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Ski Free

By: Michael F. McGuffin


I felt the intoxicating rush of adrenaline as I leaned over the cornice below the summit of Blue Lake Peak. The top of the run was steep, steeper than Iíd imagined; below that it quickly eased into a perfect bowl. The first three turns would be critical. Just make three turns, I told myself, three turns and youíll be set. Pushing off I felt the fleeting electricity of flight before my skis submerged into a smoky plume of crystal powder, style forfeited to survival as I leaned into the hill. Three lucky turns later I hit the run-out, miraculously found my balance, and dropped into a gentle series of wide telemark turns. Five years ago, few free-heel skiers dared steep and narrow runs, but recent advances in gear and technique have coaxed an increasing number of Nordic-style skiers onto slender backcountry couloirs, committing alpine faces and even resort area mogul fields.

The Nordic, or free-heel, style differs from the more familiar Alpine-style in that Nordic skiers use a flexible boot which attaches to the ski at a single point located slightly forward of the skierís toes. This unique boot/binding system allows Nordic skiers to both ascend and descend a slope using the same equipment, an advantage when venturing into the backcountry. While free-heel skiers are able to execute the Alpine-style parallel turn, the distinguishing feature of Nordic-style skiing is the graceful and distinctive telemark turn.

Originated in the Telemark region of Norway the kneeling telemark turn is the signature of the Nordic-style. A skier using the telemark appears to flow downhill as each turn blends harmoniously into the next, all the while modestly concealing the underlying strength and skill. A common misconception about the Nordic style is that it is a recent invention, a bridge between the dipolar alpine and cross-country factions, when in fact, at one time, all downhill skiing was done free-heel.

Prior to World War II all ski bindings were devoid of a heel attachment, and debates over the advantages of the telemark versus the parallel turn raged between the Nordic and Alpine schools. The debate ended in 1950 with the introduction of the heel grabbing Cubco binding, the Nordic and Alpine schools were no longer simply divided by technique, they now had different equipment. The new heel attachment gave Alpine-style skiers a distinct advantage on the steep narrow terrain of the new resort areas; as resort area skiing grew to dominance, the free-heel style all but disappeared in America.

In the early seventies a small group of Colorado backcountry skiers rediscovered the Nordic style. Even though the Alpine school had by now embraced rigid plastic boots capable of driving wider, more stable skis, these new Nordic skiers required the forward flexibility of leather, best suited for a longer narrow ski.

Throughout the seventies and eighties the use of flexible boots and narrow skis defined the traditional telemark style as a fluid series of controlled graceful turns. The skier drops into a kneeling position by sliding the inside foot back causing the skis to slice a wide arc. Careful to maintain downhill motion the skier then slowly stands up, pushes the uphill ski forward, drops the opposite knee and respectfully glides into the next curve. The traditional telemark is pure joy, a rising and falling rhythm of one turn rolling into the next.

The introduction of an all-plastic Nordic-style boot in the early nineties proved an instant hit with free-heel skiers demanding more control and turning power. The innovative feature of this new boot was a molded bellows allowing forward flexibility, similar to leather, while adding the lateral stiffness of a plastic Alpine boot. The popularity of these new boots energized the sport with an aggressive new style, challenging the paradigm of the graceful unassuming telemark.

As Nordic skiers began switching to the new plastic boots and, consequently, wider more aggressively side cut skis the once innocuous telemark began to change. Instead of turning in genteel graceful arcs, Nordic skiers began executing the telemark as a staccato volley of high-speed jump turns. The skier enters the turn at a higher velocity, cuts the inside leg back, snaps a quick turn and rebounds off of the downhill leg; a lock-jawed ride where every turn must be fought for and won.

The beauty of the Nordic style is that it recognizes no absolutes and no boundaries. The skier can cruise the backcountry glades using the traditional telemark, pound resort area moguls with the new quick jump turns or even drop into steep powder using an Alpine-style parallel technique. Whatever the conditions, whatever the terrain the Nordic skier is well equipped to ski and ski free.