Scarce, maybe threatened, but not extinct. You might think telemark was a graveyard of gear and ethos, struggling to regain some relevance. The Turn is alive and well.
Much has been made of the withering of the telemark scene over the last several years. And here we are again, taking another look at what is going on (or maybe awry) in the free-heel world.
Baiting reactions and clicks, the Big Ski Mags have recently made the sport’s status fodder for less than clever tropes. And – in a more constructive manner – WildSnow has occasionally covered the state of telemark, with pieces on the newest in backcountry telemark bindings and this piece regarding the way forward in boots.
Meanwhile, the few left inside the telemark world – from forum posters to industry insiders — have been ceaselessly brainstorming what might bring telemark modern redemption. Read that as new users and new gear.
Both of these are desperately needed in the sport. It is the consummate chicken-or-egg debate in the scene: does telemark get new gear when more new users drive demand or do more users arrive because there’s new gear?
But in this thought experiment lies a potentially fatal flaw – telemark hasn’t been saved by new gear revolutions alone throughout its history. And amid a long retrograde, the sport currently fights for renewed cachet.
Unbeknownst to most, even the ski world, there has been a revolution in telemark gear, namely touring bindings. Specifically, this relates to incorporating the tech pin into a telemark binding. Be it the TTS, the first telemark binding to incorporate a tech toe, created by Mark Lengel in 2011, or InWild’s (formerly The M Equipment) NTN-tech trap, the Meidjo. Eminent binding maker 22Designs has also joined the fray with their LynxF. Thus the coming end of the 75mm, duckbill dynasty.
But while these new bindings are groundbreaking, at best, they have only abated telemark’s participation problem. Yes, the sport seems to have at least found a stable footing of late, and past talk of the sport’s “death” seems more hyperbolic than ever. But these new bindings have not “saved” the sport by spurring any wave of fresh participation.
And in that lies the issue.
Many in the scene look forward to hypothetical gear improvements and lean on them as being the yet-to-arrive saviors to telemark’s overarching problems of gear stagnation (outside of bindings) and low participation. Many celebrate the coming retail death of 75mm boots as making way for a future innovative focus on NTN. Classic but discontinued duckbill boots almost get booed off the stage by this cohort – while others hiss online at the demise of the duckbill, somewhat unknowingly exclaiming, “where will I find boots now???”
Speaking of boots: there’s the favorite gear dream of the telemark world: the ever-promised, decade-in-the-making (at least) new line of boots from Scarpa. But the gear isn’t the issue. The sea change in binding technology toward lighter, more touring-oriented specs that bring renewed parity with alpine counterparts has brought no new boom for free-heel skiing. Telemark will only see a resurgence when it somehow sheds its status as the choice of the weirdos and achieves credence as an apt cultural option again. And that begs an entirely different essay on this topic alone.
Telemark once had that cultural clout. Free-heel, downhill skiing on cross-country gear in the 70s and 80s, was the height of countercultural skiing in America. It was a repudiation of a repudiation: telemark skiing was a response to the bounds of resort alpine skiing (which, to this writer, is a repudiation of doing what you’re ‘supposed’ to do, i.e., work). Telemark skiing, even seen then by some as using absurd gear for the terrain, fought against the over-emphasis on resort-bound hotdog coolness. It was the tool to access the backcountry and escape the busy straight and narrow. It was heady; it was hard; it was soulful. But above all, while not without detractors, it was seen as a relevant choice.
Telemark had a similar cachet in the 90s and 2000s. It was still thought of as the best-known way to access the backcountry. Only this time, the zeitgeist meant stronger turns could be made on newly released plastic boots.
But that time’s telemark-as-backcountry-gear paradigm is a little misleading. However, it was before Dynafit bindings were widely known (and trusted), and there were still alpine touring bindings available to the skiing public (and telemark defectors). Many still chose to access the backcountry on telemark gear over AT – people were making a conscious choice to telemark. While they may have been nudged in that direction by word of mouth and the prevailing wisdom of the time, people weren’t forced by gear availability to go that direction.
Telemark, for whatever reason, was cool during its height. It was in. We now live in a ski world that in no way resembles that. Going on twenty years since telemark was last en vogue, we seem no closer to a resurgence. This begs the question, how long before life support becomes grimmer and becomes a death notice?
Telemark’s revival is tied not just to the ever-forward progression of gear but maybe more so to recapturing whatever mysterious milieu was also at work in the previous apogees of the free-heel turn. Unfortunately, while improved ROM and novel uses of new-age plastics could easily be implemented (if only manufacturers thought so), bending the zeitgeist to our will is not an option. Thus, the tele-sphere’s build-it-and-they-will-come bent these days.
But new gear alone won’t bring about the oft hoped for 3rd Great Wave of American Telemark Skiing. More people have to want to telemark for the sake of free-heel skiing, not just its gear.
While we wistfully pine for the new Scarpa telemark boots and wish away for increased ROM and weight on par with what the alpine hoards enjoy, the culture at large firmly remains in a less-than-ideal place for telemark’s reawakening. And who knows if we ever get back there. The 70s and 90s were different times than now.
Regardless, we wait. It’s good that things aren’t as they seem – sometimes the yearning for new gear and the endless talk of telemark’s expiration would make you think there were hardly telemark boots or bindings worth skiing. You might think telemark was a graveyard of gear and ethos, struggling to regain some relevance. Yes, the sport needs stronger participation and could use more gear options. But luckily, in mostly unseen corners of the ski industry, away from where most alpiners spend their time – to a few passionate souls – The Turn is alive and well.
Jack O’Brien was raised in Steamboat, Colorado and remains devoted to the turn of all turns: the Tele turn.
My totally uninformed opinion as someone who started nordic skiing circa 2008, resort in 2016 and backcountry AT in 2018:
All skiing is hard to learn, harder than most popular sports like trail running, road biking even mountain biking. Snowboarding is widely accepted to be easier to learn to the intermediate level than skiing and became widely popular.
Downhill got easier two+ decades ago with the advent of wide skis with rocker and sidecut. Plastic boots were already a thing but also helped. My first set of skimo skis are blatantly pointing out all the formerly minor technique issues with my skiing because they have none of those things. Ok maybe some sidecut but if skimo race skis were the only kind of downhill skis the sport would be much less popular.
Tele got a little easier with the NTN and so on bindings but lunging your way down the mountain is always going to be a steeper learning curve with no real additional benefits aside from whether its thought of as cool or not (Or if you’re a parent teaching your kids to ski and want to stay entertained with additional challenge, probably 50% of resort tele).
AT blew past backcountry tele because it’s easier. Both in weight, efficiency but especially skiing downhill. It’s hard to ski variable funky snow with AT, it’s almost impossible on tele.
Squabble about gear vs cool factor all you want but most people will hit the easy button.
For being uniformed, you said that very well.
Why does anyone splitboard? It’s harder and slower than AT.
The downhill is easier if you already snowboard and learning to snowboard is easier to ski
@ TODD, in case your NOT trolling…
I’ve been snowboarding for over 30 years and am pretty good at it. I would be a liability in the backcountry if I was on skis since I’m not very good at skiing. Snowboards are also less effected by breakable crusts than skis and some would argue the surfy turns of snowboarding in powder is more satisfying than skiing.
Your question could be answered with another. Why does anyone ski, it’s slower and harder than snowmobiling?
Thanks Shane. My hope was to counter the oft-repeated argument that telemark is bad/unpopular because it is less efficient than AT in the backcountry, and therefore what is needed is new gear (especially better boots) to achieve parity in backcountry efficiency with AT. Splitboarding has the same efficiency problem, and yet people do it–in part, because the turns are more satisfying.
Telemark should be treated the same way as snowboarding/splitboarding: a different way to make turns on snow, which people do because it’s fun; rather than a subdiscipline of skiing that’s trying to claw back the title of the most efficient method for backcountry travel.
Most people I know who split board choose to do so because they are proficient at snowboarding in the resort. Why to people choose to snowboard in the resort? Often people have tried snowboarding and skiing and find snowboarding easier or they enkoy the sensation more for whatever reason and continue with it. The even steeper learning curve and higher difficulty for telemarking precludes a direct comparison in my opinion (as someone who regularly rides telemark in the resort but skis AT in the backcountry)
….though perhaps harder and slower than AT, it will always be easier than backcountry monoboarding (the doublewide skin provides tremendous grip but the uphill hopping is grueling).
you laugh but: https://us.factionskis.com/products/le-split-mono-ski-2023
the only thing worse than tele AND splitboarding
I love telemark, and will never fully give it up. That being said, I have to disagree with your comment that “But the gear isn’t the issue. The sea change in binding technology toward lighter, more touring-oriented specs that bring renewed parity with alpine counterparts has brought no new boom for free-heel skiing.”
I’ve had two conversations recently with current tele-ers looking to move to an AT setup for touring. I get it. I had to combine 3 different bindings with a non-telemark marketed early 2000s skimo race boot in order to have a BC setup that I would consider “modern” in terms of weight. TTS, Lynx, and Medijo are all great options! But unfortunately not comparable to modern AT setups when considering price + weight + boot specificity.
A light(ish!) boot with a tech toe, tech heel, and bellows (+ a spacer puck to be mounted on pure AT setups) would allow full flexibility in setups. Litigation (or the threat thereof) was what killed the original bellowed F1/F3, and unfortunately I don’t think anything has or will change in that regard.
The only saving grace I see is the commitment and cachet that comes from being in a small outgroup. Granted I’m highly biased, and don’t consume mainstream ski media, but weirdos building bindings in their garage and then skiing big lines on them? No way that’s not cooler than dropping 2k on a setup with a pair of shifts that you only ski inbounds. Gravel biking is (was?) cooler than road. Train running is cooler than road running. DJ-inig vinyl is cooler than using CDJs. I think the historical aspect of tele is also a core part of it’s identity, and any reputation rehab should be done with a heavy narrative bias. I’m going to keep hacking boots and bindings together until I can’t over here.
The reason I telemark is the sensation of the turn. It’s absolutely marvelous and addicting. Akin to surfing. The fact the gear allows uphill capabilities is a bonus but not a requirement.
Its the boots which are expensive & hard to manufacture so there isnt any market for the local ski store to stock Tele boots
I’ll bite on this one ?
I don’t know if it was the 2nd or 3rd Wave of Freeheel Relevance, early aughts thru 2010s, but I rode that wave hard. Remember the Tough Guy Productions Extreme Telemark Tour? I was there, for years, occasionally cracking the Top 10 but more often just hucking huge to coral reef conditions. My first tele comp, I ripped a binding out of my ski on my first turn after stomping a huge air: the freeheel experience, summarized in one turn.
I learned The Turn so I could access the backcountry, and man, the backcountry was sweet. When I look back at 5k vert, 10 mile days on Hammerheads, just wow, I can’t believe how hard we worked for those turns. I look back less fondly on all the limping back to trailheads with skis Voile strapped, ducted taped, etc. to my boots after my bindings exploded.
I was the lead ski tester for Bishop Telemark’s renowned BMF, still the hardest charging tele binding ever made. 2200g per binding, toured up with TX Comps that I grafted Maestrale RS cuffs onto so I could get, yes, 24 degrees of cuff movement. When I switched to my first proper AT setup, I dropped 5lbs per foot. Suddenly I could run up the hill.
And what’s maybe the bitter pill here is this: those AT bindings, those boots, man, they just skied so much better. I don’t care how great a freeheel skier you are, when you send a fat cliff, you’ve only got slightly better than a 50/50 chance you’re not going over the handlebars when you hit the snow. AT stuff is safer: in avalanche terrain, when charging in the BC, shredding the resort, doesn’t matter. Crashing is part of telemark skiing, and crashing sucks.
And yeah, it would be sweet if a contemporary tele-touring boot that did all the stuff AT boots do existed. But you ever go to a tele demo day, talk to the literally unlimited number of bros in cracked, 20 year old Squadras who insist they don’t need new boots? Tele skiers pride themselves on dirtbagging, and dirt bags don’t really inspire confident investment in million dollar boots molds. Those Scarpa boots are never coming. No one wants to make an investment that pays off over generations lol.
Someone recently asked me if I ever missed The Turn in the, gosh it’s been 5 years, since I gave it up. And I said, “Dude, if I had a dollar for every day, whether hippie pow or creamy steeps, that I got home and thought it would have been better on telemark skies, well, I’d be flat broke.” AT skiing is every piece as soulful as telemark, covers the terrain quite possibly twice as fast, offers the safety of releasability, and allows you to ski as fast as you want to without the constant worry of falling forward.
I did everything I personally could to make telemark skiing as fun as possible. I willingly gave up telemark sponsorships so I could ski on AT gear, and still face hate DMs on my Instagram for leaving the tribe.
But AT skiing is just more fun.
I will never look back.
I too have ripped out bindings, in the Vermont backcountry, skiing with the designer of this binding ! We rigged up a climbing skin, wrapped around a boot. That did a pretty good job of getting us out. Another time, on a resort run a second binding ripped out. I luckily caught the runaway ski in the nick of time.
A new, redesigned 6 hole mount soon followed; I still have the original prototype.
In my case, as a “mature” skier I now only tour on AT . Safer, easier transitions, lighter bindings and lighter boots . I just compared one Tele boot, my TX Comp to my newer Scarpa F-1 . A difference of 1903 versus 1403 grams. That’s over one lb per boot. Not to mention my heavier Outlaws, versus Salomon MTN (no brakes)
And I started on teles, touring in the Teton backcountry in 1976 .
I should have said, “I too have ripped out a tele binding” .
I’ve got some scarpa f3s for sale, only $1500 used 😉 Actually, think I should keep them for ice skating boots.
Not sure I took anything away from this article but…in my tiny corner of the world I wouldn’t say telemark is alive or dead it’s just there and people do it sometimes. In the last 5 years the majority of people I’ve watched make free heel turns with style and competence were on 75mm gear. Lots of Tele-pine and tiptoes fakeamark on the NTN gear. Good skiers can definitely take advantage of the power, Patrollers the release and the ability to step in. For the cutting edge free ride comp type tele skier NTN was a good thing. For the “average”resort tele skier or the backcountry skier the benefits aren’t there.
For me rolling terrain, and the shorter hardwoods shots (no avalanche danger) that make up the terrain I like to ski why would I go NTN when t4’s and a simple binding like a hardwire do just fine. Need more power and there’s AT gear that still wins when it comes to reliable release, range of motion, control and cost being about equal to NTN. Once the consignment shop gear drys up I guess I give up tele or am left with the skiing version of squirrel hunting with a 300 WIN MAG.
I ski telemark in bounds for the burly nature of the binding and how fun the turn is. I ski in the park and all over. Tele is much more fun for me thank alpine in bounds. I ski alpine backcountry because I can ski way more vert more comfortably in alpine gear. It’s backwards from how it used to be but makes me happy.
+1 more here. But I learned to tele on the heels of the aughts-2010’s wave on used tele gear from when it was cool…
Can’t say if I were mildly interested now that I would start to tele….
I apologize for my English. I will do my best:
Standing on two planks on the top of a mountain (or a hill), willing to shoot down the steeps needs some speed control. Otherwise we might get injured. Controlling speed usually is getting achieved by turning your skis in a suitable way.
We can turn our skis in a parallel way. We also can turn them in a step position by changing feet in every turn. Nothing is better than the other for speed control. The second for most people is much harder to learn than the first.
Telemarkers LOVE „the turn.“ They love it so much that all the emotions involved can get very strong. It can get a kind of obsession. Including the fear of losing something. Like the feeling that the golden years, the good times, the times of the sweet spot might be over.
Well, they are. Skiing more or less shows which way modern society is going. What is easily achievable will be preferred over what takes more effort. We can talk it over and over again. It won’t change.
We can look at other activities that went a better way and ask if telemark skiing could go the same way, too. Gravel biking for example: The bikes also have their roots in a weird and nerdy sports discipline. But: A huge amount of us human beings knows how to ride a bike. Which makes the activity easily achievable (despite the money). So, nothing is gained. We still witness our losses.
We can think and talk over the aspects that keep us telemarkers, who already got seduced to learning how to execute und experience those heavenly turns, in our beloved sport. It would be great to get more people jumping in. But reality shows that telemark skiing is not attractive or even sexy. Especially younger folks don’t get attracted. You first have to experience „the turn“ before you can fall in love with it. Something has to touch an emotional trigger before one is willing to overcome high obstacles on the way to fulfillment. The few that are willing just to try, often get back to that part of skiing in which the outcome to input relation is better.
Still there is me, the telemark skier. Standing on the top of this mountain preparing to go downhill. If I had alpine touring skis I wouldn’t look forward with the same excitement.
Alpine turns have the shortest sweet spot compared to snowboarding and telemark skiing. That’s what I read. I also read something like „skiing from the cuffs“ makes a disconnected weird feeling. Telemark skiing „is more in conversation with the terrain than parallel turns.“ I bet that a huge amount of alpine skiers would argue exactly the same way with regard to telemark skiing. Alpine skiing and alpine touring offer all of these attractive aspects, too. Without the extra weight that has to be dragged on the uphills. Alpine skiers can initiate the most subtle movements, too, and make their turns feel sweeeeet! If we all know how to use our tools well, and learn to do it in a sensitive way, you can’t raise telemark over alpine skiing.
Still standing on the mountain top, excited for the downhill on my beloved telemark skis, I can ask: Why? Why did I skin up here beside this extra weight and no obvious advantage? Why am I and are others that stupid? I could achieve all this like my AT sisters and brothers in a more suitable way. Jealousy to a not so small amount often is my companion. „These lightweight boots…!“
Telemark skiing is gentle on your body. The older the telemarker, the more important this one gets. But, this isn’t the attractive point that gets people hooked. Especially younger ones.
I guess one real motivation might be the community. If it’s friends or family that pull you in, as long as there’s one or two buddies with you, you might stay. A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.
Sorrow that at best is shared.
This „sorrow“ I regard as the source to the flow you can find as a telemarker. That it is „the turn“ that keeps us going as a skier with free heels maybe just isn’t enough. I think the argument that telemark turns feel like no other turn is not strong enough to get people trying freeheel skiing.
I guess there’s more to skiing with free heels. It’s all the experiences of succeeding in a venture that can be within the micro focus of a single turn or within the macro focus like the challenge to get all the way back from the summit of the mountain to your well deserved beer without paralleling down including all the emotions that arise from this ever recurring question: „Will I succeed?“ To venture out and test yourself is essential to the experience. The risk of not succeeding is a very important option. Not in a hazardous way (like risking to slide to death down an icy couloir.) More in a way of risking improper performance. Without the potential to fail it would get boring over time. The little sensation seeker in me bets his money on his approved abilities – knowing that there is a risk to lose.
This is exactly what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called „the flow experience.“ That’s why alpine skiing can feel boring. It’s easily achieved.
In opposite, telemark skiing can offer the option to set the grade of difficulty at the exact right point you need in a certain skiing situation. Well, it is the terrain most of the time, that offers a challenge. You can find the flow again and again and again on this satisfying ridge where to one side you get under-challenged and to the other you would be over-challenged.
Sure, in the beginning you will be out of your comfort zone for a certain time. One or two seasons. Looking back after going through them, most telemarkers are glad they held on. Which can be a lesson for life.
Unfortunately, lots of humans of modern societies more and more unlearn the art of setting their grade of personal challenges so that it is not just easily done. The easier way to achieve something gets more and more preferred. In the greater sense of human culture this means certain losses.
That’s the big challenge for the sport of telemark skiing. How to (re-)gain attractivity for people to join in? How to gain it in a positive way? How to survive in a society that more and more loses the values important for the sport?
I guess, the only option is the one that has always been here: Spraid telemark! There are a lot of ways to do so. You just have to be creative. Hopefully, by doing this we sow seeds that with luck become beautiful flowers and strong trees destined to be representatives of a culturally rich sport and a culturally rich world.
No need to apologize for your English. Your well-written little essay on the value of effort and flow to human endeavor is the best thing I have read on this […now way too gear & guide-centric for my tastes…] blog site in a long long time. And you could not have picked a more relevant activity for your insights than the telemark ski experience. Thank you for posting your thoughts. Spraid Telemark! indeed. Long live Soul Skiing…
Thank you! 🙂
NTN is great but the flaw with snow packing into the bindings make sticky snow and spring skiing challenging with Boot Jack and constantly having to stop to unclear the binding (Lynx, Medijo). I often use my 75mm or TTS for spring conditions while my NTN collects dust. So in some aspects NTN is a step backwards because of the snow build up issues. If the binding manufacturers can figure that out and be just as light I’d dump my 75mm gear.
It’s the boots. To use an analogy from mountain biking, tele boot choices are basically Bridgestone MB-1, or Brooklyn TMX. Modern AT gear is only a few years behind the mtb in offering the full spectrum of xc, downcountry, trail, enduro, free ride, and dh options. Considering that gravel bikes are a big enough wave in the cycling world right now that even gravity-oriented mtb sites are offering up reviews and coverage, perhaps the long-awaited Nth wave of telemark is not far behind? How much is the price difference between a mold for a carbon gravel bike, and a plastic tele boot?
The fact that there hasn’t been any significant new development in tele boot technology over the past 20 years leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy about cheapskate dirtbag culture. Why should you buy new boots when there are no new boots?
Maybe a more accurate way to think of tele is as the equivalent of 26″ wheels. Both reached their ascendacy in the early 2000’s, and now no one even makes jokes about 26″ wheels. Both were praised for their turning characteristics, and now only exist as devout fringe markets. I was one of the very last holdouts on 26″ wheels in my extended circle of riding friends. While many bemoaned the passing of 26″ wheels, I found it very telling that while there was a huge creative surge in finding ways around the complexities of adapting larger wheels to designed for smaller wheels, there were no efforts at the much easier task of fitting 26″ wheels into the new crop of frames.
Still hoping for a pin-tech kilo-class tele boot for the ultimate hard-core meadow free ride setup.
There’s lots of great gear innovation in the light touring segment. Check out the new Xplore standard. Perfect for covering ground and telemarking down meadows. That’s where telemarking actually makes sense. Only lunatics with quads of steel and something to prove (and I was one of them, long ago) try to telemark on terrain and in conditions where alpine touring equipment is superior by a huge margin in every way that matters. It’s never coming back.
As far as tele is concerned: those who can, do: those who can’t, don’t.
I think Matt’s poetic response is one of the best bits of writing I’ve seen on telemark skiing in some time and made me a bit nostalgic for the short period of time that I took it up over a decade ago.
On the other end of the spectrum, I thought I’d ask ChatGPT why telemark skiing remains unpopular. This is what artificial intelligence had to say on the matter…
“Telemark skiing is considered to be a niche sport and is less popular than other forms of skiing for several reasons:
1) Difficulty: Telemark skiing requires more skill and effort than alpine skiing, which can be a barrier to entry for some people.
2) Lack of accessibility: Telemark skiing is not as widely available as alpine skiing, with fewer ski resorts offering telemark-specific terrain and rental gear.
3) Limited market: Telemark skiing is a niche sport, with a limited market of people who are interested in it, which can make it difficult for ski resorts and gear manufacturers to justify investing in the sport.
4) Lack of awareness: Many people are not aware of telemark skiing as a sport, which can make it difficult for the sport to gain popularity.
5) Cost: Telemark skiing can be more expensive than alpine skiing, as it requires specific equipment and specialized ski lessons.
6) Safety concerns: Telemark skiing can be considered more dangerous than alpine skiing, due to the free heel bindings which can lead to a higher risk of injury.
7) Less popular among young people: Telemark skiing is less popular among young people, as they tend to prefer snowboarding and alpine skiing.
8) Time-consuming: Telemark skiing takes longer to learn and master than alpine skiing, which can deter some people from taking up the sport.
9) Limited number of professionals: There are a limited number of professional telemark skiers, which can make it difficult for the sport to gain mainstream popularity.
10) Lack of marketing and promotion: Telemark skiing has not been as heavily promoted as other forms of skiing, which can make it difficult for the sport to gain popularity.”
Tele (from a product POV) is dead in my opinion. Just look at the range of AT boot choices as an example – everything from feather light carbon skimo boots to four buckle freeride boots. Tech binding options and multi-ski quiver options all favor AT which is growing like crazy. Where would you focus on new product development? I gave up tele around 2005 and although I really loved it AT is the present and the future. I have 2 of about 15 ski buddies who still use tele gear but we’re all old now so they do parallel turns anyway.
Go skiing and have fun. Tele will always be there even if people have to dumpster dive for parts. Same as it ever was…?
Wow! This discussion is a punch-in-the-face reminder of how old I am. It’s funny to read that “disadvantaged skiers” with “hammer-heads” and with huge plastic Scarpas, were transformed when they finally were enlightened by the ease of tech bindings and 115mm skis. Really?!?
Forgive my “our gear was shit, BUT WE LIKED IT” attitude, but consider this: three-pin bindings (look it up if you’re under 40) on 65mm, 210cm Tua Toute Neige skis, with soft leather Merrill Super Double boots, and I’m talking low-rise-moccasin soft, were the only means of access to ski Suicide Chute or the Pfieferhorn, which were ghost-towns in the 1970’s compared to todays massive crowds EVERYWHERE! in todays Wasatch. Tele was required back then or else one was stuck on lifts. It wasn’t a choice or something to brag on because you’re bored with your fat skis and 130 flex rated boots, it was how some of us escaped the shit-show of lift served skiing. There was no choice. But you know, even with the archaic gear, I’d take it all back in a micro-second to get back to that quiet, unassuming mountain world. Tele is the origin of the sport.
Imho tele got lost at NTN. Tele was “cool” because it was light, simple, cheap, and enabled skiing more places compared to the alpine stuff of the time. As the industry pushed “more active” at the cost of everything else, it became contraption heavy (and just plain heavy) at the same time that AT was simplifying and getting light.
The future of tele is probably xplore and NNN-BC tbh. There’s all kinds of adventure to be had on a pair of 60mm underfoot camber-and-a-half skis with nordic bindings and a beefy nordic boot. And it’s the same weight as high zoot skimo stuff at 1/5 the price. It’s what the cool kids are doing now.
A comment? Late at night and I’m trying to put my 72 year old body to sleep. Not easy when your back is throbbing from wear and age and prolonged knee dips – presently at Telluride. Viewed skinny skiing 48 years ago when ski bumming at a new Big Sky ski area in Montana. Burning turns and moguls at a young feverish age, but something lacked. Snowboarding didn’t exist. Dreamt one night about doing the same only on skinny skis. Soon hopped on a pair (no edges) and the dream transferred effortlessly. The fluidity and essence was motion released. A new rhythm. Never liked gravity and the lightness allowed flight off bump tops and lips – flitting from one mogul peak to the next. Quick parallel alpine ski type turns we’re still there. What joy and envy it created. Youth was grand. Lift off now ceases, but grace still appears through my three pins.
We ski because it’s fun, not because it’s more efficient.
And of course Tele is more fun.
My father and his brothers learned inelegant tele turns back in the thirties on the terrible gear of the day. When Arleberg technique showed up in CO postwar, they embraced it and were embarrassed that, when in trouble, they reverted to telemark stance.
Years later, when I began skiing in the early fifties, alpine gear was still terrible. Skiing was hard to learn then but fun anyway. I first toured using alpine gear in the later fifties. Walking with fixed heels was not fun. In the sixties and seventies I ventured into the backcountry on skinny wooden skis with three-pins and soft leather boots. Deep snow was a serious problem. So was turning.
Tele gear got wider, heavier, and stiffer. It got more competent too. Before going full-on heavy telemark, I experimented with challenging descents on modified NNN BC gear. It can be done but is not advised. Eventually I noticed that almost all of my telemarking companions had switched to AT setups. Advancing decrepitude made me do the same. Going from my best performing telemark gear to my first AT gear, I lost four pounds from my feet. Subsequent refinements have lost another two or three pounds. I ain’t goin’ back! Yes, linked telemark turns in good snow are very gratifying, but so are parallel turns. The greater strength of alpine technique at first made me dangerous, but after a sobering event I dialed it back a bit.
New gear will not save telemark, but the unavailability of gear will certainly kill it. The number of available boots on the market keeps shrinking, and I worry that they will all disappear in the next few years.
I really like skiing my Tx-Pro/Maestrale frankenboot with both NTN and TTS. It’s a shame that Scarpa won’t just upgrade the Tx-Pro with the Maestrale cuff from the factory. I think they’d sell more and they already have the moulds. Lighter weight boots would be nice but I never end up being the slowest on the uphill, and my bindings are on par with standard feature tech bindings (not race bindings) for weight and efficiency.
Why not switch to AT? The simple answer is that I think it’s more fun to telemark in most conditions I choose to ski in. I do my share of parallel turns when the snow is crusty or heavy, but I don’t believe AT gear would be any more fun in those conditions.
Tele is dead because the “innovations” the allow for leading turns with the oustide foot miss the point. The gear has gotten stiffer and stiffer, deemphasizing the feel and suppleness that defined clean tele skiing since Sondre Norheim invented the Telemark turn. The simplest, most reliable and most durable backcountry bindings these days come from Dynafit, Plum and ATK, and the heels lock.
I’d like to see someone make a SOFTER boot, paired with a 75mm binding mounted to a soft flexing ski again. That was a simple, reliable system with minimal moving parts that could be field bodged to get home with some bailing wire and/or Voile straps. I’ve seen more NTN stuff break than any other currently produced backcountry bindings.
Telemark skiing shouldn’t be about keeping up with your friends on AT gear-and it isn’t the best choice on a lot of terrain. But when avalanche risk is high and low angle powder beckons, a mellower setup can be a good time.
I think I’m with Maciej “I’d like to see someone make a SOFTER boot, paired with a 75mm binding mounted to a soft flexing ski again.”
After years of trying to ski everything with increasingly burly telemark gear I switched over to T2’s, T3’s and soft 3pin and 3pin cable bindings on soft skis which I match to soft mellow conditions, like the one in the title image. It rekindled my enjoyment of telemark. I alpine for extreme terrain or on most resort days.
BITD Wildsnow was my go to resource when I was getting into alpine touring 🙂
I waited for more beta..After 40 years of stooping, dinking with telemark bindings I finally went with step-ins, burly Scarpas and some new-age lib tech skis with the wavy magna traction edge. Yes old guys like new stuff too! I’d say I got 10 days on new set-up. Way too heavy for BC, but is sweet inbounds. I no longer fear dipping a knee on hard pack and I have a bit more control overall. The boots are stiff, but like the boots I’ve had before, they will soften sweetly with abuse., Liking it. Funner, more control and I can alpine ski pretty darn good thanks to heel retention to the ski. You would not even notice I was on tele gear when in alpine mode. I would urge those who abandoned tele skiing way back, to give it a serious look, It’s better and you can still alpine ski like the tribe when needed.
The telemark “alive or dead” questions keeps coming up. Don’t know why. I saw a mono-boarder the other day, so that is not dead. Telemarking is not easy, takes work and that will always hinder participation. I love it when folks ay “that looks hard”, because it is and sometimes it’s not.
I’m not a surfer but I love reading about the sport and the ” Watermen” who ride longboard, short boards and SUPs and are masters in the water in all disciplines. Amongst my snow friends , there are several who AT, Tele and Snowboard at a high level and I have nothing but admiration for their dedication to learning all three . When we hear “Joe” is bringing his Tele gear for the day we all cheer and look forward to watching his beautiful turns.
AT is easier and always will be.
Tele is hard but beautiful to watch and when ” Joe” is in the flow state on Tele gear in good conditions, it’s pure Zen.
Tele will never die but will always remain a niche discipline.
The discipline needs a resurgence to ensure it will be worthwhile for manufacturers to continue to make good gear.
I think Tele skiers and those passionate about the sport need to emphasize and “market” the beauty of THE TURN and how to be the equivalent of a ” Waterman” in surfing , those that love the glisse should be masters of both Alpine and Telemark.
Not promoting the sport in a new way and sticking to the old trope of” we’re wierdos with Peruvian knit hats and skiing Luddites, ” is not going to make the next generation continue to get excited about it.
Great point Chris, and I love you referencing the term, “watermen” as well.
Until or unless lighter boots with more ROM become available, telemark is an increasingly endangered species. There may be some hope at the lightweight end if Xplore proves itself and the range of boots there expands. At the heavier end the Meidjo bindings look great, but where are the matching boots? There’s basically a vacuum between NTN and Xplore/NNN-BC, with the sole exception of the Scarpa T4.
Tele used to be the lighter, less clunky option when compared to AT but that’s ancient history now and, as others have said, AT gear is lighter, more efficient, and ultimately more fun. You have to be really dedicated to stick 100% to tele these days, and I have a friend who is, but more people I know have switched to AT.
Its just not true that ” no one cares that you tele.”
They cant stop talking about it.
A few others have said it, telemarking is easier on the body if you know how to do it well. Your control is due to muscle and coordination not 130 flex rigidity. That and it feels really cool.
I grew up on Nordic skis and gave telemarking and backcountry a good go for a few years with no downhill experience. I never could get the hang of tight trees and trails. Shame on me. I left downhill focused skiing for 5 ish years and focused on Nordic racing. Started dabbling in BC touring and found I could parallel pretty good in powder on skinny waxless skis and leather boots and I was having more fun then tele! Next thing I know I’m on lightweight AT gear, I can ski tight stuff, and I’ve forgotten about Nordic racing.
Coming from nordic background I feel more natural in 1kg AT boots and light skis with my heels locked than I ever did in clunky T2s! Easier to hike in, wear crampons, and drive in are just icing on the cake.
I still enjoy the tele turn on skate skis especially with a inch or 2 if of powder on the trail. I think you get maximum tele sensation in soft boots anyways, there is too much of a fight to flex the bellows in plastic boots.
I think that the framing of why people should want to telemark is at the root of the lack of wider engagement in tele. Alpine and AT focused media almost always talks about how tele is harder or less practical than alpine. This is true, but misses the point of why people tele. The turn feels different, and for those of us that tele is more fun even if it comes at the sacrifice of some power and performance. If we started viewing the choice to tele more similarly to the choice to snowboard I think there would be better engagement with the sport. I believe very few snowboarders would make the argument that snowboarding can compete with alpine in both downhill control and power on challenging terrain and but that they do it for the feeling of ‘surfyness’ or other similar descriptors. When I talk to splitboarders they always refer to the feeling of the turn and not the ease or power. Tele is the same. We are aware that we are giving up on some absolute performance for a turn that we find more enjoyable. If the conversation was framed in this way I think a lot more people would be curious to try tele. Saying that tele is only for counterculuralists and people that want to look cool does the entire discipline a disservice. Most people ski because it’s fun not because they think it makes them cool, some of us happen to have the most fun on tele and I think there is an untapped section of people that would also have more fun on tele if given the opportunity to try.
Tele does face two challenges compared to snowboard/splitboard that I think are harder to overcome. 1. The turn has a slower learning curve. If your a reasonably athletic person you can become a solid intermediate tele skier with a season of diligent practice and good instruction, but to become an expert tele skier takes substantially longer that to reach an equivalent level on alpines or a snowboard. Because of this it’s always more likely to draw people in that are already invested in snowsports, but then you have to overcome the barrier that those people are already good at something and they have to take a step back to learn tele. 2. Tele looks similar to alpine and you can revert to alpine. This results in people that are not tele skiers not really seeing the point, because they just assume that it’s a harder version of alpine and don’t realize how different the turn actually feels. Snowboarding looks more different so I think it’s easier for people to understand that it has a very different feel. Tele feels just as unique, but looks less unique from an outsiders viewpoint.
I believe there’s a place for tele in the modern world. People understand that for snowboarders it’s worth it to deal with heavier and more finicky splitboard technology for the sake to the turn they love. I think we need to view tele skiing as the equivalent to snowboarding compared to AT/alpine, not as a competitor to AT/alpine skiing
I gotta say, Dusty, you have come up with a novel argument for telemark skiing. If I may sum it up: Telemarking is more fun than it looks—sort of like snowboarding is more fun than it looks. That’s why telemarkers and snowboarders put up with the hassles in the backcountry.
OK, OK, OK. Say, has anyone here ever skied a splitboard? Believe it or not, it can be more fun than AT, alpine, or tele in the nicest conditions and just as relevant.
Great point. I watched a hut caretaker in early January absolutely rip while skiing his splitboard.
I used to have the AT vs Freeheel debate with my friend Paul Ramer years ago. For almost 50 years I’ve skied the backcountry using both modes. Living most of my life in Colorado and now in central Oregon, the places I skied and now ski are different in nature. When in Colorado, I used my AT rig probably 70% of the time. Most of the routes I skied climbed quickly from my car and usually didn’t involve flat to rolling terrain so AT was the tool for the job. Here in oregon where I ski mostly there’s a lot of very flat long distance touring required before hitting the steeps so wide Nordic gear (Rossi BC110s, Voile 3 pins, Garmont Excursions) are way more fluid and ergonomic to kick and glide with over the mechanical toe pivot of my ATK tech bindings and boots. For me it allows the flats to be faster and funner. I teach freeheel downhill technique and balk at using the term telemark on principle. The telemark turn is a vital and useful turn especially for variable conditions but it’s a tool in your quiver of techniques, not a religion. Skiing parallel while freeheel is more work than locked but in most conditions is a more efficient turn in terms of energy expenditure and lateral stability. The other thing I like about freeheel is the lack of fussiness with skins (for lower angle terrain) using no wax pattern bases and with bindings. The ability to do laps on shorter runs with only shortening my poles is way more convenient.