The Man Who Wrote the Book

Talking Tele’ with Steve Barnett.

Steve Barnett
Nils in the Sierras circa 1975 | photo: Nils Larsen collection

We’re in the middle of talking skis and tele and tours and gear and the state of the art back in the day compared to now when Steve Barnett unequivocally declares, shifting his voice for emphasis, “I’m not kidding, Atomic’s RT-80 is probably the best backcountry ski ever!”

As author of Cross Country Downhill, the first American book detailing how to telemark, he should know. Barnett took up backcountry skiing in the mid-70s, and published his book in 1976 to share what he had learned, including the tricks of the trade for the telemark turn. In that time he’s skied a pretty fair range of skis, from the toothpicks of the time, to the obese planks of the new millennium.

From the late 80s onward, the changes in telemark equipment have all been towards making the downhill aspect stronger. Barnett calls it, “heavy telemark.” Compared to what he began on, and what he continues to use the majority of time, it’s an appropriate term. While Barnett doesn’t disparage the trend, he does lament it.

For Barnett, the touring aspect of what is now called backcountry skiing is supreme, because even when you’re turning, you’re still on the tour, still moving. And mobility is the heart of it for him. Not many people have ever been up for walking 20 miles along a road to ski Mt. Olympus, but Barnett did, and for that sort of tour, today’s plastic tele boots don’t work. “Excursions might,” Garmont’s softest, most touring oriented plastic telemark boot, “but even those are still kinda stiff,” he adds.

Steve isn’t blind to the necessity, or appropriateness of heavy telemark, stating plainly, “I won’t say anything bad about skis today except you need big boots to use ‘em.” It’s not like he doesn’t see the correlation and the benefit of bigger skis and bigger boots. In fact, ask him what the most influential piece of equipment was that catapulted telemark to its current popularity and he responds instantly, “Oh, it was the boots by faaarrrrr — by a mile.”

Is he surprised at the popularity of telemark today?

“No. When I wrote Cross Country Downhill I was surprised then (1976) that so many people wanted to know, not necessarily about telemark, but about the secret way to ski everywhere. I wrote the book because I thought, ‘this was the greatest thing ever’. I still do in a lot of ways.”

Barnett saw the popularity of telemark as more or less inevitable. The basic motivation remains the same—all those thousands of acres of pristine untracked snow surrounding every resort begging to be tracked up. Back then it was about combining cross-country mobility and downhill ability, for which telemark was the preferred turn.

“A lot of people say, ‘look how far we’ve come’,” he says, “but it doesn’t look that way to me.” He knows that makes him sound like a curmudgeon, so he attempts to explain his perspective based on what attracted him to it in the first place.

Well, there were a number of things: cost, simplicity, mobility, and safety. “It’s no cheaper than AT skiing, or more expensive, but pins used to be $10 at REI. When you add cables and release and all, it’s not simple anymore. You can’t hike any distance in the boots; they’re heavy and restrictive. I like complete freedom of ankle motion—fore and aft. And where’s the inherent safety? I think the more motion you have, the safer you are. Heavy telemark has the same limitation as alpine where you can rip your A.C.L. if you fall backward. So if you look at the key features, it’s all been given up. In terms of touring, you’ve lost everything that made it attractive.”

Barnett practices what he preaches. His favorite ski touring rig? Madshus Glittertinds (68-55-62 mm) with Salomon BC boots and bindings. And he’s is quick to recognize he doesn’t represent the majority telemark skiers.

“Let me put a proviso on things. I’m 63 now. So no matter what gear people are using, most are passing me. And no matter
what gear they’re on, or what type of tour they’re doing, everybody has a good time. My own predilection is for the skinny stuff and that’s where I see the future of telemark going because with my RT-80s I only telemark some of the time.

3 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote the Book

  1. Barnett was a major advocate for the Boreal heel-locator, which was, in reality, a totally useless device for locating one’s heel in any kind of secure position while turning. Having never tried them, back in the day, I was nevertheless, on Barnett’s recommendation, able to secure the last set of said locators that a friend in stock at his small, now-defunct outdoors shop downtown. I secured them with the proper mounting hardware (and epoxy on Barnett’s recommendation) to my second-hand 210c Karhu BC cross country skis (and the correspondent “male” part to the heels of my best 75mm three-pin NN boots), forever rendering them ridiculous.

    Photo: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154859484518123&l=f3cd0b69e1

    1. Ha! That’s great John. Those heel locators are crazy and a fun piece of history. Thanks for the great link to the photo and for chiming in.

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