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Free Your Heel, Free Your Mind: A First-Timer's Guide to Telemark Skiing

Ski and Snow
by N. Chrystine Olson Oct 20, 2008
From the history of Telemarking to “A skinny Scandinavian Girl’s Guide to the Perfect Telemark Turn,” here’s everything you need to know about free heel skiing and how it provides superior access to backcountry terrain.

WE’VE SHED OUR outer gear, letting it dry by the fire, and were enjoying a few adult beverages and some well deserved appetizers at Lamoille Lodge, the sun safely behind the Ruby Mountains for over an hour now. The tattoo on Gary’s left bicep caught my eye–profile of an Arctic tern sticking its head out of an oversized vase. I had to ask.

“Explain your ink please, Gary.”

“Earn your turns Chrys, Earn your turns.” he replied, finishing off the last bits of a deep fried whole onion better prepared than those offered at a certain Australian themed restaurant chain.

Earn your turns = Urn Your Terns. Ah…I got it. A new mantra now I was no longer considered a telemark virgin.

I’d just finished my first backcountry tour with a group of exploration geologists and Forest Service types calling the remote NE corner of Nevada home. We’d taken snowmobiles to the head of a glaciated, u-shaped canyon and for six glorious hours worked our way up, then down some of the most pristine powder I’d ever touched.

That was 1994 and I haven’t put on traditional downhill alpine skiing gear since. Blame the opening ceremony of the Lillehammer Olympics, or buried genetics from my father’s Norwegian clan, but the telemark turn and the places it can take me is firmly implanted in my body’s collective unconscious.

Telemark Basics

Telemark or free heel skiing refers to a turn developed in the Telemark region of Norway by Sondre Norheim in the mid 1800’s. Like Nordic or cross country skiing, the back heel remains unattached to the ski’s base. This allows for cross country stride and glide on the flats or hiking uphill with sticky skins attached to reach peaks for descents.

The loose heel requires a different approach when heading downhill. The skis are not kept parallel, but staggered, half of more of your body weighting the outside ski to create the turn. The inside heel is off the ground until a natural gravity shifts the position and your feet switch roles, steering you in the opposite direction.

The telemark turn transforms two skis into one long, extended curve, one that can be shortened or lengthened depending on conditions. It is the perfect way to feel the snow. You can take your body low to the ground, bend your knee till it almost touches the top of the ski.

Sounds easy, huh? I thought it would be, having been an avid skier for a quarter century.

Combining the two proved more difficult than I imagined. I ate a lot of snow my first year, used many expletives heard from chair lifts around the western United States, either in the presence of an instructor, patient friend, or on my own.

I didn’t understand why my well honed alpine muscle memory didn’t snap up this new connection of moves and immediately make me a master. But my stubborn Norwegian self kept at it and within one season I completed smooth, connected turns, admiring my trail of “S’s” from the bottom with only a few good friends and a gray jay or two as witnesses.

So here’s a skinny Scandinavian Girl’s Guide to a Close to Perfect Telemark Turn:

1) Take a lesson at a ski hill. It helps to ski on groomed conditions in the beginning. I did this at Mount Bachelor mid-week in December before the Christmas crush.

My instructor was strikingly handsome in that outdoorsy way and since he didn’t have another student for the afternoon session, skied with me the entire day. The confidence factor was high when the lifts shut down. As a bonus I had a lovely companion to quaff après ski Black Butte Porters in Bend afterwards.

2) Start with equipment designed for telemark, or a lighter, softer downhill ski with telemark bindings attached. Shaped skis have made mastering free heel skiing simpler than ever. As with any new sport, rent your gear at first.

Leather boots are still used, more common in Europe than anywhere else. Durable polymer boots leaning towards a downhill design are the most common these days.

Depending on the boot, you will either have a traditional three pin binding with a trio of holes to secure the boot’s bill, a cable binding rapping around the heel for more stability, or an even beefier hinged plate binding, allowing skiers to switch from free hill technique to alpine. The first two set-ups are best for novices.

3) As you practice let gravity work for you. You’ll feel the shift as the transition from one turn to another evolves. Don’t be discouraged if you fall… a lot! “If you aren’t falling you aren’t learning.” Know you are making progress when you fall forwards, not backwards. Besides fresh snow tastes great.

4) If possible ski with people better than you. Tracking good skiers is visual motivation and mimicking at its best.

5) Once you are relatively confident with your turns at the yo-yo resorts (an inside reference to the up and down chairlift method of getting up the hill), start thinking backcountry. Contemplate wilderness with no mass of skiers beside you. The beauty of telemark skiing for me is experiencing the rush of skiing and nature’s chilly beauty in the hidden chutes and bowls.

Your First Telemark Trip

I’m a bit of a loner but backcountry telemark is not a sport to take on solo. Always have a companion or better yet a gang so y’all can admire the figure eights decorating the hillside.

Concentrate on local day trips until those quads are straining at your Levis and you feel comfortable with variable snow conditions. Then step it up and go for a long weekend or even better, an entire week.

Wherever you land this winter, northern or southern hemisphere, how you get to the top of the mountain will depend on your wallet. Those who didn’t lose it all in the stock market this fall can opt for a helicopter ride almost anywhere the snow is cold and dry, the ranges massive.

There are less expensive snow cats, snow machines, or your own diagonal glide power (urn your terns baby!). Stay tuned for killer destinations for those of us who explore in the winter as much as any other season.

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