If you've had it with 45 minute lift lines and you dream of pristine runs, free from lift towers, trail markers and crowds, then skip the traditional ski resort and head for the backcountry for some telemark skiing. Telemark skiing (also called "free heel" or "tele" skiing) is a form of skiing that originated in Norway in 1868 and experienced an American revival during the 1970s. It has become popular with backcountry skiers because they can "skin uphill" and access wilderness areas that are not serviced by ski lifts. What makes telemarking so different from traditional alpine skiing is the equipment and the technique.
Telemark skiers are recognizable by their unique style - they advance their outside (or downhill) ski using a flatfooted stance, pulling the inside (or uphill) ski backwards - the opposite of alpine skiing. Instead of evenly distributing their weight between the right and left skis, telemarkers typically put more weight on the outside ski. In effect, by pulling back the inside ski, the two skis become one, elongated ski.
Telemark ski equipment has enjoyed most of the same technological improvements of alpine ski equipment. The boots, once made from leather, are now made from lightweight plastics that fasten with three buckles. Because telemark skiing depends on a "free heel," one that isn't fastened to the ski, the most popular bindings use a cable binding that secures the toe of the boot into the toe piece. While telemark skis are often softer with less torsional rigidity than alpine skis, they are very similar. In fact, many telemarkers will mount tele bindings onto alpine skis.
The best way to become acquainted with the equipment is by renting it before you buy. Telemark boots are fitted similarly to alpine boots but the first thing that you'll notice is the difference in weight. Tele boots are lighter, have one less buckle, and flex just behind the toes at the boot's "bellows." Most come with comfortable liners that can be customized to your foot. Some of the major manufacturers of tele boots are Scarpa, Garmont, Black Diamond, Crispi and G3.
Tele boots are defined by the type of terrain you plan to encounter. Touring boots are usually lighter weight than other models and are made for spending hours on the trail. All Mountain boots are popular for tele skiers who like to split their time between resort and backcountry skiing - they offer many of the same features of an alpine boot but also work well in off-piste conditions. Tele skiers who spend the majority of their time on lift-serviced terrain will often use Freeride tele boots. They function like traditional tele boots but offer more support for groomed and hardpacked conditions. Like alpine boots, count on getting a pair of custom-made footbeds at the same time - they can significantly change the way your boots fit.
Like their alpine cousins, tele bindings come in a variety of models, depending on their application. 22 Designs, Black Diamond, G3, Rottefella and Voile are the most popular manufacturers of tele bindings. Most use cable tension to hold your toe into the toe piece and come with safety straps that attach to your boots. If you plan to venture into the backcountry by skinning uphill, make sure that the heel platform of the bindings comes with some type of device that flips up while climbing.
Telemark skis are very similar to alpine skis. Most feature the same construction but are lighter weight. They're often made with wood cores, plastic upper skins and the same base and edge construction as alpine skis. Like alpine skis, tele skis come in a variety of widths and sidcuts - hardpack, mid-fat, fat and super-fat. Some of the most popular tele skis are made by Black Diamond, K2, Volkl, Rossignol, G3, and Atomic.
A recent entry into the tele market that features all of the climbing benefits of telemark skis with the thrill of snowboarding is the "split board." Split boards are essentially a snowboard that's split down the middle. For climbing, the boards splits into two skis. For riding, the two boards are hooked together. Still fairly new to the industry, split boards are only made by four companies - Voile, Burton, Duotone, and Prior Snowboards.
Telemark skiing can be an exciting way to add more dimension to your skiing while enjoying a day away from the crowds with the family. The best way to start is to check with your local resort to see if they rent telemark equipment and offer tele workshops. Free your heels and free your mind.