I know, I know. Nobody cares that I tele. Except, of course, when it gives people a chance to mock my outdated gear and the snow crammed in my goggles after I eggbeater down the slope. Telemark skiing—also known as freeheel skiing or that thing you see strange hippies doing in the woods where they drop a knee towards the ski while making a turn—is a vestige of skiing history, born in the mountains of Norway, that persists to this day for one simple reason: it’s awfully fun.
Misconceptions about telemark skiing abound, so let’s get one thing straight, the telemark turn is a downhill technique. I don’t want to hear any shenanigans about how the sport’s dead because alpine touring (AT) gear has gotten so light and efficient in the backcountry. Telemark skiing is for backcountry powder, bump lines under the chairlift, the terrain park and everywhere in between. If you think telemark’s dead because we’re all weirdos on gear that makes skiing objectively more difficult than it needs to be, that’s fine. But if you keep an open mind and give the turn a try, you may just unlock a little new magic on the mountain. The snow’s always deeper when you telemark.
Let’s begin with a brief trip to 1800s Scandanavia where telemark skiing and *checks notes* all modern skiing was born. In a little town called Morgedal, nestled in Norway’s Telemark region, a man named Sondre Norheim (born 1825), transformed skiing from transportation into sport. Skis at the time were long, unwieldy things with freeheel bindings to allow for cross-country travel. Norheim created the drop knee telemark turn to control the skis while going downhill.
He also innovated skis with shorter lengths and curved sides (sound familiar?) to make turning easier and was largely responsible for the Norwegian words “ski” and “slalom” familiar to the wider world. Morgedal is now known as “The Cradle of Skiing.” Norheim was a legend, and skiing in all its myriad forms wouldn’t be what it is today without him.
We’re a long way from the snowy hills of 19th century Norway, and telemark skiing looks quite different than it did a century and a half ago. Here in Utah, the sport gained wider traction in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pockets of skiers in places like Crested Butte and New England were using metal edge Nordic skis to explore the backcountry. AT gear was largely nonexistent and mostly trash at the time, so telemark was a natural choice for people looking to ski beyond the resort boundaries here in the Wasatch.
This is where the image of telemark skiing as an uphill or purely backcountry endeavor originated, from leather-boot-clad shredders exploring the backcountry on telemark gear. Things began to change in the late 1980s with the introduction of the Merrell Super Comp, the first plastic cuff boot which provided enhanced ski control. Another huge step came in 1992 with the Scarpa Terminator, the first all plastic telemark boot and the Riva 1 binding, the first setup resembling modern telemark gear. This is where the huge transition took place, and you began to see scores of “mountain people” from ski patrollers to lift operators to scruffy local ski bums on telemark gear.
Telemark skiing gradually distanced from its backcountry association back to its 1860s roots as a downhill technique where the uphill and cross-country functionality was merely a side benefit. The sport reached its commercial peak in the mid-aughts when mainstream ski brands like Rossignol and K2 sold telemark-specific products and entire brands were devoted to the sport.
People love to declare “telemark skiing is dead.” The rise of backcountry skiing as a mainstream sport has driven this narrative as people still associate telemark skiing as a backcountry specific endeavor despite decades of modern history and an origin that says otherwise. I, and many others, still telemark ski in the backcountry regularly, but the majority of telemark skiers only ski in the resort. Telemark skiing remains unique with no singular lane to follow. Despite the sport’s detractors, there are more telemark skiers today than ever.
Modern gear—the New Telemark Norm (NTN) had reached the mainstream—has requisite conveniences like releasability, step in functionality and free-pivot touring capability just like alpine gear. No, it isn’t as light and efficient. But telemark skiing isn’t about Strava competition or FKT efforts. It’s about having fun, exploring the mountains and getting face shots in deep pow, which is arguably what all skiing should be about. Stop taking skiing so seriously, people. Seriously.
The spiritual home of modern telemark skiing resides right here in Salt Lake City at Freeheel Life. It’s pretty much the only telemark-specific shop around these days, and it’s an incredibly useful place for telemark skiers from first timers to long timers. The shop was opened in 2014 by Josh Madsen, a telemark devotee who steadfastly believes in pushing the sport forward and “protecting the turn,” as he says. It’s his knuckles bearing the “telemark” tattoo in the photo below.
Freeheel Life has become the number one dealer for Scarpa and 22 Designs telemark gear (the industry leaders) in the world. In addition to a huge inventory of new gear, the shop has a robust consignment section of used boots, bindings, skis and apparel, along with more than 400 binding and boot parts for gear dating back to the 80s to keep legacy telemark gear functioning on the hill. They even produce telemark-specific skis right here in Utah. Simply put, it’s the place for all things telemark.
Because Freeheel Life’s mission is to get people out on telemark gear, they offer an affordable rental program. For less than $50 per day, you can rent a full tele setup. Stop in to chat telemark with a staff of devoted freeheel skiers, give it a try yourself, and if you’re hooked pick up an affordable used setup all in one place.
Like I said, telemark ain’t dead. Yes, I’m biased—I used to be the editor of Telemark Skier magazine and have the internet persona Tele Tony, after all. I know plenty of telemark diehards, but just as many dabblers who’ve pieced together a telemark setup to have something else fun to do on the mountain. You don’t have to go full tele-lunatic like me to be a telemark skier. Just give it a try and you might be surprised at how much fun you have. And always remember, anybody who tells you you’re doing skiing wrong is definitely doing it wrong themselves.
Do you have extremely strong telemark opinions you’d like to air in public or specifically towards the author? Let us know in the comments below.
Emma Hunter \ 1.5 years ago
I married into telemark skiing. I'd never heard of it and didn't understand it, but I loved what I saw. My spouse is an artist on skis and paints the slopes with his powerful, elegant telemark turns. We had a second home in another telemark hot spot, Canaan Valley (Davis), WV. There are hard core Nordic backcounty skiers at White Grass Nordic Center with deep ties to Mad River Glen, VT. Timberline Mountain ski resort there is home to a large pack of downhill Nords.
I started skiing late in life as an alpine downhiller. After 6 years of skiing the same 47 trails, I was ready to experience new challenges on our small mountains. And what a challenge it has been. Suddenly blues looked scary and the challenge and fun was back. I never made a full transition to downhill telemark. I enjoy it, but with the new to us steeper terrain here in Utah, I reverted to alpine. Where I've had much better success with telemark in on my fish-scaled backcountry (fat) Voile Vectors and Fisher SBound 98's with Scarpa T1 and T4 hard boots. I've spent years climbing and descending at White Grass (WV) and now lower angle backcountry here in Utah. The ability to go where I want on light Nordic gear is the truest freedom I've known. Free the heel, free the soul. I did cave and buy an AT set up that I used exactly one time. For me it was like wearing concrete blocks: No glide and all trudge. While fish-scales alone won't get me up the steep slopes (I can use skins), I can earn the same amount of turns doing laps down lower. Bonus: Avoid avalanche prone terrain. If you want a fresh challenge on the snow and when steeper isn't always the sanest option, try returning to the roots of skiing. Ullr will be pleased.
Hailey \ 1.5 years ago
Thanks for sharing your tele story! Keep shreddin'