Old turn, new trend

Telemark skiing is gaining popularity on Juneau slopes

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

Telemark skiers have a phrase to explain why they choose to go down the mountain with their boot heels unattached to their skis: Free your heel, your mind will follow.

"It's pretty hard to describe," said Tom Brayton, a longtime telemark skier who teaches the sport, along with traditional alpine skiing and snowboarding, at the Eaglecrest Ski and Snowboard School. "It's like when I telemark ski I'm more a part of the mountain. Does that make sense?"

Telemark skiers, if they have mastered the difficult telemark turn, are noted for the gracefulness with which they descend a mountain. Unlike alpine skiers, who rely on lateral movement - shifting weight from side to side - to turn, telemark skiers turn with lateral and vertical movement. They move the left leg forward and deeply bend the right leg and lift the right heel to undergo a turn to the right, then stand up and do the opposite movements for a left turn.

"It's called Nordic downhill for a reason," Brayton said. The up-and-down movement of telemark skiing resembles the up-and-down movement needed to efficiently Nordic ski.

"It's not an easy movement, and it's almost the opposite of Alpine skiing," Brayton said.

An alpine skier's heels are attached to the skis, and the turn requires that the skis stay almost next to each other throughout the turn.

Though telemark skiing has been popular in the United States only during the last 10 or 15 years, the style predates alpine downhill skiing.

"In the beginning of skiing, people didn't lock their heels down," said Scott Fischer, a telemark skier who owns the Foggy Mountain Shop downtown. "... So you would stick one foot in front of the other to make the turn because it would give you more fore and aft stability, and as you go down the hill you have better balance."

Sondre Norheim, a farmer in the Telemark region of southern Norway, introduced the turn at Norway's first national ski competition, held in Oslo in 1868. The turn revolutionized skiing by enabling skiers to challenge and amuse themselves through the sport, rather than simply travel from one place to another.

Eventually, "people decided that if you lock your heels down you have more stability," Fischer said. "But then everybody broke their legs because there was no release so when they fell all hell broke loose."

When a quick-release mechanism was invented for downhill ski bindings, telemark skiing went by the wayside, Fischer said.

Telemark skiing "came back" in the late 1980s, when skiers were looking for different, more challenging ways to get down a mountain, Fischer said.

Jennifer Bellman, who has been telemark skiing for 13 years, said she began telemarking because she liked the way it looks.

"I was working at the Roundhouse at Alyeska," she said. "All the guys I was working with telemarked, and I thought that looked prettier."

Unlike most telemark skiers, Bellman did not have any experience downhill skiing when she began.

"It took me years to get comfortable (telemark skiing)," said Bellman. "It is more challenging, and there's a little bit more finesse involved."

She has learned to Alpine ski and snowboard, but says she prefers to telemark.

"It feels better," she said. "It just feels totally different. It's much more graceful. There's just something about it."

But telemark skiing is more than just a challenging way to get down a mountain. It has its useful side, too. Putting "skins" on telemark skis - straps or adhesives that create friction between the bottom of the ski and the snow - allows telemark skiers to climb hills alpine skiers can't without removing their skis. That means telemark skiers in Juneau have access to many more mountains than those at Eaglecrest.

"I go backcountry at Troy and Stewart, Jumbo sometimes, Sheep, pretty much anywhere," Bellman said, referring to mountains near Juneau. "It's more in the early season and at the end."

About half of the people using the backcountry around Juneau in winter are snowboarders and half are skiers, said Fischer. Of the skiers, half telemark and the other half use backcountry cross-country ski gear or randonee gear, which allows for a free heel when climbing and an attached heel for the descent.

A popular sentiment among telemark skiers is that the word "randonee" - which is the French word for a hike - is French for "can't tele."

Until the late 1980s, telemark skis were wooden and the boots were leather. When the sport's popularity started to grow in the United States, the skis grew to more closely resemble alpine downhill skis, said Fischer.

"They have pretty much the same shape as downhill skis, and the same side cut," he said.

Telemark boots now are made of plastic. They are not as stiff as alpine boots, allowing the skier to bend both ankles for each turn.

A basic telemark equipment package bought new from the Foggy Mountain Shop costs between $1,000 and $1,500, Fischer said. The equipment can be rented from the shop for $25 per day.

The Eaglecrest Ski and Snowboard School offers two-hour telemark group lessons for $17, which includes the price of a lift ticket for the lower part of the mountain. A more advanced individual telemark lesson is $20 if the skier has a season pass, or $38 for the lesson and an all-area day pass.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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