I hooked up with a couple of friends who ski telemark and hit 49 Degrees North Saturday. We were there during the mountain’s Winterfest weekend.
The conditions weren’t ideal. Wet snow had fallen, followed by bitter cold. Hard, scratchy bumps covered with broken crust were everywhere. I wondered why the going looked a little easier for my telemarking friends than it was for me, skiing alpine.
Winterfest activities included an introduction to backcountry, snow sculpting for the kids and a sanctioned telemark giant slalom. January being Learn a Snowsport Month, I went for the free telemark lesson, courtesy of Mountain Gear.
Our telemark instructor was Mark Beattie from the 49 Degrees North ski school. Beattie is a telemark skier with about 30 years of free-heel experience. He explained why telemark could be an advantage in challenging conditions.
“Telemark skis come equipped with powerful boots and bindings,” Beattie said. “They also have a longer, more stable platform. A lot more ski is in contact with the snow. I wouldn’t say it’s cheating, but its close.”
Beattie outfitted me with a telemark setup. I began getting a feel for flexing the bellows of the boot. There was a lot of power in the boot when I flexed it. I asked Beattie how to use the energy generated by the boot in a telemark turn.
“Don’t use it,” he said. “Just let it do everything. The ski, binding and boot provide the energy for most of your turn. You only need a little bit of muscle.”
I’m curious when my telemarking friends say it isn’t as hard as it looks. They believe telemark takes less effort than alpine.
“Once you get a feel for the balance and motion of telemarking, it does become easier than alpine,” Beattie said. “But it’s a lot harder than what you’re used to when you’re fighting for your balance.”
The lesson started with basic sideslipping. We advanced to a sideslip while flexing the uphill boot. The free heel was an awkward, unstable sensation. Next was a traverse across the hill to a turn. With more vertical range of motion, the more the ski turned.
“Telemark skiing is all about continuous movement,” Beattie said. “The turn begins with the vertical transition. Standing lets everything go back to neutral. The skis find the way downhill. You pressure the lead ski, drop down on the inside ski and it becomes a rhythm, a dance.”
We experimented with changing the lead ski to start a turn and setting the edges. I wobbled and skidded, fighting for my balance. An hour into the lesson I was able to link vague telemark turns on the bunny hill.
Beattie said I was overthinking the process. He saw a “mind-related rigidity” in my skiing. As my mind analyzed the movements, my body got left behind in the turn. Everything falls apart from there.
Beattie recommended reading “Skiing Right” by Horst Abraham. Abraham encourages stimulating the right brain while skiing. According to Abraham, letting loose with a song can disengage the mechanical left brain, allowing a skier to experience the pure motion of telemark technique.
“I want you to sing,” Beattie said. “Skip the thinking, sing a song you’re happy with to a rhythm of the motions.”
Sing while you’re skiing?
“Absolutely,” he said. “When I’m in conditions that are ugly, nasty and dire, one of my favorites is ‘War,’ (by Edwin Starr). I sing it at the top of my lungs.”
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