Our Friend Molly Rettig interviewed Executive Director Shan Sethna about telemark skiing in the winter issue of Boulder Magazine.
Telemark skiing. To many downhill enthusiasts, the words conjure pictures of knee-dipping, granola-munching hippies who drive old VW buses or Subarus with bumper stickers like “Earn Your Turns” and “Free your heel, free your mind.” Yet telemark skiing has become the trendiest topic on the mountain lately, and may finally be shaking off its hippie roots.
Three-time national telemark champion Leslie Ross, shown skiing in Japan, says slick new gear is the main reason for the sport’s surge in popularity. Photo courtesy Leslie Ross
“I saw this guy with a Peruvian hat, ski poles way over his head, making funky turns through bumps on Chair 1 at Loveland in 1991. That was the first time I saw a tele skier,” Shan Sethna says. An athletic guy with curly dark hair and a Berthoud Pass hoodie, Sethna is executive director of Friends of Berthoud Pass, a nonprofit group that teaches backcountry skiing and safety. “I thought, ‘That guy on cross-country skis is way out of his league.’ He was super crunchy, with a dreaded-out beard. That kind of describes the culture back then.”
But telemarking ballooned 166 percent between 1999 and 2006, according to the ski-film company Tough Guy Productions, which compiles market data. The national trade association Snowsports Industries America estimates that 1.5 million skiers participate, most of them between the ages of 16 and 34. From the chairlift you can see a growing minority of freeheelers lunging down steeps at Arapahoe Basin and slicing ribbons through Vail’s back bowls. The bent knee and shuffling motion that have flabbergasted onlookers for the last 20 years now seem fairly familiar.
Skins & Sticks
Telemarking was born as backcountry recreation in the late 1800s in Telemark, a southern region of Norway. Bindings have free heels, like their cross-country cousins, making it easier to hike uphill with a pair of skins, the strips that adhere to the underside of the ski to give you grip. (Originally made of sealskin, then of mohair, skins now are nylon or polypropylene.) The sport migrated to America around the 1970s—when backcountry skiing and alpine touring took off—landing first in Crested Butte.
Photo by Joey Wallis
“Back in the day, it was this small tribe,” Sethna says of the early ’90s, when he learned the technique. “Then in ’97, ’99, everybody and their brother was out there. It was definitely cool to be walking around with bindings flapping in your ear.” But the fad mainly attracted expert skiers and anti-establishment backpackers who opted for skins instead of a lift ticket. “Even the apparel we wore was cheaper—old wool pants from army surplus stores, stuff like that,” says Ray McAnelly, who started telemarking in the early 1980s. “More of a backcountry mountain-man ratty look, compared to the glamour today.”
Telemarking’s recent surge envelops all types of skiers: kids, teens, women, Patagonia-clad mountaineers and baggy-panted jibbers with fat twin-tips. “You don’t have to be a crunchy-granola person now. It’s all levels of personalities, social and economic brackets and ages,” says Leslie Ross, three-time National Telemark Free Skiing champion and founder and director of Babes in the Backcountry, a skiing and outdoor-adventure program for women.
Gear Drives Growth
What’s fueling the tele trend, when snowboarding and alpine skiing remain flat? No. 1 is gear, Ross says. Freeheelers’ equipment has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past 10 years. Early tele skiers rode long, skinny, often wooden sticks and wore short leather boots with a duckbill toe and three pins that clicked into bindings (earning telemarking the still-used nickname “three-pinning”). Today’s plastic boots and heavier cable bindings permit greater control but slower hiking. Modern telemark skis have more flex and power and are also more responsive, making it easier to initiate a turn.
Like Ross, who discovered telemark skis in 1991 but couldn’t find boots that fit until three years later, Sethna learned on old-school gear. “I ended up with leather lace-up boots, Dumpster-dived some skis, bought some sidethrow cable bindings,” he recalls. “They say, ‘Free your heel, set your mind free.’ The reality was ‘Free your heel and you break your goggles.’ I went ass over teakettle so many times learning how to telemark.”
Shan Sethna at Berthoud Pass. Photo by Armen Malikian
You can’t blame tele skiers who learned the hard way for feeling territorial about their sport. “Having paid my dues and learned the technique, I’d be watching these novices … they were fake-marking,” Sethna says in good humor. But that kind of pride seems trumped by excitement to promote telemarking by groups like Friends of Berthoud and Babes in the Backcountry. Today, access to gear has blown open, and most Colorado resorts offer telemark rentals, demos and lessons.
Telemarking also promises the Colorado lifeblood: adventure. “With telemarking there are no rules,” Ross says. “You can do whatever you want—backwards, forwards, you can go in the air or take it super mellow.” With a pair of skins, and proper knowledge, there is no limit to where you can ski. The uphill hiking feature and lunge motion of telemarking also make it more vigorous than alpine skiing—a killer quad, glute and core workout. “The rise of triathlons in the Front Range has brought the fitness level up, so skiing is now part of cross training,” she observes.
One more thing: “Anyone that tells you why they telemark and leaves out the fact that it’s damn sexy is lying,” Sethna says.
Rhythm of the Tele Dance
Few athletic plays are as graceful and fluid as a string of silky tele turns. To Ross, “it’s like walking”—though you’re on your toes the entire time, a major component of the form. You slide your downhill foot forward and your uphill foot back and crouch into a half-kneel. You’re perched on your toes with weight evenly distributed on both skis. To turn, you drive your back knee forward and your front knee back in a scissor motion. “You’re more connected to the elements,” Ross says. “You work with the pitch; you work with the snow. You have to commit more to the fall line. There’s no wrong or right way to tele, just different ways are more efficient.”
Back in the day, Peter Mueller skis Whetstone Mountain, above Crested Butte.
Photo by Gary Sprung
Telemarking is a slower sport. “I get to smell the pine trees, look at the clouds,” Sethna says. “It takes time to appreciate the subtler, finer things in life.” But because alpine touring (or AT) gear is faster and lighter, more backcountry skiers use AT instead of tele bindings, which accounts for the heightened presence of telemarking in the “front country” as well.
To join the freeheel movement, take a lesson. “You might as well get started off on the right foot instead of taking years to learn,” Ross advises. If your destination is the backcountry, education is as important as proper gear. “It’s not enough to go down to the gear shop, buy teles, skins, a probe, beacon and shovel. That doesn’t make you a backcountry skier,” says Sethna. His group teaches you how to use the gear, test for avalanches and pick safe lines.
The future looks bright for the fastest-growing snowsport. “There are always going to be people that reach the peak of their alpine abilities and are looking for something different,” Sethna says. The lines between snowsports are already blurring. As telemarking grows among youth, freeheelers with trick skis are mixing in the terrain park with snowboarders and alpine skiers. “It used to be a snowboarder couldn’t go where a tele skier could go,” he says. “Now a snowboarder on a split board can [hike] just as fast as a tele skier.”
That may be the most telling thing about telemarking: Skiers don’t need it to access the backcountry anymore, but they’re learning in droves anyway. Freeheelers aren’t crunchy hippies anymore, but most of them—like Sethna—are freeing their heels in search of a little powder Zen.
Molly Rettig recently graduated from CU with a master’s degree in environmental journalism. She’ll be spending this season practicing her tele turn and looking for a job!