Why not all three?
Some of you might remember the Europa 99 ski. It was the hot telemark backcountry skiing plank of the early seventies. Europas skied like oversized toothpicks, but their metal edges cut where other skis waffled. Back then, my maniac friends and I covered ground on those skis. Colorado; Aspen to Crested Butte; long tours over the high Rockies; nights in the snow. That’s when I fell in love with backcountry skiing.
Steeper powder tempted us, trap crust broke our Europa toothpicks, and we only dreamed of skiing off the steep summits. Over time, Ramer’s binding matured, randonnee (European alpine ski touring “AT”) bindings appeared, and tele gear quit breaking. Reared on the steeps, many skiers in our area of the Rockies, including myself, stuck with AT gear. We didn’t give up telemarking, but we had no interest in being tele heroes. Anything steep found us making classic parallel turns with latched heels.
Since then, with improved gear evangelical telemarkers have shown they can ski most slopes that alpine skiers tackle. Indeed, free-heel skiing has become a versatile mix of gear and technique for backcountry skiing. Yet alpine tour gear has lost weight, and become the best way for skilled alpine skiers to adapt to the backcountry. Worldwide, most skiers on steep mountains still ride their planks in alpine style, with heels latched for the downhill..
Which gear should you use for backcountry skiing? Given equal skills, compare a tele skier’s run with that of an AT skier. The free-heel skier might look less secure — but both skier’s smiles show as many teeth. Throw forty pound packs and difficult snow such as breakable crust into the mix, and the telemarker’s smile will shrink.
Alpine tour gear is heavier than mid-weight tele gear and it limits your stride. It’s a poor choice for tours when covering distance is the priority. Mid-weight tele gear is terrific for such tours (10th Mountain huts for example.) Heavier tele gear (that used by hard-core telemarkers) has no significant weight advantage over AT equipment, and the stiff boots limit your stride. Hard-core telemarkers choose heavier gear for other reasons, such as mastering a new skill, the pleasure of well executed athletics, or more challenge. I admire the nobility of the latter, but most people find plenty of challenge in any style of skiing. Another reason to pick gear is for personal expression. Back when I free-heeled, my telemarks always got lower when tourists gazed down from a lift chair, conversely, I’ve always relished being the lone fixed heeler in a pack of telemarkers. If conformity is your bag, use the same principal in reverse – do what everyone else does.
Theory holds that since telemarking is harder, it cuts the boredom of the same old runs (in the backcountry or at the resort), or adds interest to low-angled slopes free from avalanche danger. While you learn free-heel skiing you’ll probably ski the safer slopes. But what happens after you become a master? In that event, you can still add interest to mellow terrain — but you’ll need self discipline when your gaze shifts to the heights. Regarding the problem of the same old runs: without a doubt it’s exciting to learn a new talent; indeed, much of athletics is the feeling of mastering a skill day-by-day. Yet learning a new sport takes time and money. If you’re a bored alpine skier, instead of telemarking try new terrain, change your style, or explore lift accessed backcountry runs near your ski area. (If the backcountry boors you, it’s time for medical help!) Learning both styles of skiing could be the best solution. I know many backcountry people who own a quiver of AT and tele skis. They pick their gear according to their mood and expected terrain. They smile a lot.
Bindings confuse the issue. Alpine tour bindings don’t have the release of modern alpine bindings, they’re heavy, hard to handle, and expensive [this has changed, but was so when the article was published in 1993]. Free-heel bindings still dictate a right and left-hand ski, an archaic detail that prevents swapping skis in the field when an edge gets trashed, and gives you one more detail to worry about when you’re putting your skis on.
What’s more, tele bindings now mimic alpine bindings of old, replete with cables and toe irons. Thus, people using stiffer boots may need safety release with their telemark setup. But as we add release and beef up the bindings to handle force from plastic boots, won’t we end up with bindings that are the same or greater weight as AT gear? Indeed we, have.
Yes, now you can get AT gear that’s the same weight (or even lighter) than much of the beefier tele gear. What’s more, you can AT or telemark with most plastic free-heel boots, many of the skis seem to work equally as well for both styles, and people even modify bindings to do both. Perhaps the topic of AT vs. tele is moot. If so, the only gear question for the style council is “two boards or one?”
I predict that within five years AT gear will be lighter than most of today’s tele gear [this prediction came true with the advent of the Dynafit binding and boot system in the late 1990s]. Yet if you ski both styles, you’ll be able to do so on one set of skis. Imagine a boot like the Scarpa Terminator, but with a sole like an AT boot (better for climbing.) Instead of archaic pins, the toe is held by a simple toe-wire much like the Silvretta AT binding. This dream binding has a flexible plate to allow a telemark, but the heel latch includes release and an AT style latch-down! With such a rig, you’d tele when you felt the urge, then latch your heels when the time came [2005: this prediction has still to come (grin), but is getting closer with a new boot shape standard known as the NTN]. With the topic of AT vs. tele as moot, the only gear question you’d ask the style council would be, “One plank or two?”
(A version of this article was published Couloir Magazine, 1993.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.