Regardless how many years people have been skiing for and how skilled they are, or at least they think they are, the great majority of the time the word “Telemark” comes up in a skiing conversation, everyone seems puzzled and I suddenly find myself answering the question: what is Telemark skiing?!
Here it goes. Also known as free heel skiing, Telemark skiing is, in my opinion, the most elegant form of sliding on snow ever been conceived and engineered. It’s named after the region Telemark in Norway where it was originally invented around 1870. It’s essentially a form of skiing using the so called Telemark turn, made possible by the different type of equipment used. Unlike alpine skiing equipment where the boot is connected to the binding both on the heel and on the toes, Telemark bindings connect the boot to the ski only at the toes, leaving the heel free to move up and down, just like the cross-country skiing ones. Hence the term free-heel.
So the next question usually is – what are the differences then between cross country and Telemark? Despite the fact that the equipment works in the same way, the first, substantial difference is actually the type of equipment. Although both bindings connect the boot only at the toes, boots, bindings and skis in the world of cross country are a lot lighter than those used in the Telemark skiing. The reason is simple. Cross country equipment is designed to allow you to comfortably slide on snow mainly on flat or slightly inclined terrain whereas harder and heavier Telemark gear provides with a much stronger ankle and leg support allowing to confidently traveling downhill at a much faster speed. Incorporating elements of both disciplines, Telemark skiing can therefore be considered a hybrid between cross country and alpine skiing.
Leaving equipment aside for a moment, Telemark skiing is mostly identified by its very particular way of turning. Telemark turns are led with the heel flat on the outside ski (the downhill ski at the end of the turn), while the inside (uphill) ski is pulled beneath the skier’s body with a flexed knee and raised heel. The skis are staggered but not quite parallel and, depending on snow conditions (powder, packed powder, groomed, etc.), 50% to 60% of the body weight is distributed on the outside ski.
These photos of me on my Tele skis should give you a pretty good idea of what a Tele turn looks like. It’s all about the style. They have been taken by a fellow instructor in the southern hemisphere winter of 2008 when I was teaching in Australia. I spent a season on Mount Buller, a ski resort located about 3 hours’ drive north east of Melbourne.
The key to learning to slide on snow and to master disciplines like snowboarding or alpine/Telemark skiing is to spend loads of time on the equipment, may that be a board or a pair of skis. As instructors, we try to give people tips on what they should do next, based on where they are at in their skill development. Trouble is, if you are not ready for a particular tip, then all you really want and perhaps should do, is spend time on your board/skis, trying to keep your butt off the snow. Once in a while though, we seem to manage to give someone the right tip just at the right time and off they go, utterly satisfied and shredding at a new level. And that’s what teaching is all about.
When I learned Telemark, I only took one proper lesson. Since I already was an experienced snow slider, I thought I could figure out the rest on my own and I did it in the end. It didn’t take me long to realize that there are two basic fundamentals hopeful free-heelers must master. The first is maintaining balance while moving. Anyone can stand still on one leg but you’ll soon discover that to do that while moving is a different story and mastering this skill takes some of us longer than others. I reckon that the best way to get the dynamic balance required is to simply spend time on skis gliding about. You don’t necessarily need to be doing turns downhill; just kicking and gliding along in the flats will help. Trust me. The advice I always give is to spend as much time as possible on skis – the more comfortable you are with those long pointy things on your feet, the better you will be at controlling them.
The second fundamental is to maintain the correct body position. It is virtually impossible to Telemark if all your body can do is stand up straight. You need to be able to bend those knees and drop into those turns. Practice holding this position while doing straight runs on gentle terrain and I can assure you that eventually some muscle memory will kick in. The next step of this routine is to switch lead ski as you are moving and by bending even further at the knees to see how low you can go. I need to warn you here – be prepared to give your tights muscles the toughest work out they have ever seen.
The demanding physical aspect is definitely the one confident alpine skiers and boarders approaching Tele for the first time find most difficult to deal with. It doesn’t really matter how strong rider/skier you are. When you step on Tele skis the program changes. If you think that you were already using your legs properly as coil springs to get in and out of your turns on your board and skis, confidently adapting to the constantly changing terrain features, think again. You will soon realize that whatever you were doing before, is simply not going to be enough now. Mastering the Telemark turn requires being able to alternatively squat on each leg and hold that position for some time (ideally throughout the turn), while sliding and maintaining your balance. From calf muscles to quadriceps, to abs/core, to arms and shoulders.. almost every muscle of your body is engaged. It’s a phenomenal, dynamic full body work out. It reminds me a lot of paddling on a SUP board with the difference that on Tele skis you need to add the speed factor as you are also travelling downhill, pulled by gravity. Not the most obvious and certainly not the easiest element to incorporate in an already challenging exercise.
This is one of the reasons why usually, when I talk to expert alpine skiers, instead of going straight into the fundamentals of the turn, I always discuss why Telemark – why change? I try to introduce Telemark as a truly remarkable sliding experience that has very little to do with doing laps. I always suggest thinking at the Tele turn as a Zen-like dance with the mountain, an elegant waltz performed while embracing gravity, playing with the dips and rolls of the fall line rather than a simple and dull race along it down the hill.
Come on people, be brave – give Tele equipment a go this winter. It’s not going to be just an extraordinarly rewarding experience, it will also make you a better skier/snowboarder. Guaranteed. If snowboarding is all you know, don’t worry about it, it’s going to be a real eye opening exercise. If you are coming from alpine skiing, freeing your heels will add the sideways sliding element snowboarders are already familiar with to your skiing experience, providing a much more intimate connection with both equipment and mountain. If you would like more tips, just ask, you know where to find me.