Free Your Heels, Free Your Mind
Suddenly even the tamest of bunny slopes seems so … steep.
Green runs are the only way to go and blue ones should only be attempted without too much thought.
Sliding out sideways is OK.
Plowing, however, is not.
Thighs are throbbing to the point of nausea and centering one’s body, so the nose is flush with the downhill toes, seems easier said than done.
Even the steadiest of alpine skiers is wobbly again – self-consciously so – and experienced snowboarders are crouching with concentration – tongue tips firmly pinched between their lips.
Taking up the age-old discipline of telemarking (or telemark skiing) is a humbling experience.
It’s 9 a.m. on a chilly Saturday and nearly 50 skiers and snowboarders have assembled at the Beaver Creek Nordic Center to take part in the first of the Vail/Beaver Creek Teleworkshop Series of the season.
Though invented more than 150 years ago by a bored Norwegian, free-heel skiing is the trendy thing of today.
“All the locals are tele-ing now, it seems,” says Pat Hammon, the center’s supervisor, who is reigning with supreme calmness over a crowd of anxious wanna-be telemark skiers, who are threatening to overwhelm the center’s capacity.
If it hadn’t been for the 7 inches of fresh snow in Vail, Hammon surmises, the turnout would have been even larger.
“People are just rediscovering the fun and the gracefulness of it,” she says of the old discipline’s renewed appeal with expert alpine skiers and life-long snowboarders alike.
Locals, Hammon says, veer off into telemarking “because they are looking for a new challenge.”
But even those, who aren’t bored vaulting off cliffs and bouncing through moguls, are turning to the new trend.
The flexible footing of telemark skis makes them the logical choice for backcountry touring. Equipped with “skins,” telemark skis allow the wearer to make comfortable stride motions similar to cross-country skiing – but uphill.
“I love to go on backpacking trips,” says returning workshop student Dick Swonley, a Denver resident, an investment banker who spends as many winter weekends in the mountains as possible.
Swonley says he took up telemarking because “it’s a little bit hard to walk uphill in alpine skis.”
Ironically, the father of telemarking, Norwegian ski legend Sondre Norheim, had exactly the opposite in mind when he added a heel strap to skis sometime in the early 1840s.
Norheim, who grew up in Telemark County south of Oslo, was tired of shuffling through deep snow on skis fastened to the foot with merely a toe-strap – the predecessor of today’s cross-country skis.
He added a heel strap and created a binding that allowed for more control without fastening the entire foot to the ski.
Instead of just shuffling along, Norheim and other early ski enthusiasts began scaling hills and gliding past trees in elegant wide curves.
By 1846, telemarking rivaled alpine-skiing techniques, like the parallel Christiania turn in early ski competitions across Scandinavia.
The more recent revival of telemarking can be traced back to the introduction of more sophisticated, shaped cross-country skis with alpine-like flexibility and shell boots.
With the toe attached to the ski by a spring mechanism, the turn technique itself has changed too since Norheim’s days.
No longer does the tip of the uphill ski nestle passively next to the instep of the downhill boot. Today’s telemark champions shroud themselves in veils of powder carving more aggressively with swift lead ski switches and shoulders kept squared downhill.
Unlike alpine skiing, telemarking is less rigid in rules and wide open to personal interpretation, says Vail Ski School Instructor Peter Fredin, a level-two certified telemark teacher.
“Everyone develops their own unique style that works for them,” he says during a break on the chair, after having coaxed a group of six beginners down their first run.
Fredin, who switched from alpine skis to telemark skis six years ago, doesn’t even own alpine skis anymore.
“It’s the fluidness of it all,” he says. “On a powder day there is nothing quite like tele-ing.”
Getting off the lift and on a well-groomed bunny slope far from any powder, his charges are giggly and giddy.
Under Fredin’s patient guidance, they “shuffle” across the run and practice “monomark turns,” while helmeted mini-skiers pass them in apathetic plows left and right.
“It’s kind of funny to be all goofy again,” says Bo Phil, a 23-year-old retail employee in Edwards, after skidding to a somewhat graceless stop in the lift line.
Being goofy doesn’t quite describe the scene once Fredin breaks out the balloons and despite the bitter cold manages to blow up three for pairs of two.
The idea is to keep them wedged between the knees and make turns without dropping them. The exercise works but the sight is beyond silly. “What in the world are you kids doing?” inquires a middle-aged lady in a drowsy Texan-drawl, after stopping for a double-take.
She listens intently to a surprisingly eloquent explanation by beginner telemark skier Matt Scherr, all the while watching a second student chase the balloon into a little stand of trees.
By the time the afternoon rolls around, the beginners are comfortable enough in their awkwardness to take their wobbly show to big slopes.
Alpine skier Ian Phil seems to have a natural edge, but other alpine skiers in the group are mostly catching an edge.
Phil well on his way to upgrade his image. By his own admission, he is taking the class “because tele-ers looks so tough and cool.”
A group of eight intermediate teleworkshop student are regrouping on a blue run in preparation for their first black bump run.
It’s just a little after noon and these intermediate students turn out to really be “a sort of high intermediate” as Scott Burgess, the group’s instructor explains belatedly on the chair following the mogul run.
The learning curve is as steep as the slopes chosen, but what the heck – after all, any reporter would give his or her life for a good story.
Burgess, who by his own description “was never a good alpine skier” has been free-heeling professionally for three years. He is a vision of ease and elegance.
He gives students individual “pieces of the puzzle” then lets them figure out how they fit them into their technique. His observations are keen and his tips helpful.
It’s almost 3 p.m. and giggles have long given way to wide grins. The genuflecting stance seems much more natural by now.
Burgess get a standing ovation as the group gets back to Strawberry Park.
“He finds one thing with each student and works on it with you,” says Swonley, whose weakness centers on keeping his weight evenly distributed.
“If you measure it by results the benefits are huge,” he says. “The classes are so good you can’t help but improve as a tele-skier.”
Six hours after first laying eyes on impossibly flimsy-looking bindings, the free heel thing has changed everything.
Suddenly black runs terrify you again – but in a good way.
A well-executed turn is cause for a grin and connecting two or three makes you want to sing.
Sliding is OK but gliding is better.
Plowing will never be acceptable again and soreness is evidence of a day well spent.
I will telemark again.