In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s January 1986 issue (Volume 14, Issue 5).
By Yvon Chouinard
I’d never been one to do very well in team sports. I could hit home runs all day long in grammar school baseball practice, it in a real game I’d clutch and couldn’t even hit the ball. Being more of an artistic sort, I’ve not been able to grasp abstract concepts through books or classes. Whatever sports I do, I’ve had to learn on my own or be at the mercy of my ruthless friends. For instance, my first mountain was Gannett Peak in the Winds soloing a new route in my Sears work boots. On only my fifth day of kayaking, I found myself on the Tuolumne with 13 stitches on my face from a Merced River rock of the day before.
After escaping high school I was fortunate to do a lot of climbing with Fred Beckey, certainly the finest mountaineer to come out of America. From him I learned how to stay alive in the high mountains. He also taught me how to do standing glissades on summer corn the correct way– with feet together and knees bent, acting like shock absorbers and the upper body always facing the falline.
The first time I had skis strapped to my feet was in the early ‘60’s at Les Diablerets in Switzerland. Royal and Liz Robbins put me on a lift to the top of the mountain and said, “Just follow us.” I pointed the skis sown, assumed my glissade position and carved some fairly decent parallel turns. Piece of cake, I thought.
The next time I had skis on my fee was on the top of Mt. Llaima, a 12,000-foot volcano at the stop of South America. Dick Dorworth , Lito Tejada-Flores, Chris Jones, Doug Tompkins and I had driven down there from California, surfing the coasts of Mexico, Central America. Ecuador and Peru. We were making a “Fun Hog” movie on the trip and Lito was filming Doug and Dick skiing down this smoking volcano. My job was to carry the 40 pounds of gear back down to 5,000 feet. Well, even the two best ski instructors in the world couldn’t get me down that mountain without a hundred crashes and head plants.
After that I pretty much taught myself to ski by just going out and doing it, never really spending enough time at it to become very good. I did have short strong legs and I did enough backcountry skiing to get pretty good a survival turns. My attitude toward becoming an excelling ski has always been like that of the fat person who has always wanted to be skiing but not badly enough to actually lose any weight.
The skiers I wishes I skied like has all come from alpine racing backgrounds. Well, not only was I too old for that , but I probably would have done no better at racing than I did at baseball. I was introducing to cross country skis and the telemark turn about 10 years ago by Doug Robinson and the “armadillos” of the east side of the Sierra. I never could understand why they insisted on messing with the pine tar and klister, and zig-zagging around instead of just slapping on some skins and going straight up the hill. And this stupid drop-knee. Why not just parallel or do survival stem christies?
In 1980 I found myself coming down Denali pulling a 50-pound sled through 18 inches of heavy new snow. I put the load on my back thinking I could easily ski this stuff on my 180cm alpine touring skis, but I soon realized that with the load, the wet snow and floppy mountain bots there was no way I could begin to initiate a turn; so I unlatched my heels and headed down with a sort of snowplow/stem/telemark/steering turn. No unweighting necessary– or possible. Modern man reinvents skiing.
This experience was a revelation for me and soon after I hung up my fat boards and went skinny. Corn was the new diet. A typical morning in May or early JUne would usually find me hiking up some slope in the Tetons or Absarokas, maybe sitting on top for an hour or so to let the corn become velvety then cutting down in wide classic telemarks. Making it back to the house in Moose for lunch, then off for an afternoon of kayaking the upper Gros Ventre. A pine-cone eater to the core!
Later on, skiing in Aspen with Artie Burrows, Julie Niels and Murray Cunningham opened my eyes to the potential of skinny skis. Not only were these guys out-skiing nearly everyone on the mountain regardless of the gear, but this want the Peruvian-hat-double-poling-Al-Jolson mammy-turn backcountry technique I was used to. These were jades ex-alpine racer who had blended the old with the new and created a whole new sport.
On a late winter trip to the Selkirks with Eric Sanford and Son Portman, I watched these guys handle breakable crust, powder and junk as if they were on a groomed-off piste And then there was Mister Phun coming off jumps in a long, low tuck, not like a daffy or yahoo, but streamlined and fast like Lopez in the tube. (Editor’s note: Jerry Lopez is a famous surfer known for maintaining his elegant style in all wave sizes and conditions.)
In the summer of ‘84 I went off a drop in my kayak upside down and landed on my head upside down and landed on my head on a hard place which resulted i a weird compression scoliosis think in my back. Then, in September, after 45 years of blacksmithing, tennis, fly-fishing, big wall nailing, ice climbing, and other self-abuse, my right elbow crapped out and had to be operated on. By late October I had learned to cast with my left arm but it was obvious that the only dynamic sport I would do that winter was skiing. So this was the year I was really going to learn to ski like I’d always wanted.
Paul parker, who is on the PSIA demo team, is my kind of instructor. He gives you a one-sentence technique top then leaves you along until he sees you’ve digested it before he gives you another. At Steamboat on hardpack, we parallel the steep stuff and telemark the intermediate hills. I’ve alway had trouble with my left-hand teles, so he asks me to think about pressing the little toe of my back foot against the slop. This gets my feet closer together and my skis on edge, thus correcting my habit of going into my left turns from a stem.
A foot of heavy, skied-out cement in Breckenridge stops me cold but Paul says to exaggerate the up and down the way they used to do before high-top plastic boots. I also learn to lift up and place my downhill ski. The telemark turn provides great fore and aft stability because it’s really one long ski.
It snow four feet in Arapahoe. As light as it ever gets and the heaviest dump of the year but I can’t handle it. My skinny skis are gophering instead of moiling. Can’t see my skis. My mind goes on me and I’m finished by noon.
It’s been a winter of north swells and that means cold fronts and that means snow in So. Cal every weekend! I join the hoards of Iranians, Guatemalans, Koreans and occasional Yankee (saw six Sikhs ski one day). I love L.A.! I’m getting my poling down. It’s no different than alpine poling. Just plant you inside pole and turn around it.
No more mammies. On the steep slopes I’m staying low and punching my fist to the opposite ski tip like I’ve seen the slalom racers do. It really gives you lots of angulation and edge-set on the hard stuff. Only saw two other pin-heads all season. Friends of friends, of course. Just like climbing in the 50’s.
The owner of my local sushi bar is from Sapporo and she keeps telling me about the great skiing and smoked squid of Hokkaido. So… Paul Parker and I are met at the Sapporo airport by Mr. Kanai and his father. The car is an old, mint-condition Mercedes, ex-Korean Embassy. The old man with the combed-back white hair is now retired from the sport shop and loves nothing more than driving around Hokkaido in a comfortable car. He is an excellent driver. We have a follow-car for the mountains of baggage.
Kanai-san drops us off at a small log lodge run by a climber, and he goes off to soak in the hot springs for a few days. We meet up with 15 of the 200 members of the Japanese Telemark Association. None of them have skied outside Japan and they watch Paul Parker ski to see if they are on the right track. It turns out they are excelling skiers on the pistes with solid alpine backgrounds. Generally the Japanese ski quietly and controlled. No yelling or screaming, and no smiling. Everyone skis with perfect Austrian feet-locked together, ski school style. They even have one-person lifts so no one needs to embarrass themselves and yell “single.”
It snows a meter and we head for the trees. They are all birch and giant bamboo, pretty far apart and there is no one there. Paul tells me to try and grip a pencil between my hip and waist (remember the ‘60s bra test?). This gets my skis off to the side and together. Switching from side to side gets that powder rhythm going and I make five or six good turns before I blow it. Not bad, though, and the Japanese are not much better at powder. I sense they are wondering why we don’t just go back to those nice packed slopes—this is all so disorganized.
The next day I learn to not let my hand drop down and back. As soon as I plant my pole the other arm is coming forward. Paul yells.”Let out a big aggressive grunt every time you do a turn.” We do a suddenly it all comes together. Hooting kamikazes grunting and screaming through the trees, finally breaking out of the woods under the lifts covered from head to toe in the white stuff, and laughing in our heads off. Very un Japanese. The squid? She forgot to mention it was soaked in sugar syrup after smoking.
Paul and I had to go to Munich for the ski show, so bringing along our skis seemed like a good idea. With no snow in the eastern Alps we head head west. We stop off in Arosa, which is smack dab in the middle of the most conservative and reactionary part of Switzerland. My friend Ruedi Homberger, who is a photographer and mountain guide, laughs at our skinny skis.
Says his father’s happiest day was when he learned the christiania and didn’t when he learned the christiania and didn’t have to telemark anymore. Ruedi offers to take us on a tour the next day and something tells me he is going to try and prove that skinny skis don’t belong in the high Alps.
From the top of the lifts we go down a steep, icy slope then a long ravers on steep ice. If you fall it’s 800 feet to probable death or at least total paralysis. One of us fall and goes about 200 feet before hitting some rocks and stopping the only place on the traverse that isn’t a death fall. We get to a col and I look up at our intended ridge–it’s half rock, half ice and half cornice. I whisper to the others, “Turn back , it’s a sandbag.” Some of us decide to take an easier way but the next five miles are on breakable crust on top of 10mms of depth hoar. It’s so bad even the guys on their alpine touring skis are sandbagged. The others even had a worse time, coming back with purple shins.
We escape to Chamonix where there is snow, and I duck into the Bar National for beer and old memories. There I run into Jorge Colon from Jackson Hole. He has the town wires so we follow him around for the next ten days. The dollar hits an all time apogee against the franc and we dine like kings. All the years I’ve bummed around this town, sleeping in the rain in the Bioley and Snell’s field and living hand-to-mouth. Now I’m loaded with dollars and the franc is worthless, so I attack with a vengeance.
The clouds drop a foot of snow every night on the Grand Monete. We meet up with Billy Barnham from Snowbird who is working ski patrol there on his 205 Karhu XCD Comps. He and Jorge have the more progressive class all jazzed to get some gear, but edged cross country skis and good boots are not available anywhere in Europe except for Norway.
If you want to ski powder in Chamonix you have to take risks and ski between, over and around the crevasses. Billy know the slots and we get the best skiing of the year. I concentrate on watching my hands– don’t let them drop behind, keep them in sight, over and over again. Don’t break the rhythm even when the snow gets heavy down low. Barnham likes air and tries to get it every chance he can. Hes got a unique gonzo style that’s his alone. I leave him a pair of my three-pin bindings to put on his 223cm Dynastars so he can run the speed trials in Les Arcs in his wools pants, Peruvian hats and bunting jacket while chewing Red Man.
I come back from my European in pretty good shape so I accept an invitation to ski with my climbing buddy, Yuri Kristjanson, who is guiding for Mike Wiegele in Canada. The first day, I climb in the copter with a bunch of doctors from Colorado who come every year on a medical seminar scam. These are the hard–core who are there with one purpose in mind–to get maximum vertical.
After a few runs their leader–a real jerk–tells me to let them go first because my telemark turns are not tight enough and I’m taking more than my share of slope. The snow caries from excellent powder to spring sloughs and wind crust, and after 25,000 feet my legs aren’t bankrupt but definitely Chapter 11. Next day I ski with the wives and have a lot more fun. They don’t tell me to make tighter turns. I come away very impressed with Wiegele’s avalanche forecasting. Having misjudged three times, I’m very sensitive about the topic and it’s good to be with the professionals.
After the Vegas ski show, my family and I are invited to the valley by Hollywood mogul Frank Wells, who I climbed Aconcagua with a few years ago. It’s all hardpack skiing on wide well-groomed slopes. No slalom but or short skis here. Everyone is on their 210 or 215 GS’s. A few hours of trying to keep up with my Idaho re John Taylor, Wayne Poulsen and Rosemary Bogner has me wishing I had my old SM’s for the first time in four years. I stick close to my 10-year-old boy, Fletcher (a perfect excuse to stop– a lot). I make parallel turns most of the time with the occasional tle to use different muscles. As I get more tires, Taylor tells me to drive my pole arm up sooner for the next turn. Old habits die hard.
My kid and I are entered in the 7th Annual Wells Cup Race and I have one good run out of three on the three-pins. I think I beat out Clint Eastwood by a second. That made my day.
April– Crested Butte
Know what the third prize is at the World Telemark Championships? A Patagonia sweatshirt. This sport is really underground. There are 120 men and 30 women competing in their purple and peacock-blue lycra suits and customized, chopped and channelled Stein comps (homemade plastic cuffs mostly made from plastic pickle barrels). Some have old leather Monitors with a door hinge and studs in the sole. I’m there to observe because I know there’s something going on, but I don’t quite know what it is.
Mark Lance, who lost only two races this year, qualified and was impressive to watch. The master of the early lead change, he initiates a turn in a telemark then quickly brings up the back ski to parallel, ready to initiate the next turn, without having to weight and unweight, and keeps him low with his skis on the snow so he goes even faster.
I can see why Disney wanted to put a ski area in here. There’s no doubt this place has the best backcountry bowls in the Sierra. Nine of us made a camp on a patch of the last bare ground a 9,500 feet, then everyone split to climb the surrounding 12,000-foot peaks via feet, skins and klister. The sky stayed blue for the five days and the snow—a perfect velvet corn. Not a bowl, ridge or gully was left untracked. Some of the gullies were very steep and here tele-turns failed me I know what needed to be done.
Dive into the falline, driving those fists forward; crunch down low and set the edges, lots of angulation, keeping that pencil tucked into the hip; rebound up and windshield-wiper the skis over to the next edge set. And don’t let that stupid hand drop back! The theory was all there but very steep, fast corn is unforgiving. The slightest mistake and you don’t’ recover until the deposition zone. Lots to work on next season.
On the way out we opted to ski a twisting, narrow avalanche gully instead of trudging down the switchbacks. “Better a bad ski than a good walk…”