Free your heel

Nathan Breece demonstrates tele turns on Mount Ashland in the Mail Tribune file photo.

You like the thrill of downhill skiing, but you yearn for the aerobic benefits and back-country experience you get on cross-country skis. What's a skier to do?

Check out the world of telemark skiing.

Screamin' Telelizard Classic

The 14th Annual Screamin' Telelizard Classic at Mount Ashland is scheduled for March 13.

Although prizes are given for the fastest time in the two heats of this telemark race, equally important are the competitions for best costume, best crash, best air and others. Some skiers find the post-race party as much fun as the race itself. Costumes are required.

This year's theme is "Lord of the Lizards." For more information, visit www.screamintelelizardclassic.com.

"Telemarking is simply a turn, a way of turning your skis," says Dave Brennan, an Ashland skier who first strapped on a pair of telemark skis in 1982.

Brennan, who recently retired from the National Park Service — his last assignment was Crater Lake National Park — spent his early years as a back-country ranger and has racked up many miles in the snow.

Opportunities abound for back-country skiing near the Rogue Valley, but you may want to practice in a groomed area before heading for fields of fresh powder, he says.

"A good way to learn the technique is to start at lift areas," Brennan says. "Telemarking is about repetitions and muscle memory."

Skilled teleskiers lean down-slope. They simultaneously edge the outside ski while lifting the heel on the inside ski and planting a pole. The inside ski drops back to complete that signature, staggered telemark turn that is so distinct and different from the parallel turns of the alpine skier.

When the turn is complete, the skier slides the rear leg forward and repeats the process with legs and arms reversed. Again and again.

Teleskis are about the same size and shape as alpine skis, but with a binding that allows the heel to lift easily. Anyone who's ever tried to ski uphill for even a short distance in alpine skis can appreciate the appeal of a free-heel ski.

To reach the top of a back-country run, telemarkers climb up the slope with "skins" on their skis. Skins are fabric strips that slip on the underside of the skis, creating the traction essential for uphill climbs. The payoff for the tough uphill climb is cutting tracks through fresh powder on the way back down.

The best back-country skiing experiences are near or above tree line.

"You get great opportunities at higher elevations: Mount Ashland, Mount Shasta, Mount McLoughlin, Brown Mountain," Brennan says. "Anything much below 6,000 feet is beginning to push it. Up higher, you get a better snowpack."

All those open expanses of fresh powder carry an inherent danger.

"Be cognizant of avalanches," Brennan warns. "Some kind of avalanche training is important. Also, be prepared for accidents and injuries."

The most common telemark injury is to the knee. You may want to practice knee-strengthening exercises to avoid injuries.

"Squats and lunges are some of the best. Lunges closely mimic how you turn with telemark," says Emily Dean, a physical therapist in Ashland and avid telemarker.

"You can also incorporate balance exercises into your strengthening routine," Dean says. "Anything with leg strength that throws off your balance will help."

When you strap on your teleskis, remember that good form is the key to preventing injuries.

"Keep your weight forward. Falling backward is higher-risk (than falling forward) because of the amount of knee bend," Dean advises. "Also, keep your weight evenly distributed between your feet."

To get started, consider renting teleskis from the Outdoor Store in Ashland. A one-day rental of skis, bindings, boots and poles costs $30. Each additional day costs $15.

When you've got your equipment, head for the Mount Ashland ski area on a Sunday. The "Telemark 101 Express Package" gets you a two-hour group lesson for $40. Private lessons also are available by calling 541-482-2897, ext. 225.

When you're comfortable with teleturns, the Screamin' Telelizard Classic awaits you.

This annual race on Mount Ashland is scheduled for March 13. But don't worry if you're not an expert. In this race, the quality of your costume is more important than how fast you reach the finish line. This year's costume theme is "Lord of the Lizards." (Think Gandalf and Frodo in Garmont boots.)

When spring hits, the teleseason is not quite over.

"After the lifts stop, people focus on the back country. The avalanche hazard is lower then," says Zac Kauffman, race director of the Screamin' Telelizard Classic and member of Mount Ashland's ski patrol.

Kauffman offers the following tip for telemarkers who want to meet each other.

"On Tuesday and Wednesday when the lifts are closed, a lot of people ski Mt. A — telemarkers primarily," Kauffman says.

After all, who needs a lift when you've got telemark skis?

If you've saved your money and are ready to jump into teleskiing feet first, be prepared for the plethora of choices. Many boot and binding technologies are available.

Skiing technology has changed significantly in the past few years. Many telemarkers are using bindings made for alpine touring, which are alpine/telemark hybrids. Without changing equipment, the skier can snap the heel into place, turning it into a downhill ski, or release the snap, freeing the heel while the toe remains fixed. This type of setup also goes by the French name, randonée.

Alpine-touring bindings are lighter than traditional telebindings, which translates into efficiency — yet another reason many teleskiers have turned to this technology.

For the experienced teleskier, any technology that gets you to the top of a slope in the back country will work.

"If you can find a secluded slope with fresh powder, that's the essence of telemark skiing," says Brennan. "It's so quiet."



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