You know they say not to knock something until you’ve tried it? Yeah, but telemarking? Yes, really – once you get the hang of it free heel skiing is just plain brilliant
Free the heel, free the mind, they said. Fix the heel, fix the problem, somebody else said, and I tended to agree.
I admit it. I wasn’t very impressed by telemarking. Like Sydney Smith, who claimed never to read a book before reviewing it to avoid being unduly prejudiced, I had made up my mind about skiing’s missing link without having a go.
With the toe securely clipped into the telemark binding, it leaves the heel free to rise | Penny Kendall
‘Why telemark?’ was the obvious question, when ski time is so precious. As with snowboarding, I didn’t have to try it to know it was wrong. And that’s before all the irritating stuff. I first noticed free-heelers years ago in Colorado when home-knitted pointy hats with ear flaps, an over-emphasis on granola and weird-beards were the tribal badges. And that was just the girls. Back in Europe it was the Scandi-smugness, while any group which considered itself different from the norm (above, actually) earned my deep suspicion.
But it was more than just blind prejudice. I had science, or at least a plausible argument, to back me up: once upon a time, skiing was telemarking. Then some brave souls – the Wright Brothers of snow – realised that nailing the heels of their boots to their skis was the way to reach the next performance level.
They risked limb, and sometimes life, in an age when a badly broken leg could be a death sentence. Their sacrifice led to fixed-heel skiing, the development of safety bindings, and the levels of performance and fun we enjoy today. They should be honoured by a minute’s whooping and hollering on the first chairlift of the day across the globe.
The thing is, I got it wrong. The key point I missed is that telemarking is just plain brilliant, and you’ll have to take my word for it, until you go and try it for yourself.
Telemarking just needs the right approach! | Penny Kendall
But it needs the right approach. Enter Nicko Braxton of Telemark Tracks in Val d’Isère, preceded by his teeth in the shape of a dazzling smile and a loud, jolly voice. It’s immediately apparent that Nicko grins, breathes and probably sweats enthusiasm, with plenty of expertise on the side.
Though you might think that for once, ‘bend ze knees’ would be right on the money, there’s a bit more to teaching alpine skiers to telemark. Technically, though it’s ‘same skis, same snow’, it’s surprisingly different. But the fear factor – probably the biggest challenge when starting to slide down mountains – is a non-issue to a competent skier. That allows you to do what Nicko is telling you, to progress way faster than would otherwise be the case.
Like most beginners, the thing on my mind as we ride Val’s Olympique lift to our ‘nursery’ slopes is ‘will I be able to do it’? Nicko’s answer is encouraging, with a dose of realism: “Yes, you’ll really be telemarking in just a few days and starting to ski the whole mountain. But you’d better cling tightly to that thought during the first few hours, when the end will feel a long way off.”
At the top, things start well: I manage to get my feet securely clipped in without falling over. Actually, it’s as easy as stepping into a downhill binding, but it cleverly leaves the heel free to rise. As we slide off, what should be a moment of truth is nothing of the sort. It turns out you can parallel turn as normal, despite the free heels, by not leaning forward too much. That puts beginner terrain for trying your telemark moves within reach, even if there’s a section of steep stuff to get to it. It all goes wrong if you decelerate unexpectedly, but for getting around the place it works a treat.
Having found the perfect spot – just steeper than dead-flat, reassuringly wide and with nice smooth snow – it’s a series of drills to get the feel of straight running, traversing, and the tele-stance, which can be done without going anywhere, one ski sliding forwards, the other backwards, as you drop into the bent-knee pose. A full-length mirror would be helpful at this point and it’s worth getting this apparently simple move nailed under Nicko’s watchful eye before trying it in action.
Trying out exercise tricks to enhance vital lateral stability | Penny Kendall
But sooner than you’d think, you’re doing just that. Tricks for enhancing lateral stability include holding hands with a partner (I won’t tell if you don’t, Dave Meyer, BASI alpine level 4), borrowing a piste marker pole to hold out in front between two of you, or ‘snurfing’. The latter involves dropping into your stance then weaving one way then the other to get a feel for balance and edge control as you hurtle ever more quickly down the steeper-than-you-thought slope you so carefully selected.
At some point in the process, the first real turn just can’t be put off any longer and – if you’ve picked the right gradient and snow type – you’ll finally get your first tantalising inkling of what this is all about… after less than 90 minutes. Wow!
The same again and you’ll have linked enough of those turns – sort of – to be utterly hooked. Seeing that on the page makes it sound easy; it’s not, but that makes subsequent rapid progress all the more rewarding. The feel of the turns gets better by the moment. It’s all about the back foot, I reckon, and I think Dave’s getting at the same principle when he says, “Just when you want to pull out you need to go deeper”. Ew, I can’t believe I was holding his hand just now…
Reflective moments on the chairlift become an exercise in exploring all the other benefits of your new sport. The obvious physical side to telemarking already seems like a plus to me – that slightly niggly knee seems to appreciate a fuller range of motion as compared with alpine skiing, and the dynamism and extra effort is clearly a great thigh workout and should mean I can eat more pies.
It’s also obvious that the process is great for your normal skiing too – Nicko says so. It’s going to feel easier after all this, physically and technically, and the way my right turn weakness has been highlighted compared to the left (I thought I’d never get it) is remarkable. And of course having an expert teacher giving you feedback can be incredibly useful, though equally the instructor might just get hung up on something predictable, like, say, not keeping your head up enough. Whatever, there’s plenty to think about during the next afternoon’s lessons, as well as in the focused practice sessions each morning – just enough to start engraining the moves without knackering yourself completely.
Powder: The Ultimate Tele Test | Penny Kendall
On our fourth afternoon, we’re greeted with fresh powder for the ultimate test. Amazing. Nicko’s drills and our frantic knee-bending have paid off; this slightly improbable, smooth and sinuous way of turning a ski through snow really does work and it feels delicious, as do the words of a ski instructor to his class on a nearby piste – “Look, telemarkers!” I think I might just have found my new thing.
Nicko Braxton and Ben Langridge (both BASI ISTD qualified coaches) run dedicated telemark courses for all levels, including several ‘virgins’ weeks (Val d’Isère weeks commencing 12 Dec 2016, 23 Jan 2017, 30 Jan, and 17 and 24 April, and a spring week in Zinal, Switzerland, 15 April). Lessons are either one-to-one, or in clinics. They have a range of Scott skis and boots with NTN telemark bindings for rent.
Eric stayed at Hôtel Kandahar, a charming hotel only a hat’s lob from the Bellevarde and Solaise ski slopes, and with a telemark-worthy breakfasts. Doubles from €210 per night, including breakfast.
Six-day lift pass from €270.