LINCOLN, New Hampshire — I pulled off to the side of the Kancamagus highway to see Matt Walter and his family step out of their gray minivan wearing layers of ski gear and showing off wide grins of excitement. A few inches of fresh powder fell over an already knee deep base of snow just the night before. The parking lot to the trailhead hadn’t been plowed all winter and the snow was left untouched.
Telemark skiing is something of a religion in Walter’s family. I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice when we first met back in the fall. The way he described the thrill of carving a telemark turn into deep powder truly made his passion clear as the two of us daydreamed about powder filled glades and steep ravines.
This pursuit of powder began back in Walter’s college years at Tufts University in the late 70’s. Matt would spend weekends up at the Tufts Mountain Club’s (TMC) Lodge (spelled “Loj”) up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where he would follow a group of “old timers,” TMC alumni who used the Loj as a base camp for hiking, skiing, canoeing and adventuring around the Whites. Eventually, Walter and the “old timers” took on the challenge of cross country skiing up and down various hiking trails for some of New Hampshire’s 4000 foot mountains.
“With enough effort on the way up, and enough guts on the way down, many good sized mountains were skiable and the White Mountains were a big playground as long as it snowed,” Walter wrote in an article for TMC a few years ago. The skiing performance was far from beautiful.
“The idea was to bail out at the last minute and in a controlled fall rather than an out of control face plant type fall,” Walter said. He called it the “crash and burn technique.”
It was only a matter of time before backcountry skiing started growing in popularity and new equipment, such as touring skis and climbing skins, became available. Soon enough, the telemark turn began to make a reappearance in backcountry skiing since its origin in Norway in the early 1900’s. This style of skiing allowed skiers to drop down low into fresh powder by descending runs on free heeled bindings similar to those on cross country skis. It didn’t take long for Walter and his friends to master the telemark turn, finding a new love for controlling graceful turns through powder and a departure from crash and burn skiing.
A few decades later, I find myself skinning up the East Pond Trail with Walter, his wife and his daughter as Walter reminisced about the days of bombing down similar trails on cross country skis. “We felt like adventurers,” Walter says, noting that he and the “old timers” were skiing trails that had never been skied before, finding powder stashes in places that other skiers didn’t even think to look.
Nowadays, there’s a lot more competition for untracked snow. Since backcountry skiing became more popular over the years, more people are moving away from the chairlifts in order to earn their turns in the backcountry.
Walter recognizes that now it’s more common to see people with alpine touring gear, which allows skiers to skin up mountains with their heels released then ski down with their heels locked into the bindings. However, Walter’s family is keeping the telemark tradition alive. Their love for free heel skiing has inspired them to support the backcountry telemark program through TMC. By teaching telemark lessons, supplying equipment and leading backcountry trips with the club, Walter shares his passion with his roots and shows the club’s members just why he fell in love with the sport almost four decades ago.
Although Walter notes that the telemark generation is “turning gray,” he feels fortunate to be able to enjoy the sport with his family and watch telemark skiing make a comeback in TMC, right where it all started for him.