It has been called "the world's oldest new sport," and I
suppose that's true. Telemark skiing (or "tele") has
also been called "the most rhythmic and flowing way to descend
a snow covered mountain," and I'm pretty sure that's true
as well. One thing I do know with absolute certainty: tele skiing
is all about the stoke, the sensation, that feeling of excited
exhilaration that comes from getting into the groove of the tele
Today there are many aspects to this sport.
For some, part of the stoke comes in the form of an endorphin
high, that special feeling one gets after a hard workout. Other
tele skiers seek out the kind of senses-sharpening adrenaline
rush one gets from skiing really challenging terrain. For still
others, telemark skiing gives access (paraphrasing John Muir)
to places to play, places where nature may heal and give strength
to body and soul, to interact with wildlife, to feel the forces
of gravity, the energy of a gathering storm. A lot of tele
skiers find a big part of the stoke to be in the friendships
they develop with other members of the tribe, and for some a
big attraction is the challenge of learning a new approach to
skiing their local resort or terrain park. And then there are
the philosophical, almost zen-like aspects to the sport...
While all of these things add to the fun
of tele skiing, the true stoke is hard to describe. It
can be an almost ethereal experience in those moments when everything
comes together: form, function, time and space. Yet it is almost
uncanny how something as intangible as this stoke can come to
dominate a big part of so many of our lives.Yet that is, in fact,
exactly why we do what we do.
Skiing itself had been around for hundreds,
perhaps even thousands of years when Norwegian Sondre
Norheim, recognized today as the father of telemark skiing,
popularized a new style of turn where one ski was advanced in
front of the other and the heel was raised on the rear ski, with
the skier in a very bent knee position . It was the late 1800s,
and skiing was shifting from a mode of transportation to a form
of recreation. Although no one can say for certain if it was
Norheim who first invented the tele technique, he is widely credited
with introducing the turn to the skiing world in jumping competitions.
Norheim would land his jumps in the tele stance and finish with
a stylish and smooth telemark turn. Soon other skiers from Norheim's
hometown of Morgedal, a village located in the rural county of
Telemark in the southern part of Norway, adopted the new turn
Anne-Gry Blikom and Eivind Molde, authors
of the book Sondre
Norheim: The Father of Modern Skiing have written of
For centuries skiing was something people
did because they had to. In a country with long distances between
the small, isolated communities and (with) hard snowy winters,
skiing was important as a means of keeping in social contact
with each other. And for the hunter and farmer, skis were a necessity.
Sondre Norheim played a crucial role,
as skiing in the late 19th century changed from a utilitarian
form of travel into a recreational pursuit, and a competitive
sport. Sondre loved to have fun on the slopes and he experimented
all the time with equipment and new skiing styles.
As Paul Parker writes in his seminal book
and modern-day telemark primer Free-Heel
Skiing, the new "telemark turn wasn't just a curiosity,
but a viable technique for the equipment of the day, which consisted
of free heels and wooden skis with no sidecut. In the telemark
position one could wedge the forward ski slightly and have the
effect of one long, sidecut ski." This was a breakthrough,
for as we have learned today with modern sidecut skis (skis that
are significantly wider at the tips and tails than through their
center section), sidecut makes skis much easier to turn (more
on this later). The telemark turn was also ideally suited for
the moderately steep mountains and the soft, deep snow found
in the Telemark region of Norway.
In 1868, Norheim and a group of skiers
from Telemark travelled to the city of Christiania (now Oslo)
to take part in the second annual Centralforeningen (Central
Ski Association), a ski competition the object of which was to
see who could ski most skilfully down a particular nearby slope
in the city . At the time, nearly all skiers were straight running
everything, and struggled to make any kind of turn. At the competition,
Norheim and the other villagers shocked the city skiers, demonstrating
skills that had never been seen before, including strong turns
and precisely controlled stops. In addition to the graceful telemark
turn, Norheim and the boys also used a rudimentary kind of parallel
turn to a stop, swinging their skis around and edging hard in
what today we call a "hockey stop." This parallel stopping
technique later formed the basis for the Christiania, or "christy"
turns that, along with the stem turn, evolved into the kind of
parallel turns most commonly used by skiers today.
Did You Know?
Sondre Norheim, the
inventor of the telemark turn, was also the first ski designer
to experiment with sidecut built into his edgeless wooden skis?
It worked, but it wasn't until some 90 years later that ski makers
discovered an interesting fact: even more sidecut totally
As the story contininues, the telemark
turn stayed popular in the region of its birth, while in Christiania
the skiers found parallel turns easier and more effective on
the hard snow common to that area. Then, near the turn of the
century, an Austrian by the name of Mathias Zdarsky, invented
the aforementioned "stem turn," the chief virtue of
which was that it was easy to teach and to learn, as well as
being an effective method to descend slowly and under control.
The stem turn was made by forcing the ski tails outward, pushing
against the outside ski and then allowing the skis to come back
together near the end of the turn. The stem turn is often taught
as part of the alpine skiing learning progression, even today.
As recreational skiing became more commercialized,
and with the growth of ski resorts and their usually groomed,
firm snow runs, it's not surprising that the telemark technique
failed to catch on in the areas where skiing began to really
take off as a sport in the 1900s, that is North American and
continental Europe. Parallel techniques were (and still are)
easier to learn and require less skill on hard snow, particularly
given the limitations of the equipment of the day. By the 50s
and 60s, the telemark turn was a forgotten technique.
Then, in the 1960s, a new trend emerged
in North America, people started taking to the hills in droves
as part of an overall interest in the environment and all things
natural. Hiking and backpacking became very popular, and many
of the participants in this sport looked for a way to extend
the activity into winter. A sort of mini-boom in cross-country
ski touring was soon underway. Today, telemark lore traces the
revival of the tele turn back to a group of skiers in and around
Crested Butte, Colorado. As the story goes, this group was interested
in extending its skiing experience out of the resort and into
the backcountry on cross-country skis. One of those Crested Butte
locals, Rick Borkovic, later related his story to author Brad
English for his 1984 book Total Telemarking :
Standing on the groomed slopes of the area,
looking out at the backcountry, we longed to ski those untouched
runs far from the crowded lifts. I felt this desire could be
fulfilled through cross-country skiing and in 1971 I began to
seriously explore the backcountry potential of Nordic equipment.
We soon found that conventional downhill techniques were generally
unsuited to the racing skis we first used, or the conditions
we encountered. The snowplow didn't work very well for us in
deep powder, and the parallel turn seemed too unstable on freeheel
bindings and flexible boots. We eventually worked out the basics
of the telemark, guided by an old picture I had seen of Stein
Eriksen's father demonstrating the turn, and went from there
on our own. The rest, as they say, is history
Whether this was the actual birth of the
revival of telemark, no one will ever really know for sure. North American Telemark Association
founder Dickie Hall once told me that he and a group of north
eastern U.S. skiers were already making telemark turns in the
early 70s when a couple of tele skiers from Colorado visited
their local mountains in Vermont. It's unclear where Dickie and
his group got the idea for the turn, but my own story may illustrate
how the tele revival might have likely occurred as a logical
extension of the increased interest in cross-country ski touring.
How I Started Telemark Skiing
In the 1980s, after many years of enjoying
occasional cross-country trips in the mostly flat terrain around
Yosemite's Glacier Point area, I moved my young family to a mountain
community in southern California known as Pine Mountain. The
terrain was much hillier than I was used to skiing, and the need
for beefier gear became apparent. Soon I had cable bindings mounted
on my waxless, fishscale base cross country skis and was struggling
to make some kind of crude wedge turns. One weekend I went on
an overnight ski trip to the top of San Emigdio mountain with
a new friend and neighbour, Ed Veith. It was a perfect trip in
almost every way. We built a snowcave and took a moonlight tour
out to a spot overlooking our little mountain-town home. It was
a magical moment. The snow was sparkling in the moonlight and
the lights of the little village below were twinkling in the
cold mountain air. I went to sleep that night as happy and content
as I have ever been.
The next morning we awoke to blue-bird
skies and a foot of fresh snow. We were still thoroughly stoked
from the night before and enjoying the spectacular morning. Lounging
in the sun after a little ski around the mountain-top, Ed and
I were talking about what a great time we were having and wondering
how things could possibly be any better. In truth, we both knew
that there was just one little problem, and that was the difficult
ski down with heavy packs that lie ahead. "You know Ed,
this is about as good as life gets right now," I said while
looking down at my skis, "there's just one thing though,
it sure would be nice to be able to turn these darn things."
Ed answered, "it sure would, you know
last winter in Colorado I saw some guys doing a different kind
of turn on skinny skis, I think they call it the Telemark. One
ski is out in front of the other, sort of like this," and
with that Ed dropped into a reasonable facsimile of the tele
stance. "I'll tell you what, I'm going to try to make one
turn down to that tree over there," Ed pointed down the
hill, indicating a large ponderosa pine. I answered, "okay,
I'll watch...try not to get hurt, it's a long way down to the
With that Ed shoved off and made a single,
swooping tele turn to a stop. I couldn't believe what I had just
witnessed, "you did it!" I yelled down to him as he
stood there grinning ear to ear. "Ed, wait there, I'm going
to try to make the same turn down to you, right in your track."
And I did. I pulled up next to him and we high-fived each other.
Our lives would never be the same. Just like that, we were hooked
on the telemark turn.
So who knows? Maybe the tele revival began
in Crested Butte according to Rick Borkovic 's account...or maybe
it began out of necessity in more than one place simultaneously
as cross-country ski tourers began pushing the boundaries of
their sport... whatever, the telemark turn was rediscovered in
North America in the early 1970s and quickly began to catch on
as a backcountry technique. Just as Sondre Norheim and his crew
in Morgedahl had found the tele turn ideally suited for making
turns with long, straight skis and floppy boots in soft deep
snow, a century later the tele turn was revived as a solution
by skiers facing similar terrain and equipment challenges.
By the 1980s the telemark revival that
began in the United States a decade earlier, had spread to central
Europe and back to the region of its birth, Norway and Sweden.
Important Recent Developments In Tele
As the years went by, tele continued to
grow in popularity. Telemark boots, while still made primarily
of leather, became taller and stiffer. Tele technique progressed
as a result. In the early days tele skiers were forced to leap
up out of the snow between turns and complete a significant portion
of the turn while in the air, landing and hoping for the best...
in fact this technique was often referred to by the ignominious
term "hop and hope.". As an alternative many tele skiers
would make the turn in sequential fashion, in a sort of variation
on Zdarsky's step turn. Although often effective, neither technique
was especially elegant. Equipment was holding the sport back.
By the late 80s and early 90s big, stiff, plastic-cuffed leather
boots were in wide use, but tele skis were still skinny and not
very torsionally rigid. Many telemarkers turned to alpine skis
as an alternative, but alpine ski design was, at the time, largely
driven by racing, meaning that the skis were almost all very
stiff along their length from tip to tail (longitudinally)...
in those days this was how ski designers made skis that resisted
twist (torsional rigidity). Savvy tele skiers would shun skinny
tele skis and seek out wider alpine skis with a reasonably soft
flex, as this made it easier to pressure and bend the rear ski
in the tele turn. Unfortunately all too often these soft flexing
skis would turn out to be lousy performers on anything but the
softest snow due to poor torsional rigidity.
1992 will forever be remembered as a major
turning point in the modern era of telemark skiing. It was in
this year that an equipment development changed the sport forever,
we didn't know it then but the turn itself was about to become
a lot more fun and move beyond merely being a useful tool to
get from point A to point B.
This was the year that Black Diamond, in
partnership with Italian boot maker Scarpa, introduced the first
all-plastic telemark boot. Suddenly, we had taken a big leap
forward from a technological standpoint, and the future seemed
I'll never forget opening boxes containing
our new Terminator boots at my ski-partner Len's house, he pulled
out one of his boots first, held it up and said, "behold,
the greatest invention since the wheel." And that was exactly
how it felt.
Today, I'm sure it's hard for many who
weren't around then to understand the significance of the first
Terminator boots to the development of telemark as a sport, those
of us who were still recall struggling along in expensive leather
boots that went from "broken in" to "broken down"
in barely more than a handful of days of use. Beyond increased
durability was the fact that we now had boots that were modern
and ahead of the technique curve. The future was indeed ours.
Ryan Boyer, Mammoth
Just as this was happening in the world
of tele boots, a big change was coming to skis as well. Cap construction
and designs with much more sidecut were beginning to hit the
alpine ski market. The cap ski design --where the sidewalls and
top are one with a continuous monocoque wrap-- began life as
a cheaper and more simple way to build recreational skis. Then
manufacturers found that the new construction method also increased
durability, strength, and most importantly, made it easier to
build in more resistance to ski twist (torsional rigidity), a
key to making powerful skis that hold a strong edge. This was
a huge development for telemark skiers too. As mentioned earlier,
in the past when ski designers made their skis more torsionally
rigid they would also become more stiff overall. In tele skiing,
very stiff skis make it difficult to get enough pressure on the
rear ski in the telemark turn to bend the ski into the snow.
With cap construction and modern materials, skis could now easily
be manufactured with the relatively softer longitudinal flex
so beneficial for pressuring the rear ski properly in the tele
turn, without sacrificing the torsional rigidity needed for hard
Then came the beginning of what is now
known as "the sidecut revolution." In ski design, the
term "sidecut" refers to the difference in ski width
at the ends of the ski, as compared to the width at the ski's
most narrow point at its waist. As late as the mid-90s, most
skis for alpine and telemark had, by today's standards, very
little sidecut. And except for a small percentage of early adopters,
most tele skiers were also using skis that were quite narrow
overall. The Tua Montet
was a popular telemark ski model in the early to mid-90s, and
with dimensions of 86mms at its tip and 64mms at its waist, it's
a good example of a typical of its time skinny ski, with very
little sidecut (22mms). In the alpine world, ski designers were
beginning to experiment with super-sidecut skis, or what were
then called "parabolics." These skis had wide tips
and tails and very narrow waists. An example of this was the
Elan SCX, the first mass marketed
parabolic. I mounted with freeheel bindings for tele skiing as
a sort of experiment. Mine had a 115mm tip and a 64mm waist,
a whopping 51mm sidecut.
These extreme sidecut skis had some drawbacks,
and as the sidecut revolution progressed less radical cuts became
the norm. Today most models, alpine and tele alike, have sidecuts
in the 30 to 40mm range. But skis like the SCX had revealed a
huge, game-improvement advantage: they made carved turns (as
opposed to skidded turns) much, much easier. Before the sidecut
revolution, only a small percentage of the best skiers had the
skills to bend the stiff skis of the time into the kind of arc
needed to consistently carve their turns. In most conditions,
with more sidecut, skiers could now just roll their knees in
the direction of the turn, pressure the tips of their skis a
bit, and depend on a smoothly carved turn being the result.
While perhaps not as big of a breakthrough
for tele skiers as for alpine parallel skiers (as mentioned earlier,
the tele technique itself could be viewed as providing the driver
with one long ski, and with a variable amount of sidecut), skis
with increased sidecut did make it much easier to get the skis
to carve in a tele turn, especially the rear ski. The combination
of softer flexing but torsionally rigid cap skis, sidecut designs
and big, beefy plastic boots, held together with improved freeheel
binding designs, suddenly made it much easier to get the hang
of tele skiing. The learning curve steepened dramatically.
As the gear improved, telemark technique
also became more refined, taking full advantage of the power
the new gear afforded. The telemark stance became tighter, less
spread out. In nearly all conditions it was also no longer necessary
to athletically unweight to the point of hopping up off the snow
and making a major portion of the tele turn in the air. The result
was that tele skiing became less strenuous. Improved control
also gave freeheel skiers the confidence to take their tele turn
into the most challenging terrain.
By 2000, the stage was set for an explosion
of interest in telemark skiing, and a new generation of freeheel
skiers was about to discover the stoke for themselves.
Telemark Skiing Today
According to the industry trade group Snowsports
Industries America (SIA), telemark
has, in recent years, been growing much faster than either snowboarding
or alpine skiing. SIA reported a shocking 75% rise in telemark
gear sales from 2003 to 2004 and other evidence of the sport's
increasing popularity abounds. Telemark has hit the mainstream
in a big way: Nike-ACG sponsored telemark athletes Sara Clemenson
and Ben Dolenc had starring segments in two back-to-back Warren
Miller films, and Miller's film, Higher Ground featured
Dolenc and freeheel park riding specialist Max Mancini. The days
of tele skiers making it into mainstream ski movies only as comic
relief are, thankfully, long gone.
In addition to the important gear advances
noted above, undoubtedly a very large part of this surge in popularity
of the sport is due to telemark skiing's increased visibility.
In the early years of the sport's resurgence, most tele skiing
took place in the relative anonymity of the backcountry. Telemarkers
would typically go lift-served skiing mostly to hone their skills,
the better they became the less they would ski at the resorts.
A lot of the best tele skiers tended to stay away from the resorts
almost entirely. The backcountry ethic/dogma of tele skiing was
so strong that when they would run into one another at a ski
area it was common for tele skiers to sheepishly claim "I'm
just here for the practice."
Outsiders often viewed tele skiing as strange
In retrospect it's easy now to see what
happened. Alpine skiers and snowboarders weren't exposed much
to the sport, and when they were it was usually negatively. If
they saw them at all from the lifts, boarders and alpine skiers
would usually see telemarkers struggling mightily on moderate
terrain, hands waving around in the air, searching for balance.
Then a funny thing happened in the later
90s, as the gear became more dialed and technique more refined,
telemark skiers began to shake off the dogma and pursue the sport
for the sake of the turn itself. For the stoke. And lift served
skiing is all about getting lots and lots of turns. A few younger freeheel skiers even started heading
to the ski areas to take advantage of the terrain parks, while
an increasing number of aggressive big-mountain tele-ers began
to take their act out to the steepest, gnarliest resort terrain
they could find, and pound hard all day long. They did not go
Ten to fifteen years ago a tele skier riding
a chairlift had to be prepared to field all sorts of goofy questions
about their gear. I have no idea how many times someone asked
me about my "cross-country skis," but it was a lot.
My lift mates would ask, "isn't it really hard to turn with
your heel loose like that?" Or they would say "I would
like to try telemark, but it looks too hard."
Today those kinds of comments are very
Now, when talking about telemark skiing,
on a lift, a gondola or at the bar over a beer, we hear the most
aggressive big mountain snowboarders and alpine skiers on the
hill saying things like "any time Ryan Boyer (a well-known
local tele skier) is on the mountain he's likely to not just
be the best telemark skier out there, but the best skier on the
hill period." And today there are Ryan Boyers at every resort,
all over the world. When snow sports enthusiasts see these masters
of the sport at a ski area, in the backcountry, in the terrain
parks, at tele extreme freeskiing events
competitions, or on film, they
are inspired to try telemark.
In addition, modern freeheel skiers are
an ambassadorial bunch, often sharing their stoke with friends,
relatives, even fellow web surfers, as we see so often on our
Tor Stetson-Lee competing at the
9th Annual U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Telemark Championships last
year. Click the image to learn a little more about Tor's interesting
and inspiring story.
Telemark skiing has stepped out of the
shadows and is burgeoning in the backcountry and at the resorts.
And although modern freeheel skiing now has many components and
the participants come to the sport for a myriad of reasons, quite
simply it's the stoke, the exhilaration that comes from getting
into the groove of the turn, that keeps us coming back for more
...and more... and more.
How To get Started
You've found this site, so that's a very
It all begins on the Cover
page of Telemarktips.com--The Online Telemark and Backcountry
Skiing Magazine. Add it your favorites, and check in regularly.
Nearly every day we have new content. TeleVision
videos to get you psyched for skiing, and the latest Telemark
News to keep you informed.
We've got downloadable video
lessons by Level 3 PSIA Telemark Instructor Tom Peterson,
and tips from some of our crew, including
the inimitable Dano-cruz. Technical help --everything from how
to bake your own thermoformable boot liners to waxing your skis--
as well as the most detailed and down to earth gear reviews in
the business are accessed from our Dr.
Telemark page. And of course we've got lots and lots of photos, a regular updated "Centerfold," and the coolest
desktop wallpaper you'll ever find
on the web.
And much more... including our incredibly
Talk Forum. Got a question? Register and run it by our thousands
of active members. It's a fun place to visit and hang out between
ski sessions. Forum participants from all over the world even
regularly get together to ski and have fun. Check it out!
Visit our sponsors,
drop them an email or give them a call. At every one of them
you'll find someone on the other end more than willing to help
you get started in this great sport.
Most importantly, just borrow or rent some
tele gear, find a friend to give you some tips, take a lesson,
attend a festival
clinic or demo day, or just head on out to a bunny slope
somewhere. I guarantee you'll have a blast and be back for more.
Just be forewarned though, that first turn has been known to
change lives forever. It certainly did mine.