have many tele-boys believing different.)

“Telemarking is as easy as randonnee skiing” (Perhaps, if your gear weighs a ton, you can’t tour with it efficiently, and you’re age is under 30 so you’re strong enough not to know the difference.)

“Telemarking is harder so it should be considered a first” (So is skiing with your helmet over your face.)

“Telemarking is a sport that should be considered separate from fixed-heel skiing” ( Yep, as is hitting balls in a batting cage.)

“Telemarking is cool” (So is Bode Miller.)

“Alpine skiers look like their feet are stuck in cement” (See above.)

“Telemarking has soul (Sorry, Muddy Waters has soul, skiing has soul, but to say a particular turn has more soul than another? Seems a bit much. After all, Norheim’s crowd invented the parallel turn too.)

“I make my living from telemarking” (Money talks!)

“Telemarking helps me meet chicks” (Kasha? Otherwise, shut up.)

“Free your heel, free your mind” (Mind, at 8,000 meters? Hey, look in my pack, are these prayer flags or my jacket? Hey, is this my right foot, or my left — dang tele bindings?! Hand me that oxygen mask!)

“It’s all skiing” (No argument there.)


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