The skier was scoping out the terrain for his next set of turns when two teens on snowboards slid up beside him. "What kind of skis are those?" asked Boarder One, young enough to be the skier's grandson. "These are telemark skis," the geezer said. "All skis used to be like this, with the heels free to move."
"Whoa, those are wild," Boarder Two said. "I wouldn't get on those."
"You can get a pair someday when snowboarding feels too easy," the old man said as he slipped into a turn and glided down the hill.
Even if you've never skied, and don't know a thing about skiing, you can distinguish telemark skiers from their alpine cousins. Alpine skiers move downhill with their skis essentially parallel. Tele skiers descend by alternately shifting one ski in front of the other and pointing the forward ski downhill as they bend at the knees. The two skis make one long curved arc that carves a turn.
"I love how graceful it is," says Sarah Cribb of Ashland, a tele skier who recently sold her last pair of alpine skis. "On those big powder days when I can stay close to the fall line there's nothing like it."
Telemark, named after the region in Norway where it first emerged in the 1860s, was the only way to ski for decades. The bindings with the cable that slipped around the heel of the boot was the height of technology in its day.
Telemark faded with the advent of bindings that locked the boot heel into the ski and gave skiers much better control of their boards, then surfaced again in the late 1970s and early '80s as cross-country skiing gained popularity.
A few hardy folks who wanted to combine the freedom of cross-country skis with the excitement of downhill skiing realized those funny old skis with free-heel bindings were just right for walking into the backcountry to ski remote bowls and secret powder stashes.
That's the allure of telemark today, as the revival approaches what would be something like its 30th birthday if anybody could pinpoint when it actually started.
"To me, telemark is all about freedom to travel anywhere you want to go," says Nathan Breece of Ashland. Breece sees all kinds of people in the telemark classes he teaches on Mount Ashland. Some are snowboarders; others are cross-country skiers or traditional alpine skiers. All are looking for a new way to get around on the snow.
The mobility that telemark gear offers convinced Chris Garvey of Medford to trade his snowboard for tele skis five years ago.
"I wanted to be more mobile than I was on a snowboard," Garvey says. "Now I really prefer the free heel. It gives me mobility and the freedom to tour and descend."
Southern Oregon is ideal telemark country. Thousands of acres of National Forest land are snow-covered from November to April, and the snow persists in the mountains above timberline well into May or June for anyone who wants to extend the season. In big-snow years, tele skiers may still be going strong in July at Crater Lake National Park.
Done well, telemark turns look elegant, the skiers rising and falling rhythmically as they bend at the knees with each turn.
That doesn't mean it's easy to master. One tele ski manufacturer printed a bumper sticker that proclaimed: "If it was easy, they'd call it snowboarding."
Most people agree that the learning takes time, especially if a newcomer lacks background that can translate from some other gravity sport.
"Initially the folks who have the hardest time don't have any downhill experience at all," Breece says. "You have to be comfortable gliding downhill and controlling your speed. Folks who are used to going downhill pick it up quicker than the ones who aren't."
Balance plays a critical role in all snow sports, but it's critical in tele skiing. The extended position of the skis can be a remarkably stable platform, but skiers have to learn to find their balance over the skis and when to shift more weight to the front or rear foot.
"The most difficult part for me was that sense of fore-and-aft balance, finding that sweet spot," Garvey says.
"There was a big learning curve," says Cribb, the Ashland telemarker. "I spent a couple of seasons floundering."
While tele skiing started in the backcountry, it's become increasingly popular among the resort crowd. Like Cribb, many swapped their alpine skis for tele boards to learn something new after spending decades on traditional downhill gear.
"I switched over mostly because I liked the extra challenge," says Cribb. "And I love how light the tele gear is."
Telemark gear is lighter than traditional alpine skis and boots, which makes it attractive for anyone who wants to ski cross-country and throw in a few turns or climb a mountain and ski down. But as the sport has evolved so has the gear. Leather boots that were state of the art 15 years ago have been largely displaced by hard plastic boots with heavy buckles that look like they should be matched to a pair of downhill skis.
Tele skis have evolved, too. The long, skinny touring sticks of 1985 that were extremely difficult to turn have given way to wider skis with broader tips and tails that make turning much easier. The latest generation of tele skis look much like the "shaped" downhill skis that transformed alpine skiing a few seasons back. Dedicated tele skiers have several pairs of skis to make the best of different conditions — one for powder, one for hardpack, etc.
Telemark seems likely to hang around as long as there's snow and people who want to enjoy it without a crowd.
"It's a terrific feeling to be able to ski wherever you want to go," Breece says. "It's pretty cool to know you're not limited by the boundaries of a resort."