Transition to Telemark

Drop your Knee or Drop the Sport!
By David Peck
  |  Gorp.com
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"How many of you have telemarked before?" the blue-jacketed, mustachioed instructor calls out. In our crew of ten, some you'd describe as motley and others who look fairly straight-laced, about seven gloved hands are raised. A few, including mine, are tentative. Pretty much what I expected at the muster of the Alta telemark clinic, prescribed for beginner through intermediate telemark skiers. Greg, our leader, nods appreciatively, and directs us, with his sidekick Christian, to Alta's Albion lift. Time to determine the extent of our so-called experience.

After a short demonstration of our humble telemarkability, the instructors dissect the group: those who linked at least a few turns go with Christian— those who twisted and contorted but were unable to coax a turn stay with Greg. As this is my first ski lesson in about twenty years, I keep my heels firmly planted on the skis and get segregated with the beginners.

Patience, gentle reader, I can sense your disdain. Why, you ask, would I subject myself to the trials and tribulations of learning a new downhill technique when I can handle the most challenging of terrain in my flashy alpine gear. Why spend an afternoon tangling skis with 'beginners' when I could be bombing the bowls through a dusting of fresh powder.

The answer is straightforward: Despite my best efforts to hide it lately, I've become an anachronism on the slopes. An oldie but goodie is still an oldie. Too haggard and arthritic to cut it as a competitive skier any more, and too damn conservative to mix it up with the knuckledraggers on their lunch trays, I was slowly going the way of the dodo. My twenty seconds of glory in an underground ski film last season didn't cut much ice with the local alpine paparazzi. Snowboarders joked about my Geritol habit. Worst of all, those dazzling telemark goddesses looked through me like I was a mono-skier. I decided it was time to get a life. I bit the bullet and bought a new pair of Scarpa Terminator telemark boots, mounted cable bindings on an unused pair of Hart slaloms, and enrolled in the Alta telemark clinic.

Alta is one of the few ski areas to offer group (affordable) telemark lessons. Most resorts offer private lessons, but it's a tough nut to crack on a ski bum's budget. For thirty dollars at Alta, you get a full afternoon's instruction and more free-heeling than most untrained legs care to endure. The clinics are designed for experience levels from zero to intermediate. Thirty-something Alta instructor Greg Underwood leads our group of five, which ranges from a fresh-faced computer consultant to a sixty-eight-year-old gentleman who joined because he lost a bet with his grandchildren."We usually get an older clientele in the clinics," says Underwood. "They start at about college age, and the sky's the limit."

Underwood was the brainchild of the group clinics at Alta, and was given free reign to run it once it was clear there would be participants. Unsure of the following the program would foster, the school managers were pleasantly surprised when almost every clinic was full in its first season. "The only time we didn't have a full class was on a day it was way below zero and blowing like stink, and even then we had two people show up," says Underwood with obvious pride. Considering that the only advertising was posters hung in the lodges and word of mouth referrals, he deserves some credit.

As we slowly make our way down Crooked Mile, Underwood methodically coaches us through each step of the telemark turn—that graceful, fluid arc that was born in Norway requires some fundamental basics. The keys, as we learn throughout the afternoon, are Balance, Pressure, Edging, and Steering. At first it seems we won't get past the balance basics, since most of us take to telemark skies like a house-cat to cold water. I quickly learn why the huge, wide stance I had adopted in my few prior attempts at telemark had turned me into a failed Weeble, one who wobbled and did fall down. The more stable stance Underwood taught us kept our back foot within a boot length of the front or downhill foot, with the ankles flexed considerably for edge control. By the end of the first run everyone looked much more comfortable on their skis—everyone except Dan, the oldest member of our group.

Dan's problem was rooted more in his equipment than his age: lace-up leather cross-country boots, laser-thin Karhu backcountry skis (circa 1983), and matching three-pin bindings that overhung his skis by inches."You may be at a slight disadvantage to these folks in plastic boots," Underwood told Dan consolingly. "You'll have to compensate with a stronger telemark technique."

Whereas the sport of telemarking is full of purists who would rather die than give up their leather boots, I strongly advocate the advantage offered by modern plastics. It cuts the learning curve in half. With a pair of stiff boots, like the Scarpas, strong cable bindings, and wide skis with a significant sidecut, initiation to the sport can be much smoother than Dan's. A full telemark package rents for $27.00 at the Alta's Peruvian Lodge; and several other regional shops, including the Breeze at Snowbird, rent top tele gear as well.

As telemark equipment has evolved to closely resemble that of its alpine brethren, the telemark image has similarly changed. What was five years ago an underground, backcountry sport typified by gaiters, huge backpacks and the primary colors blue and black, has become a glamour sport. Running gates, ripping bumps, and launching big air on pins are the new standard. At resorts like Snowbird and Vail, the old duct-taped North Face shell-and-pant combos have been replaced by Descente and Spyder one-piece suits. Like it or not, telemarking is in the limelight.

On our third run, Greg bans the use of ski poles. By now we are all linking what appear (from a distance) to be presentable telemark turns, albeit on a gentle slope. So our erstwhile instructor has decided it's time to lose the training wheels. "Right now your poles are just a distraction," he explains. "Without them you'll really be able to concentrate on the dynamics of the turn." While getting on and off the lift without poles comes off as an unchoreographed dance, we all benefit immediately on the slope. Instead of using the poles to plant and initiate the turn, the focus is shifted directly to the skis. There is less room for error, and I find myself looking forward to more runs this way.

Underwood admitted early on that the fundamentals of telemark can be awkward, but he promised that with enough repetition the natural flow would come. This is the first time I believe him all day. I start fantasizing about swooping across snowfields in knickers and a Norwegian sweater, spinning my eight-foot hickory staff like a baton as I touch it down between turns. Ah, to be back in the old country! The fantasy lasts until Underwood takes a few of us for a final run on the Sugarloaf lift, where we find some true Vermont boilerplate. The run isn't pretty, nor are my knees and butt over the ensuing week. But despite the reality check, I leave the clinic thoroughly hooked.

If you haven't tried telemark, believe the hype. For those who have spent a lifetime on alpine gear it can add new challenge to resort skiing and open up a wealth of backcountry terrain that is otherwise inaccessible. Sure, you may lose face as a stumbling beginner, but the end result is like ballet on boards—more graceful than synchronized swimming. The fundamentals are awkward at first, but proper instruction early in the process will save you from bad habits and soften the learning curve considerably. Alta's group clinic is a fast and frugal ticket in the right direction, both for new skiers and those looking to jump out of the intermediate rut. Properly equipped and physically fit, anyone can telemark, and if you're like me, you'll never want to return to alpine bondage and Lange bang again.

Alta Telemark clinics run every Tuesday and Sunday 1-3:30 pm.Sign up at the Albion Ski School desk or call 742-2600 for more info.Alta Peruvian rental shop 742-3000.

David Peck is a freelance writer and ski aficionado living in Salt Lake City.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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