Words by Steven Furman
We craved adventure. We sought challenges. We wanted to be free to ski and explore the unknown. We wanted to be unique, original and primal in how we skied and experienced the backcountry. This beautiful, enticing, untracked world of steep mountains and white fluff was there, waiting to be savored.
In the 1970’s, alpine gear was expensive, cumbersome and awkward. We needed lighter, more versatile gear to explore the backcountry. Ascension was also a problem. Hiking up steep powder slopes with weighty boards slung over your shoulder was onerous. Alpine skis with locked heels did not allow skiers to freely transition from uphill to downhill skiing. We wanted a fresh, innovative and freer way to ski in the backcountry, so we rediscovered and reinvented a gift from Sondre Norheim…the art of Telemark skiing. The Telemark revival was born!
A poor, hardworking carpenter from Morgedal, a tiny village in the Telemark region of Norway, Sondre is credited with being the father of Telemarking skiing. Although remote and isolated, Telemark produced some of the best skiers in all of Norway. A newcomer to ski racing, Sondre won the first national, invitational ski race in 1868. Not only did he have the fastest time top to bottom and over jumps, his proficiency with the unique, free-heel telemark turn earned him the reputation of being the most elegant skier in the race. A local journalist was overheard saying how inspired he was with the “effortless certainty with which [he] shot down”. An innovator, and good at shaping wood, Sondre was one of the first to add side-cut to his skis (a side cut ski has a waist that is narrower than its tip and tail…think shaped / parabolic skis). Side-cut allows skiers to take advantage of the “physics of an arc”, and create more precise, carved (arced) turns. Sondre is also credited with adding willow branch straps around the heel of his boots, increasing his stability and control when making linked turns (think cable bindings). Sondre was a true pioneer who greatly advanced the sport of skiing!
Telemark skiing allowed us to push the boundaries, more easily reach the alpine backcountry, and then experience the most enjoyable of powder turns on the ride down. Throughout the 1980 and 90’s, Telemark skiing grew quickly. Soon the technique was highly visible both in the backcountry and at the resort. It had almost become “mainstream”.
A decade or so later Telemark’s popularity began to diminish. Randonee or AT skiing was taking over. AT gear was lighter, more reliable and transitioning from skinning up to skiing down was now almost as simple as having your heel free. As more and more skiers transitioned to AT gear, they realized alpine turns were also less physically demanding. This further accelerated the decline of Telemarking, and in 2017, Powder magazine declared, ‘Telemark skiing is dead.’
In the late 1970’s, the only equipment available was narrow cross country skis, flimsy, thin leather boots, and three-pin bindings with wire bales. It was amazing how intertwined my skis could become with my body, and how deep I could ‘auger in’ when I missed a turn. We needed wider skis, stiffer boots and stronger bindings. We need to innovate, so we began to experiment with creating hybrid skis. We mounted old Spaedman downhill bindings onto used alpine skis, and attached the boot plate to the toe of vintage, Austrian, leather, lace-up ski boots. Our outcomes were not always optimal, but our passion was enviable. As Telly skiing became more popular, the quality, capability and performance of the equipment improved.
Learning to Telemark, I would typically spend a week on my alpine skis and a week on my Telly boards. My roots were in alpine skiing, but each discipline taught me something that I could apply to the other. With practice, I became stronger, more confident and proficient in my turns, and my skiing on both platforms progressed.
After 60 years my heel is still free (both in the backcountry and at the area). Yes, AT gear is now more advanced and lighter, and alpine turns are still more efficient, but Telemarking is part of my soul. This most elegant and aesthetic of turns still energizes me and makes me feel free! The sensual feeling of snow flowing across my body as I fluidly link turn after turn while descending an untracked slope of endless powder is indescribable. There is no better feeling in the world. In the backcountry, in powder, the feeling of a Telemark turn reigns supreme.
Telly skiing is not dead; it just faces an uncertain future. Every year I see more and younger people Telemarking. They inspire me as I watch them experience the joy of making Telly turns. I don’t want to see the original ski turn fade away. I hope the next generation embraces Telly skiing and makes it their own. They are our future; they are Telemark skiing’s future, whatever they make of it.
Whether in the backcountry or at the area, my role and the role of every Telemark skier today is to expose younger people to the splendor of Telly skiing. We need to champion the art, and use our experience and wisdom to coach and inspire the next generation of Telemarkers, so they can experience the visceral beauty of the most elegant of ski turns. My greatest hope is that Telemark skiing thrives once again, and that the next generation of skiers learns how to ski free!