It’s hard to believe, but the modern telemark revival has been under way for a generation – enough time to see quantum changes in gear, not to mention in awareness and attitudes.
And we have come a long way. Some old-timers may even remember that back in
the early days, telemark skiers were met with the same skepticism faced by snowboarders
until recently, with some ski areas questioning whether they would allow three-pinners
on the lifts.
Now, instead of snide comments like, “Hey man, your binding is broken,” your
chairlift partner is more likely to ask you how you like your mid-fats and four-buckle
Author Bob Berwyn teles down the face of a drift at A-Basin. (photo Christine
And today’s telemarkers are making the most of the beefed-up gear to track
up steep chutes and schralp wicked tree lines that would have been off-limits
to all but the most advanced skiers just a few years ago. The technique – first
born in a mountainous part of Norway about 150 years ago – has come full circle,
back into the mainstream of skiing.
Most ski historians credit Sondre Norheim with invention of the telemark turn,
named for the mountainous province where the farmer and ski jumper lived. Norheim,
scrambling around the mountains using the long, straight and heavy boards of
that era, felt that he needed more control and maneuverability, according to
Lou Dawson’s “Wild Snow,” a history of ski mountaineering.
He began to build shorter skis, incorporating a sidecut. Then he added a primitive
heelpiece, consisting of a twisted willow strap wrapped around both the front
and back of the boot.
The additional leverage enabled Norheim to experiment with different styles
of turns. In addition to the dropped-knee telemark, he also refined the technique
of turning both skis simultaneously while staying in a more upright position
– the precursor of the modern parallel turn. Norheim also used the stable telemark
position to land Nordic-style jumps. With a low center of gravity and plenty
of fore and aft stability, the tele worked well on the steep run-outs of the
ski flying hills.
Norwegian immigrants brought their skis – and techniques – to the United States,
and put them to good use. Among the most famous early pioneers was Snowshoe
Thompson, who trekked 120 miles across California’s Sierra Nevada to deliver
the mail to and from the booming gold camps in the late 1800s.
But as skiing evolved into a recreational pursuit, it was shaped to a large
degree by instructors from the Alps. So the alpine-style parallel turn prevailed
– at least until the 1970s, when a small band of mountain men in the American
West began to explore the backcountry on their cross-country gear, looking for
equipment that would enable them to do it all.
“I broke my leg downhill racing for Western State,” says Rick Borkovec, who
is often credited with being the modern-day godfather of the tele turn.
“It was New Year’s Day 1971,” says Borkovec, now a human resources manager
in Aspen. “That spring, I started doing some cross-country skiing to rehab.
A friend of mine said, ‘There’s a way to turn those things. It’s called a telemark
turn, and I think it looks like this.'”
At the same time, Borkovec says he remembered seeing some old photos of Stein
Eriksen’s father using the technique. Intrigued, he started experimenting with
different body positions and weight shifts to make the turn work.
“I got to a point where the turns started to work. It was amazing, even on
those skinny old wooden skis, I was able to link turns and get down the hill.”
The key, he says, was to distribute the weight evenly between both skis, to
face the upper body downhill and to keep the upper body upright – still the
main elements of good telemark skiing.
“All of a sudden, it felt so good, so natural. It felt like you could fly down
the hill in just about any snow conditions. I though to myself, this is a real,
functional ski technique, not just something out of the history books.”
As a ski patroller at Crested Butte, Borkovec says he began using the skis
on the job, to sweep the mountain and for avalanche control runs. The Nordic
gear also came in handy during search and rescue missions, when resort skiers
got lost out of bounds and ended up in the East River Valley.
“We started to see the practical nature,” he says.
Eventually, Borkovec says the ski patrol started doing one day of training
on cross-country gear.
With partners Doug Buzzell, Koli Kazarinoff and Greg Dalby, Borkovec began
testing the limits of the Nordic gear in rugged terrain, completing descents
of still-classic backcountry routes on Red Lady Mountain and Gothic Peak among
Similar dynamics were in play in other parts of the country. Borkovec credits
people like Steve Barnett, author of an early book called “Cross Country Downhill,”
as well as Paul Parker, Summit County Nordic guru Gene Dayton and Art Burrows,
tele pioneers all, with helping to spark the tele revival in different regions.
“I think our main purpose was really to make the backcountry more accessible,”
Borkovec says. “We wanted to be able to do everything on one pair of skis.”
In 1972, Austrian ski giant Fischer began importing the Europa, a double-cambered,
aluminum-edged skinny ski billed as one of the first modern telemark skis.
Around that time, Borkovec says he started talking with ski makers, trying
to convince them to drop the double camber and to start using a more alpine-style
flex pattern. He also began working with Professional Ski Instructors of America
(PSIA) to develop a teaching progression.
Dropping your knee has obvious advantages, like more frequent face shots.
Then, in 1976, Borkovec wrote an article for SKIING magazine – the first modern
story on telemarking in a mainstream ski publication. Several other stories
also helped to publicize Borkovec’s Nordic ski school in Crested Butte, which
he started in 1977.
Borkovec says that, despite the recent evolution of gear, he still skis in
a pair leather Asolo Summits, using classic three-pin bindings mounted on a
pair of old alpine boards. He gets out on the hill a couple of times a week
and hits the Nordic track frequently.
Another Western State student was paying close attention in those early days.
Paul Parker, now a Breckenridge resident and author of the telemark bible, “Free-Heel
Skiing,” says he was fascinated when he saw Borkovec and a handful of other
skiers practicing their esoteric craft and immediately gave it a try.
Besides writing the book on telemarking, Parker also gets credit for designing
the first plastic tele boot, marking the most dramatic point in the evolution
of the gear thus far.
“We were all looking for the beefiest cross-country stuff we could find,” says
Parker, now deeply involved in product development with several leading telemark
manufacturers. “It’s always been our goal to travel around with one pair of
skis, to be able to do everything, from touring, to skiing peaks, to do anything
an alpine skier can do.”
While the early three-pinners quested to blend Nordic gear with alpine performance,
Parker says the decision now is mainly an aesthetic one. He says the turning
point came with plastic boots.
“People are best off on what they are most comfortable on,” Parker says, characterizing
the telemark movement as being defined by a sense of freedom.
In an interview with Descender.com, an Internet-based telemark publication,
Parker says telemarkers were the “original freeriders.” The tele attitude helped
define the all-mountain concept, with free-heelers “sneaking around in the woods
and skimming above the treeline.”
The modern freeride movement is what tele skiing has always been about, he
explains. Thus, telemarkers perhaps have more in common with the young snowboarders
and free-skiers than with the mainstream ski world.
“There are fewer rules than in the alpine world. You have the freedom to make
different types of turns. You can use a telemark turn or you can parallel if
that works better for the conditions,” he says.
Telemark skiing has changed along with the rest of American culture, he asserts.
The technique was rooted in practicality, as a way to reach backcountry powder
stashes. But at least in the early days, it was also part of the counter-culture
– a means of rebelling against the ski establishment, Parker says.
Over the intervening years, it has become more mainstream, he adds, but it’s
still different enough to be “cool.”
“It’s a pretty pure form of skiing,” Parker says.
Parker says that, according to best estimates by the industry, there are somewhere
between 60,000 and 100,000 free-heel skiers in the U.S. Those numbers appear
to be increasing at a steady pace, as more alpine skiers and even snowboarders
cross over, attracted by the promise of increased mobility and the newer gear,
which makes learning easier than ever before.
There could be some significant changes coming down the pike, Parker says.
“Our goal in product development right now is to combine the advantages of
telemark and randonnee,” he says. Specifically, boot and binding makers are
investigating ways to get rid of the 75 mm norm – which would mean eliminating
the three-hole pattern in the boot toe and the extended lip of the boot’s toe.
That “duck bill” makes it hard to climb with crampons since it places the front
points in an awkward position. Overhauling that system could make tele gear
more user-friendly when it comes to walking and climbing, he says.