The Ups and Downs of Telemark Skiing (and 5 Reasons Why You Should Give It a Try)
I’ve long admired the sinuous grace of telemark skiing. If you’ve ever watched skiers make their way downhill as you rode up a chairlift, you know exactly what I mean. Even the best alpine skiers can look like they’re bullying the mountain, slashing and carving the snow to their will. Good telemarkers, on the other hand, appear at peace. They flow down the slopes in reverent homage to the power of gravity, at one with the magnificent surroundings. Which is precisely why, after 50 years on alpine skis, I had to try telemark.
But wait. What is telemark and why is it so special? The first thing you notice about telemark is that skiers’ heels aren’t bound to their skis. But what’s not immediately obvious is that tele lets you ski up and across the mountain, as well as down. In other words, you can ski the backcountry with the same boots and skis you use on lift-serviced slopes, adding only wax or skins that attach to the bottoms of your skis. Now that’s what I call freedom.
No matter whether you’re an accomplished alpine skier who admires the elegance of telemark, a skinny-ski aficionado looking to safely ski steeper slopes, or a complete newbie who’d like to look forward to winter for once, my first piece of advice is: Try telemark. My second piece of advice is: You’ll have more fun if you learn from my mistakes.
A Brief History of Telemark
Skis, of course, have been around for thousands of years, for winter travel, hunting, and warfare. The first skiers used a single long pole—possibly a spear—to control speed and to turn on the downhills. This technique is still used in the Altai Mountains of central Asia. Try it in untracked snow on an open slope sometime. It’s—well, it’s interesting.
Telemark skiing, which uses the skis themselves to make the turn, caught the world’s attention at the very start of the modern ski era. In the late 1860s, a farmer named Sondre Norheim from the Telemark region of Norway began winning local ski competitions by turning with his knees deeply bent, his torso faced squarely downhill, and his outside ski thrust well forward and pointed into the turn. Norheim was something of an innovator. His handmade skis had the wider tip and tail and the narrower waist now synonymous with all modern downhill skis, or what we call “sidecut.” He also crafted a birch-root binding that held his toes in place and provided some torsional control but still allowed his heels to rise when skiing on flats or uphill, mimicking a natural stride—the signature feature of telemark.
At the same time Norheim was experimenting with tele, a ski turn that kept both skis parallel was gaining steam. Originally called the Christiania for the Norwegian city now known as Oslo, it’s usually shortened to “Christie.” As skiing matured and racing became more entrenched, the Austrians evolved the Christie into the Arlberg technique, which could be taught with military precision—versus tele’s more intuitive, zenlike quality—using the standard progression from the snowplow (a.k.a. the “pizza wedge”) to parallel turns. Almost every ski school in the world still uses a variation of the Arlberg technique, although it’s now called alpine skiing, since it was popularized in the Alps.
Telemark may have dimmed in alpine’s shadow, but it never disappeared completely. I grew up using the Arlberg technique on various hills of southwestern New Hampshire in the 1950s and early ’60s. The region had a large Finnish population, and I vividly remember seeing some of the older Finns making what I now know were tele turns on WWII surplus wood skis with bear-trap cable bindings. I just thought they were old-fashioned. Ah, youth!
The modern resurgence of telemark began in the western United States in the early 1970s, as skiers sought to escape high prices ($19 lift tickets—if only!) and explore farther off-trail. At about the same time, a visionary alpine-skier-turned-Nordic-instructor named Dickie Hall saw a picture of a telemark turn in an old book at a ski lodge in Killington, Vt. He immediately went out onto a moonlit slope to try it, had an epiphany, and almost single-handedly brought tele to New England. Some of the first successful courses he taught were part of the Outdoor Education Program at AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge in the early 1980s. The founder of the North American Telemark Organization (NATO), Hall continues to teach workshops today.
Everyone follows her own path to telemark—some earlier than others. Sarah “SJ” Johnson of the Bowdoin College Outing Club told me: “As a snowboarder, I found alpine skiers sometimes disdainful, but telemark skiers were friendly, excited to talk about their sport, and supportive of newcomers. When I found out Bowdoin offered a telemark class, I decided it was time to try something new.”
As for me, I admit to being a late bloomer. In 2005, after more than 50 years on alpine skis, including decades of instructing, I decided I needed a new challenge and purchased some used tele gear. I hit the beginner slopes of nearby Pats Peak, in southern New Hampshire, and tried to teach myself to tele. Trust me: You don’t want a big mountain for your first attempt at telemark turns.
Not surprisingly, I failed. Miserably. I coined a new motto for telemarking: Free the heel, plant the face. A friend took a video of my efforts and, frankly, I look like a Three Stooges comedy routine, with the skis and poles playing Moe and Larry to my Curly. The only thing that prevented utter catastrophe? The boot-binding-ski connection on modern tele gear is solid enough you can make alpine-style parallel turns. So when I got tired of failing at telemark turns, I could just, you know, ski.
Shortly thereafter, I took a lesson from a professional telemark instructor at a major ski resort. This guy was a fanatic. If your tele turns were less than perfect or you resorted to an alpine turn to save yourself, or just to rest your weary quads, he’d react in horror. Anyone who wasn’t all tele, all the time, was headed to the lowest regions of hell. He derided the kind of uncommitted, knee-barely-bent, half-hearted turns I was most comfortable making as “fake-a-mark.” Sigh. Wasn’t this supposed to be fun?
I almost gave up after that. Not sure why I didn’t. But I persisted, scaring myself silly on beginner and intermediate trails, still making fake-a-mark or alpine turns most of the time. Occasionally, more or less by accident, I’d make a real tele turn and feel the thrill that comes when you succeed, even momentarily, at something new.
I’m not the only one who started tele off on the wrong foot. Robin Roaf, a certified ski instructor who began teaching alpine in 1984 and now teaches tele for New England Telemark and NATO, in addition to instructor courses for AMC’s Boston Chapter, told me: “I started seeing telemarkers and was intrigued with the style and freedom. I wanted to do that too! Plus, I wanted the ability to tour in the backcountry and ski downhill.” About 20 years ago, she met a couple who were already telemarking.
“But when he started ‘teaching’ me to tele, I knew something was wrong,” Roaf says. “So I started taking tele clinics through Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) and hired a PSIA examiner for a private lesson then went on to NATO clinics. Real instruction made all the difference, and soon I was good enough to start teaching tele myself.” In other words, if at first you don’t succeed—you know the drill.
Practice Makes Better
Back to my story. A number of years later, tele technique still stagnating, I signed up for a weekend-long advanced backcountry skiing clinic offered by AMC’s New Hampshire Chapter at Cardigan Lodge.
The first day, our group of four skiers (three guys, one gal) and two instructors (Larry Veal and Thor Smith, both still ski trip leaders for AMC) repeatedly, redundantly, over and over, again and again, time after time, climbed up and skied down the historic Duke’s Pasture slopes on Cardigan. There’s an old car at the top of Duke’s that used to power a rope tow. I sincerely wished it was still working. A rope tow would have seemed like heaven.
All day I focused on really committing to telemark: one leg forward, knees bent, weight evenly distributed, sinking into the turn. Thor and Larry were fun, easygoing, genuinely caring—so different from that earlier “professional”—but still very serious about tele. It was a long day, and I learned a lot. By the end of the first afternoon, I was ready to collapse and never do anything ever again.
Sunday, however, was the payoff. We awoke to 7 inches of fresh, light powder and more falling every minute. Heaven! Our now-smaller group (one classmate had demoted himself to intermediate) skinned up the Alexandria Ski Trail toward the summit of Cardigan. The trail was steep and long, the snow deep, but every step of the way I could envision myself making perfect tele turns back down. In the woods below the summit, we stripped the skins off of our skis, switched our boots from “walk” to “ski” mode, and then—deep breath—pointed downward.
It took only a few minutes to fly back down in deep powder—still one of my most memorable runs in a lifetime of skiing. My only disappointment was myself. I never made a single telemark turn coming down. Not one. I reverted entirely to alpine turns. My brain was saying, “Tele!” but muscle memory simply refused to cooperate. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn.
The ‘Aha’ Moment
For the next several years, I dabbled with tele gear, always on groomed terrain. I supposedly knew the basics. But on any given day, I had only about a dozen good turns in me, and when they were done, they were done.
Then disaster struck. One of my sons tried telemark and instantly got it. In a single day, he went from an alpine instructor who had never been on tele gear to making lithesome, perfectly controlled tele turns. “C’mon, Dad,” he chided me. “Just commit to it. It’s fun.” Easy for him to say. Yes, my sons ski better than me, but this was intolerable. I had to at least look like a tele skier.
So I signed up for more professional help, with the goal of making real tele turns more of the time. This brings us to winter 2015 and a two-day NATO clinic in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington valley: day 1 at Black Mountain, in Jackson (the best ski area you’ve probably never skied), and day 2 on the lower slopes of Tuckerman Ravine and the Sherburne Ski Trail. I could even stay at Joe Dodge Lodge. How perfect was that?
As the five students, ranging in age from mid-40s to early 70s, booted up in the Black Mountain base lodge, we shared our stories. While everyone had lots of ski time and at least some tele experience, no one felt entirely comfortable. Instructor Paul Weiss immediately put us at ease by saying—and repeating as often as necessary—that there is no correct way to telemark, that everyone is always learning, and that it’s absolutely OK to use anything that works to get you safely down the mountain. With no way to fail, we could all relax and have fun.
The morning passed in a blur of repeated rides up the chairlift and progressive drills down, each designed to teach us one manageable component of a tele turn. Every step was easier because we couldn’t fail. It was then the light finally dawned on Old Marblehead: For the first time, I really committed to weighting both skis with the sinking motion that’s the hallmark of tele. My body actually felt the flow of linking turns down a slope. It was still a workout, but when you enjoy it and do it right, tele is easier on your knees and no harder on your quads than aggressive alpine skiing. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the forces generated by the turn help lift you out of it.
In counterpoint, Paul had us try what he called the “Curly-Shuffle-a-Mark” (another Three Stooges reference!), wherein the skier never rises out of a deep crouch, instead pushing one ski or the other forward. It may look like telemark, but it reduces your ability to weight the skis properly throughout the turn. Who knew? Real tele is more comfortable and gives you a lot more edge control. If it sounds like we had fun, we did. By the end of the day, I was ready to tackle tougher terrain.
On day 2, under gray skies, we skinned from Pinkham Notch Visitor Center up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to HoJo’s, the caretaker cabin. Warnings of windslab in most of the bowl and moderate avalanche danger kept us out of Tuckerman proper. Instead, we took to the deep, soft snow in the woods at the base of the Little Headwall, where we tried climbing with wax instead of skins and skiing down the gentle slopes through the trees. Yes, even I managed to make some tele turns. The class ended with a run down the fabled Sherburne Trail. The thought of doing the Sherbie on tele gear had scared me spitless 48 hours earlier. But Paul made it a learning experience, stopping at various features to let us solidify our skills. We all made it down safely, teleing (mostly) all the way.
A few days after the clinic with NATO, which should stand for “Now Able to Telemark Occasionally,” I skied Cannon, noted for its steeps. Was I able to effortlessly tele down Avalanche? No way. Did I acquit myself respectably? You bet. Not bad for an old dog and
In terms of how rewarding it can be to try new things, Katherine (Casy) Calver, a member of AMC’s New Hampshire Chapter, puts it best: “I like the idea of a new challenge,” she says. “On tele, I can spend all day doing laps on intermediate runs and never get bored. The hardest part for me is learning to weight the uphill ski.”
Oh, Casy. I hear you.
Here’s the simple truth. If you’re not already a skier, telemark is a great way to start. If you’re a cross-country skier, tele will open new vertical worlds. If you’re an alpine skier, you have some skills you need and others you’ll have to unlearn. But tele is worth it: for the thrill of the challenge, for taking your “regular” ski gear into the backcountry, for cross-training those quads—and, yep, for being the skier others watch in envy as you make those elegant turns.
LEARN MORE: 5 REASONS YOU SHOULD TRY TELEMARK
5. Telemark is an effective, efficient, and fun ski technique. Even a mediocre telemarker looks like an aspiring ski god.
4. For an accomplished Alpine skier or snowboarder, tele is a new challenge that can make the smallest hill fun again. For a cross-country skier, free-heel tele adds an adrenaline rush to the endorphin high. For a newbie, there’s no good reason not to start with tele.
3. You can wear wool pants and a flannel shirt while skiing without looking hopeless. Bonus: Tele boots are comfortable and you can actually walk
2. Uphill skiing, backcountry skiing, and “sidecountry skiing” are all growing in popularity. While alpine skiers need special skis, boots, bindings, and skins, telemarkers just add skins or wax.
1. No one has ever gotten cold making telemark turns.
LEARN MORE: TELEMARK RESOURCES
- AMC Boston Chapter Ski Committee, for friendly gatherings that usually include some instruction, plus more formal tele clinics at Mount Wachusett and beyond.
- AMC New Hampshire Chapter Ski Committee, for trips and clinics such as the Winter School at Cardigan Lodge.
- AMC Berkshire Chapter Ski Committee, for lift-serviced and backcountry tele clinics and outings.
- Adirondack Mountain Club, for its Winter Workshop and the Hurricane Mountain Chapter’s High Peaks trips.
- Catamount Trail Association, for events on and around Vermont’s iconic ski trail, as well as tele clinics at Pico Mountain.
- New England Telemark, for instruction and festivals.
- Telemark East, an online forum.
- Absolute Telemark, for instruction in Quebec.