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Learning to Tele: An Alpine Skier Sets Heels Free

17th December 2014 | Dan Kasper

News Regions: Colorado, Rocky Mountains

Resorts in this article: Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Breckenridge, Keystone

This is what the beginning of the telemark skiing learning curve looks like. It gets easier.

This is what the beginning of the telemark skiing learning curve looks like. It gets easier.

Copyright: Dan Kasper

I am a skier. Skiing is my passion and it’s been a part of my life for 30-plus years. In that time, I’ve seen fellow skiers leave the sport or turn to different disciplines. Not me—I have always considered rigid boots and two-piece bindings as the only choice. I have never strapped a snowboard to my feet, and until this past season, an alpine ski setup had been my only means of getting down a snow-covered mountain. 

Norwegian Sondre Norheim introduced telemark skiing to the world in 1866. This skiing discipline, which is distinguished by the telemark stance—where a skier bends their knee at a 90-degree angle while turning, has seen peaks and valleys of popularity over the past century-plus. There has been a recent surge in the sport’s popularity primarily thanks to equipment advancements and the increased interest in backcountry pursuits—for which telemark gear is uniquely suited. 

Telemark skiing initially intrigued me about 15 years ago, shortly after I sustained a serious knee injury from a forward twisting fall where my ski boot didn’t release from my alpine binding. Had I been telemark skiing at the time, I might have avoided that injury, as tele bindings allow for greater range of motion because your ski boot is only bound to the ski at one point (the toe) as opposed to the toe and heel for traditional alpine bindings. 

Since then, the reasons to try teleskiing—a new challenge, greater aerobic exercise, less chance for another major knee injury, etc.—continued to pile up. Finally, I decided this past season was going to be the year that I “freed my heel” and gave tele skiing a try. The following documents my journey from telemark neophyte to free-heeled convert. 

Tele Gear 

Rottefella of Norway changed the telemark game back in 2007 when they introduced the New Telemark Norm (NTN) binding system. NTN bindings offer greater ease of use, increased torsional rigidity for precision edging and more safety features than traditional duckbill telemark bindings. After the first couple of times clicking in and out of my Rottefella Freedom bindings, I became quite comfortable with them. 

NTN bindings require NTN compatible boots. For that, I turned to Scarpa—the brand that made the first plastic telemark boot back in 1992. The Scarpa TX Pro is lightweight yet burly, easy flexing yet powerful and one of the most comfortable ski boots I’ve ever worn. With a heat moldable Intuition liner, these boots required next to no modification and provided pure comfort right out of the box. 

Unlike tele boots and bindings, you don’t need special skis to telemark—you can mount your tele setup to any alpine ski. I chose to mount my NTN bindings to a pair of Dean Cummings’ H20G Kodiak skis. Cummings named these skis after his son, and despite a 120mm waist, they perform just as well on-piste as they do in the deep stuff. I decided to go with the Kodiaks for my tele setup because they’re the go-to tele ski for the guides at Cummings’ heli-ski operation in Alaska: H20 Guides. 

The Lesson 

My telemark journey began at Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin for a lesson from “Tele Tim” Stroh. Stroh has been telemark skiing exclusively since 1981 and was able to school me in the ways of the tele technique. I spent much of the morning shuffling my feet down beginner trails while managing pressure and maintaining balance. This exercise really had me focus on keeping my weight equally distributed across both skis. 

The telemark journey began at Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin for a lesson from “Tele Tim” Stroh.   - © Dan Kasper

The telemark journey began at Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin for a lesson from “Tele Tim” Stroh.

Copyright: Dan Kasper

After that, Stroh had me work on gliding and traversing across the mountain in a telemark stance. This made me concentrate on maintaining a simultaneous edge angle across the hill. Once I became comfortable holding that, I progressed to making individual tele turns, stopping between each to focus on winding up in a stable telemark stance at the end of each turn. 

By the end of the lesson, my legs were spent but I was starting to link telemark turns. Tele Tim really honed my stance and technique to help me avoid beginning my tele career with a host of bad habits. That said, I found myself reverting to alpine techniques whenever I picked up any semblance of speed. 

Learning to tele ski may or may not be as awkward as it looks.   - © Dan Kasper

Learning to tele ski may or may not be as awkward as it looks.

Copyright: Dan Kasper

The Season 

The weeks and months that followed my lesson had me clicking into my tele setup at Breckenridge, Keystone and A-Basin to practice the techniques. At first, I needed to force myself to make slow, controlled turns to avoid something that looked more like an awkward alpine turn. With practice, I became more comfortable at keeping my weight evenly distributed over both skis. This concentration on “two-foot turns” also helped my alpine skiing technique—providing more stability and keeping me balanced atop my skis. 

Starting to link telemark turns.  - © Dan Kasper

Starting to link telemark turns.

Copyright: Dan Kasper

My “aha” tele moment came on day five of free-heeling. It was a spring day in Breckenridge where all of the shuffling and gliding practice finally clicked. I was able to link tele turn after tele turn without going too fast and reverting to a modified alpine turn. The muscle memory kicked in, and I finally felt less awkward and more confident. 

So, what’s next? Well, I don’t think I’ll be selling my alpine setup anytime soon. I plan to continue to improve as a telemark skier to the point where I feel comfortable making tele turns in diverse conditions on any terrain. That day might come next season or it might take more time than that. Regardless, I’m now hooked on this ancient discipline and finding myself falling in love with skiing all over again.


Tele skiing fail - © Dan Kasper
First tele turns - © Dan Kasper
The author and “Tele Tim” Stroh - © Dan Kasper
Tele 101 - © Dan Kasper

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