Can telemark skiing make Colorado’s backcountry safer?

There’s a saying among backcountry skiers: “Any slope worth skiing is avalanche terrain.” Steep, open and avalanche-prone slopes are certainly popular for thrill-seekers, but they’re not the only way to enjoy the backcountry. 

This year has been an especially tragic winter. Colorado slopes have already claimed ten avalanche victims. With more folks venturing into the backcountry than ever before, reframing the cultural attitude that bigger is always better could help save lives. If you’re skeptical about sticking to mellow terrain, try telemark skiing.

Telemark skis have long been a natural choice for backcountry travelers. Although they’ve never fully caught on, the added challenge telemark skiing provides, makes it a great way to safely enjoy Colorado’s backcountry. 

Berthoud Pass Backcountry Ski Destination Colorado

Telemark skiing is ideal for backcountry travel. By blending nordic — or cross-country — and alpine —or downhill — style bindings, early telemark skiers could easily travel long distances. The technology has improved since the days of leather boots and edge-less skis, but telemarking still demands a focus that makes even the easiest slopes challenging and fun again. 

Finding joy on safe backcountry ski runs 

Level one avalanche classes do a great job of helping people recognize what constitutes avalanche terrain. Analyzing complex factors like snowpack and weather is a fickle science, especially in Colorado. For backcountry beginners, learning to recognize, and often avoid, slopes steeper than 30 degrees, terrain traps and hazards, like cliffs, makes risk management and decision making more objective. 

The problem comes when the snow’s siren song gets louder: fresh powder, blue-bird weather or another party’s tracks easily beckon skiers onto dangerous terrain. Instead of always looking to thread the needle or push boundaries, we should rethink backcountry skiing’s other pleasures. 

Not everyone needs to adopt ‘the ski movie mindset.’

Many backcountry travelers enjoy the excellent workout of skinning uphill or the peaceful mornings outside. Telemark skiing provides additional amusement on mellow terrain. Although telemark skis, on their own, won’t make you any safer, challenging yourself to learn a new mode of skiing can shift your attitude about staying on safer slopes. 

It’s impossible to remove risk from the backcountry, but not everyone needs to adopt “the ski movie mindset,” which thrives on gnarly lines and rewards close calls. Few people want to police the backcountry or tell others what they should and shouldn’t do. I agree. We all have our own risk tolerance and level of experience; but there’s also a growing number of people hungry for safer backcountry skiing options in Colorado. Telemark skiing can provide a fun, goofy and rewarding alternative that adds to the challenge, while keeping risks in check.

Telemark skier on safe, low-angle and mellow backcountry terrain
Photo courtesy of US Forest Service, Wikimedia Commons

Why telemark?

Some people claim that telemark skiing is more graceful. Good skiers certainly make it look beautiful, but for me, the fun comes in the sport’s difficulty. The flexibility and freedom telemark bindings permit, force you to adopt heightened focus on your balance and body position. Perhaps if I simply worked at downhill skiing more, these would be the same things to focus on, but it’s fun to be a beginner again. Just as riding an old mountain bike, without luxurious suspension, can make simple trails more exciting, learning to telemark can restore the joy and challenge of giggle-and-wiggle terrain. 

In addition to providing a fun, side challenge for backcountry skiers, telemark skiing has another added benefit: you’ll make more turns. After hiking up, skiing down always feels too quick. Telemarking forces you to slow down and turn more, helping you to savor the downhill portion of your backcountry adventure. 

Telemark Skiing a backcountry slope
Photo courtesy of Timuzapata, Wikimedia Commons

The turn becomes central to your enjoyment. It’s easy to tell when you’re doing it wrong, and hard to hold when you’re doing it right. Telemarking certainly isn’t easy, but for competent skiers, it’s possible to get the hang of it after a few days on groomers. The rest is a slow, humbling path towards mastery, something I am lightyears away from. For fitness freaks, who love to “earn their turns,” telemark skiing will make you earn your turns. Both on the ascent and the descent, you can score plenty of thigh-burning, knee-dropping action. 

Whether you’re a backcountry beginner, or expert skier, looking for a new challenge, telemark skiing might be the perfect way to spice up your ski life. 

How to try backcountry telemark skiing

If you’re interested in trying telemark skiing, call your local rental shop about testing telemark skis or look on Craigslist for used equipment. There are a number of books, YouTube videos and articles about getting started. Look out for an article about teaching yourself the basics. 

Although the backcountry is where telemark skis really shine, it’s best to learn the turn on groomed runs at the resort. When you’ve gained some experience, step it up and try skiing backcountry powder.

If you’re interested in what gear you need to get started telemark skiing, read this excellent piece. Even on mellow terrain, it’s essential to carry a beacon, shovel and probe.