Oct 07 2013

Telemarking: Neither Dead Nor Stupid

IOW — Why Tele?

Shredding the effects of chemo, John Holleman rips fresh pow.

Watching John Holleman rip tele turns
made you wish you could too.

As if it isn’t apparent, let me start out by reminding you that tele ain’t dead. The reports of the demise of the telemark tribe are over stated, fueled by mob mentality, juvenile thinking, and reliance on equipment sales to judge interest.

Interest is not defined by consumerism, but the passion of the people involved. That passion is rarely fueled by how easy something is. We all know the saying, “the harder they come, the harder they fall.” It accurately describes the loyalty and how outspoken telemarkers can be when describing their dance of choice in the mountains. Lest you think as a writer and publisher about telemark minutia I am merely too self absorbed to see outside my free heel realm, consider Sir Arnold Lund who pursued his passion for skiing with such zeal he was knighted, and he is on record as a telemarker. The correlation is hard to dismiss.

Part of the reason is ‘cuz tele ain’t easy. Ask any who have committed the time to learn it and they readily acknowledge, it takes extra effort, lots of time and lots of falls to master the telemark turn. In some ways you never fully do, because you’re always learning and adapting to new conditions with a free heel. That challenge is part of the allure, because it makes the satisfaction of achievement that much richer.

The common view of why telemarking is stupid.

The common view of why telemarking is stupid.

The telemark turn isn’t merely about athleticism and challenge, it is about flowing through the mountains. Not only the smooth sensation of the turn, but a Nordic perspective on how you move through terrain, by incorporating the ability to kick and glide, skate, or skin, with a natural, flexible sole.

This leads to perhaps the main reason I haven’t gone back to locked heels for descent except when I’m testing AT gear or skiing something that I’d be scared spitless to descend anymore with tele gear. Over age 50, skiing above 50° seems foolish unless the conditions are absolutely stellar.

Maching down low with broken heels and knee to ski.

Maching down low with broken heels and knee to ski.

Simply put, telemark boots are more comfortable than rigid soled boots, undeniably so. When I first made the transition to tele, leather boots were the only option. I didn’t switch being blind to their downhill limitations, but rather in full awareness that the minute-by-minute comfort of a soft leather boot was worth the compromise. And, with a little practice, skill, and luck, I could descend as steep as I dared, and in my younger years even proved it. Okay, so maybe it takes more than a little, but with a lot of practice the skill can be developed and with luck, the limits exist only in our minds.

Geoff Clark, tele master.

Geoff Clark, tele master.

Without overstating the cliché reason tele ain’t dead, and why it won’t die, is the hook the turn puts in an outdoor heart for the sweeping sensation of the telemark turn. It can’t be adequately described in words, like how a kiss can be mingled with a little bit of magic, transforming it beyond the physical sensation of skin on skin. Some call it metaphysical. For the moment, may I suggest you consider it in simpler, quantitative terms.

In skiing there is a sweet spot in the middle of a turn, that moment when shussing through snow fairly hums with energy. Having done all three, alpine, snowboard, and telemark skiing, I can tell you that alpine turns have the shortest sweet spot, but the energy is high. Snowboard turns that rev the excitement meter are typically long. But with telemark, you can adjust that sweet spot, not only in terms of length, but also in terms of depth. Admittedly not when you’re learning, but once you figure it out, and get it, and practice it, especially in deep powder – whoa – that’s a feeling you’ll want to experience repeatedly and in a perfect world, regularly.

Gilski drops a knee and takes a powshot to the head.

Gilski drops a knee and takes a powshot to the head.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the rest of the world is claiming that the best way to go backcountry skiing is with alpine touring gear. I readily admit to being a strong proponent of that sentiment, and do believe that for the majority of skiers A.T. skiing IS the best way to go. But not for everyone. For a few, tele is the best. It is not, nor will it ever again be the most popular way to earn your turns. Being the minority player has it’s disadvantages, but stoopid isn’t one of them. It’s only stoopid until you figure it out. Then it becomes the flip side of stupid. The word superior comes to mind but satisfying is more common. ;)

Why do I bring all this up? Hasn’t this been discussed ad nauseum now for years. Yes, perhaps it has. However, it’s now time to push back because the free heel faithful don’t care whether or not you care that we tele. We care about the hows and whys and doing it. While we won’t insist that you try it yourself, when you’re ready to, we’re here to encourage and help you along. Afterall, not everyone can tele.

© 2013

Related Posts
Polish translation courtesy Telemark.pl
Telemark Skiers – Endangered Species by Matt Hansen

  • Freebie

    The backlash against tele, and the following demise of its popularity in my opinion was brought on by the elitist attitude of too many tele skiers circa 2003.

    Regarding the “telemarking ain’t easy” part. Sure it was much harder when alpine skiers were in modern boots and shaped skis while tele skiers were still in leather and 200 cm straight skis. But modern tele equipment has made tele no harder than alpine once you get the hang of it. So, yea, telemarking is hard, only because because skiing is hard. In some ways the lower center of gravity and ability to absorb terrain makes tele easier than alpine.

  • Rohan Roy

    After being involved in an avalanche where 4 people were caught, but the only person to die was wearing non-releasable telemark bindings, and looking at statistics of survival with or without skis/board still attached to feet (couldn’t find the article now, I think it was in Couloir or Backcountry a few years ago), I made the transition to AT gear. Yes, there are releasable tele bindings too – which I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to keep making those fun tele turns. I won’t be skiing in the backcountry with anyone wearing non-releasable skis or a board, just as I wouldn’t ski without a beacon, etc. I suppose skiing without an airbag may start to seem irresponsible in coming years too… Anyway, I wanted to weigh in about what I believe to be a significant risk with some telemark bindings (or snowboards) – regardless of how you most enjoy making your turns.

  • Mike Clelland

    Telemark skiing is like a ballet dancing. Alpine skiing is like driving the dump truck.

    For anyone who might wanna learn to Telemark ski, I can recommend a good book with cartoons.

  • scruboak

    I did nothing but tele for 15 years and was one of the most rabid supporters. The beauty was light weight, simplicity, speed, grace, and high price of admission (in terms of time dedicated to learning). Releasable bindings didn’t matter – with 3 pins, they were all releasable if you needed it badly enough. Then the gear companies got excited and built gear that was capable of standing up to a 240 lb freeriders firing big lines in AK and the gear got heavier, stiffer, stronger, more complex, less reliable, more expensive, and easier to ski. Now AT set ups are lighter, more reliable, and safer. And still allow you to maybe ski a little more confidently. I still love the concept of tele but have lost interest in the reality. Good on those who continue. It’s nice that many paths to happiness exist.

  • Bendsoul

    Yeah Mike! My fave ski book(s) of all time. Telly is far from dead but any time I’m skiing real avalanche terrain truly releaseable bindings are a must. Hopefully the gear will just keep on evolving. Unfortunately a lot of the “new” BC AT skiers are a bunch of elitist douchebags that look good in the parking lot but don’t actually have any BC skills. They’re just resort skiers doing the latest trendy thing since “sidecountry”.

  • http://ern.reeders.net.au/blog/ Ern Reeders

    When you’re in the zone telemarking is indeed like ballet, and it’s wrong to call it a turn. One of the reasons I like it is that there’s always something to learn. One of the reasons I dislike it is feeling the gap between what I’m doing and what I could be doing.

  • BenKadas

    Release is no longer an issue, there are more than a few telemark bindings that will release in an avalanche.

    Telemark is hard, most people who try tele, won’t tele because it is so much harder than alpine, but for the few that can tele, it is the turn that makes the ride.

    It is a silly discussion, like arguing over whether chicken is better then beef.

    Eat what you want, let your skills speak for your gear, cuz diving a Ferrari will not make you Mario Andretti.

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  • http://ern.reeders.net.au/blog/ Ern Reeders

    I like it too. But it’s no substitute for lessons from a competent instructor. You need someone watching you and analysing what you’re doing right and wrong and who is able to give you the next step on the way to ballet.

  • brentw123

    I tele for the same reason I fly fish- the perfect turn and the perfect cast come and go with the vaguaries of mood and snow and wind and water. I am the last person to try to convert people to tele, but if asked why I telemark I can say that i got bored with downhill and AT, but I am still climbing the tele mountain after 21 years of working at it. Every slope and every year I learn a little more. And like fly fishing, where casting, tying of the fly, watching the insect hatch and learning to read the swirl of the ripple is as much part of process as landing a fish, so learning to unweight the foot, arrow your body forward with your hand, hold furiously with the oft-neglect little toe of the uphill foot, and yes, falling ridiculously forward over your ski tips like a complete boneless idiot, is part of the beautiful dance with gravity and liquid ice that is telemark skiing.
    So hey- who’s to judge? AT, snowboard, tele- it’s all pretty bloody grand. But for me it is, and will always be, the challenging, contrary, and absurdly beautiful telemark turn.

  • Chris

    Very well put Dostie, I couldn’t agree more!

  • David D’Agostino

    Chances are good that tele is probably at least a little bit stupid and a little bit dead if you felt the need to write an article explaining why it’s not. But who cares? I tele for my own reasons. It’s not a religion – it’s just a different way to get down the hill.

  • Devon Kneeland Wright

    We can “adjust that sweet spot, not only in terms of length, but also in terms of depth.” Screw that alpine short sweet spot!

  • Devon Kneeland Wright

    Blah blah blah I cant ski for real so I fixed my heel blah blah blah..

  • Wayne Y

    After 30 years of dropping knees, 20 years of fly fishing and 5 years of tai chi training, I’d describe these as the “internal harmonic arts”. There’s little instant gratification, from a newbie perspective, when you’re learning them…which is very counter to how people are programmed. Tele will never have mass appeal and that’s just fine with me.

  • Phil Miller

    Solid soles make my feet cramp. Flexible soles don’t. And flexible make it easier to walk. Light gear is comfy. I’m 60. I don’t jump cliffs. I don’t ski 50 degree couloirs that are 10 feet wide any more. I’m not climbing the ladder to ski movies. I AM enjoying my time in the mountains. I’ll take grins over grimaces.

  • Raggi_Thor

    I don’t understand the comparision with alpine, at, randonee etc. To me, telemark turns are something I do whenever i can when we go skiing. And skiing means touring in the woods or in the mountains. You can stride somewhat with an at setup, and you can skin uphill OK, but that’s not what I think about pleasant skiing (touring) :)

  • Chuck

    Just got back from Copper Mountain where I demoed new Tele gear, my first trip back to the mountains in 15 years. I left my Merrill Supercomps at home thinking i would benefit from newer gear…big mistake. One of the things I loved about tele skiing was the comfort, I hate my foot crammed into a hard plastic boot and my foot falling asleep.

  • Dostie

    You just need a decent bootfitter and you’ll be loving both the comfort and control that plastic delivers to the telemark world. My PTB’s are comfy.

  • Matt Bulger

    I’m 26, a veteran alpine racer who has charged hard since the age of two. I can’t find any riding buddies who can keep up with me on alpines, so I decided to take it down a notch and try something new. I’ve been very confined to the on-piste hardpack world and after deciding not to to race past the collegiate level, it was time to get out to the back bowls and side country and experience some of nature.

    The telemark motion is much more fluid and, from a exercise science viewpoint, much more anatomically correct than alpine. My knees don’t hurt anymore after a day on the slopes and believe me, I need some surgical intervention. (People frequently ask me about the horrible noises coming from my knees whenever I move.) When doing something at the gym, such as a squat, the first thing you are told is never to put your knees in front of your toes. That is exactly the opposite of what you are told on alpine skis. Hop on teles and everything you know is wrong, and for the better.

    Not to mention, the boots are awesome! I don’t have to unbuckle after each run and my feet aren’t screaming by day’s end, and the walk to the car doesn’t suck. The comfort of my Scarpa T1s out of the box does not compare with the pain associated with my custom formed and stretched race boots that are supposed to mimic the “shape of my foot.”

    I also like that I can crank out trenches on the groomers doing alpine turns if I wish, then drop into some big sweeping tele turns and go back and forth with my mood (just don’t get too far forward!). That usually gets people looking which is kind of cool.

    The workout you get on the teles really helps me control my wintertime beer gut and I tend to stay a lot warmer on those brutally cold days. There are a lot more core muscles being engaged, and I tend to have less of my chronic back pain flare up after a day on the teles. There is nothing like tearing through a bump run on teles and realizing how hard you are working when its finished.

    I can see why people don’t like the unreleasable bindings, however a crash on teles is not nearly as brutal as an alpine crash… having your heel free adds an extra plane of flexibility and I have never felt like I twisted a knee during one of my many spills. On the other hand, I can say that I’ve definitely tweaked some knees on alpines because, charging like I do, the DIN needs to be cranked way up to 15 – 30 depending on brand to keep them on my feet. Naturally, they won’t reliably release during a crash either and having that attached heel can add some serious torque to the knee. (I could never ski a standard 4-12 DIN range binding because they always pre-release, no matter what manufacturer or model.)

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  • Steph Cochrane

    Anyone can ski on AT gear. You don’t need skill. Why squat when you can dance?

  • Steph Cochrane

    At almost 60, I have spent 30 years on Teles. I wasted the best years of my life on narrow skis! But I will always love the Tele. Really don’t care if it’s not popular, when is popularity a rationale for anything important in life? There are lots of AT skiers out there now but you don’t need skill or strength to ski AT, anyone can get down the hill and it is annoying to find those big wide windshield wiper turns in my powder runs. Why squat when you can dance gracefully? There is nothing like the sinuous continuous glide of the tele, and when you have done it for 30 years you don’t fall much. Touring on Teles is also a pleasure, moving gracefully with the terrain up or down. I am truly more at ease skiing that walking. Gave up on ski areas long ago, because the Tele is a delight in soft back country snow. I will keep dancing and earning my turns ’til the end!

  • http://ern.reeders.net.au/blog/ Ern Reeders

    Way to go!

  • Steph Cochrane

    There are some good options. I have Scarpa T4, T3, and T2′s. The T2 and T4 are still being made. I like my T3′s best for comfort and control. T2′s are good for wider skis. T4 is a good light touring option. But really you can’t get the same control with leather. Baking the liners really helps with comfort.

  • Steph Cochrane

    Does that sound elitist? I think Teles just feel good, and if you don’t love it right away, switch to AT, it is not for you.

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  • Jeff LeChef

    Uhhhh, I’ve been skiing telemark gear for 30 years and I have the option of doing a parallel turn or any varieties of a telemark or combination thereof-duh. It’s about the flexibility of the system-if need be I will do a parallel turn if conditions warrant it. The telemark has far greater fore-aft stability than any AT system. Kids today are lacking a basic history education-the telemark was the first ski turn-invented in Norway. Time to go back to school kids.

  • Jeff LeChef

    The touring part of backcountry skiing-the diagonal stride etc, is just not efficient on AT gear. Just ask any nordic trained skier. Part of the reason why I always seem to be the one breaking trail for the slow AT skiers.

  • teleissoul

    are you kidding me…..

  • Joel Nylander

    I love the to hear from all the telemark skiers.. But what about the ladies? It seems to me that the tele turn is perfect for the ladies also. Alpine skiing really only takes about one winter to learn if one goes several times a week and has the right instruction. Nordic skiing and all its off shoots, including telemark will always be around. Alpine is a direct descendant from telemark skiing, so the haters need to move over when we come ripping by them in a perfect arc. Back country skiing is a hazard for all, whether you have releasable bindings or not. There is plenty of room in the mountains for all of us, so please lets be tolerant of all winter sports and encourage more responsible growth in our sport.

  • db

    I first learned how to cross country ski in college in the midwest (thanks to a girlfriend who got me into it). Then in the early 2000s in grad school I got invited to a ski trip to Taos and wanted to learn how to downhill before going. The university outdoor club I was a member of (UW – Hoofers) did tele skiing so I took it up. I have never worn any other skis to get down a hill to this day. On the trip my friends were asking why I didn’t just learn how to alpine ski. I said, “If I’m going to suck at something, I’d rather suck at something that no one else can do!” Haha. I still sort of suck at tele, but it doesn’t seem to stop me from getting out whenever I can.
    I haven’t followed the sport much recently (new gear, etc), but I was thinking to update some gear. I was a little disappointed to find out the notion the tele was dying. I don’t really believe it though. They were saying the same thing about X-C years back too.

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  • Dave Meeks

    Can I get an AMEN!?

  • phil ip


  • Digger

    Ha ha. sucking at something no one else can do. Love it.

  • Digger

    I like the reference to the sweet spot of the turn.

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