Old Books, Good Tips: Part One

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There exist precious few resources for learning the telemark turn. Luckily, a few books in the canon have stood the test of time. A look at four classic free-heel how-to's. Part One of a series.

While it may be an eminently worthwhile part of the telemark journey, it's almost impossible to get a telemark lesson anymore. Some options still exist, but most ski areas have gutted their telemark-specific learning resources. Years have gone by since people in numbers demanded free-heel lessons, thus there's little reason for the instructor or the resort to focus on telemark instruction.

Moreover, where available, the financial burden of taking a telemark lesson can be steep, especially at large, mainstream ski areas. Very few rental options exist, often forcing the newcomer to purchase their gear immediately. A well-loved used setup - boots and all - will still set the skier back at least a few hundred dollars. Pin that on top of the cost of a lesson, lift ticket, lunch, etc., and the never-ever tele skier is looking at a cool $1000 just to try the sport via one lesson. Coupled with the steep learning curve of adding downhill turns to cross-country skiing or going instructorless on the resort - the more affordable paths - there exist few well-paved options for picking up telemark.

Luckily, several great books cover some of the instruction gaps. While a few of them are indeed a little long in the tooth - and certainly don’t replace the value of an in-person lesson - they still offer great resources for learning the turn. The older of these books offer relevant tips to the cross-country downhill skier while giving an intimate look at the history of the free-heel turn. And while there exist few new books on telemark technique, resources are indeed available that cover a more modern, aggressive downhill approach to free-heel skiing.

These books include Total Telemarking by Brad English, Cross-Country Downhill and Other Nordic Mountain Skiing Techniques by Steve Barnett, Allen & Mike's Really Cool Telemark Tips by Allen O'Bannon and Mike Clelland, and finally Free-Heel Skiing: Telemark and Parallel Techniques by Paul Parker. The former two resources are in the classic, XCD (cross-country downhill) vein, while the latter titles focus on a more modern, but decidedly pan-telemark ethos.

Here is a quick intro to each of these books. This quick synopsis will act as the first act of a series on the books looking at specific telemark tips, from XCD to aggressive downhill; from beginner to advanced needs.

Total Telemarking by Brad English, released in 1984, represents an absolute time capsule of skinny-ski, three-pin telemark ethos. With contributions and photographs from telemark pioneers including Steve Buzzell, Rick Borkovec, and Paul Parker - and a coverage of disparate topics from free-heel history, to early avalanche safety techniques as well as downhill skiing pointers - Total Telemarking represents a roundtable of thought from the era.

Throughout, English brings a vibe that so elicits the milieu the book was conceived in - interspersing notes on free-heel dynamism, condition-specific technique, and telemark fundamentals with quotes from Japanese philosopher Miyamoto Musashi and photos of bathing suit-clad skiers telemarking spring corn.

Alas, the classic title and its skinny-ski / soft-boot oriented advice and countercultural, stoney bent is now out of print. Regardless, the work stands as a shining example of the early rise of telemark in the United States - and its tips continue to offer solid fundamentals for XCD-style telemark – the original method The Turn took in this country, first conceived on Nordic equipment.

Allen & Mike's Really Cool Telemark Tips by Allen O’Bannon and Mike Clelland, is perhaps the best-known treatise on telemark technique – known as much for its usable knowledge on the telemark turn as it is for its fun illustrations.

First published in 1998, contributors Allen O’Bannon and Mike Clelland – both Wyoming-based NOLS instructors at the time of the second edition some 15 years ago – updated their classic tips book in 2008 to incorporate more pointers aimed at using modern, heavier, stiffer telemark gear. The 122 tips within – all including playful drawings – cover a wide range of topics: from crash-courses in gear, intros to the telemark stance, all the way to jump-turns and “mythical truths revealed within the telemark turn.”

Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Telemark Tips doesn’t shy away from the heady roots of 1970s/80s telemark, and in doing so brings an approachable, free-spirited atmosphere to their instruction – perhaps a big reason why the book has had such staying power in the scene, with dog-eared copies passed around many a ski town.

Free-Heel Skiing: Telemark and Parallel Techniques by Paul Parker may stand as the most revered telemark teaching manual the sport has seen – referred to as ‘the bible’ of telemark skiing by some. Parker was on the cutting-edge during telemark’s rise in the 70s, and has had a monumental impact on the modern course of the sport – Parker previously worked for prominent telemark companies Garmont and Tua. And he was instrumental in developing the first plastic telemark boot, the Terminator, released by Scarpa in the early 90s.

Free-Heel Skiing has a similarly wide arc. First published in 1988, the book has since seen two updated editions; one in 1995, the other in 2001, with the third edition seeing its seventh printing in 2014. And the book covers a wide range of telemark techniques, as the title states, even parallel methods. Don’t worry, all topics in the work are based around the usage of free-heel gear.

This broad range of dates, gear, and techniques gives the book an invaluable breadth to draw from, and any telemark skier at any level could find value in this work.

Cross-Country Downhill and Other Nordic Mountain Skiing Techniques by Steve Barnett is the original revolution of telemark skiing in America incarnate. Initially published in 1978, the book is the first great free-heel manual of the era, and acts as the cosmic background radiation for telemark: to read its pages is to glimpse into the primordial ambiance that initially defined free-heel skiing in this country.

The equipment used in Barnett’s work also has a historical edge to it – on one page shoes, not boots, are given praise as downhill equipment. Regardless - or maybe even because of this gear used within - the book offers technique tips that can still be used by either the Nordic skier who is delving into the world of downhill turns or the downhiller looking to hone their form - or join in on the awesome vibe that comes with XCD skiing.

More than anything, Barnett put in print a free-heel doctrine that to this day sets telemark apart, saying “this book emphasizes that it is possible to substitute technique for equipment to an extent thought impossible by most Alpine skiers addicted to their sophisticated gear.” This now out-of-print classic set the tone for the telemark movement.

This marks the first installment on these four works – going forward The Tele Dribble will occasionally delve into specific technique tips - and other fun topics - within the books.

First and foremost, if possible, go out and pick up these books yourself and dive in. While Total Telemarking and Cross-Country Downhill are out of print, they can often be found second-hand – uniquely fitting for telemark prose. And Allen & Mikes Really Cool Telemark Tips and Free-Heel Skiing continue to be available. These books are not only fun, historical markers of telemark’s trajectory; they were written by knowledgeable individuals with a passion about telemark skiing that can still be felt page after page. And many of the topics and tips within – regardless of the various works’ ages – are eminently useful today.

Keep an eye out for the continuation of the Old Books, Good Tips series throughout the season.