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I was 7-years-old when I first realized that I am an Olympic level overthinker. It was 1991, I was in first grade, and my teacher created something she called a “Mad Minute” where the students complete as many math problems as possible in one minute. But I didn’t do that.
I spent the entire minute sweating and jittering in my seat while a hurricane of questions rumbled in my skull. Where do I start? How much time is left? How far along is everyone else?! How do I do this? How much time is left? Oh god, am I dumb? What does this all mean? How much time is left?! My worksheet was always blank at the end of the minute. Well, except for the tears.
I have not experienced that level of overthinking and anxiety again until I tried telemark skiing.
If you are unaware, in March of 2021 I penned a satirical piece questioning anyone’s choice to telemark ski. It was a farce that was unfortunately and shockingly taken as fact by some, even though I wrote about skiing with dinosaurs. Readers on the World Wide Web were outraged. Responses ranged from “you’ve hurt my feelings” to “eat shit and die, Paddy!” I worried a group of pitchfork-wielding knee benders would march, or rather lunge, upon my home like Gaston and crew in Beauty and The Beast (and yes, in that scenario I like to think of myself as both Belle and the furry prince). I went on The Pursuit Podcast to try to clear the air. But I figured the best thing to do was to give kneeling schlooshery a try. And let me tell you—that was a pretty terrible, great idea.
On a perfect slush skiing April day, I borrowed my buddy Jeff’s tele gear: some old Scarpa boots and a pair of stubby and weathered K2 skis with those binders that have that cable thing on them, the ones that look like they’re missing hardware. I asked my friend Hannah (the same adult wearer-of-Crocs-Hannah from the first article) to act as instructor and emotional-support pit crew member. If she could teach both her younger brothers to tele, she could surely teach a man-child like me…right? Maybe.
Before I could even learn the intricacies of a heel-less pizza, Hannah helped me click, er, snap, er, flip, er, whatever into my skis. You got to love a friend who is willing to crawl betwixt your legs and fidget with your binders as you ask dumb questions like, “So, how do I like, do this?” and “What the hell, you have to twist these things secure?!” And if that wasn’t confidence crushing enough, the confusion over the true direction of right-tighty, lefty-loosey surely was. Once my tootsies were fastened to my skis, the fun and the terror began.
My first moments on teles were spent ping-ponging between standing stiffly upright and lurching forward into that arms-flung-sideways, baby-giraffe-learning-how-to-walk first-timer wobble. The slightest ripple in the snow sent my heels up, which in turn sent an anxiety explosion through my body. Oh god, I’m not really attached to these skis! When you’ve never felt it before, the free heel is as comfortable an experience as dancing naked at a family wedding reception. Sure, it’s exhilarating but you know everyone is looking at you and grimacing in disgust. At any moment, you’re gonna thwack something that should not be thwacked. All that was just to get to the damn lift.
With some gentle instruction and atta-boys from Hannah, I started to try real tele turns. But holy hell, was there a lot to think about. Too much: Stay crouched. Pressure on the balls of your feet. Be smooth. Pop don’t jump, but don’t over pop. Swing around, stop jerking. Square your shoulders, move your hips. Edge, edge, edge pressure, but not too much pressure. Play the schmear. (To be clear, I don’t know if these are real things to consider while trying to ski curtsy or things I made up in my mind.) I usually flip my brain off to ski (that’s why I love it) but in this case, there was so much to think about with every turn. . There is not a curse word in the English language that properly encapsulates the extreme amount of panic surging through your soul when you catch the inside edge of your uphill tele ski. After the first hour, I had a headache and my quads were destroyed. Ok fine, the first fifteen minutes.
But even with my overthinking and anxiety, my lack of skill, and the uncoordinated technique reminiscent of an ostrich on roller skates scooting along a slip-n-slide covered with petroleum jelly, I genuflected my way down the hill. I linked crouch turn after crouched turn. I tele skied and yes, tele skiing beat my ass. I’m certain that if any true diehard knee bender saw me, they would laugh. But isn’t that the whole damn point? My goal for any time I ski is to smile and laugh. If you’re not doing that, you’re trying too hard.
When I schmeared to a stop on the final run, smiling and laughing, I knew I was right. Telemark skiing is super dumb—becasue all skiing is super dumb That’s why it’s so great. The thing I love about ski culture is that we all can recognize that, sure, skiing is beautiful and soul enriching, it gives us a sense of belonging and community, and it can be a vehicle to reveal things about ourselves and life. But ultimately, it’s a smile delivery system. Skiing is not meant to be taken seriously and we are not meant to take ourselves seriously while doing it. When we attach our ego to it, instead, we get into trouble. We start thinking that in order to be a skier, you have to be a “good” skier, whatever the hell that means.
At après, I chatted about how hard the day was, how I was exhausted, how telemarking turned green runs into a challenge and blue runs into extreme terrain and any little bit of chop was the most difficult thing to maneuver in the history of skiing. I pontificated about the telemark skiers dedication to each turn, which I admire. I giggled about the patroller, also on tele skis, who told me, “Congrats on taking three giant steps back … in skiing and just generally in society.” As I sang tele praise mixed with tele condemnation, I knocked the pilgrim square-toe of my boot against the leg of the table, spilling the ranch dressing that came with our chicken wings all over my ski pants. And I laughed my ass off.
Because maybe that’s karma, but maybe that’s just telemark skiing.