Pass/Fail: Telemark Skiing

Free-the-heel fans call it the most elegant way to get down a mountain. Can our man learn to turn?
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Free-the-heel fans call it the most elegant way to get down a mountain. Can our man learn to turn?
Illustration by Jacob Thomas

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

When I was a kid I took gymnastics for about six months. My older sister wanted to try it, so I was enrolled by default. Amid all the somersaulters and cartwheelers, I got the impression that doing the splits is a goal everyone aspires to. I tried—and learned that doing the splits was not something I aspired to.

Thirty years later, I’m worried about relearning that lesson. I’m in the backcountry near Wyoming’s Togwotee Pass in March, at the top of a moderate, open slope I just skinned up. The sky is blue, the wind calm, the snow soft. A perfect day. But I can’t get a vision out of my mind: me, bending my knee over one ski, midway through my first turn, as the other ski shoots forward, out of control. Splits.

I decided to try tele skiing because my friend, Garth, took it up a few years before and kept telling me how great it is. He isn’t alone. The mountains are full of tele evangelists who love to say “free your heel and ski for real” and wax poetic about “the most graceful winter sport.” It’s hard to argue when you see an accomplished tele skier link one fluid turn after another.

Nineteenth-century skiers in Telemark, Norway, developed the technique, wedding their downhill ambition to the Nordic gear of the time, which didn’t allow you to lock your heel in place like today’s conventional alpine gear. The tele turn was the standard until the mid-20th century, when the new equipment, with safer release mechanisms, helped popularize downhill skiing for the masses. (Releasable tele bindings are now available, too.)

I was one of the masses, learning to ski on “fixed-heel” alpine gear—and I was perfectly happy with the result. With today’s alpine touring gear, which allows you to free your heel for touring and lock it down for descending, I can take what I already know to the backcountry and do just fine. But still. I felt like I was missing out when Garth and others talked about the afterglow of a perfect tele turn. So when he invited me to join him on a trip to Togwotee, a popular backcountry spot near Jackson Hole, I decided it was time to try. (Yes, it would have been smarter to start on groomed slopes, but I couldn’t resist an invitation to join friends in the Wyoming wilderness. Plus, since I already knew how to ski, how hard could it be, right?)

Now I’m at the top of the slope, trying to shake the vision of doing the splits, and remember some basics: Face downhill, just like in alpine skiing. Weight your skis equally for better control. Think of the knee bend like a curtsey—make it graceful.

I slide downhill and tentatively bend my knee, putting pressure on the ski’s edge and . . . I’m turning. OK, it’s a slow-motion turn, and my shallow dip wouldn’t be recognized as a curtsey in finishing school. And I lose control of my other ski and bail out of the turn before it’s finished. Elegant? No. But also, no splits.

I link three more baby turns and think, This isn’t too bad. The semi-success gives me the confidence to try a more aggressive turn. I have no choice, really. The slope steepens below me, turning from beginner-friendly green into a legit blue run. I gain momentum and the thin layer of powder billows around my ankles. Time to turn. I bend my right knee, dipping more deeply this time. And my rear ski, the key to holding an edge and turning, starts fishtailing like a race car on wet pavement. I try to put more weight on my other ski to compensate. Big mistake.

The result is not pretty. I tumble down the slope in a tangle of poles, skis, arms, and legs.

I get up, put myself together, and try again. And crash, spectacularly, again. And again.

At the bottom, we look back up at the tracks we left, as backcountry skiers like to do. The others left swooping S-lines, as elegant as the turns they made. My track looks like it was made by a bulldozer with a drunk at the controls.

Besides being graceful, telemarking is known for being a great workout. And on the next lap, I can feel the effects in leg muscles I didn’t even know I had. To state the obvious: Being tired is not good for technique. I don’t dip deeply enough, which means I don’t weight my turning ski sufficiently. I don’t fall on every turn, but I can’t say I’m getting better. Instead of improving, I start bringing my feet together to make an alpine turn when I feel my tele turn self-destructing. It’s not ideal with cable bindings, but it works.

And then it dawns on me: It’s a beautiful day in the mountains, the snow is great, and I already know how to ski.

On the next lap, I lean back a bit to keep my heels stable and make alpine turns all the way down. It may not be graceful, but it sure is fun.

The Verdict: FAIL

I was never going to master telemarking the first day, but I abandoned the effort too soon. Instead of getting frustrated, I should have moved to mellower terrain and kept trying.

TELE 101: Give yourself a fighting chance with these tips.

1. Rent or borrow good gear. Don’t try to learn with your uncle’s old leather boots. You want plastic boots and modern bindings (there are several types) that are secure. Use a shorter, softer ski if possible.

2. Choose a nice day—sunny, mild—for your first attempt so you’re not battling the weather, too.

3. Go to a resort and practice on easy groomers. That makes it easier to learn, and you’ll get more practice runs without having to skin up.