Telemark vs. Alpine Touring- Who Rules?

To Drop The Knee of Lock the Heel?
– That is the question…

Kam-04-201 300dpi

Nobody can doubt that Utah has some deep political and moral divides, they tend to make national headlines lately. But few are deeper and more bitterly held than the chasm that separates the various snow riders. The great ski vs snowboard debate has been raging since Jake Burton opened shop in 1977. The only place it doesn’t rage is at Alta and Deer Valley, where there isn’t anyone to argue for one of the sides.

The stereotype dictates that an older, well heeled guy- possibly in stretch pants- stops to yell and point a ski pole at the teens in baggy pants and hoodies that just cut him off to get back in line for the rail yard. He might yell either whippersnapper or hooligans. The hooligans yell back shorter words, usually about 4 letters long. But in this war of sports and styles the skiers are now at a disadvantage, having subdivided themselves into smaller and smaller subspecies.

Nature and economists believe in specialization, but things are getting ridiculous.

We sat at the yurt getting ready for a lunch time run and everyone was uniformly excited. For one thing, the spring snow was just softening into peak form and secondly we were out of class for an hour. Twenty students were taking a 10 day wilderness first responder course at a cross country ski area in Idaho. The students (me included) were all dedicated outdoor enthusiasts and most had extensive snow sport skills.

On our third day six of us decided to skin up a nearby ridge and ski down a steep set of lines during lunch. I brought my boards of choice, as did everyone else. I expected some harassment and I was not disappointed.

“Hey buddy; do you know what randonee means?” I failed to come up with a pithy answer before the rhetorical question found the inevitable answer “It’s French for ‘can’t tele’”. Everybody laughed, even me, though nobody was hearing the line for the first time. Especially me.

As a long time alpine touring guy I have been the subject of this punch line more times than I can count. Though it happens to be not at all correct, it doesn’t matter. It isn’t that I can’t telemark, I just happen to prefer AT in some cases.

Nevertheless there we stood, two 20 something males in nearly identical gore-tex pants and capilene tops, matching sunglasses, sideburns and sunburns gathering supporters for the debate. It was a bit lopsided. Four guys went freeheel and two of us were geared for AT.
DSC_2642 - Copy
The fact that we only had an hour ended any real debate before it got started. We skinned up taking jabs occasionally, but mostly trying not to pass out while proving the superiority of our gear. At the top, a couple of the guys showed their tele prowess by peeling their skins off without taking their skis off, a neat trick indeed. More harassment followed.

I was surprised when the only other member of team AT piped up out of the blue. I hadn’t heard him talk voluntarily in 3 days. He popped into his skis and smiled at team freeheel. “Lock your heel, ski for real, bitches.” He smoothly pushed off and proceeded to absolutely rip his line.

I followed in what I deemed to be good style, throwing in a few airs just to round out our argument. We poled into the base area with plenty of time to enjoy a sandwich, a drink and a laugh at the freeheelers. For all of their bravado the challenging line was beyond them. They straggled in more than a little sheepish but still unrepentant. The next six days went much the same except that each team grew in membership and snideness. Few people noticed that some players switched teams intermittently.

All of the pinheads had been downhillers at some time, most at the same time. I loaned out alpine trekkers to some and brought out some freeheel gear to prove my point. In mashed potatoes I am much better locked in than not, but either way I’m going to hoot and smile.

For good measure we invited the snowboarders, but true to their stereotype they chose to hang out rather than hike. I represented them one day, but perhaps not with enough panache, because a one plank representative with some skill came out once to prove it could be done- in a manner that was not embarrassing to watch.

To really settle any debate conclusively we need better data. The snowsports industry is good at nothing if not producing data on skier days and sales. Unfortunately they consider alpine, AT and Tele all to be skiers and compile data according to skiers, not specialty. Sales data on the specialties is hard to find and interpret. Skis can be mounted either way. Alpine setups can be converted to AT and some industry reporting include tele and randonee in the same lump as “backcountry” or simply telemark sales.

The main argument often shoved forward in favor of tele gear is that it’s lighter, and therefore faster on a climb and less taxing. According to their website ( a top end Black Diamond AT boot is almost identical in weight to their top tele boot. Tele bindings save 300 grams. Not exactly a quantum leap in weight savings; especially when the debaters are all ten or thirty thousand grams overweight.

AT lovers may try to argue that the equipment is easier to use or feels more solid. While I can’t argue the solid issue, they do feel more substantial; I’m unclear on the actual benefits of super blocky boots other than the psychological security of being locked down. Tele gear can make perfectly adequate parallel turns, handle big air and is extremely rigid in all of the important ways. I feel more comfortable on alpine gear on the steeps because there is a large gap in my tele skills.

Hard data is therefore incomplete or inconclusive. The gear is so similar in weight, use and price that there is no clear winner.
I’ve had to make the AT choice due to limited resources. I don’t have enough time to get as good as I want to be at everything I want to do. I don’t have the budget for that many skis and boots. And I don’t have enough snow days to get really solid on tele gear on hairy runs. My snowboard skills are exactly the same, solid but not awe inspiring.

Making good turns on tele gear is a thing of beauty and grace. It’s undeniably fun to drop a knee and carve a clean arc. It’s also fun to cruise powder, run bumps, and generally slide on the snow. Apparently it’s also fun to snub anyone less bourgeoisie.

Since data is inconclusive and opinions are unlikely to change you’d have to get a neutral party to judge each discipline and declare a victor. I gathered a group of non skier acquaintances and covered all of the major points of the two disciplines. The most common response was “I don’t get it.” It wasn’t that they didn’t understand skiing, or the equipment, or the technique. They didn’t get the divide. “They seem exactly the same to me.” was the consensus.
While everyone realized that the bindings functioned differently it just didn’t seem material to them. Both groups wear big clunky plastic boots, bindings and fat funny skis. Everyone slides on snow, turns and tends to smile like idiots on powder days.

At one point there may have been a legitimate skier divide. Tele gear was wildly different 10 years ago. It was light, and ready to yurt tour at a moment’s notice. The boots offered all of the support of a running shoe and the skis were skinny and straight. Getting around at a ski area was a true feat of the human spirit. You could spot a pinhead from 500 yards.

There are even a few purists that believe in leather, pins and getting super low. Unless you’re one of the few fundamentalists, modern gear just doesn’t justify the distinction. From the lift you can’t even tell until someone is close, and even then it can be tough.

Ultimately most divides are self inflicted. The fact that my heels lock down, while yours don’t, is such a small detail. There are lots of reasons to dislike me; the fact that my bindings click down isn’t one of them. If you want to hate me for my religious views, lack of religious views, political leanings, or other lifestyle choices that’s fine.

If you want to know about my true shortcomings my dad would be happy to list them for you any time day or night. Just don’t hound me over the state of my heels in the backcountry. I promise I don’t care what you ride.
Unless it’s a monoski. Nobody likes those guys.

2 Responses to “Telemark vs. Alpine Touring- Who Rules?”

  1. Hi,

    We’ve come across over 50 pairs of classic nordic boots – new in box. At this time we are looking for an avenue to sell them. Is this something you would be interested in? Or, would you have any advise?


  2. That photo of telemark skiing across the mountain is so impressive: with the blue sky contrasting the brilliant white snow! My son-in-law has been thinking of buying telemark skies as a way to get around at his remote winter cabin. I will have to show him this picture because he will think it is awesome!

Leave a Reply