Photo: Martin Sundberg
Free-Heel Wisdom from Nor Cal’s Top Instructors
By Pete Gauvin
While some consider telemark skiing to be a new sport, it may be the oldest new sport around. In fact, its Norwegian roots predate the alpine turn by a half century. Of course, that was before ski lifts made hiking for your turns superfluous, or should I say optional.
Either way, telemarking’s growing popularity is something of a mystery to outsiders.
Why is it the fastest growing segment of the ski industry in recent years? Why do you see more and more tele skiers at resorts when they could choose the security and performance of locked-heel alpine gear or the surf-inspired simplicity of snowboarding?
Beyond the ability to go into the backcountry, beyond the physical challenge, beyond the uniqueness, it comes down to one word: feel. Tele has a feel to it that’s alluring and unmistakable, graceful and flowing, powerful and rhythmic, liberating and expressive.
This is true whether you’re making your first shaky tele turn or dancing down double-black diamonds with pistons firing in perfect sequential harmony. Indeed, one reason tele is so rewarding is the satisfaction that comes from learning its bare essentials and its endless nuances.
Whether it’s the progressive vibe or the world-famous Sierra corn, California is home to both an abundance of tele skiers and many of the top tele instructors in the sport. Here, we’ve collected a grab bag of favorite tips from seven of the best. All hold the top instructor credential for telemarking (Level III Nordic Downhill) from the Professional Ski Instructors of America, and often in other disciplines as well; several are PSIA examiners. While they all have their different styles, they share a love for the adventure, challenge and feel of telemarking.
If you’d like to glean more from their experience and enthusiasm, all of the instructors will be at the 12th annual Bear Valley Telemark Festival, Feb. 8-10, hosted by Mountain Adventure Seminars (www.mtadventure.com). Or you can look them up at their home mountain or teaching center.
- Wilderness Education Director, Lake Tahoe Community College
- PSIA Level III Nordic Downhill instructor
- Instructs for LTCC, Babes in the Backcountry, and private clients
- Background: Growing up in Vermont, Rosie started with alpine ski racing before turning to competitive snowboarding. She took up tele skiing eight years ago.
- Quote: “I’m a fervent believer in the power of wilderness education to change and enrich lives … And tele skiing is one of the fastest paths to enlightenment!”
TIP: A “Sassy” Stance
A sassy stance will not only make one look more stylish on the slopes, but it is the first priority in bettering one’s telemark skills. Too often it gets tossed in the backseat in favor of more technical jargon. Telemarking has come a long way since the days of looking like a praying mantis hopping down the slope. Remember those step turns and enormously long poles? Well, they’re history. Plastic boots and stout skis have put tele skiing into the fast lane, and I must say we look much more composed. So, how has our stance evolved to match these technological advances?
Let’s start from the snow up:
FEET: Feet should be nice and wide, about hip distance or slightly wider, separated fore and aft so that a pole placed horizontally between the legs would touch the back of the front knee and the knee cap of the back leg. Ankles and knees should be flexed so that the weight is centered on the whole of the front foot and ball of the back foot. Properly flexed, you shouldn’t be able to see your toes of your lead foot, or back foot. Weight should be distributed with a roughly 60/40 ratio, front or back, depending on which foot is dominant at the time.
HIPS: Hips are relaxed and poised to “push the bush.” In other words, tuck your pelvic bone underneath you and rotate it forward. This should immediately give you a sense of weighting the back ski. A common mistake among tele skiers is bending at the waist and sticking our butts out, which puts all the weight on our front ski, leaving the back ski flailing behind with nothing to do but get us in trouble. So stand upright, “push that bush” and tuck that butt underneath you.
SHOULDERS/HANDS: Shoulders should be relaxed with a bit of a rounded curve. Hands are out in front, a little wider and a little above the hips. Don’t let those poles drop too low. Good pole positioning is one of the keys to success when skiing steeps and bumps.
FACE: Your face should have a huge smile on it, because you are one stylish, sassy-looking tele skier!
- PSIA Level III Telemark, PSIA-West Nordic Chief Examiner
- Former PSIA Nordic Demo Team Member
- Background: Urmas has taught telemark skiing for more than 20 years. He also skis alpine and cross country. He is even rumored to have been seen on a snowboard at his home resort, Mammoth Mountain. You can watch video clips of his lessons on Telemarktips.com.
TIP: Focus on the Little Toe
Little Toe Timing
For rounder more precise turns on firm snow, try to feel pressure on the little toe side of the inside foot as early as possible in the turn. Start by feeling it near the end. Now see if you can feel it before the fall line!
Tippy Toe Traverse
Try to traverse on the little toe side of your uphill foot. Alternate skidding and carving. Your turn shape and control will improve as you master the little-toe side edge.
Skate to a Stronger Telemark
A strong dynamic telemark requires good balance on the little toe side edge of the back foot. Skate aggressively on flat terrain and check your tracks. See if you can skate onto the little toe side edge rather than a flat ski. Clue: Lead with your body, not your feet!
- Instructor & Staff Trainer, Alpine Meadows
- PSIA Certified Level III Alpine and Telemark
- 10-year guest clinician, Bear Valley Telemark Festival
- Innovator of the Tele “Big Foot” Clinics
In skiing it is often beneficial to exaggerate a movement pattern in order to maximize sensory feel, muscle memory retention and cognitive understanding – creating one of those “light bulb” moments. Here is one such experiment.
A relatively evenly weighted foot-to-foot stance is the foundation of the modern tele turn. From this basic stance, we can play with different weight distributions: i.e. more weight to the rear foot in deep snow, more weight to the front foot in icy conditions. To broaden your versatility with various foot-to-foot loading positions try this:
Just before you start to make your lead change progressively shift your weight to the lead foot. Then lift your rear foot off the snow and make your lead change with the foot coming forward in the air. Try to keep this foot off the snow until you have come onto the ball of the weighted foot (your new rear foot).
Then, as lightly as you can, place the foot in the air down onto the snow as the new forward foot. Try not to fall onto the new front foot. You should be on the ball of your new rear foot with your heel up before the new front foot comes down. Adjust your weight so that the lead foot takes on more load until once again it is fully weighted, allowing you to repeat the process.
As you get comfortable with this move tone it down so that the feet stay on the snow, yet the weight shift still remains. This is a great way to increase your balance through the lead change, and is a very effective tool for skiing in cut-up or chowder snow.
- PSIA Level III Telemark
- Background: A Kings Beach resident, Katie has been teaching skiing and snowboarding for over 12 years. She is a professor in the Humanities Department at Sierra Nevada College and the director of a UC Berkeley outreach summer school program for high school students. She loves the Tahoe backcountry!
TIP: Improving in the Ungroomed
Backcountry snow, powder conditions, and off-piste skiing at resorts present newer telemarkers with major challenges. As a beginner in this terrain, try to be deliberate about the slope you ski. Often skiers’ first attempts occur on double fall-line side hills or areas with multiple obstacles.
Ideally, find an open smooth slope with few trees, not too steep and not too flat. Before you start, smile and relax. Make sure you aren’t gripping your poles or hunching your shoulders.
Goal 1: Two contiguous smooth turns. This will help you keep your skis pointed down the fall line and your body centered over your skis.
Continue practicing just a few turns at a time. The minute you get out of control or find your skis steering you out of the fall line and across the slope, stop and start again. Delayed transition turns (see next tip by Geoff Clarke) practiced on groomed slopes really help with guiding your downhill/lead ski into the fall line in this terrain.
Goal 2: Once you have taught your body the feel of flowing through deep or heavy snow with just a few turns at time, link as many as you can. Stop when you lose the flow.
Katie says: “Get off the groomed and practice! I’ll see you out there.”
- Certifications: PSIA Level III Telemark, AASI Level II Snowboard
- Instructor/Backcountry Guide, Alpine Skills International
- Professional tele skier seen hucking cliffs in numerous freeheel flicks (see Athlete Profile in this issue)
- First place: 2003 USTSA Alpine Meadows Freeheel Series; 2002 Tele-Cross in Crested Butte, CO; 2003 Tele-Cross Nationals in Copper Mountain, CO
TIP: Don’t Go Big Before Your Time
Jumping, launching cliffs, sliding rails … These can be intimidating, and perhaps painful, particularly if you bite off more than your skills can chew. So start small and nibble your way up. If you can maintain control and stay balanced you’ll be less likely to damage your body – or your confidence. Hit a two-foot cliff first, then a four foot. Make certain you stay in a balanced stance over your feet and that you’re not getting in the backseat and backslapping … Stay in your comfort zone and you won’t develop bad habits that will eventually come back to bite you.
- Certifications: PSIA Level III Telemark, Level III Track, Level III Alpine
- PSIA-West Chief Examiner 1991-1994; PSIA Backcountry Coordinator
- AMGA Certified Ski Guide; AIARE Level 1 avalanche instructor
- Lead Guide/Instructor, Alpine Skills International
TIP: Steering with the Inside Foot
One of the fundamental moves to learn in telemarking is called “inside foot steering.” This move is used to help flatten the inside ski and directs it into the new turn. It gives you the ability to vary where you make your “lead change.”
One of the best ways to learn it is a maneuver called the “mono tele.” The mono tele is a telemark turn that is made without a lead change.
Pick a gentle groomed slope and start across the slope in an evenly weighted telemark stance. With a slight feeling of pressure of the shin against the cuff of the boot flatten the inside ski and turn it toward the fall line. Try not to rise up while you do this. Keep turning the ski through the fall line and across the slope.
You will finish in a reverse telemark stance. At first it feels awkward, but it gets easier. It helps to have a little speed when practicing.
Once you master this you can make a delayed-shift telemark. Start like a mono tele, but once you get into the fall line make a lead change. It can be difficult to hold off, but wait until you reach the fall line. Think: flatten, steer, lead change. Master this making left and right turns.
Next try to add the lead change a little earlier so it starts just after you flatten the downhill ski. This is the typical telemark turn timing.
Now you will have many options of when and where you lead change. Add some speed to spice it up, then try to edge your inside ski stronger and earlier. Master these moves and you will be able to shred more of the mountain, no matter what the conditions!
- PSIA Level III Telemark & Cross Country; PSIA XC Trainer & Examiner
- Nordic Program Director, Auburn Ski Club Training Center, Donner Summit
- US Ski Team Certified Cross-Country Coach; also certified with The New Zealand Ski Instructors Alliance
- Background: Sally has been teaching Nordic skiing for 18 years. She lives in Truckee, where she also teaches Aikido classes and hold the rank of Black Belt.
TIP: Core Centering and Balance, Aikido Style
Here’s a tip that has shifted more than just my skiing these past few years. It comes from my learnings in the martial art of Aikido.
As with most martial arts, Aikido teaches the power and ease that comes from “centering,” especially when we are under pressure. So next time you peer down into that scary chute, or feel intimidated by that cruddy snow, (or search for the words to ask your boss for the day off to go to The Bear Valley Telemark Festival!), focus your attention down to your core – to your center of gravity and your center of balance.
Try moving from a centered place instead of from your head, and notice the difference!