Monday, November 29, 2010

The Evolution of Skiing: Tele is a zombie.

I just realized that I've been skiing now for 40 years, a hell of a long time. I sorta even remember my first few sliding steps as a kid, it was fun, and even after 40 years I still just love going skiing. I've had some side trips into snowboarding (best sliding tool ever for crusty or weird conditions!), but overall it's always been about skiing of some kind for me. I started out in little leather boots with cable bindings, then mountain touring on three-pin bindings, then a few years of resort skiing on alpine gear, then some XC racing, bunch of telemark skiing (a couple of pretty serious decades in there), then AT gear with ice climbing boots to get to ice routes in Canada. Skiing is a tool, recreation and just fun. But I'm done with modern "tele" skiing.

About six or seven years ago I did a long ski into an ice route in the Adirondacks with my friend Will Mayo. He was on AT gear, I was using some decent tele gear that I'd borrowed. Mayo is a good athlete who truly knows how to ski (he raced XC at one point also), but I got incredibly pissed off that I was having a hard time keeping up with him on my tele gear. We were on wax as it was cold, not skins, and I just couldn't get a good kick because the damn "bill" on the tele gear prevented the boot from flexing properly. Will, on his AT gear with ice boots, could get a great kick and use far better technique as he could also ride the ski with his leg vertical over it instead of having his lower leg canted forward in the stance most tele boots induce . I about hucked a lung chasing him, and cursed the tele gear for what it had become: a great thing for riding chairlifts and skiing down, but useless for actually traveling in the mountains. This struck me as somewhat ridiculous; how did equipment that had, in my childhood, been a great way to travel in winter become so useless for anything but going down?

Then I had a day where I skied out from an ice climb in my ice boots. There was a nasty breakable crust, some heavy whipped snow, and other junk. With my heels locked down I could get through it reasonably well; it would have been a pain in the ass with any but the heaviest tele gear. The light went on, and I sold all my tele gear that year.

Modern light AT gear is now more efficient, lighter, and allows more confident and functional skiing in any situation I can think of when compared to tele gear. If a day involves more up and down than flat terrain I'll use my Scarpa F1 boots, light Dynafit bindings and Black Diamond Guru skis. Somebody is going to argue that modern tele gear is better, but the bindings and boots are still heavier for an equivalent amount of function. The BD O3 and other bindings at least have hinges to allow for a more efficient stride on the flat, but locking your heel down just results in more skiing control and function for less weight than any tele combination going. End of story, tele is dead unless you have a goatee and ride a "Fixed" gear bike (which, by the way, always reminds me of neutering a dog--what's up with that name?). Tele is now about style, not function. Snowboarding is a pain in the ass in the backcountry but at least has some useful function in junk snow, tele skis don't even have that benefit.

So what to use?

I've done a few of these "ski mountaineering" races, and they are a lot of fun. These races are mainly up and down, so light AT gear makes sense. Some AT courses could probably be won by a good Nordic racer on nordic gear, but there are gear limitations in the rules, and most of the courses have serious enough terrain that AT gear is for sure faster. If your object is to "yo yo" up and down then I'd say light AT gear is the way to go. If you want to huck your meat in the back country then heavier AT gear rules. Some people are into the "it's all about the down" idea, but I'm still enough of a geek to enjoy trying to ski on light AT gear.

At some point skiing becomes more about skill than supportive equipment. Little kids can't stand on their skates well until they learn to balance, and I see many skiers who can't ride a flat ski without a lot of support. Many of the best heli-ski guides I know don't even buckle their AT boots; they just ride the board well, and ski smoothly. That seems logical to me. I am not a great technical skier by any stretch, but years of XC skiing and skiing around in the mountains on ice boots have given me some decent survival skiing skills. I still remember a Swiss guy named Michele absolutely shredding steep gullies on ancient, narrow Fischer XC skis and some 3-pin bindings 30 years ago. I don't know many people who could ski terrain like that half as well today. At some point skill at actually skiing trumps the gear. My friend Pat Morrow is a die-hard tele monster, and although not a young pup anymore he can hang with pretty much anyone in any steepish terrain. The point is that anything will work, but what's the most functional for the weight?

The logical setup for big glacier tours without really difficult terrain is, in my opinion as always, the NNN gear. Every couple of years a few friends and I go down the full Wapta traverse in a day. We've tried several different setups, but the NNN gear is by far the best for this type of skiing. People often ask me, "But don't you need big boots and AT gear in the mountains?" I first skied the Wapta when I was 12 on light leather boots with little cable bindings that allowed for a decent kick; the whole setup probably provided far less support than modern NNN gear. Heavy AT gear is overkill in almost any situation I can think of except lift-served or heli skiing terrain.

What made me think of all of this is that I just got home from London, where the trees still had leaves, and found a foot of snow on the ground here in Canmore. It's time to SKI, and I'm still as stoked about that ideas as ever. Skiing is fun. Even if you're a bark-eating, meadow skipping face-planting tele skier. See you out there, let's get the turns ON! And it's ice season too, options again!

PS--Roger Strong is an exception to all of this.


Toby Gadd said...

Hey Will, your next challenge will be finding functional backcounty gear for Marie as she grows up. All that seems to be available for kids these days are semi-useless "golf course" packages--with ridiculous waxless bases and floppy boots. Who would have guessed that the gear that we used as kids in the 70s would be better than what's available today?

If you, or anyone else, knows of a solution, I'd love to hear about it. I keep hoping that reasonable stuff exists, and that I'm just missing it. I'd be delighted to find waxable skies (with some sidecut), and high-top boots with some meat to them.

FYI, I agree with your tele assessment. Kinda sad. Fortunately, my ancient gear still works pretty well for bashing around the mountains. I decided a couple of years ago to move to AT gear when I need something new.

Will Gadd said...

Not much out there Toby, we're looking at these:

And something like these:

For now we're on the white waxless plastic ones, work OK and her feet are warm. Going now!

DB said...

Tele skiing with modern gear is not about lightness or efficiency. No argument here that AT has held the torch for perfomance/weight ratio for a long time.

Most folks I know that telemark do it because they want something new or more challenging than what AT has to offer. Accordingly, you need better fitness and technique to ski equivalent terrain/conditions on tele vs. AT.

Of course I'm talking about pleasure skiing, not approaching climbs (unless you're going for the tele-boot redpoint of coyone crack!)

Butch said...


Skiing is not all about efficiency. Skiing is about FUN. Unless of course you are Will and Andreas, doing an epic 6-hour lung-huck into frozen nowhere to terrifyo yourself on M12. Tele is fun...comparing tele to AT is like comparing rollerblading and longboarding. Same materials and plaground; different feel.

Wait till the gnar geeks get ahold of this ;-)

Ralph S. said...

Drop a knee, squat to pee. But, I love going with tele-wankers. They always bring a thermos or weed. Welcome with this AT skier anytime!

Will Gadd said...

"Skiing is not about efficiency." Bull! If your skins were slipping and sketchy you'd want new skins. If you can't kick properly or stand on a ski properly on a tour (tele skis) it's annoying. It's even more annoying if you know there are better options--like pounding in a piton in a crack that would take good cams or something.

We can have fun on anything in the snow including a saucer (Shane forever!), but if the gear sucks it's generally less fun in my experience.

As for the style thing, I figure it's all about touring on a saucer, whole new level of style, those people on skis are wussies, ha ha!

Fired up to ski with everyone, yeah!

Some Good said...

It is more about the down than the efficiency for a lot of us faceplanters. I will eventually get a fast AT setup but when I'm sure I'll miss the fluidity and rhythm of the tele turn.

FYI - I recently interviewed Pat Morrow. Check out the link if you're interested.

Todd Eastman said...


I might, instead of calling tele "dead", simply say that for your purposes, AT gear works far better. Though modern tele gear has gotten heavier as AT gear gets lighter, lots of the older tele gear still fits the bill for long days in the hills.

By the way, the trail in the Adirondacks that you suffered on is usually toured by the local kids on XC race skis, no wonder you suffered.

I hope all is well in Canmore, the North Cascades are getting some of that robust coastal snow.

Anonymous said...

Pussy...And it's the BD 01 that's got a free-pivot, not the 03 genius.

Bear said...


Welcome to the haters club. Sad story is, you'll be on the other side of the argument some day, and be the hated, not the hater. Maybe then you'll find enlightenment, or maybe you'll just find a dog turd in the snow.

Nobody cares that you think tele is dead. Go back to "conquering" mountains with your "superior" gear.

Some Good said...

Not surprisingly I opened a can of worms on Telelmark Tips when I shared "The Evolution of Skiing: Tele is a zombie";

FYI- I interviewed Pat Morrow on my website a week ago which you may be interested in;

Unknown said...

Hey Will,

I do a decent amount of ski touring/mountaineering on Dynafit bindings and love them! Problem is when I need to ski into an ice climb changing from ski boots to mountaineering boots SUCKS! Any suggestions on what a decent setup is for bindings that work with mountaineering boots? I don't think you can find any of the older style clip in bindings (knee wreckers I think they were referred to) anymore?


Will Gadd said...

Love all the comments on teletalk!

Maybe I should have titled my post, "Tele gear is zombie gear." The telemark turn is alive and well, I use it all the time when skiing on NNN BC gear, even on my race XC skis when I get off the set track. I did the Tonquin loop (a pretty long daytrip) on race XC skis once, no other tracks or skiers until the hostel after about eight hours, that was a LONG day that required a fair number of tele turns to survive. Same with the Wapta traverse--all tele turns. That's the kind of gear and terrain the tele turn works brilliantly for. Modern "tele" gear has perverted the idea of a logical mode of transportation into a silly, "I'm different, really!" kinda game in my opinion, like fixed gear bikes and goatees. I got no use for any of 'em.

Skiing in a resort on modern stiff tele gear it makes about as much sense as having a wing on a 98 horsepower Honda. I was in that category for 20 years and people still do it....

On "modern" tele gear I don't tele anymore except in the bumps, it just makes no sense to drop a knee with all that support. The tele turn is a stable bridge between your feet over which your CG rides; if you are in big boots it make no sense unless the snow really, really sucks.

I'm not a hater, I would much rather get out with a crew on tele boards than sit in my office typing. But I reserve the right to heckle 'em all as a reformed face-planter should, ha ha!

Will Gadd said...

Todd--That trail would have been far better on XC race gear, I just didn't know that! Can't wait to climb in the 'daks again.

Adam--I find the Fritschis work OK with the Scarpa Omegas and Ice boots. You're not going to be hucking huge in ice boots, at least I'm not, just plodding in and out with a bit of schussing if you're lucky and the snow is decent. I have no idea if that's a recommended use of them or not, probably not, it's a bad idea, don't do it. Or do with that warning, it's been working fine for me for years. I have heard you can break the bindings using them like that, but I haven't in ten years. The old Silvretttas are still around too in used gear stores, work well but are heavy... I also have a spare pair of these weird "break in half" bindings out in the garage I lend to visiting euros, not sure what they are but they work too.

Will Gadd said...

Oh, and Bear, I'm gonna conquer some shit on NNN BC gear, ha ha! Lighten up, this is skiing, not an argument about internet protocols or something actually, ah, important! You got a goatee and a fixed gear bike or something?

Toby Gadd said...

When I went shopping for new tele gear, I hoped to find something that made skiing up, down, and around the mountains more fun. Instead, most contemporary gear seems to only address the "down" part. The "up and around" parts are actually worse on the new stuff. It's weird that tele gear, which was designed for all-around backcountry fun, has become so ski-area focused. I think that Will's right on this one--AT gear is now better-suited to beating around the backcountry than most of today's area-centric tele gear.

That said, I don't think most tele skiers are going to adopt AT gear--any more than hipster fixie fanatics are going to start bolting gears on their bikes. Fun is fully subjective, and so is style. If it feels good, and it doesn't mess up the experience for the next guy, then get out there and do it! The only people worth hating are those who aren't smiling or are trashing the place.

Steven Threndyle said...

I likely owned one of the first pairs of plastic tele/touring boots imported into Canada (the Scarpa T2) and - after years of touring - very successfully - on leather boots - and would respond to Will's comments to say that - depending on your foot, tele boot makers have NOT been able to repeat the forefoot flex using a plastic layup. The original T2 - depending on your foot - would pinch your toes so badly that you couldn't begin to ski on 'em.
Then, manufacturers designed the shells to pitch the skier way too far forward which makes them really awkward to tour in. The problem is that somewhere along the line, telemark skiing was usurped by super hard core dudes who wanted to 'paramark' on-piste, in the resort boundaries, and those guys 'drove' development of the gear. Huh?? Having said that, leather did have its limitations, especially when it came to removing the skis and scrambling up a peak, for instance. The category that has been utterly killed is the old 'ski touring' one, where people simply went out in rolling terrain in a variety of snow conditions. People who would have been ski touring have been siphoned off and snowshoe, which has experienced explosive growth.
One other rather negative aspect to AT is that Dynafit-oriented gear is NOT cheap. But, like MAC computers, they have their core acolytes.

Cowboy Telemark: Confessions of a High Plains drifter said...

Yawn. Seriously, another ATer who thinks that they are God's gift to skiing. I ski both tele and AT, and find both enjoyable in most terrain. That said, I would avoid skiing low angle lines on AT gear, that would be way too boring. On 50 degree chutes, I would rather have AT gear, because heck, jump turns suck on tele. I really don't think the weight difference is even a valid argument. Most AT skiers today are using Marker Dukes or Barons, which way MUCH more than my tele bindings. Sure, Dynafit is light and awesome, but so are Voile Switchbacks. It all depends on if you prefer better uphill or downhill performance- regardless of whether you are locking your heel. I am thankful that I don't ski with anyone like you though, most people I know are out to have a good time, and don't obsess over their partner's gear.

Ralph S. said...

Cowboy, I don't think that MOST AT skiers are using Markers. I ski on Dynafit and so do most others that I ski with. If not Dynafit, BD Fritichis. Slackcountry seekers and huckers are on Markers. You'd have to be a glutton to hike Markers every weekend.

I am glad I don't ski with anyone that feels a personal attack when someone questions gear and style choice. I am fine with tele, AT, or splitboard. We're all just trying to find the best way for ourselves to enjoy the snow.

I have wanted to ski tele every now and then. But, I have a hard time getting up at the crack of noon, I like staying dry while skiing, I've never been good at extreme self righteousness, and I try to shave weight selecting gear.

But on the other hand, I do have a full beard, drive a Subaru, drink buckets of espresso, don't mind some herb, and don't give a shit if my partner shows up with bathroom slippers duct-taped to water skis (we'll still ski together). Can I be an Honorary Telemarker?

Mike said...

HaHa....this is great. Well posted Will.
I jumped on the tele train as a youngster to get into backcountry skiing. As I got better at it, my gear got heavier and more cumbersome to tour in. Bigger lines meant more exposure to avalanche hazard. So AT, being reliably releasable and more efficient for touring made sense. I haven't lapsed back into tele yet.
Do I miss it? Hell yeah! Nailing a perfect tele turn is one of the best feelings in skiing. I would argue that a well executed tele turn is more stable and well balanced on steep terrain.
Simply put, the gear isn't nearly as nice to tour in and is dangerous because it doesn't release. Case in point, Colorado ski patroller who was recently killed in an avalanche while working in non-releasable bindings.
As soon as they get the NTN setup dialed, so I can ski tele or AT in one set of boots, I'm back for sure.

Jeff said...


I'm glad you're having fun on your skis with training heels. Me? I gave up fixed heels over 20 years ago, after more than 20 years of back-bashing. Now,I'm in love with the tele-turn.

As Alex Lowe said "whoever is having more fun, wins."

Bill said...

Will, you Ok?
I too have had a 40 year journey with sliding on snow.
It started with leather boots and trash picked skis and has end up with telemarking.

That's the lightest plastic boots I could find, bindings that hinge at the toe for climbing and short fat skis. I'm talking 130's. Sure I get the, "Going to a back country Shiner's convention?", crap but the stuff is light. No one kicks my ass on the climb in and when the trees get tight I'm whopping not cursing. The big shovel cut through the crusting snow. All good to me.

Wouldn't it be cool if someone would make a light plastic NNN boot so you could get an edge in?

See ya

OLDDUDE said...

I learned to ski backcountry on misery sticks many years ago and if I had to do it over I would start with AT. Either way the gear available now is phenomenal. I skied a few years on both and found my knee did much better with tele because less torsion so I use modern tele boots, midfats, a free pivot binding, and a bag on my head.

Anonymous said...

The dudes that get all emotional and defensive are hilarious. "Go conquer a mountain"?? Gimme a freakin break!

And of the 30+ people I skiied with last year, NOT ONE was on Dukes or Barons. I see people killin it on Dynafits and the new G3s every time I go out. Probably half of these are ski professionals (guides and athletes). If Chris Rubens doesn't need Dukes or Barons, you don't either. Full stop.

How does a tele-skier change a light bulb?

Turn, fall down, turn, fall down, turn, fall down....

Smile folks. It's supposed to be fun.

Anonymous said...

What-Ever... Shutupandski. Who cares what you ride on, what's dead, what's cool. Ski.

Anonymous said...

As an ex World Cup tele racer I know that me and most of the people I shred with are willing to carry silly amounts of weight in to the backcountry for the downhill performance. Training heels are boring. Heavy shit shreds harder. Your beef seems to be with approaching to ice... since when is this pleasure skiing? Use snowshoes for all I care. Of course modern tele gear isn't approach gear, its shred gear! Go ahead and use whatever lightweight stuff you can to get to the ice, but nothing beats tele in steep blower pow, and you know this.
a telemarking, fixie riding, subaru driving, pot smoking mac user.

Will Gadd said...

Anon 11:46, I'd say that post wins! I hope everyone got a smile out of that. Considering replacing my Apple too, don't tell anyone, ha ha!

Doran Hanert said...

Well Will -
Is AT lighter and more efficient than tele? Absolutely. However, for pure fun, the feeling of a tele-turn heavily outweighs the locked-in heel version. Is water skiing more efficient than surfing? Is driving an automatic with a cappuccino in one hand and texting on the other more efficient than driving a standard? - I could go on... but hell, with the little amount of time I get to play in the mountains (with two young kids), I want to have as much enjoyment as I can - I could care less about efficiency.

Have fun and be safe - Who knows, I might even let you join us tele-baggers sometime!

Anonymous said...

What about these new school BC skis with early rise? and so wide you could bivi on them? Frickin training wheels! so Now I can finally ski in powder!

T. Fayle

Unknown said...

Hi Will, Hi Toby!!
Haha. I love it Awesome stuff here.

Toby, you taught me my first tele turn on Canon Mountain back in '86. If I forgot to thank you at the time, I must do it now, Thank you Toby for that afternoon of patience teaching me how to survival turn my way through life.

So I've been through all the gear over the years. Leather was good, leather was fun, but they only lasted half a season than your toes would get mashed to oblivion. Than we had the plastic cuff, which did not make the leather any better. When the plastic boots showed up I was working in Chamonix at the Patagoochi shop. I was so excited, the rep flipped all the telemarkers in the shop a pair. Trouble is the skis still sucked at the time so I ripped my bindings off my alpine skis and mounted the old BD wrap around cables to them. The next couple of weeks word went around the Scandahooligans that this American kid was loosing the traditional face plant towards some fun turns. I caught all kinds of flack from the Scandi's, till one day I said, shut up and go for a run on my ski. With very little hesitation, he went for it, needless to say by the end of the season they were ALL on Salomon force 9's. The same thing happened again here in Verbier, a few years later, when I started teleing on fat skis, and now all the kids are high speed sideslipping hard pack on giant banana boats, tips and tails flapping in the wind.

I still do tele often, but I've gone from being a strict knee dropper to what I call a fakeamarker. The mountain here is big and there is no way you can tele all day, and there is no way you can hike 2000m and still tele all the way down. Not with my body anyway. Especially if I want to get a hundred days of work with clients in 4.5 months. So I pick and choose the portions of the mountain that will be fun to telemark. Sometimes my clients don't even realize that I'm on tele gear. Not always easy to find the sweet spot, but when you do it's by far and away the most enjoyable turn. Get on the balls of your feet, find Equilibrium and focus hard on the terrain coming at you so you do not get any surprises....pure bliss.

So I get a bunch of days on The Scarpa f3, pretending I'm a alpine skier, and yes it is easier and it is more efficient an the turns can be fun.... but it's not telemarking. Waddling through lift lines with my heels fixed drive me nuts and so does side stepping over little hills or walking out the flat zones is hatful with AT gear.

That said, I agree, there is something to be fixed in the boot department. I don't think BD did the tele boot justice when they redesigned it for Scarpa. The T1 boot is giant and way over engineered, and yes very difficult/heavy in the BC. The original mold was lighter and much more forgiving. Soft skis and boots are way more manageable over the long term and do not send shock waves throughout your body when you miscalculate a bump. Unfortunately they have not had new molds made. The T2 is better for walking but does not always ski that great. The NTN I won't even touch, sorry, no time for it. The AT boots have made huge advances but the tele boot has been left behind. AT boots have gotten lighter, with better buckles and excellent flex, while the tele boot mold does not get changed. I am hoping that soon the designers will realize their 'faut pas', and get working on a light no extra frills and stiffeners telemark boot that will walk and ski like an f3.
Than we can get into making the bindings a lot lighter and more efficient as well.
Soooo! I'm not quite done with telemarking, but I do definitely agree that the gear needs help. Lets get a group of old school pin heads together and we can solve all the problems of the teleworld.

Happy turns and smiley faceplants to all of you!!

Thanks again Toby!
Stephen Hadik

Cowboy Telemark: Confessions of a High Plains drifter said...

Ralph, I think most discriminating AT skiers use Dynafits, but walk into a ski shop and ask if they sell more Marker Dukes or Dynafit STs. I am pretty sure Dukes are dramatically outselling tech bindings. True, most people who buy them just want some slackcountry access options, but my point was that not all AT gear is lighter than all tele gear. Oh, and I am not defensive- I could care less what someone thinks about my mode of snow sliding. If I did, I would be skiing on Marker Dukes :). And I definitely couldn't love powder sledding anymore. Anyway, enough of this tomfoolery, let's go ski.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that to maximize fun, one should have a fixie, a cross bike, something for races and crits, a freeride mtb, and all the rest of it. similarly, get some skis dude. If you can already afford all this expensive climbing shit, you should probably have at least one tele rig, AT rig and a snowboard. Its all part of a full life quiver....

Will Gadd said...

If I had to work in a ski area, or was limited to a ski area for my skiing for some reason, then I would likely go back to telemarking on light gear 'cause that would be the most interesting option. So there is a use for it I guess?

Yes on the full toy quiver, but you forgot kayaks (two minimum), paragliders (two or three), a surf board or three, some caving gear, etc. Materialism is not just for the rich.

Anonymous said...

AT is way more efficient than tele, if you have Dynafit. However, it does look like better efficienty when someone is touring with T-Race and O1 than someone with Fritschis. You know...RoboCop walk.

Still AT is far better than the archaic "modern" tele gear. But keep in mind folks: Lateral stability; AT. Fore/Aft stability;Tele. Much easier to get out of the back seat on Teles vs AT (since I end up in the back seat!)

If it wasn't for the feeling of having a dog chewing on my calves, I would give up the knee dropping. But I figure I have a few more years in me. AT is Aging Telemarker. TELE: Tumble,Erect,Lunge,Erect(again).

Like a friend of mine years ago, when drab colors were in. He wore dayglow (now in again) at the hills. No one could say anything because he shredded like THE King of the Hill...

If you can rip it up, yell "TRACK!"on your way up Grizzly Shoulder and do it again, who cares what your on. "who has the most fun wins!"AL


Toby Gadd said...

Hey Stephen, we sure had some fun back at WMS! I still remember falling off the cliff after climbing the Eaglet with you and Seth. Had something do with a cone-shaped accessory, as I recall.

I often check your Facebook page--you're living the dream. If anyone has any earned the right to pontificate on skiing, it's you! While I'm still survival skiing like the WMS days, you're floating and flying like a god! Makes me feel good hearing that I played even a minor role in your transformation. Thanks for the kind words, and for your friendship so many years ago.