Go huck yourself 


Telegear for the toughest

All-terrain skiing will make a poor man out of most Viking wannabes


In the beginning, Vikings toured the gentle meadows and steep fjord walls of Norway's Telemark region wearing giant, rigid skis crafted from sanded pine and then bound to leather boots with raw reindeer hide.

The pine has since evolved into more exotic materials, while plastic boots replaced their clunky leather cousins. So, nowadays, bad-ass telemarkers can shred terrain their Nordic progenitors would have never considered. And if you have a credit card burning a hole in your bibs, a mere thousand bucks or so can buy you the mountain's slickest new gear, made of materials from outer space with graphics that will help illuminate the backcountry.

Today's Telemarkers-sometimes called pinheads-seek a delicate balance in skis that allow both swift horizontal travel and controlled vertical plunges. Pinheads desire a free heel for the wilderness cross-country experience and for the joy of carving elegant turns at the resort alongside their boarding and alpine pals.

Spencer Bradford prepares tele boards for serious free-heel action.
Photo by Loren Moulton

Nowadays, those with courage and strong ankles can get almost anywhere with their teles. And as tele-skiers challenge steeper and steeper slopes, the engineers have responded by designing tougher equipment for more high-speed control. Skis of all types have become so light and strong, in fact, that paint jobs often mark the most obvious differences between tele and alpine gear.

For extreme sickos who plan descending at Mach 3, a stiff alpine setup might work for tele-skiing. But most people, the folks in the ski stores say, find that carving those graceful turns comes easier with the even, smooth flexibility that differentiates telemark gear.

Experts, who want to cut fast, insane turns will spin in circles over fat skis with their new, deeper hourglass shape. Skis have always been slightly narrower in the middle to force skiers uphill when they turn. Still, "subtle and hairsplitting" differences remain between alpine and tele skis, according to Jandy Cox, who sells gear at Rocky Mountain Outfitters in Kalispell.

In the past few years, some manufacturers have taken the concept to an absurd level, producing skis with a dainty middle, and ends flared like bell-bottoms. Among these oversized clown shoes, tele skis still differ slightly in shape from alpine boards. The tail of the tele ski doesn't flare as widely as it does at the tip, reducing drag when cutting turns. A trapezoidal shape cuts down on weight and increases flexibility.

A new pair of telemark skis will set you back as little as $185 for Rossignol's cheapest, up to around $500 or more for Ube's top model.

Boots are where your body meets the gear, where the force leaves your ankle straining, transforming the combination of acrylic, resin, metal, muscle and flesh into an extreme machine that shoots you downward under perfect control.

Therefore, boots are where to spend most of your money. It's essential to find what works for you; unfortunately, you can buy a cheap car with what we have to spend on some of the new plastic boots. Meanwhile, hard plastic boots have recently grown more flexible in the right places, and approach leather boots are increasing in comfort as well.

Dave Farr, who sells used gear at the Runner-Up in Whitefish, says some people can't find comfortable plastic boots, and others enjoy the personal fit that comes only from breaking in boots to one's own foot. That leaves you looking at leather.

But plastic boots weigh about half as much, and tend to be more durable as well as more waterproof than cowhide. Therefore, boots such as Scarpa's lighter, more flexible plastic T3, has arrived to challenging the leather market.

The T3 is a good choice for those with touring in mind-and costs a relatively measly $350 or so. Meanwhile, two brands, Garmont and Scarpa, dominate the market. Garmont's Veloce and Gera lines-both over $400-use different kinds of plastic for different parts of the boot.

Scarpa's classic T1 and T2 employ the same plastic, trained to different thicknesses, as has been the standard for many years; both cost around $400.

Finding the right bindings to connect pricey boots and a large person to expensive downhill-style skis has always been a special challenge for telemarkers. "The boots have become beefier and the skis have become more performance oriented," explains Farr. "The bindings have had a hard time keeping up."

Over the decades, pinheads have endured weak cables and toe designs that ate up leather boots. The Riva 2 boasts beefy cables adjustable on either side of the foot. The main clasp is on the rear of the boot where it gets in the way the least.

Rottefella brings us the Red Chili, an infernal and garishly colored contraption featuring a toe plate reinforced with stainless steel which will never wear out. Its asymmetrical design helps with driving into nasty turns. The rugged Pit Bull 2 from Black Diamond has built-in lifts, so you ride higher.

Fans of this style claim it helps with turning. But if you're some kind of tough guy, even these beauties might be too wimpy for your upcoming descents. Instead, you'll want Rottefella's Baddest, with a lift plate under a Red Chili binding. At about $280, Cox rightfully notes, this binding "will be hard to find and hard to afford."

Once you find and afford your equipment, most experts advise investment in a pair of the burliest knee pads available. But broken knees (and other bones) are a small price for developing expertise in the sport that can take you farther and deeper in to the forest than anything short of a snow machine-and you'll look a lot cooler getting there.

The Vikings had no idea what they were missing.

Snow Jones: A meditation on the pre-season

Photo and story by LOREN MOULTON

It's like an itch you can't reach, or the way you feel when a friend tells you they're sad and you want to tell them to be happy. If you could dismiss the emotion you would, but you can not.

That's the Snow Jones for you, which manifests itself in the inexplicable desire for time to speed up, for weather to turn cold and that white delight we call powder to fly.

But this season has kept the snow jockeys at bay. The month of October brought little precipitation. November brought precipitation in puzzling day-long blows, but much of the time the temperatures were a touch to warm to allow it to accumulate.

Secret high country spots provide alpine action before the resorts open.

We dream of dancing in turns down the mountain. We wait and wait for snow to fly. Then, suddenly, employers must deal with workers who have mysteriously become ill. Professors teach in front of empty classrooms. Chair lifts fill with sick employees and students driven by non-academic priorities.

This defines the problem: We tease ourselves into thinking that in just a few weeks we will be skiing. "It's just around the corner," we tell ourselves, all along knowing that we need to be patient. The excitement builds for months.

Sometimes, though, we can't wait that long. Every season, my attempts at finding snow are driven by the possibility that I know where it lays. The earliest date for the first turns I've ever had anywhere was October 17, 1995. I keep this date floating in the back of my mind, and when it came about this year, I though for sure I would be able to go out and make my first turns for this season.

Much to my disappointment, I was wrong. October 17 this year was simply a nice fall day and there was no snow in mass amounts to be found.

Praying for snow, a group of friends left town again on October 31. We drove by bone dry creeks, passing bright orange larch trees and over mountain passes lightly dusted with the previous night's snow. We told ourselves that there was a chance, only to find minimal amounts at 7000 feet. We were desperate. It was straight up pathetic to think that there was enough snow to plunge into.

We needed to remain patient and wait for Mother Nature to bring on the winter season. A couple of weeks passed after Halloween, and the itch was back in full form. Forgetting all about how desperate we felt mere days earlier, we planned another trip. Misguided by rumors of deep snow atop certain early season destinations, we packed the rig once again and drove.

"Do you think there will be enough snow?" That question was asked only once and answered a thousand times before reaching the final destination. Getting to the trailhead we were greeted by many others with similar mindsets. I say to myself, "There is a eight inch base here-that's plenty! There wouldn't be all these people here if I was thinking crazy, right?" The truth is that we were all crazy.

This craziness of which I speak is not a permanent illness nor one that we can help. It is useless to fight against this feeling.

As I write, we are back in wait mode. The snow will fall soon and the wait will end. Then we will forget about the desperation we feel, and relax once again. The cycle will no doubt repeat itself. It will consume us.

But for now all we want is to regain the legs we once had and make beautiful lines down beautiful mountains and celebrate the reasons we live were we do.

Blacktail Mountain adds to the list of opportunities for downhill motion


On a snowy November day at the top of Blacktail Mountain, you can see the dim, distant outline of Flathead Lake's north shore, and this winter, you can expect lots of people to take a gander at just that panorama.

The lodge is nearly complete. The chairlifts are in place. There's even plenty of snow, and steep runs cut through thick forest. Thusly, Blacktail Mountain is about to become the first new ski area in the West since Beaver Creek in Colorado.

Boarders, skiers and telemarkers this winter will get to shred on 200 acres of slope, overlooking the resort town of Lakeside, evenly divided between gentle and gnarly. In addition to views of Flathead Lake, Blacktail offers views of the Whitefish Range and Glacier National Park.

Blacktail looks to take advantage of locals priced out of larger resorts.

But Blacktail offers some things that are disappearing even faster than a skier's dollars-in particular, a low-key atmosphere at a minimally developed site, with family-style pricing ($24 for one-day adult; $375 for a season pass). This adds Blacktail to the list of local resorts catering to the hometown crowd: Marshall Mountain, Discovery Basin, Lost Trail, Lookout Pass in Idaho, and Snowbowl, of course.

And at a time when high end ski resorts such as Big Mountain are struggling to keep the bigger rollers driving and flying in, Blacktail's manager Dan Bovee figures the new hill will appeal to the local skiers. Bovee says these are the people the big resorts, in their quest for a richer and more distant clientele, have left behind. "They're pricing themselves out of the market," he says.

So, Blacktail won't compete with the big boys at Big Mountain and Big Sky for the big bucks. By giving locals a hill they can afford, Blacktail's owners are hoping, enough locals will show up for the operation to survive.

At nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, the summit of Blacktail is about at high as the Big Mountain, where Steve Spencer, a partner in this venture, worked for many years. The road and the vertical relief of the mountain-about 1,400 feet-gave Blacktail partner Steve Spencer the idea for a ski hill at least four or five years ago. The great views helped, as did the apparent absence of endangered animals such as grizzly bears and wolves.

Costs, meanwhile, have been kept low. The lifts, two double chairs and a triple, have been recycled from bigger, fancier resorts that have upgraded to quads. Folks who have skied at Steamboat Springs in Colorado might recognize the Thunderhead double chairlift, reborn in Flathead County. And, what's more, no one had to build a new road to Blacktail, since years ago the Federal Aviation Administration built a wide 16-mile road to install and operate a collection of radio towers and radar devices at the top of the mountain.

No ski hill is complete without a classy place to warm up, so the lodge, tastefully spacious with plenty of wood and huge tree trunks inside, includes both a cafeteria style joint and a fancier sit-down-and-tablecloth type of place upstairs. Scott Levengood, owner of Scotty's Bar in Kalispell, will manage the food and drink in the lodge.

Call Blacktail at (406) 844-0999 or check the wedsite at www.blacktailmountain.com.

The Glacier Ice Rink picks up where Missoula On Ice left off

Photo and story by SARAH SCHMID

Ice skating is arguably the sport of the Northern masses-all you need is some frozen water and a pair of skates to have a good time.

Ideally, it's cheap, fairly easy to learn, if you have a shred of dedication, and fun. Until recently, however, Missoulians could only catch ice time willy-nilly in a few small parks during the coldest days of the year.

Although it's always been popular, Jill Dunn, an instructor with the Missoula Figure Skating Club, attributes the most recent local renaissance of the sport to the 2-year-old Glacier Ice Rink at the Western Montana Fairgrounds. The rink, which is outdoors but covered and partially refrigerated, is used by the skating club, as well as youth and adult hockey teams, and is open to the public for about 20 hours per week.

Skating fans can enjoy the Glacier Ice Rink for 20 hours each week, hockey and skating classes also take place at the 2-year-old rink at the Western Montana Fairgrounds.

Dunn, a diminutive blond whose large, expressive eyes transmit her passion for skating, grew up on the ice of Minnesota. She skated professionally for Walt Disney on Ice before moving to Missoula to finish college. She helped form what she describes as an "ad hoc" skating club a few years ago.

"We used the rink in Playfair Park, but the season was not long. Sometimes, it lasted only six weeks," she says.

This year is the second the skating club has had consistent ice time, Dunn says. Fifty-three students participate in the club's chapter of the United States Figure Skating Association basic skills program. "The club is definitely growing," she notes. "There's always a waiting list."

Dunn reckons there are a few girls in town who dream of being the next Tara Lipinsky-and possibly a few boys dreaming of becoming Elvis Stoiko-and sees no reason why that can't happen. "There are definitely some who are aspiring to be professionals, and they have the potential to compete nationally or in the Olympics. Skating professionally for ice shows is also an area that's really opened up," she says.

Dunn believes the booming popularity of ice shows coincided with the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan debacle in 1994. "That was sort of a great boost-the Olympics do great things for skating," she says with a wry smile.

Missoula's own skating history, without any knee-whacking, has its own sad tale. The original effort to build a new, enclosed rink, spearheaded by Missoula On Ice, never came together. Although the non-profit group labored for years to raise money and build an arena-they even purchased a building to house the rink-administrative problems eventually got in the way.

Fortunately, when Missoula On Ice formally disbanded, it distributed what was left of the funds raised to other non-profit skating groups, enabling the Glacier Ice Rink to buy a new Zamboni and make other improvements, says rink manager Kim Lux.

Lux says Glacier Ice Rink, which sits under a barn-like roof and just this year replaced the chain link fence around the ice with glass, will probably stay the same for a long time. "The problem is that we can only be out here six months a year, and we can't leave anything on site when we go.

"Basically, what you see is what you get, and it'll probably remain the same," Dunn says.

For her part, though, Dunn has a laundry list of things she'd like Glacier Ice Rink to acquire-a decent sound system, actual restrooms, a concession stand, more bleachers and changing rooms are a few of the items. "A year-round rink is the priority," Dunn explains. "While it's nice to skate and see the sunset, to promote the sport we need ice."

She hopes the rink will eventually find an investor willing to turn the Glacier Ice Rink into facility, but doubts it will happen if ice skating is not viewed as a money maker.

"It's frustrating to see a minor league baseball team come together in two months," Dunn says with exasperation. "We've been trying to build a rink for over 10 years. Why is baseball considered more profitable than professional hockey?"

La Niña promises to fulfill skiers' wet dreams

Weather pattern should mean serious dumpage for resorts


In a change from last year, Western Montana's skiers and snowboarders are smiling in anticipation of a Latin-named weather pattern. It seems that meteorologists, though cautious, say that the fluffy, white stuff that arrived this November will not be the last of the season-and winter sport lovers can thank La Niña for that.

Peter Felsch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, says he believes typical La Niña weather patterns will hold true this winter, bringing more precipitation and colder temperatures to Western Montana. "These weather patterns are difficult to predict, but at this point we are expecting it to be a moderate La Niña this winter," Felsch says.

Montana's recreationalists aren't the only ones smiling. Area resorts are hoping La Niña brings big snow and big business to the mountains. The Big Mountain in Whitefish and Big Sky near Bozeman both opened their trails on Thanksgiving Day, while Snowbowl opened November 27.

In contrast to its counterpart, El Niño, which cut off snow junkies from their fix last year with warmer, drier weather, La Niña should make Western Montana a colder, wetter place this winter.

Coming on the heels of a year that ranks as the third wettest ever recorded in Montana, La Niña stands as a powder bonanza. Much of La Niña still remains very much a mystery to researchers who hope to predict the effects, but scientists say they have a rudimentary understanding of how the weather pattern works.

La Niña gathers its steam from cold ocean temperatures, the result of easterly trade winds over the tropical Pacific. These trade winds can lower sea surface temperatures by as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit, and experts believe the effects of these trade winds-including the 1988 Midwest drought and the increased threat of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico-should not be understated.

Such patterns, researchers say, should be considered fairly typical. In the Pacific Northwest, another pattern they anticipate calls for more snow.

The weather pattern La Niña remained unnamed until the mid-80s, even though El Niño and La Niña weather patterns have historically occurred at about the same frequency. In recent years, the number of La Niñas has fallen.

With seven El Niños compared to three La Niñas in the last 20 years, a debate has been sparked at the National Center for Atmospheric Research over the possibility of a global climate change to a semi-permanent warm state around the globe.

For her part, Ronnie Morris, owner of Snowbowl, says she has learned not to rely on meteorologists.

Last year's El Niño was supposed to bring warmer weather and less precipitation. But, despite the disappointment of some local powder hounds, Morris claims that Missoula's premiere resort had an average year.

"I don't go by those predictions, but they obviously have a big effect on public opinion," Morris says, adding Snowbowl's season pass sales have been up this season.

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