Telemarking: Freeheeling Freedom

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By Becky Holden, Images by Claire Newell & Jim Henderson

Standing in the queue for the t-bar at Porters, I overhear a skier saying: “There are so many telemarketers!” The oracle, Google, gets confused too; asking if I mean ‘telemarketing’ when I type ‘telemarking’ in.

Telemarking, or freeheeling as it‘s also known, is a snow sport with bindings. Your heel is free, rather than fixed to the ski like alpine bindings, and one ski is placed in front of the other - making it easier to manoeuvre the skis in challenging terrain.

You can carve, just like on skis, but it involves greater muscle engagement, lunging and core strength. A telemark friend of mine, Nicolas Piraud, passionately compared it to riding a hardtail mountain bike; more precise, more graceful, more pure - with a freedom of movement that cannot be achieved on a snowboard or skis. And a telemark Instructor at Broken River, Claire Newell, described the feeling of as ‘dancing on skis’.

Telemark skiing got its name from the county of Telemark, in Norway. At least as far back as mediaeval times, during hard, snowy winters skiing was an important means of transport; enabling communication between small, isolated villages. Skiing was also important for hunters and farmers, who would ski long distances, returning with items such as game and firewood. The telemark ski made these trips much easier.  

It wasn’t until the late 1900's that telemark skiing became a popular recreational sport; providing a great light-weight touring option for venturing into the back country. Its popularity in New Zealand peaked in the 1980’s, after being introduced here by Whitney Thurlow and Jef Desbeker, ‘When it was all about leather boots and long skinny skis’, reflects telemark enthusiast and instructor, Greg McIntyre. Nowadays, although there’s still a steady stream of newbies entering the sport, its popularity has plateaued - the sport has evolved to being about high performance both on-piste and back country.  

Ask a telemark skier why they do it, they’ll respond along the lines of ‘Because of the freedom’, or ‘Because of the challenge‘. Telemark instructor, Marty Smith, described telemarking as ‘A looser form of skiing… In the beginning, like any new sport, you may find telemarking more physically demanding than skiing, but as technique improves, telemarking is no more difficult’.

Telemarkers unite in saying it’s much easier to traverse to better terrain. Telemarking also adds interest to ski areas you know well; increasing the difficulty level and duration of runs, compared to alpine skiing or boarding. If you get bored with alpine skiing, telemarking provides a challenging alternative.  

Another benefit, that David Sullivan, an alpine skiing convert notes, is that when venturing into the back country on tele’s, ‘You’re more likely to want to ski less steep terrain, which of course reduces the avalanche risk… There’s a bigger range of movement, and of course, being on tele’s gets you bigger kudos in the terrain park’.

And for those like me, who experience constant frustration at trying to perfect a sport learnt as an adult, unlike skiing, telemarking isn’t as pedantic as skiing or snowboarding; you don’t have to achieve perfection.

Telemarking: Freeheeling Freedom