Telemark Skiing 101

Maybe you’ve seen us before in the lift line, raising our heels in weird looking bindings. Or on the hill, making turns that look oddly like lunges. Eventually, you probably learned that our bindings aren’t broken, and that there are more of us out there than you first realized.

But why ski this way? What’s the appeal?

Kate Hourihan in a sweet telemark turn, Alta Ski Area.

Kate Hourihan, East Greely, Alta Ski Area.

Originally, telemark skiing was a means of easy backcountry access. Though telemark skiing dates back to the 1860s, the sport saw a revival in the 1970s as alpine gear became sturdier, stronger, and heavier, which hindered skiers’ ability to tour in the backcountry.

A telemark setup, by comparison, uses a binding system that keeps the heel free and is defined by turns with a bent knee and a smooth, low lunge. This “free-heel” system remained light and comfortable, providing backcountry enthusiasts the ability to walk uphill with their skis on. Since then, alpine gear has evolved to allow easier backcountry access, which means telemark is no longer a necessity for backcountry skiing. Yet a lot of people still do it.

Those who telemark today often say the came to the sport because they wanted a new challenge, or they thought the fluidity of a telemark turn was a beautiful, more graceful way to descend down the mountain. And telemark is simultaneously suited for in-bounds and backcountry use: you can take the same boots, skis, and bindings from the resort to the backcountry without hesitation. Most importantly, all telemarkers will agree: while tele skiing comes with a steep learning curve, it adds an agile and dynamic rhythm to the sport.

But in the world of snow sports, telemarkers get a lot of crap. We are often the butt of “clever” jokes about dysfunctional bindings, and are stereotyped as crunchy, bearded, hippie, granola free-heelers. But we are not a stereotype; we come in many forms.

A new generation of telemarkers huck cliffs and ski big lines with minimal turns. Some like to get super low in their turns while some tend to stay high. There are telemark park rats. There are telemarkers who have never set a skin track in the backcountry, and there are telemarkers who have never freed a heel inbounds. There are those whose goals are to be light and fast and to travel far. And there are those who prefer stability and a sturdy setup to shred the toughest terrain.

So while telemark is definitely a niche, it is still quite diverse. And if you are new to the sport—or even just updating your gear—navigating through the different options can be difficult. I hope to illustrate how there is gear to suit every need. There are no rules to the perfect setup, but every telemarker can benefit from taking advantage of the latest technology.

3 Comments

  1. Ziggy September 27, 2012 Reply

    A useful rundown. Also worth adding that there have been a couple of telebindings with inbuilt release capability (7TM and Voile CRB) and one make of DIN-rated release plates to fix bindings to (Telebry Safeout). For the older tele skier or one with injuries these can provide some peace of mind.

  2. Douglas Wren October 1, 2017 Reply

    Kate, great article, really enjoyed it. thanks for taking the time to really talk in depth about the gear available to telemark. probably.the best in depth article I’ve seen recenly. i recently came back to telemarking after not skiing or boarding for many years.

  3. Wayne Perkins April 9, 2018 Reply

    Really enjoyed this article. Best advice for Tele skiers may have been at the end:
    Final thoughts…
    One last factor to consider is keeping your gear somewhat consistent, especially given the range of power and stiffness you’ll find among boots, skis, and bindings. If you go stiff with one of those elements, you more than likely need to upgrade your whole setup. For example, when I first got my K2 Hellbents, I was still skiing on a Scarpa T2 boot, which is pretty soft. I had a hard time controlling such a big ski with such soft boots. I upgraded my boots to a stiffer T Race and had a much better time. Bindings work the same way. Your stiff T Race boots and a fat heavy ski will do you no good if you are still rocking a G3 cable binding.

    Bindings, Always been the weak link. Now(.2018) some bindings can handle alpine skis with a stiff tele boot.

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