The first time I really regretted learning to telemark ski was on the Wall at Kirkwood. I shouldn't have been on a double black at all, let alone on a pair of purple and yellow Kazama Couloirs, an old-school backcountry tele ski from Japan with a lot of snap but not much stability. I referred to them as my Minnesota Viking skis. Did I mention it was pretty crusty that day?
I'd made the transition from alpine skiing to telemarking that season. I thought I had the hang of the free-heel skiing thing, and all my fixed-heel ski buddies were sick of hitting blue runs with me while I waxed poetic about the arcing beauty of a telemark turn and gushed about how this was real skiing. There's a name for telemarkers who constantly sing the praises of the free-heel experience. They're called "televangelists." But my buddies had taken to calling me "Fruitbooter," a derogatory term originally leveled at Rollerbladers by skateboarders. That hurt. That hurt bad.
So I accepted their challenge to actually ski something steep. Big mistake. I'd heard mild chatter from my alpine skis before, but nothing like this. My Kazama's were bouncing off the snow so bad the sound reminded me of putting playing cards in the spokes of my bike as a kid. TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT!
But I was making turns, sort of. Okay, to be honest there was never much edge in contact with the hardpack, and I was really just sliding down the mountain, barely coming in and out of turns as I picked up speed. I forgot about technique and just tried to survive. My legs got rubbery.
Just when I was ready to bail and let myself tumble down the mountain, some goofball on the chairlift yelled, "Yeah tele-man, rip it up!" He sounded serious. Inspired by this misguided adulation, I managed to make it to the lift with my head held high.
That's when I discovered one of the joys of resort telemarking. Even when you suck, most people just assume you're a bad ass. The teles give you instant credibility. Even snowborders are prone to afford you their grudging, often undeserved, respect.
Telemarking, which is named after Telemark in southern Norway, is a bit like cross-country or Nordic skiing on steeper terrain with burlier equipment. Unlike in the alpine-style skiing that is most common at resorts, in telemarking your heel is not attached to your ski. That has led to the slightly embarrassing slogan popular with many old-school tele types: "Free your heel and your mind will follow." (Yes, there is a decidedly granola element of telemarking.)
And the free heel means a tele turn is very different from an alpine turn. It's kind of like pornography: hard to describe but you'll know it when you see it. But here goes: to turn right, the tele skier slides the left ski forward and the right ski back while bending the right knee and lifting the right heel off the ski. The skier is basically genuflecting. To turn left, the skier pops up and does the same thing on the other side. When done correctly, it's a beautiful thing to behold. It's a more relaxed, highly stylized maneuver than an Alpine skier muscling through a turn. It just seems more refined.
Allen & Mike's Really Cool Telemark Tips by Allen O'Bannon and Mike Clelland is a comically illustrated guide to telemarking techniques. The authors have an insightful cartoon that contrasts the laid-back aesthetic of telemarking with the aggro attributes of alpine. Tele: "The heels are blissfully liberated and free!" Alpine: "The heels are locked down, restricted, imprisoned!"
Traditionally, telemarking was a backcountry pursuit. Teles enable you to go places in the wild you could never reach with fixed-heel skis. In fact, with a pair of skins you attach to your teles, you can ski up mountains, then take the skins off and ski down. Lift service is not required.
And for a long time, tele equipment was made to fit these backcountry conditions. You might be skinning a lot, with a backpack, through varied snow conditions. So the skis were light, snappy and long, just like my Kazamas. Boots were similar to leather hiking boots — fairly low cut with a lot of give. After all, Alpine boots hurt just to wear them in the lodge; can you imagine wearing them for ten hours of backcountry fun?
Needless to say, there's been a revolution in telemark equipment over the last twenty years. Tele skis come in a dizzying array of makes and models now, from traditional skis that are fairly similar in size, weight, and camber, to some cross-country skis, to super stiff, insanely stable boards that are meant to go fast on groomed resort runs. Bindings that were really nothing more than a cable that looped around the back of your boot have progressed to elaborate quick-release setups. Most tele boots are now plastic. You can get some fairly low-cut, soft models for light touring, all the way up to racing models that are so ridged and tall they could double as Gene Simmons' footwear on the next KISS tour. One thing that unites this disparate technology is cost; tele gear used to be cheap compared to alpine equipment. Not any more.
And there's a whole new generation of tele skiers who confine themselves to resorts and might never visit the backcountry. That trend has created some tension in the close-knit world of telemarking. Many old schoolers don't like the fancy new equipment much — although few would disagree that plastic boots are superior to leather — and they'd have to be dragged kicking and screaming to a resort. There's even a split over technique, with many newer resort skiers favoring a more upright turning stance compared to the classic, kneeling telemark style. (Again, this stuff's impossible to describe; you have to see it, but these changes are possible because of advances in equipment.)
I'll take the Hillary Clinton approach and come down in the middle. It's a shame that someone would go to the trouble of perfecting the telemark turn and never try it out in the backcountry. I feel like if you have the time and the skills, the backcountry experience trumps a visit to a resort every time. But resort skiing is still a blast, and it's a great way to hone your telemark skills before facing the rigors of the ungroomed outback. (Warning: Never try the backcountry without the proper training in survival and avalanche safety skills.) Besides, just learning to tele is a big first step in the journey you decide to make.
One of the joys of converting to telemark is that you can make the most of the mistakes common to alpine or fixed-hill skiing, along with a host of new and exciting screwups that you don't expect. Every downhiller has crossed his front ski tips, often with disastrous results. On teles, you can still cross your front tips, but you can also inadvertently cross the front tip of one ski over the tail of the opposite ski when you're deep in a turn. That ain't good. What makes this miscue more delightful is the fact you don't always fall right away after you've done it. Sometimes you cruise along, picking up speed like you're engaged in some sick ski yoga posture and ensuring that your inevitable wipeout is all the more spectacular.
Can you catch an edge on teles? Of course. But once again, doing it when you're in a turn can yield some painful and comical results. Catch an edge on the uphill ski — the one that's behind you on a turn — and it can launch you forward, popping the ski off the snow and into a position that's perpendicular to your other ski. In other words, you look like you're trying to fly with one ski on the snow pointed down the hill, the other one behind you about two feet off the surface and pointed toward the trees lining the run. This could be kinda cool if ski ballet's your thing. Or if you're doing it intentionally. Once again, you don't always crash right away. You can pick up speed before you bite it.
But these mishaps are minor compared to the most obvious form of collateral damage related to telemarking — the face plant. Your heels are not attached to your skis, remember? It is theoretically possible, if you're really out of control, just plain not paying attention, or too souped on Jägermeister to think straight, for you to fall forward and smack your face on the tips of your skis. Or the snow beside the tips of your skis. I'm not kidding. And this will happen while you're moving, so other bad things could take place after impact. The lesson is that you need to pay attention. You don't need to be a great athlete, but you can't wade into this adventure half-assed.
Having said all this, I have to admit something. Despite the perception that telemarkers are higher up the skiing skill ladder, I've always found it easier than Nordic skiing. You have more balance and you can lower your center of gravity when you get in trouble. It's really awkward the first few times out, especially if you're already a good fixed-heel skier, but once you get the hang of it, you won't switch back. But don't tell anyone I said that. Telemarkers have a reputation to uphold.
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