by Andy Dappen
Telemark skiing rose from the ashes of extinction in the mid-1970s for intelligent reasons. Lightweight equipment expedited long winter approaches into the North American backcountry. In fact, light skis with metal edges and a little sidecut made backcountry slopes not just approachable but fun.
The heaviest telemarking equipment of that era was featherweight by modern standards. The beefiest boots compared to the Asolo Snowfield and tipped the scales at 4.5 pounds/pair (size 10.5). Most of us sneered at such overkill, however, and employed general-touring boots weighing less than 3 pounds. Meanwhile, boards like the venerable Europa 99 when mounted with one of the sturdier three-pin bindings of the day weighed in at about 5.5 pounds.
By comparison, the hefty alpine-touring (randonnee) gear of that epoch evolved in Europe where lifts eliminated the drudgery of long approaches. Europeans needed tools appropriate for steep climbs and sheer drops. Consequently, the alpine-touring skis and bindings I dragged around the glaciers of Switzerland in 1979 pushed the scales down to the 11-pound mark. Add to that 8.5 pounds of boot weight and it’s no surprise that six months of European ski-mountaineering stretched my legs.
A backpacking axiom maintains a pound of extra weight attached to the long lever of the leg equals five pounds of excess baggage strapped to the back. Tests performed by U.S. Army substantiate this ratio so, in very rough figures, my European alpine-touring rig, which was 10.5 pounds heavier than my tele gear, had the fatigue factor of shouldering a hefty pack.
Since the 1980s, touring equipment has evolved strangely. Telemark gear has bulked up while alpine-touring (AT) gear has leaned out. The skis are interchangeable between disciplines, but the boot/binding systems are dramatically different.
Over the years, telemark bindings have doubled or tripled in weight. The modern cable binding capable of withstanding the forces applied by plastic boots have bulked up to an average of 3.5 pounds per pair. Several alpine-touring bindings, by comparison, have shed pounds. Silvretta’s Pure AT binding offers step-in convenience and, at 2.6 pounds/pair, is a good pound lighter than most telemark bindings. Meanwhile Dynafit’s Tourlite Tech binding is absolutely anorexic, weighing-in at a sand-in-the-face 1.5 pounds/pair.
Boots also illustrate telemark’s bloating. The 4.5-pound Asolo Snowfields, once considered monstrous, are now dismissed as slippers. The Snowfields toured well but, because they couldn’t rip the downhills (never the original intent of telemark gear), got re-engineered by those who relied more on lift-power rather than leg-power to earn their turns. Today the envy of modern telemarkers are entries like the Scarpa T1 (9.2 lbs, size 10.5), Crispi CRX (8.9 lbs, size 10.5), and Garmont Ener-G G-Fit (8.5 lbs, size 10.5).
Such boots are several pounds heavier than the light end of the AT spectrum–the Dynafit Tourlite Tech 4S, for example, weighs 6.5 lbs (size 10.5). Many telemark boots are also a good pound heavier than the more powerful AT boots like the Garmont G-Ride (7.25 lbs, size 10.5).
Do the math and it is apparent you can reap the performance benefits of AT gear with a system that is pounds lighter what modern telemarkers drag into the backcountry. What exactly are those performance benefits? Contrary to what most ‘free heelers’ believe, AT bindings actually tour better in walk mode because the unrestricted pivot point at the toe allows the ski to be dragged rather than lifted. Telemark skiers using cable bindings and plastic boots, by comparison, only receive a few inches of heel lift before they are lifting the heel of the ski. Lifting is more tiring than dragging.
For descending, meanwhile, AT bindings let skiers who started their turning careers on downhill skis (most of us) use the turns they already know–no need to master a new trick. Furthermore, the parallel turn requires less leg strength and reduces knee stress. And almost all AT bindings protect your legs by providing DIN-rated releasability–only a few telemark bindings make that claim. Finally, AT gear greatly increases the ability to control those cruddy snow conditions that bloody the noses of the average telemarker. Fixing the heel fixes many problems.
Given the extra poundage and given the reality that, when the going gets tough (steep slopes, narrow couloirs, cruddy snows), telemarkers often resort to parallel turns, the obvious question arises: Why Telemark?
Here are a few explanations that I, a part-time telemarker myself, must consider:
1) We are oxymorons—the term pinhead was coined for a reason.
2) We suffer from the ‘Look-at-me-I’m-skiing-harder-equipment-and-am-therefore-a-better-skier-than-you’ syndrome.
3) We were born on pins and, by God, we’ll die on pins (a subset of #1).
4) We are stubborn. For years downhillers have claimed we’re just reinventing alpine gear—we refuse to clamp down the heel and prove them right.
5) We are either bored of alpine skiing or the mug we see in the mirror each morning. Pins and headplants provide a change of pace and a change of face.
Removing tongue from cheek for a moment, here are some valid applications for embracing the second-rate turning system we called telemarking:
1) Skiers who you team light leather boots with a true three-pin binding (Rottefella Super Telemark, .8 lbs/pair) and modern lightweight skis (see Fischer’s S-Bound series or Karhu’s XCD series) can legitimately crow about the unparalleled touring speed, the liberating freedom of movement, and the reasonable (not excellent) turning performance that telemarking affords.
2) Skiers valuing long life can get an adrenaline rush piloting lightweight telemark gear down slopes of moderate angle without venturing onto if-you-fall-you-die steeps.
3) Skiers who learned to turn on telemark gear, might as well stick with what they know…even as they venture onto more severe terrain where AT gear shines.
4) Skiers who like the graceful feel–the aesthetics–of the telemark turn may simply find it more fun. Ultimately, what you enjoy is what matters.
However, in the popular rush to ski slopes of impossible steepness, or to launch the biggest air, or to descend the biggest faces with the fewest turns, many telemarkers on bulked out gear have embraced the state-of-the-farce without being critical of their religion. If steeps, air, and speed are the performance criteria that matter, why settle for a second-rate system? No matter how well an individual skis the backcountry on telemark gear, they could push steeper, jump farther, descend faster on AT gear.
Occasionally, I run into skiers like Steve Barnett or Nils Larsen who travel great distances efficiently on gossamer gear. Deep in the Sierras, or the Cascades, or the Rockies they have laid lines down exquisite slopes that AT skiers will probably never reach with their heavy boards. To my demented way of thinking, these are the skiers who fathom the crux of what makes inferior equipment superior.
Originally published 3/21/06