Teleskiers, we have all seen them sashaying down the slopes. They look strangely athletic and relaxed at the same time. I met Marc Künkele, who caught the initial wave of the telemark revolution, to find out more about the fascinating free-heel technique.
German Marc Künkele, an Allgäu native, has been telemarking as long as he can remember. He has been working as a Telemark instructor in Tirol’s Stubai Valley for 15 years and was the Telemark coach of the British Royal Marines. Marc also got involved in the racing aspect of the sport. He was a member of the German National Telemark Ski Team from 1997 to 2005, won the German Nationals in Telemark Sprint Classic several times and the Freeheel Masters in 2009. In between, he traipsed about the Alps’ snowy mountains on Telemark skis, from Germany’s Munich to Italy’s Merano. Marc shared his love of Telemark skiing with me and answered ten frequently asked questions about free-heel skiing. Tele-ho!
Nope, it wasn’t an Austrian. Telemarking is named after the place it originated, Telemark, Norway. Sondre Norheim is given credit for the first Telemark skier in the 1860’s. While messing around the snow he realized he could lift his heel, bend his knee, and thus turn! Turns meant more fun, rather than just traveling cross-country, and it was used as a means to get out into the backcountry. His skis were shorter than other skis used at that time, and narrower in the middle than at the ends. The sidecut made it easier to turn. These skis, made of pine, were called Telemark skis. Thanks to a creative use of equipment, a unique interest in doing things differently, his talent and playfulness, Sondre contributed to a new and different way of using the skis. This is why he has been called the Father of Modern Skiing. “Telemark skiing was not invented because it looked cool,” says Marc Künkele. “The lunge is simply a natural position. Imagine what you would do if you stood with your feet side by side and were pushed forward. You would quickly put one foot in front to stop yourself falling forward.” It’s the same movement used in modern-day ski jumping. The landing requires the skiers to touch the ground in the Telemark landing style. This involves the jumper landing with one foot in front of the other, mimicking the style of Telemark skiing.
Telemark skiing is unique. It’s a close knitted community, similar to those of the early days of snowboarding. People are friendly, welcoming, and always ready to help out. The subculture is very different from the other two major snow sports. There is no mainstream, no big sponsor, and no money. Still, competition, events, festivals are happening every year all over the planet. Such as the World Cup events at Hintertux Glacier, for example. Competitive Telemark Skiing was added to the FIS World Cup schedule in 2013. However, the vast majority of Teleskiers is launched into the backcountry or to mogul terrain. “We have friends from Switzerland who regularly make the journey into Stubai Valley. We meet and have fun together, without competing in a ski club or else. It’s simply the love for the sport that unites us,” explains Marc. Lodging is more a basic thing, like “we are staying with Maria on the Farm.” Marc tells us that back in the early days he was kind of a “Telemark Punk” who spent weeks sleeping in a Volkswagen Bus on the car park of the Stubai Glacier base, telemarking with friends each and every day. “We hit the slopes together and that’s it.”
For Marc, Telemark skiing is the ultimate downhill feeling. He is really passionate, and almost argues in a philosophical manner about the sport, as he wants to convince me to trade my skis for some tele skis. “It’s the movement, the freedom, it’s so gracious” is what I hear. “It’s a vibe, a flow that links you to the mountain like no other.” Telemarking is becoming trendy these days. Many people come into it looking for a new challenge and a way to push themselves on the mountain. Former Austrian ski superstar Hermann Maier, for example, has been a passionate free heel skier for years. The Austrian Ski Association even has discovered telemarking as an alternative training method, says Marc. “Most Alpine skiers will agree that although telemarking has a steep learning curve, it adds a new dynamic rhythm to the sport of downhill skiing—and to everyday training.”
Take a lesson with a pro, a Telemark instructor. You will find one from the Association of Austrian Telemarkers named “Telemark Austria”. Held each year in late November at the Hintertux Glacier Ski Resort, the Telemark World Cup Opening is a great opportunity to give this sport a try. Start with equipment designed for Telemark. As with any new sport, rent your gear at first, for example at “Sport Nenner” in Hintertux or at the Stubai Glacier Ski Resort or at “Intersport Gamsgarten”. “If you ski with an instructor for two hours, you will get the idea of telemarking,” explains Marc: “It is a tough technique to master. Don’t be discouraged if you fall… a lot! If you aren’t falling, you aren’t learning. But when it works, it feels amazing!”
Telemarking is a combination of Alpine and Nordic skiing. Telemark turns use a bent knee in a lunging motion to engage the ski in a powerful arc. When initiating a turn, the outer ski is placed a little ahead of the other one, as it is moved in the direction you want to turn. The heel of the inner (uphill) ski is lifted, as the knee is bent. “While traversing, get into the Telemark stance: go deep like doing a lunge, keeping your weight equally distributed on your skis, with one boot length distance between front foot and back foot” explains Marc.
Telemark skiing is perfect for first time snow experienced, seasoned alpine skiers, seasoned snowboarders, seasoned cross country skiers and anything in between. Nevertheless, the loose heel requires a different approach when heading downhill. Telemark skiers use Alpine skis with specially designed Nordic bindings that fix only the toe of the ski boot to the ski, creating the “free heel”. If you have a solid Alpine skiing background, you can probably be laying down some nice turns in just a few days. However, as Alpine gear has been developed to help your balance by keeping you within acceptable limits, you may have to revise your stance, especially if you’ve become a bit lazy. If you are a seasoned snowboarder, the front side turn skill means your balance will be better. Cross country skiers are used to the “free heel” feeling, yet they have to get accustomed to the speed of Telemark skiing. If you’re starting from scratch it may take a bit longer – but reasonably athletic people usually do quite well. Rowing and inline skating are Marc’s preferred summer training activities.
The only real difference between Telemark skiing and Alpine skiing is the bindings and the way you turn. The specially designed Nordic bindings fix only the toe of the ski boot to the ski, creating the “free heel”. Telemark turns use a bent knee in a lunging motion to engage the ski in a powerful arc. Telemark bindings are either the traditional 75 mm ‘duckbill’ toe type (basically, the same type invented by the Father of Modern Skiing, Sondre Norheim) or the more recently developed New Telemark Norm (NTN) boot/binding system. Marc recommends beginners to start with the traditional 75 mm ‘duckbill’ toe type binding, which makes it easier to do the lunge.
Yes, the “free-heel” system of the Telemark allows skiers to access the backcountry by walking uphill on skis. Skinning uphill is possible without any adjustment to Telemark bindings though some models now have a ‘tour mode’ for less effort and ease of doing uphill kick-turns. Today, Alpine gear has evolved to allow backcountry access with specially designed Telemark bindings.
No! You can’t free heel ski on Alpine touring equipment. The standard touring binding is tightened to keep your heel down for descents so you can’t really Telemark turn. It doesn’t prevent you from falling over, in the worst case.
“Tele-Ho!” is simply a popular greeting phrase among Telemarkers. Marc “might have heard it for the first time many years ago on a Telemark-Party”.