Telemark skiing: a bow to the mountains. Older than alpine, the turning technique was named for Norway's Telemark Valley where it began on 10- or 12-foot boards. Reinvented in Colorado on shorter skis in 1971, it's spreading east as downhill ballet.
Telemark skiers kneel on one skinny cross-country ski at a time, linking left and right turns. Hardcore alpiners, like Foster Chandler, vice president and director of marketing for Vermont's Killington and Mount Snow resorts, are mystified:
"These cross-country types who like to come down alpine ski trails... they're damned confused people. What they really want to do is be different." Still, he concedes, "It's very beautiful to see, it takes a lot of skill and strength in the legs and it does set them apart. They're coming full cycle to what alpine was."
In fact, the Professional Ski Instructors of America recently sent a delegation to Norway to teach the forgotten telemark turn.
Last week, after a search for a nearly telemark ski class, I landed in an intensive clinic at White Grass Ski Touring Center in Canaan Valley, West Virginia. Overdressed in a bib, fat ski mittens and down jacket, I gave myself away, looking like a refugee from an alpine resort. The others wore cross-country gaiters, vests, absorbent thermals, wool and windbreakers, knickers, socks and overpants, gloves and liners, the better to peel off layers as necessary.
Some say clothes make the skier: Whereas alpiners favor pastels and slick, form-fitting togs, nordics wear loose layers in earth tones. Alpiners like the thrill of bombing down an expert slope; nordics like the quiet rhythm of a glide through the woods. Alpiners hand over 20 bucks at lift lines; nordics pack their own lunches. In the future, though, "nor-pine" will blur the distinctions. The bastardization is the common ground for alpiners fed up with imperfect parallels and for cross-country skiers looking for a different rush. Soon, maybe next season, nor-pine's going to be big.
The clinic was a package deal: six students, three instructors, two feet of powder. Our leader was Winslow Ayer, one of PSIA's fully certified elite, a winning Nordic championship racer who looks all-pro in his skin-tight red jumpsuit. Two days of cross-country downhill classes cost $60 plus $10 for equipment (downhill poles, steel-edged skis and stiffer, higher boots than those used for ski touring), with a film on telemark skiing thrown in.
Thursday morning, after renting and waxing our skis at White Grass, we drove a couple of miles to Mount Timberline. The soon-to-be-expanded ski area, 188 miles from Washington, was all ours at $5 per lift ticket. For our purposes, Timberline's 2,000-foot T-bar and 375-foot vertical drop were adequate challenges.
We stretched as Ayer lectured. He prescribes roller skating for telemark training, to get the hang of edging and transfering weight from foot to foot. I learned to stop referring to alpine skiing as "downhill" since both noridc and alpine are done on the slopes and cross-country purists are easily offended. (Likewise don't call them granola-crunchers -- they've heard it all before from snobby alpiners.)
Next I learned humility as a rank beginner again after years of alpining away. "You have to learn a snowplow before stem turns, christies and parallel," Ayer said. "The snowplow is the radial tire of skiing. It teaches balance and edge control." Only later would he mention the long, slow telemark turn.
All morning, we hiked up and snowplowed down a gentle grade, coming to a stop with our skis in a wedge position, trying to ignore the fact that we were on skinny boards clamped to flimsy boot toes with little bits of metal and leather safety straps. We hiked up and snowplow-turned; hiked up and stem-turned; hiked up and tried stepping around the fall line in a christie. Hiked up and wiped away the sweat before trying it all over again.
Finally, the class took a break back at the White Grass cafe where tahini, apples and cheese, natural nachos, tamari, granola and miso soup crowd chili dogs off the menu. Our shared goal was to look like the hotshots doing teles and we were getting impatient. Martin Berger of Charleston, a real estate broker with 10 years of alpine experience, seemed to have little problem adapting to the nordic skis. Walter Shupe, Holly River State Park superintendent with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, thought the lesson was moving too slowly. Jeff Colaianni of Walter Reed Army Medical Center had driven all night from Silver Spring to gear up for a ski-touring trip in Austria but he, like Richard Galloway, special assistant to the comptroller of the Department of Education, was itching to try a tele. I was eager to quit climbing and take the T-bar. And Mary Haynes, an insurance broker from St. Albans, West Virginia, handed out face cream, trail mix and encouragement as we headed back for more.
From the top of the lift, cross-country skis felt insubstantial, that is to say, life-threatening. But soon the snowplow turned into a stem, the stem into christie and, every second try, a near-parallel. By the end of the afternoon, when we split into three groups, we were ready to try a tele.
Jill Eyre, a member of PSIA and the U.S. Ski Association, demonstrated the plunging-knee technique. Leading with her uphill ski, she lunged so the top of her rear leg was parallel to the bottom of her forward leg. It looked simple enough.
"You fall a lot because you're trying hard," Eyre assured me.
"Get that knee down," she called to me on my next attempt. My right turn was a half-day behind my left."Commit! You're not committing weight to one ski at a time," she said. "Up and sink, up and sink."
When it worked, it felt pretty.
Friday's snow made turning harder and falling, exhausting. The two-inches-per-hour hit us full in the face all the way up the lift, but slowed us on the way down so turning was manageable. At lunch, Shupe broke out a bottle of brandy and the class huddled by the fire to toast our success. We agreed Ayer had been wise to start with the grueling battery of beginner skills. By mid-afternoon, everyone was doing at least a dozen teles down the mountain.
"In my first telemark camp in December at Canaan Valley," Ayer said, "I had two folks from D.C. with alpine experience. It's a matter of relearning and applying that ability to cross-country. The lady never got out of stem turns."
Still, he said, you don't have to be a downhill skier to like telemark turns. It's more important to be athletic and daring.
I knew I was hooked when, home after the storm, I spent an evening tamping down snow on an urban hillside, climbing the same 15 yards again and again to practice a couple of teles under the stars.