Skinny skis & leather boots

UPDATE 2014: The video referred to in this article is no longer available due to the demise of

Ever found skiing hard?  Oh no you haven’t.

For those who have never telemarked, this video might seem a little anti-climactic.  We skiers have all seen videos of cool dudes shredding slopes ad infinitum.  The appeal here is in the restrictions that these particular “cool dudes” faced when this video was filmed.

The guys at have recently posted a video of telemark skiing from what I’m guessing is the early 1980s, the age of the renaissance of telemark skiing.  This was back when telemark skiing meant hurtling downhill in soft leather boots, attached to ludicrously skinny skis by a little metal clamp at the toe.

It was in those days that I was first introduced to telemark skiing.  I was working in Antarctica in 1984, washing dishes at McMurdo Base for a horde of Filipino US Navy cooks (this is another story that I will come back to someday).

We were all down there washing dishes and scrubbing floors because the idea of Antarctica, “The Ice”, was just too exciting for any of us to ignore.  We shifted heaven and earth for the privilege of serving the lowest echelons of the US military at the very bottom of the planet, the coldest place known to humankind.

So cool to be there, even cooler was the sight of a select few sneaking away from the base and out across the Ross Ice Shelf on cross country skis.  I determined that I was going to do that too.

The next season, I turned up there with my new skis, ready to endure endless hours of washing dishes and kowtowing to minor military meatheads, finding solace in the knowledge that for 36 continuous daylight hours at the end of every work week, I would be free!

So we did lots of cool travelling across ice shelves, climbed volcanoes, traversed crevasses, explored abandoned historic explorer huts, took heinously daft risks jumping across drifting sea ice gaps… and I will bore you with all that some other time.

When we returned to the temperate zone, I did my best to get down to some serious skiing on these cross-country travelling devices.  Exploring North America I worked at ski areas and caught up with some of the American Ice folk.

One of these was Bill Danford, a resident of Driggs, Idaho, living in the shadow of the Grand Teton.  Bill and one of his mates offered to take me out backcountry skiing from Jackson Pass.  We traversed along from the Pass and I watched while Bill and his mate skied, in their leather boots and skinny telemark skis, attached by just a flimsy metal clamp, down a powder filled valley; just like the guys in this video.

Try as I might, with my very best efforts, all I could manage was a series of tumbles down that valley.  I cannot begin to describe how hard it is to make a skinny ski do any sort of controlled turn on any slope, let alone powder snow, while wearing glorified tramping boots. 

These days we go out in plastic boots and fat skis, attached with solid metal plates and stiff wires.  Still a little disadvantaged compared with our fixed-heel brethren, we bend our knees and free our heels, but very much with technology on our side.

This video is, in my mind, a homage to legendary mountain man Bill Danford, deceased.  RIP Bill.

Click here to download the video from