Out of Bounds: Is Telemark Dead?

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In 10 years, the number of telemark skiers will surpass the number of alpine skiers."

It was the early Eighties, and folklore has it that this bold forecast was issued by the head of Phoenix Skis, a leading telemark ski company of the day. Freeheel renegades were feeling flush with the excitement of discovery, fancying themselves a new breed of explorers at the gateway to a brave new world.

Oh well. Chalk it up to bad drugs or something. Phoenix Skis went the way of click-clacks and hula-hoops. And the ballyhooed telemark revolution? It never happened. Men with shaggy beards, knickers and knee-length navy blue parkas did not become the poster children of the ski world. Grooming machines were not driven single-file into the sea. Nor were lifts dismantled and trails re-seeded with alfalfa sprouts.

Is telemark skiing dead? Let me confess my bias before tackling this one: I have been a telemark zealot for about 15 years. Whether I'm heli-skiing, backcountry touring or bump bashing, my heels are free. Put simply, telemark skiing—on-piste and off-piste—is my passion. I think telemarking is the best way to combine the beauty and simplicity of backcountry touring with the thrill and speed of downhill skiing.

But to ascertain whether this venerable anti-sport still has a pulse in the big world out there, I went on bended knee to ski and talk with some of the leading lights of freeheeling. My quest for answers ultimately led me to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

A quick history lesson: The telemark turn was invented about 150 years ago by a hapless Norwegian potato farmer named Sondre Norheim. Norheim, who hailed from the hilly Telemark district of Norway, conjured up the strange looking drop-kneed turn as a way to negotiate steep downhills on his 3-meter-long cross-country skis. The turn was in vogue until the 1920s. But by the Thirties, the explosion in alpine skiing and the proliferation of ski bindings that locked down the heel relegated the graceful telemark technique to the scrap bin. It remained forgotten until the early Seventies, when Crested Butte ski patroller Rick Borkovek, while recovering from a broken leg, taught himself the old turn. He inadvertently sparked a revival. Soon, like-minded skiers from the Northwest to the Northeast were eagerly rediscovering Sondre Norheim's technique.

By the late Seventies, freeheel skiers saw themselves as the vanguard of a movement to reclaim the soul of skiing. As the mainstream ski scene grew ever more bland and homogenized, telemarkers struck out for the backcountry and virgin powder. That was the point, after all: Free heels allow you to climb, to get away, to adventure.

Then came the decadent Eighties. More skiers freed their heels, but instead of striking out for wild terrain, they began flocking to chairlifts. History began to repeat itself: Like freeheelers a half-century earlier, modern telemarkers discovered the intoxicating allure of chairlifts. Lifts made skiing easy. Fun. And going fast and logging mega-vertical was a blast. Suddenly, the rebel sport seemed to be losing its way. Telemarkers began adopting the values of their alpine brethren. Telemarking—the horror!—went mainstream.

These days, telemarkers are barely distinguishable from any other skier at a resort. Funky wool knickers have been traded in for functional Gore-Tex, the skis underfoot are fat alpine boards, and about 80 percent of the 25,000 pairs of tele boots sold each year are—more horror!—plastic. Confusing matters further, many expert "telemarkers" don't even bother with the old genuflecting turn; they often find parallel skiing more effective, especially when descending tight Eastern trails.

All of which is a sign of the healthy staying power of freeheel skiing. Contrary to our image as skiing relics, telemarkers have traded purism and nostalgia for new gear and fresh attitudes. Sure, it's ironic that most freeheeling now takes place beneath chairlifts. B the truth is, we have lifts to thank for the outrageous skill level that modern freeheel skiers have attained. Fifteen years ago, as a wobbly telemarker on wooden skis, I could never have imagined descending the steep terrain and funky backcountry snow that I now take in casual stride on my fat shaped tele skis. It's because I learned to telemark the same way alpine skiers have long done: cranking lots of turns in myriad conditions on my local ski hill.

The backcountry is still my first love, but the ski hill has been my workshop, and a fun one at that. As for plastic boots? Hey, I love leather, and I was an early critic of wrapping my feet in toxic waste. But the new wave tele boots are remarkably comfortable, they're waterproof, and they offer control and power to die for. My only gripe is that I wish they were lighter for long-haul touring. But for most skiers, plastic boots have made learning this fickle sport a whole lot easier.

"It's a turn, not a religion!" I once overheard a skier shout in protest to a particularly doctrinaire telemarker. Ah, how naive. Telemarkers, like any converts to a cause, take pride in their clanishness. Maybe what makes us family is the shared sense of suffering and humiliation that we all endure as we learn this quirky sport. Fact is, telemark is religion to many of its practitioners. So where better to see how it is practiced than in the mother church, at La Skieda, the annual International Telemark Festival in Livigno, Italy.

Every spring, Livigno becomes host to this global celebration of all things telemark. There are nightly telemark parties, contests for best costumes, daily backcountry tours and telemark art exhibits, plays and talks. Naturally, the Scandinavians are here in force, many of them bedecked in the elegant traditional black and white wool costume of the Telemark region. Outrageous Norwegian women, whether holding court on the dance floor or streaking by in a flash of blonde-on-black, are a particularly striking part of the local color.

High up on the slope, I spy two women in flowing black wool skirts. They are carving sweeping, graceful telemark turns across the pista. Their frocks flap wildly in the wind as they sail by me. Long blonde hair streams back in their wake. Behind them, a man in a black, brimmed hat with a 7-foot staff is bouncing up and down in a rhythmic knee-pumping dance, flipping his single pole from side to side.

La Skieda showcases the telemark cult in its full glory. In contrast to the American telemark scene, with its disdain for competition and doctrine, the Europeans are busy holding international tele races and passionately arguing about what is the "right" technique.

I find Paul Parker on a Livigno lift (that's right: lift-served areas are the venues for virtually all tele festivals these days). The mild-mannered balding Coloradan is one of the most influential people in the world of freeheel skiing these days. As a design consultant to Tua Ski, Garmont Boots, and the author of the classic tome, "Free-Heel Skiing: Telemark and Parallel Techniques for All Conditions" (Mountaineers, 1995), Parker breaks into a laugh when I ask him if telemark is dead.

"Obviously," he says motioning to the hordes of genuflecting skiers on the slopes below, "there are a boatload of people doing it." Parker guesstimates that there are about 50,000 practicing telemarkers. "It's not growing by huge amounts, but it's healthy. It's much more of a niche than alpine skiing. And there are a lot of passionate people who follow the sport."

Why telemark? Parker has a quick reply. "Freedom." From the start of the telemark boomlet, he explains, "our ultimate goal was to be able to travel with one pair of skis and do anything we wanted fairly proficiently. Ski up peaks, ski downhill, tour—you name it. In my mind, that's the beauty of the sport. But," he concedes, "telemark is not for everybody."

I telemark alongside Dickie Hall, the cherubic guru who runs the North American Telemark Organization (NATO— "the peaceful one," he reassures people). He is nursing a broken thumb after skiing into his 250-lb. buddy in the woods at Mad River Glen seven days earlier. I ask him about the death of telemark.

"Let's see—a thousand people showed up at the NATO tele-fest three weeks ago, and my tele clinics are booked solid all winter. Yeah," he pleads with an elfish grin, "please tell people that telemark is dead. I need a vacation." If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the telemark world is in fine shape. After all, "freeskiing"—the latest alpine ski fad—is merely "discovering" what has sustained the thriving, zany telemark subculture for the past quarter-century: a lust for freedom. A hunger to get away from civilization. A desire to be one with snow, sky and mountains.

So please don't send flowers. Telemark is alive and well, thank you. And will be for as long as it holds out the quixotic promise that when you free your heel, you free your mind.

bic guru who runs the North American Telemark Organization (NATO— "the peaceful one," he reassures people). He is nursing a broken thumb after skiing into his 250-lb. buddy in the woods at Mad River Glen seven days earlier. I ask him about the death of telemark.

"Let's see—a thousand people showed up at the NATO tele-fest three weeks ago, and my tele clinics are booked solid all winter. Yeah," he pleads with an elfish grin, "please tell people that telemark is dead. I need a vacation." If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the telemark world is in fine shape. After all, "freeskiing"—the latest alpine ski fad—is merely "discovering" what has sustained the thriving, zany telemark subculture for the past quarter-century: a lust for freedom. A hunger to get away from civilization. A desire to be one with snow, sky and mountains.

So please don't send flowers. Telemark is alive and well, thank you. And will be for as long as it holds out the quixotic promise that when you free your heel, you free your mind.