The theme of this winter for me has been to improve my “mountain-craft.” Having just completed the two month long ACC backcountry course, I set myself to the final pillar of mountain skiing: Telemark.
The father of modern skiing pictured above is the Norwegian, Sondre Norheim. His techniques and ski designs launched mountain skiing as we know it today. His original designs had a free heel and over time, the boots became locked down to the bindings to increase stability. These became “Alpine bindings” and skills and techniques adapted to them. The modern system of touring allows a free heel to ascend, and then lock to descend. But for purists, there’s no need to lock the heel, provided you master the Telemark turn.
Telemark is the region in Norway where Sondre lived and now is the namesake of the techniques he developed. As part of my continuing mountain education, I’ve started to learn it. The advantage in Telemark bindings and boots is that they are ultra lightweight since they require only a small clamp to secure the toe of the lightweight boots. Imagine climbing up 3000 feet through deep snow with 15lbs on each foot and you can easily appreciate the quest to find a lighter alternative. The tradeoff with the lighter gear is that without bindings in deep snow, balance is a terror. (Not to be confused with “Balance of Terror” my favorite Star Trek episode!)
I walked into “Gear-up” our local rental shop and asked for some Telemark gear. The reaction I got was like asking a waiter if the cook can empty the grease catch and serve it to me in a bowl. They did have some which they rented to me for a pittance. “Tell me how it goes!” says the tech behind the counter. I headed out to the hills and put the contraptions on. I nearly fell over standing still! After much wobbling and falling on very gentle slopes, I got the hang of it. The night before, I solicited some expert advice from one of the ACC leaders who is one of the rare Telemarkers. With practice, I finally had one of those transcendent experiences where you “get it.” I came to see the natural fluidity of it all.
It didn’t take long to become a true believer. These techniques require very sophisticated weight distribution and transfer. In the picture above, I have 80% weight on the ball of my right foot and 20% on my left foot big toe while simultaneously putting my hip into the uphill side and counterbalancing with my right arm while keeping my chest pointed at the fall line. This must be all recreated in reverse image in about a third of a second to get the skis to turn the other direction.
Here’s the whole process in slow motion from a video Suz shot.
Once I get more practice in deeper snow, this could become my preferred method of travel in the backcountry. For now in complex, advanced terrain, I still need my AT gear and the tried and true skills that go with it. But I have great satisfaction in being a standard bearer for the traditional techniques whose value I am beginning to understand, have yet to be rivalled.