Goodbye, Telemark?

Making the switch from alpine to telemark skiing…and back again.

words :: Kristin Schnelten.

February, 1998. It’s a pure and perfect powder day at Alta, Utah. Not a breath of wind. Three degrees below zero. Toonie-sized flakes, lighter than air, covering our shoulders in deep, fluffy drifts as we creep up the mountain. My friends and I rented telemark gear on a whim, and we’re riding the double chair to the longest, flattest run.

I’m so pumped to try something new. For the past two years I’ve worked as a ski instructor. When I arrived from the Midwest, clueless and noodling, the ski school veterans brought my laughable skills up to speed with constant coaching, leaving my head filled with an endless torrent of reminders: “Drive with the knee! Square your hips! Quiet upper body!” But not today. Today I get to play, with a pin-drop-silent mind.

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“Planting poles is so 19th century.” The Telemark Turn. EF Benson, 1914. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Our first run is nothing short of a circus, filled with cartwheels, face-plants, confusion and belly-laughs. None of us has a clue, and none of us cares. Then, midway through that long second run, I feel it: my first real telemark turn. I’m able to repeat the sensation, then find a rhythm, each turn springing me softly to the next, in a giddy kind of dance. No longer am I working against the forces of gravity, fighting the mountain. Now I’m skiing with the mountain. We’re doing this together.

That day, with those friends, in that storm, was pivotal for many of us. I kept my alpine gear for another year of work, but I saw no other reason to ever pry my foot into a Lange again.

As I moved on from Utah to Colorado, I discovered the telemark community: a small but solid group of mountain people who were as encouraging as they were welcoming. Finding these like-minded souls was everything this fairly lost 20-something needed. Subarus and Toyotas, braids and beards, labs and huskies, banjos and beer—these were my people. Through this far-flung network, I met Andrew, my Canadian telemark husband, and we moved to his hometown.


Subarus and Toyotas, braids and beards, labs and huskies, banjos and beer—these were my people.


With the addition of children, my mountain time dwindled from a once-mighty 125 days to perhaps three runs. But now that the children are big, fast, and independent, it’s my turn to keep up with them. And I no longer can. Here’s the thing about this whole telemark gig: It’s hard work. Especially on Ontario hardpack. And the only real way to train is to ski. A lot.

Last January, in a moment that seemed rash but in retrospect was building for years, that husband of mine brought home a pair of borrowed alpine boots. It was just for one trip, we said. Wouldn’t want to hold up the tour group.


No poles? No problem. Vintage poster via Tumblr.


Having not locked my heels in more than two decades, I was, to be sure, rusty on that trip. But I kept up for the most part, old coaching prompts pounding in my head. I kept the loaners for the rest of the season. I hadn’t skied that fast, carved that deep, made it top to bottom non-stop, in years.

Last spring, Andrew stood at the back door with my tele skis, headed to the shed. “So, should I hang these up for good?” he peered at me, knowing the answer. I asked him to hang the skis, but please retract the “for good” comment.

This year he’s fitting me with my very own boots—Langes, I hear. Langes. I know 25-year-old me would seethe with disappointment, but you know what? This skiing stuff—it’s damn fun. No matter how you do it.


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