Telemark skiing is harder than it looks.
Once you've learned the basics, though, as I did recently on a beginner slope at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, the rhythm of one staggered-ski turn after another can begin to feel — and look — like dancing.
Private telemark ski lessons at Mt. Ashland cost $65 an hour. There is a small added charge for each additional skier in your party. Call 541-482-2897 for details.
A close relative of traditional Alpine skiing, telemark differs from its downhill cousin in that the heel is not clamped in its binding to the ski, so turning requires a different, more deliberate, style.
After many years as a spectator at the local telemark race the Screamin' Tele Lizard Classic at Mt. A, I decided it was about time to try tele-skiing myself.
My first stop was the Ashland Outdoor Store, where a daily telemark rental package will run you $35. The boots I rented looked more sophisticated than I had expected. After all, my skiing background is cross-country, and I only recently upgraded from my old three-pin boots and bindings.
"Go back 20 years, telemark was a three-pin toe binding and leather boot and little skinny skis that were basically beefy cross-country skis," explained Bryant Helgeland, the Outdoor Store's buyer. "Today it's a four-buckle plastic boot that, other than the duckbill, looks exactly like a downhill boot."
Helgeland is a telemark purist with even less chairlift time than I have. One of his main passions in life is to spend the day tele-skiing on powder in the backcountry. That's something I've wanted to try for years, I told him.
"I totally understand people wanting to learn telemark, wanting to do it as inexpensively as possible," Helgeland advised me, pointing out that a beginner may not have the best chance of escaping an avalanche.
"Realistically the best thing to do is to pay for a lesson and ski two or three times at the ski area and just make a lot of turns on an even slope with consistent snow and then take it in the backcountry.
Up at the ski area on a recent Saturday morning, I snapped on skis beneath scattered cumulous clouds and a stiff wind. I met up with Arden Prehn, who's been a ski instructor at Mt. Ashland since 1986. She moved to Southern Oregon from Montana, where she first learned to tele-ski. Though I'd never met her before, I'd heard her voice: Prehn is the announcer for the annual Tele Lizard Classic.
We shuffled over to a gentle slope and began the lesson in front of a cutout of Winnie the Pooh. This did not exactly bolster my confidence.
Before actually skiing, we practiced moving the skis back and forth, sort of like running in place. Unlike downhill skiing, on tele skis you don't have your legs together; you're always either in a gentle lunge position or standing up in anticipation of lunging with the other ski.
"Use your skeletal structure to keep yourself upright rather than your musculature," Prehn explained, as we finally began moving. "What you want is a nice, balanced stance between each ski; stay low."
This made kinesthetic sense. Because tele boots are so tall and tight, as I began to ski, I found that the pressure — and much of my control — seemed to rest on my shins.
After a few Nordic — snowplow — turns, we began to learn the tele-turn. This turn is the heart of telemark skiing and is what sets it apart from the parallel turn of downhill skiing.
With the downhill ski forward and the heel lifted on the uphill ski, the tele turn feels like turning on one ski. Though I soon managed something mildly resembling a tele turn to the right, each time I attempted to turn left, I did not so much turn as hurtle straight down the slope, much to the consternation of the other skiers.
"With every discipline, there's a stronger and weaker side," Prehn assured me. "Like a forehand and a backhand, you find some people with a stronger backhand."
After dozens of attempts, I was feeling frustrated with my lack of progress toward achieving the smooth turns and their accompanying transitions. According to Prehn, everyone comes to telemark skiing from another snow sport rather than starting off tele-style. She assured me that the transition is hardest for cross-country skiers; the easiest is for snowboarders. That made me feel a tiny bit better.
And then for some reason I can't explain, near the end of the hour-and-a-half lesson, I executed four consecutive turns, all smooth. As I bobbed up and down, transitioning from one ski to another with perfect timing, I felt like I was waltzing on snow.
I wasn't quite able to reproduce that feeling during the last five minutes of the lesson. That was enough, though, to give me hope that before long I may have the confidence to head out into the backcountry, or perhaps even sign up for the Tele Lizard.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org