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Telemark boom has the masses taking a lunge

Lessons, clinics, ski demos among reasons to start

Published March 20, 2007 at midnight

Some say it's the workout of lunging with every turn; for some, it's the flexibility of travel in the winter backcountry.

Some like the unique nature of trying something new on snow. Some take it on because it's the standard part of the outdoors portfolio, along with kayaking and rock climbing.

Whatever the reason, telemark skiing is growing in popularity, with participation in Colorado.

"Telemark is growing, but it's never going to be huge," said Ross Matlock, a telemark representative of the Professional Ski Instructors of America who teaches at Crested Butte Resort.

Even with its huge surge in popularity during the past decade, telemarkers comprise only a small portion of skiers on Colorado slopes. Matlock says that's probably because it's a challenging sport to do, even with recent gear improvements making it more accessible.

"You can't get on telemark skis and do it for a week and move to black diamond runs," he said.

"You have to be more dedicated, have more days under your belt. I don't know if you ever master it."

So you think you want to try? Well, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Learn the turn

Telemarking gear is similar to cross country gear, in that the heel is free, but it is becoming more and more like alpine, with fatter skis and stiff, plastic boots. To turn, you drop into a lunge position, moving the downhill ski forward.

The movement can feel quite awkward and strenuous to beginners.

"Everyone thinks telemarking is so hard. It's not really so hard if you do a couple simple things," said Ned Ryerson, aka "Tele Ned," a longtime telemark instructor at Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen.

He gives some advice to all his students.

Smile.

Look where you are going.

Put one foot in front of the other.

If you make sure you are doing these three things, everything else will fall into place, said Ryerson, who has worked with some of the sport's best up-and-coming skiers as part of his children's development program.

Smiling helps prevent people from overthinking what they are trying to do, he said. Looking where you are going gets the body positioned down the fall line. Putting one foot in front of the other cues the rhythm and proper form of the turn.

It's also important to give yourself time to learn something new, said Leslie Ross, a telemark extreme freeskiing champion and founder of Breckenridge-based Babes in the Backcountry women's outdoor workshops.

She said telemarking tends to appeal to people who are natural athletes and that sometimes can work against them.

"They can fake it, or get by relying on muscle instead of technique," she said.

It's important to spend some time practicing on appropriate terrain getting a feel for the proper balance, rhythm and weight distribution instead of "rushing down the hill to keep up with your friends who are more seasoned."

Ross said sometimes people who never have skied have better success learning the telemark turn because they don't have to change alpine habits. Those coming from an alpine background, which is much more common, tend to share similar obstacles.

"One of the biggest challenges is getting weight on the back foot," she said.

Other challenges include using poles, flexing the front ankle, being balanced and committing to the fall line. Ross and others recommend starting with a lesson at a resort instead of trying to learn from friends.

"There are many people out there who are incredible telemark skiers but are not able to communicate that information of how to telemark turn," she said.

Nate Goldberg, manager of the Beaver Creek Nordic Sports Center, agrees lessons are essential for anyone getting into the sport and as refreshers over time.

"I think it's the same with anything, you can teach yourself, but why not cut to the chase and have a professional show you how to do it and break the bad habits before they start?" Goldberg said.

Many resorts offer private and group telemark lessons daily, with special events and clinics throughout the season.

Get the gear

It's critical to get the right gear. Skiing, whether alpine or tele, definitely is a sport where proper gear can make a big difference.

Ross cautions against borrowing gear that doesn't fit or is outdated, which can be a recipe for a bad first experience.

Rent current gear to get the full benefit of recent improvements that make telemarking easier. Having boots that fit properly can go a long way in keeping you and your feet warm and happy.

George Vaughn of Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder said beginning telemarkers usually do best on a ski with "a soft flex and a lot of shape" (meaning the ski underfoot is narrower than the tip and tail), such as the K2 World Piste or She Devil.

He said if you are getting new gear and need to prioritize finances, spend your money on the boots.

"You want comfortable boots that keep your feet warm.

Budget the skis and bindings, don't budget the boots," he said. "Cold and uncomfortable feet make telemarking not a fun sport, much more so than a ski that is not exactly the right size."

To really dial in the boots-ski combination that is right for you, check out the tele demo program at Bent Gate Mountaineering in Golden.

For $99, you can take two pairs of skis and one pair of boots a day for three days (days do not need to be consecutive).

Because Bent Gate is closed Saturdays, Thursday evening to Monday morning counts as "a day."

By comparison, other demo programs are typically $25 a day for one pair of skis.

Start with a lesson

Check with your favorite resort because many offer daily private and group telemark lessons. A schedule of clinics (unless noted, prices do not include lift tickets):

Arapahoe Basin (Arapahoe Basin.com)

Women's tele clinic: 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. April 7; $51.

• Babes in the Backcountry (BabesintheBackcountry.com);

Women's telemark clinics; check Web site for prices.

Crested Butte, March 24.

Silverton, March 30 to April 1.

Loveland, April 7.

• Beaver Creek (Beaver Creek.com)

Tele Tuesdays beginner lessons: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., $40 (reduced rate).

• Loveland (SkiLove land.com); Telemark clinics: 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. April 7; $72 (includes lift ticket).

• Monarch (SkiMon arch.com); Thursday Telemark clinics, $45.

Let the tele love grow

There is an unspoken cultish aspect among telemarkers. Nowhere is this more apparent than when a big group of telemarkers come together and form a posse. To encourage this, a handful of Colorado resorts organize events to foster the tele love.

Loveland Ski Area hosts the 3-Pin Grin Telemark Festival each spring, scheduled for April 7. The focal point is a telemark race that combines gates, bumps and uphill skating, but the day draws plenty of noncompetitors as well and turns into an overall tele scene.

Loveland's annual Corn Harvest Benefit Ski Party, a spring snow fundraiser for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, also draws a sizeable telemark contingent. It is scheduled for April 28.

Each year, Breckenridge ends its season with the Bump Buffet. Running for its 28th time April 22, the Bump Buffet is a cabin-fever infused costume party competition on the bumps of Peak 8.

• Beaver Creek is doing its part to feed the sport with Telemark Tuesdays. Skiers can choose to take a lesson at half price or just take the opportunity to meet and ski with like-minded telemarkers.

The mac-daddy of telemark festivals comes each spring to Crested Butte, with the U.S. National Extreme Freeskiing Telemark Championships, scheduled Thursday through Saturday. Day 1 is a qualifier on the super-steep Headwall to earn the right to throw down on some of Colorado's sickest terrain on Friday. The event draws some of the best in the country. Scheduled late in the season as visitor numbers are quieting down, the mountain is overrun with telemarkers.

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