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Lock It Down

A recovering telemarker comes to terms with her return to alpine skiing.

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Trust me, I tele. That bumper sticker maxim sums up the slightly superior feeling you get as an accomplished telemark skier. Tele skiers are supposed to be soulful tree-hugging hippies with massive lung power and bulging quads who’ve achieved enlightenment by genuflecting repeatedly downhill, right? Well, as a former telemark skier, I can tell you there’s a certain arrogance that goes along with dropping a knee. Free the heel; free the mind (more bumper sticker wisdom). I preached it. I even believed it.

I’ve been an alpine ski racer, a ski instructor, a magazine ski tester. I’ve skied from Val d’Isère to Valdez. So, when my kids were just learning to ski, the idea of lapping the bunny slope was unattractive to me. I figured telemarking would make tooling around on barely tilted slopes interesting. Challenging. It would be easier on a tele set up to squat down and scrape snow from the underside of tiny boots. And it was.

The boots were comfy and easy to walk in. On catwalks, I was nimble. And in the lift line, I could stand with one knee bent, heel raised jauntily while the rest of you stood like Frankensteins in cement boots. My posture let everyone know that, clearly, I’m way more badass than you. And once I got good at free-heeling, I was the snobbiest kind of tele-vangelist. From the chair, I would critique fellow free-heelers picking their way down the slope. “No weight on the back leg,” I would say. “That’s just fake-a-marking.”

Then I saw one of those snarky “Nobody Cares That You Tele” bumper stickers. Oh, the indignity! Friends started to counter my lofty “free the heel” philosophy with, “Oh, yeah? Lock it down, lose the frown.” I started to reconsider my position.

At first, telemarking had represented the promise of untracked backcountry powder. Truth be told, in nearly a decade of telemarking, I skied in the backcountry once. It was on Rabbit Ears Pass near Steamboat and it was as advertised: Easy uphill transport combined with fresh tracks on a snow-covered pitch. (Telemarking secret: When you sink down into a tele turn, there’s a better chance you’ll experience a face shot.)

Once my kids developed into faster and stronger skiers than me, telemarking became a liability. I couldn’t keep up. I had to buy my teenager fluorescent orange ski pants just so I could spot him 500 feet downhill, while I made my slow downhill lunges, thighs on fire. I taught three kids to ski so I could ski with them. This archaic form of snow-sliding, favored by Norwegians in the 1860s, also lent little confidence on super-steep hardpack.

In fact, in the early ’90s, I telemarked with Paul Parker, who literally wrote the book on the sport (“Free-Heel Skiing: Telemark and Parallel Techniques“). As we skied down a bump field, he told me the parallel turn was really more effective in moguls. Then we skied down an icy pitch, and he told me the parallel turn was really better on ice. I wondered, even then, what the heck the point was. And today, with modern alpine touring gear, you can have your heels free for ascents, but then lock down the heel for bomber descents. That’s the best of both worlds.

When I first clicked back into alpine bindings after nearly a decade, I did at first feel immobilized. I couldn’t glide effortlessly through the lift line. I was doing the Frankenstein shuffle. But who cares about performance in the lift line? On my first run, I tipped my skis on edge, loaded them up, and arced a big fast carve. I shot out of the turn with a power I’d forgotten I possessed. I wasn’t controlling gravity with elegant, measured S-turns—I was giving in to it, diving down the fall line and loving the sensation of the g-forces created in a high-speed turn. I was (almost) keeping up with my kids. There is a thrill in the carve you just can’t get on tele skis.

Trust me, I alpine.

Boulder, Colo.–based freelance writer Helen Olsson plans to remove the telemark-inspired bumper stickers from her car—one of these days.