And why not? For more than 150 years, winter enthusiasts have been drawn to Telemark skiing. This hybrid activity combines the free-heel technique of cross-country skiing with the high speeds and steep slopes more familiar to downhill skiers. If you’re looking to adopt Telemark skiing as a new winter pastime, here is some basic info to get you started.
A Nordic Tradition
Telemark skiing takes its name from a region in southern Norway, where noted skier Sondre Norheim first developed the technique in the mid-19th century. Norheim not only designed the first pair of Telemark skis, but he also played an instrumental role in bringing the popular Nordic sport of skiing to worldwide prominence. And like most legendary skiers, old Sondre was a certified badass. At the age of 42, he won what is considered the first skiing competition ever held; after skiing 100 miles just to compete, he bested his opponents – many of whom were in their twenties – at ski jumping, cross-country and slalom. Norheim eventually retired and relocated to the plains of North Dakota, where we can only assume he was bored as hell for the rest of his life.
Telemark vs. Downhill
Unlike alpine ski bindings, which lock the heel and toe of the boot, Telemark skis only lock in the toe and leave the heel detached; for this reason, Telemark technique is sometimes referred to as ‘free-heel skiing’. Generally speaking, Telemark turns are rounder and more graceful than alpine turns. They are also much more strenuous, so expect your quads to burn afterward — though, compared to downhill, Telemark skiing is considerably easier on the knees.
Skis for either technique are fairly similar to one another. While lightweight models have been developed specifically for Telemark skiing, alpine skiers are able to achieve the Telemark effect by simply leaving their heels unbound.
Flexible polymer boots are the most popular choice, while purists still prefer leather kickers. Whatever the material, Telemark boots are distinguished by a trapezoidal lip attached to the toe – a feature known as the ‘duckbill’ that is also found on most cross-country ski boots.
Traditionally, tele bindings used a ‘three-pin’ system that locked the duckbill in place. For the last 30 years, spring-loaded cable bindings have been the most widely used models. Up-and-coming styles, such as ‘hammerhead’ and ‘holy grail’, have become increasingly popular due to their versatile designs and high performance ratings.
Not surprisingly, Telemark skiers have a little more trouble going uphill than their alpine counterparts. Most experts agree that skins are the most effective way to mitigate steep ascents. They are usually made from synthetic materials, which are much more eco-friendly than the traditional, sealskin models.
Making a proper Telemark turn generally requires a lot of practice – and beginners should first learn the skill on relatively flat terrain. While the technique is somewhat similar to a standard parallel turn, Telemark skiers initiate turns by leading with the outside ski, planting the outside pole downhill, and swiveling their hips to shift direction (hence the quad burn). Remember those free heels? Pivoting your feet properly will make all the difference. Here’s a tutorial from Keith Nicol of the Canadian Association of Nordic Ski Instructors (CANSI).
By Brad Nehring