Here is the fourth installment in Dave Rothman’s essay series on ski legends and their contributions to the sport. This essay first appeared in Telemark 8.14 (December 2009): 15-17. Check out Rothman’s latest book Living the Life: Tales from America’s Mountains & Ski Towns for more essays.
A Tribute to Dickie Hall: NATO celebrates 35th Anniversary
by David J. Rothman
So far, in my series of previously published essays about skiers who have made a major impact on the sport, I’ve republished pieces about extreme Alaska extreme-ski pioneer and guide Doug Coombs, Berkshires photographer William Tague, and Colorado ski guru Lou Dawson. This week it’s the turn of Dickie Hall, the founder of the North American Telemark Organization (NATO), who has taught more people how to ski with a free heel than anyone else in the history of the world. In the coming weeks I’ll be republishing essays on telemark competitor Max Mancini and Jean Pavillard, the youngest person ever to certify in the history of the Swiss mountain guides. Along with the profile in Living the Life of telemark alpinist Kasha Rigby, that means I’ve published seven profiles – something I hadn’t realized until asked to re-post them together. Who knew? Maybe I should write some more. They’re great fun to do because the people are so remarkable. Even though none of these stories made it into the book, every single one of these people exemplifes what it means to live the life.
In November of 1993 I decided that I should not be the one to teach my wife how to telemark. I had seen too many couples on the side of some trail, tears frozen to the cheeks of the woman as the befuddled guy stood by saying things like “No, really, you’re doing great…” I knew I couldn’t beat the odds. Instead, Emily and I headed up to Wildcat, the long rolling hill across the street from New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, where I went skiing on early season snot and Emily enrolled in one of Dickie Hall’s legendary NATO clinics. (For anyone who has been living in a Norwegian snow cave since the death of Elvis, NATO stands for “North American Telemark Organization.”) The snow had the texture of tungsten and the usual Wildcat breezes had the wind chill hovering somewhere near temperatures suitable for Himalayan expedition clothing tests, so I was doubtful of success. And then, near the end of just the first day, as I was riding the chair, there came Emily under the lift…making tentative but totally committed telemark turns, hands forward, knee down, carving…ice. I felt the way folks must have when they saw Jesus walk on the Sea of Galilee. Readers should remember that this was long before plastic boots and skis as wide as broadswords. No, in one day, Dickie Hall had taught my gentle bride to make competent telemark turns on New England concrete wearing boots about as stiff as bedroom slippers strapped to clown shoes. The man is a wizard, and I’m still grateful.
Emily was just one of “Oh, I guess about 40,000 or so” people Hall says he has now taught in the clinics he began running in the early 1970s. When he holds his major annual event this March 13-14 (2010) at Mad River Glen, it will be 35 years since he began the mother of all telemark festivals. Actually, although it’s a huge party and a great time, NATO is even far more than that. Hall didn’t change American telemark skiing – he is one of the small band who helped to create it in the first place. Anyone who subsequently does change it will only be changing what he thought up.
Back in the early 1970s Dickie Hall had no idea that he would spend the rest of his life teaching people to telemark. He was an alpine ski instructor at Killington, but then one evening he made the fateful decision to “get a little partied up,” as he told the story in a recent interview. “I had the key to the lift, so I invited some buddies and my girlfriend for a ride at about one in the morning.” The next morning, now looking for a new job, Hall saw an ad for a Nordic instructor. “I’d never even been on a Nordic ski,” said Hall, but he somehow talked his way into the job. “What was missing,” he says he quickly realized, “was the downhill part, but I saw a picture in a magazine from the 1930s and figured we should try that.” The rest, as they say, is history.
As for the first NATO festival, back in 1974, Hall recounts it happened almost by chance. “It was a beautiful spring day. I’d been teaching my friends – the ones that would listen to me – they’d see me at Killington trying to work my way down some trail. I said let’s go meet at Pico and ride the lifts…so we’re partying and skiing and having fun and then at the end of the day I said we need a picture and passed the camera to somebody. I said let’s link arms, and that’s how that tradition started. The whole thing was very unofficial…but then it grew each year because our little universe was expanding.”
At this point, that expansion looks a bit like the big bang. Maybe it now looks inevitable to us that telemark skiing became an established sport, but there was quite a long time when Hall wondered if it would survive or just turn out to have been a fad. At that time, by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he’d risen through the cross-country ranks to become Chief Examiner and Certification Chairman for PSIA Nordic East. He says that he’d formally started NATO at that point because PSIA wasn’t interested. “They got interested a few years later and now do a very good job at certifying…they just weren’t ready for it then.” In those days, Hall made NATO work simply by hitting the road, teaching and promoting the sport anywhere that would let him. “In the east I had the first telemark ski school at Mad River in the early ‘80s, but most places wouldn’t even let me ride the lifts…” By this time, Hall knew the history of the sport as well as anyone, however, and he’d come back with lines like “Come on! Haven’t you guys heard of Perry Merrill? He skied with a free heel and he built this mountain!” With his endless enthusiasm for what he does, the ability to teach and train instructors (more than 2,000 to date by his own estimates) and an obvious ability to organize events and motivate people, he obviously wore the opposition down in the long run.
Still, it wasn’t easy. Back then, as Hall tells it “Most people in the ski industry hadn’t even heard of telemark skiing on the east coast. I convinced some manufacturers to give me some gear and money and for the first few years I went from state to state and ran tele fests in each state from Maine to Virginia. The whole idea was just to find a busy ski area and put tele skiers under the lifts for a weekend.” Hall’s technique for finding instructors in those early days was decidedly innovative and entrepreneurial. “Well…I’d come in on Friday and offer a free instructor course to ski school folks. A lot of people looked at me like I was talking about snowblades, but some would sign up…and those were the people I would then hire that weekend.” His goal was to find one ski area in each region that would allow the sport, introduce tele skiing to that mountain community, “and then leave some interested people and teachers behind.” In retrospect, this was brilliant and audacious, a tactic that means Hall has probably influenced every single east coast telemarker (and most of the others too) for decades.
Hall says that he thinks the turning point in the sport’s popularity may have come when he hooked up with John Fuller, a filmmaker who had worked for National Geographic. “I ran into him and said I’d been dying to make an instructional movie…and we made The Telemark Movie. That was one event that catapulted tele skiing into the mainstream.” But part of that success had to do with another lucky encounter. “One time I was working with LL Bean on a clinic and this mousy-looking guy in brown corduroys and an army surplus-looking coat showed up for a clinic at Mt. Abraham (in Bethel, Maine), and just fell in love with it. He’d never gone uphill on skis, so we put on kicker wax and climbed a trail.” It turned out that the mousy-looking guy in the frumpy clothes was Leon Gorman, the owner of LL Bean, now retired. “Long story short, he told his people to offer the telemark movie in their catalogue…which meant all of a sudden we were in 60 million bathrooms!” Not bad pr for a guy who had started by talking his way into a job that he didn’t know how to do.
NATO has come a long way under Hall’s passionate and inspired leadership, so far that it has now outlived the pun of its own name. This year, the festival has come to an age where Hall is even planning a “Retrofest” as part of the annual event, encouraging everyone to bring funky, old gear. There will be all the usual events and parties, with major manufacturers, good food and drink and skiing, all at affordable prices, but there will also be clinics on old-school gear and technique; Hall says there might even be a demo booth with old gear for folks to go out on and fall down. Talking about the evolution of gear, Hall observes that “In the old days, the skiers were driving the sport for gear that could keep up with our technique; now it’s the opposite…” Yet the older gear, and lighter gear still designed for touring, has its advantages. “The new gear offers a tremendous amount of power and agility and fun…but if you go back to backcountry gear, the lighter gear, then you’re going to really find out the DNA of the biomechanics, how skis work on a human body flying downhill, and it will help you when you get back on your sturdier gear. The lighter gear forces you to explore and discover biomechanics you would never have found on the heavier gear.” That advice is vintage Dickie Hall: ever the guru, someone who has devoted his life to the free heel turn, still learning and still teaching.
As for the ongoing appeal of NATO and the annual event, Hall describes it this way: “My favorite part of the festival still has to do with the fact that there’s a special bond among people who telemark. We’re still in the minority, so there’s this feeling of all of these little tribes gathering together and then we become one big majority for the weekend. Suddenly, everybody in the parking lot is a telemarker. It’s a unique affirmation of the sport and a celebration of the people doing it. I love it, for example when some guys come up to me and say ‘We’re the only six guys in our part of Pennsylvania tellying Elk Mt.!’ And there they are in their little car, having driven all the way up. In the end, it’s a beautiful little community of highly athletic and spirited people.”
Although he’s even served as an Adjunct Professor of Ski Mountaineering and Telemark Skiing at the University of Alaska, has had a tremendous impact on thousands of people, and is one of the fathers of the modern sport, Hall remains both evangelically enthusiastic about telemark skiing yet modest about his achievements, saying only that “I’m a one-trick pony…” Yet when he says “I feel I could quit now and the sport would be ok, which isn’t how I felt in the 80s and 90s…” one senses that he’s probably right – and then quickly realizes that’s only possible because of what he did.
So let’s make it formal. Telemark skiing may not yet have its own Hall of Fame, but we might begin by saluting the Fame of Hall. On the 35th anniversary of the first NATO festival at Pico, make yourself a promise. Sometime this year, when you’re having a particularly great day, link arms with a few friends for a group turn running on laughter and joy, teach someone (other than your spouse) to telemark, hoist a glass and send Dickie Hall some good vibrations for getting a little partied up, losing his job at Killington, lying about his ability to Nordic ski….and reinventing skiing as we know it.
***Tags: David Rothman, Series, Ski Essays