How I Came to Know and Love the Backcountry

Telemark 101
back country skiing. Telemark skiing
This is how it's done: Executing perfect form while descending Mount Gordon in Alberta's Yoho National Park (Abrahm Lustgarten)

These days telemark skis are as curved, fat, and dynamic as any downhill ski, and the boots and bindings have evolved from thin leather cross-country kicks to Terminator-like (that’s actually the name of the leading boot on the market) appendages. There is nothing flimsy about the equipment, and the only real difference between it and its alpine sibling is that only the front of your foot is attached to the ski. As with alpine skiing, balance is key, but even more so on a pair of telemarks. You throw one leg into a forward lunge while dropping the other back slightly, your back knee near to the ground. With each turn you switch foot positions, like scissors cutting up the slope. Your quads burn like hell, your heartbeat starts pounding, and the movement really takes some getting used to. But it's also a fluid, distinguished technique that will make the grunting bounces of alpine turns look as abrupt as a sledgehammer coming down on a block of ice.

You might not always ski out of bounds but when you do, it's going to be telemark skis that make it possible. Using skins—a strip of fur-like fabric that sticks to your ski bottoms and slides forward but not backward, allowing you to climb slopes—you can throw a pack on your back and ski out into the wilderness. This is where the free heels come in, letting you use the same pair of skis to go across and uphill. When you get to the top of something and want to turn back around, you just strip the skins off the skis, stuff them in your pack, and launch into the good stuff at full speed. No crowds, no lifts whirring in the background, and a true glimpse of winter wilderness that very few outdoor athletes have the thrill of experiencing.

You will undoubtedly have a couple friends ask: "What's the point?" There are two answers you can give: Style is under-represented at your local ski area and you volunteered to pick up the slack (impractical but surprisingly acceptable); and, of course, you want backcountry access without strapping a pair of snowshoes to your pack (a claim that won't excuse the falls you take when learning, but it is the real reason). But make no mistake: the truthful caveat (read: disclaimer) about backcountry skiing is that it's a dangerous sport that relies in part on your correct use of gear and in part on your knowledge of the terrain you wish to ski. Take your backcountry foray seriously, and you'll reap all the rewards. Blow it off and you'll suffocate under 12,000 pounds of snow with the consistency of cement before you get to brag about your first trip.

Abrahm Lustgarten in an internationally published, award-winning photojournalist whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Newsweek , and Men's Journal magazines. He most frequently covers social, travel and outdoor adventure subjects, and is a regular contributor to You can see more of his work at

Published: 23 Dec 2003 | Last Updated: 24 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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