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?
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.