My first taste of backcountry telemark skiing

Chilling on the Mountain

Chilling on the Mountain

Free the heel, free the mind…

I didn’t think I would like skiing, now I dream about it.

The joy of skiing wasn’t immediate when I took lessons in January. The first two days really challenged me and I wasn’t completely thrilled with being around so many people. Part of that issue had to do with the beginner slopes I was limited to skiing which were packed with snow enthusiasts of all levels.

Toward the end of the second day, I found a moment of quiet on the slopes and really enjoyed myself. By the third day, my confidence improved significantly. However, I still looked back through the trees and thought to myself, “I wanna go there…,” but I didn’t want to give up the downhill aspect either. Months later, after moving to Salt Lake, I did some snowshoeing in the backcountry. While the snowshoes were cool, my friend wore Telemark (tele) skies and had the best of both worlds. He could hike up and across the mountain using skins, then peel them off and ski downhill. Too cool! Right then I knew I needed to give them a try. Two weekends ago, I got my chance.

Telemark skis have a free heel, allowing for a gliding stride cross-country, much like Nordic skiing. On uphill climbs, the sticky skins applied to the underside of the skis prevent the ski from sliding backward allowing you to climb up and ski down.

Skis and skins

Here you can see how skins attach on the bottom of skis with a light adhesive coating.

Because the heels are free, tele turns are quite different from alpine. The skis are staggered rather than parallel with the leading ski switching depending on the direction of the turn. Not an easy technique to master, but beautiful to watch.

Telemark skis have a long history. “In the late 1800’s skiing made a shift from a method of transportation to a recreational activity.  People from villages in Norway would gather to ski, jump and compete on their skis.  Sondre Norheim is credited today as being the father of telemark skiing,” explains the United States Telemark Ski Association. Mitch Weber stated the joy of the sport rather eloquently in his post, What is Telemark Skiing?, “…telemark skiing gives access (paraphrasing John Muir) to places to play, places where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul, to interact with wildlife, to feel the forces of gravity, the energy of a gathering storm.” Both articles are good reads if you’re interested in learning more about the sport’s history.

I visited Wasatch Touring to rent some gear. It was late in the season, and they had pretty much shut down their ski rentals, but set me up anyway. For just $37.00, I had skis, skins, and boots. Even better news, because we didn’t need lifts, I didn’t have to buy an expensive pass!

My intro to tele skiing started on the closed slopes at Brighton Resort. We skinned up the mountain, past the half-pipe where two snowboarders were playing. Then we peeled off the skins and skied down. At first I was timid, having heard the free heel on tele skies would make me more likely to take a header. Luckily, that didn’t happen. I only briefly (very briefly) attempted the true tele stance before returning to the more familiar alpine posture. I’ll have to dedicate some time to learning that new skill.

We took a lunch break then headed into the woods. Now I could really enjoy the advantage of the skis. My partner was waaaaay more fit than I, chugging up the mountain without a pause. Granted, his next project is a 1,000+-mile bicycle tour on the Great Divide Trail, so I’ll cut myself some slack. I mean, seriously, that’s hard-core.

Skinning Uphill

Skinning through the aspen grove.

The skins did a good job of allowing me to climb but weren’t as “sticky” as my partner’s, requiring me to take a shallower line across the slope to avoid sliding backward. Being a little less sticky, did make them slide nicely over the more level areas however.

As we entered a stand of aspen, I was awestruck at how fortunate I was to be right there at that moment. Mountains towering in the distance, snow muffled quiet, a heart-pounding workout…the good life I tell you. We plopped down and took off our skies to relax against the trees and take it all in. I should’a packed gourmet snack. Then it really would have been over the top.

Checking out the view

Checking out the view during a break. Loved Columbia’s new Omni-Freeze Zero shirt for the varied spring temps.

Donning our skis, we continued to the top of one of the closed Brighton lifts and skied down the runs from there. At one point, I carried both of our packs and my DSLR camera to shoot photos of my partner. That threw my balance off enough that I reverted to the feelings of my first day skiing. Nope, not a good idea at all…. Reminded that I’m a novice, I ditched those and had a great time the rest of the way down, shooting some good photos on the way.

While this was my last day of skiing this season, I’m already looking forward to next season’s snow. I knew I was in trouble when started dreaming of skiing fresh powder. Yup, I’m bit hard.

Here are two videos. The first has a few good slow motion shots of tele turns to give you an idea of what they look like. The second is simply a bunch of gratuitous powder shots that got my heart racing.


If you go:

Gear Rentals: Wasatch Touring in Salt Lake City took great care of me (and they didn’t know I would write about them…) They supply snow sport, bike, camping and whitewater rentals.

Clothing: Spring skiing is surprisingly warm so use layers that you can remove as you heat up.

For a top, I changed from a thermal base at lunch to Columbia Sportswear’s Omni Freeze Zero long-sleeve shirt, which I’m testing right now. The sweat activated cooling feature ended up being just what I needed without getting too cool when we stopped for a while. Two thumbs up.

For bottoms, I wore my regular obnoxiously bright-green ski pants [they have their own fan club] without a base layer.

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