The pleasures and perks of free-heel skiing.Though Norwegian farmers in the Telemark region of Norway are credited with inventing modern telemark skiing, Stone Age hunters and skilled Vikings were free-heel traipsing through the woods on wooden skis long before then. Telemark skiing differs from downhill skiing in that the heel of the boot isn't attached to the ski's binding. To turn, skiers drop a knee and raise a heel. "Being a free-heel skier sets us apart," says Matt DiBenedetto, a passionate telemark skier who is also co-director of non-profit New England Telemark, which provides lessons and clinics at ski areas throughout New Hampshire and New England through the winter. "You have the ability to cross-country ski and slide across the flats. That enables you to get into some places Alpine skiers and snowboarders might not be able to get into. We can get into tree runs that people might not know exist."Telemark skiers have their own gear and techniques. A good way to break into the sport is through a demonstration day or clinic at a ski area before venturing into the forests or backcountry meccas like Tuckerman Ravine on the shoulder of Mount Washington. New England Telemark puts on several events including the Gunstock Classic Telemark Race in Gilford Feb. 26 and a reggae telemark party at Bretton Woods March 19."We recommend people first try lift service and be able to ski on at least intermediate terrain before going into the backcountry," says DiBenedetto. "If you have never been in the backcountry before, we don't recommend going into the woods by yourself. Go with an experienced backcountry skier or hire a guide."Expert AdviceNorth Conway's Matt DiBenedetto is co-director of New England Telemark, a non-profit organization that fosters the growth of telemark skiing. A telemark skier for more than 30 years, he is also an instructor - he spent 11 years at Wildcat - who has free-heeled in places from New England to Wyoming. Though he has also taught downhill skiing and snowboarding, his passion is telemark.How is telemark skiing different from Alpine skiing? Basically, it's a free heel set-up. Your ski boot heel isn't attached to your ski. You have the ability to bend your knees and then cross-country ski across the flats. You have more freedom and more grace.Can you tell me a little bit about telemark technique and the equipment? The boot is similar to an Alpine boot except the toe area has a bellows area where it flexes and bends, which allows the heel to come up off the ski. That allows the knee to bend in a natural way. Telemark skis and Alpine skis are very similar. There's really no difference but some experts say they're easier to flex and have lighter construction. You use the same poles but can use adjustable poles that lengthen for when you are climbing up the mountain and shorten for the pole plant going down.What can I expect from my first lesson or two? I think most first time telemarkers are Alpine crossovers and they find it easier than they expect. They are nervous coming from a locked-down position and some experience an over-the-handlebars sensation the first few turns. But they are extremely happy at the end of the lesson and find it's not as scary as they thought.Telemark skiers look very graceful when they bend their knees for their turns. But what if my knees have seen better days? Your knees will fare well. Telemark and Nordic skiing (cross-country) are probably the safest of the snow sports. The ankles and knees bend the way they are supposed to. Middle-aged crossovers find they don't have to make a telemark turn every time. They can make some Alpine turns, too, and just put the heels down. The biggest burn is the thighs. It's an aerobic workout.What's it like to free-heel on the bumps and in powder? The best, like dancing. You take the bumps one step forward at a time and basically it's like walking down the mountain. With powder, you have the ability to get really low and the powder seems a lot deeper. Younger telemark skiers ski with their knees down on their ski and that makes the powder appear even deeper.Gear BoxDemo days are great ways to try out telemark gear. When it's time to buy, Garmont's Voodoo boot (garmontusa.com, $699.95) gets high praise for its sturdiness and flexibility.The Italian-made Trab Stelvio Light XL (skitrab.com, $700) is a general purpose medium weight ski that works well on both groomed surfaces and in the backcountry.Black Diamond's O1 binding (blackdiamond.com, $299.95) offers a happy medium between touring and heading down the mountain.Leki's Backcountry Ultralite Speedlock (backcountry.com, $99.95) helps you on the way up and down.Impressive FactFranconia's Cory Snyder is a member of the U.S. National Telemark Team.
This article appears in the January 2011 issue of New Hampshire Magazine