Everyone Should Own a Telemark Ski Setup
You’ll have a new challenge and it will give you a new way to see your local hill
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This post first appeared on SKI.
Back in the late ’90s when I was a high schooler and the snow was lousy at my local resort I used to pull out a pair of 210 centimeter Tua skis (maybe 75 millimeter underfoot?) mounted with flimsy Voile telemark bindings and then strap on a pair of thrift shop leather telemark boots. As you might imagine, getting down the hill with this setup was quite a challenge and made the shitty snow way more fun.
On a college trip around Europe, I was in Italy and came across a pair of plastic Asolo telemark boots in an army surplus store and thought I’d hit the jackpot. They weighed a ton and only barely came above my ankle, but they were plastic and afforded me that much more control. I carried those boots across Europe that summer and then used them through college with slightly fatter skis mounted to slightly more robust Voile bindings. I was always the last person down the hill in my ski posse but I enjoyed every single turn.
Fast forward to adulthood and I eventually left my telemark setup behind. By my mid-30s I’d wiggled my way into testing skis for publications like Outside and Powder and no one cared about telemarking. I spent ten years on the best downhill setups (and best AT setups in the backcountry) and my telemark gear gathered dust in the garage.
Then I had kids. As any of you who have kids know, teaching them to ski can be a slow process. Even if I would get 30 days of skiing each season, my total vert was probably less than a person who spent two days skiing a place like Taos or Jackson Hole. I was skiing, but I was skiing on Bambi all day long. To freshen things up, I decided to get back on teles.
Today, my telemark setup is still in use. My kids are all skiing blues and an occasional black, and as they learn to navigate steeper terrain I get to work on my telemark technique. They’ve been graduating from a snowplow to parallel skiing and I’ve been thinking about how much I should drop my knee. They’ve been learning to pole plant and I’m trying to get the back of my uphill skis to come around the turn without bouncing around too much.
I’m by no means an expert telemark skier. Those of you who are might even laugh at what I’m working on. But damn if I haven’t loved the past few years in large part because I’m on a telemark setup that’s challenged me, literally brought me closer to the snow, and helped me build semi-respectable quads. Telemarking has been an old frontier for me to re-explore and it’s helped me have the patience I needed to raise my crew of young skiers.
And while I hate proselytizing, here I am on the pulpit of telemarking saying that you, too, should give it a try. Even for those of you who don’t have kids, I promise that a day here and there of telemarking, be it in the spring after you’ve had your fill of powder days, or even on closing day in your ’80s outfit, will be a lot of fun. You’ll have a new challenge and telemarking will give you a new way to see your local hill. Your quads will ache and you’ll want to scream halfway down the hill, but the apres beer will taste that much better.
To get a telemark setup dialed for this season, there are a couple of options. Like any kind of skiing, you can go used which will save you lots of money but probably cause you some extra grief. Or you can go new because some companies are still making telemark gear and some of the technology has come a long way. I’ve detailed both approaches below.
Used Telemark Gear
I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico and we’re lucky to have a place called Regear. It’s a warehouse-sized used gear shop that’s stuffed to the gills with every piece of used gear you can think of. It’s so stuffed, in fact, that there’s an entire eight-by-eight-foot shelf stuffed with used telemark boots and several bins stuffed with old telemark skis and bindings.
Most of the boots on the shelf are beaten up. We all know that telemark skiers loved to be seen as dirtbags, so when they were done with their boots they had some miles. You’ll find an occasional pair of Black Diamond or Crispi boots, but the vast majority are old Scarpa T2s. You’ve no doubt seen these boots around, and they were obviously the most popular and best-selling model whenever Scarpa launched them.
In the ski bin, there are a lot of old K2s that are not quite as long as my Tuas, and not quite as thin, but still have that much more pronounced hourglass shape that was popular 25 years ago. The bindings are almost exclusively from Voile.
At Regear, or wherever you shop for used gear, a whole setup might cost you $150-$200 and if you’re just gonna dip your toe in telemarking, it’s the way to go. You’ll look totally out of place on the ski hill, and making turns down the hill with this gear will be a challenge, but I guarantee it will also be plenty of fun. Those of you who can master a graceful turn on a setup like this will automatically be placed in a special category of skier.
New Telemark Gear
There’s no such thing as telemark skis anymore. You just have to figure out what kind of skis you want to make telemark turns on. As a gear reviewer, I have my choice of demos and for a new setup, I just asked to test two different pairs. First, I went for the Völkl Mantra 102. This ski is a fan favorite amongst hard-charging skiers because it’s so solid and reliable underfoot. It likes to be skied fast and favors big arching turns. The 102 will definitely be my choice for hardpack days when I’m trying to keep up with groms who are getting increasingly speedy and it’s gonna force me to keep working on my telemark technique.
I also asked to demo a pair of DPS Pagoda 100 RPs. These skis are known for being more playful and easier to pivot and slide and will work when I’m trying to make quicker and poppier turns. The Pagoda will be just fine on hardpack but will be extra fun in the bumps and in softer snow. Even though I thought I should go shorter on a telemark setup (not sure why I thought that), my contact at DPS advised me to ski mostly the same length I would for a downhill ski so I’ll be on 184s (and 177s for the Mantras).
Both skis will eventually be mated with NTN telemark bindings, which do away with the heel strap and instead use an under-boot connection point that creates a more robust setup and adds more tension to your boot when your knee is bent. One pair of skis will get NTN Freedom bindings from Scarpa (or Rottefella, which Scarpa owns) and the other will get Outlaw X bindings from 22 Designs. I’m particularly excited to test the Outlaw X bindings because people I’ve talked to say they have a really nice flex and add a noticeable amount of control. I also dig that they’re built in the U.S. by a small company. Both bindings have a touring mode, but for now, I’ll be using them exclusively inbounds.
Finally, I’ll be skiing with a pair of Scarpa TX Pro NTN boots, which can still be bought brand new in full-size runs if you know where to look. These boots have not changed in a long time (years!) because Scarpa put its energy into the AT market. They’re significantly heavier than a pair of Scarpa AT boots, but I’ve had the chance to ski them previously and loved that they were super stiff and super comfortable. Mated with a pair of NTN bindings, the Scarpas are the most advanced boots “still” on the market.
Mark My Words: Telemark is Coming Back
I want to end this article with a prediction: in five year’s you’re going to see a lot more telemark skiers at your local ski hill.
Here’s why: Over the past ten years, we’ve seen a lot of advancements in downhill and AT gear. You can barely go wrong with a pair of skis, boots, or bindings these days. As a result of this gear plateau we now sort of find ourselves on, telemark gear is going to get a refresh sometime soon. People like me who want a new challenge, or people who used to tele and miss those days, or people who just think dropping a knee looks cool, are a small but wide open market, and gear companies are going to exploit that market (in a good way).
In fact, I recently heard that a major boot company has plans to release a new telemark boot sometime in the coming years. One major step forward like that could spur the entire industry. I imagine this new boot will draw from AT technology and be lighter, stiffer, and come with an incredible walk mode. That will in turn inspire companies like 22 Designs to find new ways to harness that boot design, spurring their technology on as well. Ski companies, if they really wanted to, could use the ski constructions people currently love to build a ski that’s designed specifically for the telemark turn.
I’m not putting any money on this prediction just yet, but I hope that in five years I look back and I’m totally right. If I’m not, oh well. I’ll still be telemarking.