Feeling uneasy on skis is an understatement when it comes to learning how to telemark ski.
I know the truth: that the graceful movements that make up a telemark skier's dance down the mountain aren't that far from what I know as an expert alpine skier. Tell that to my brain, though!
That's exactly what Arapahoe Basin ski instructor Anita Boehm sought to do during my half-day lesson with the Level III tele instructor and Level II alpine instructor who has been teaching telemark skiing almost exclusively since 1997 and has been teaching skiing for 29 years in total.
"It's the same skills as alpine skiing, but with a different transition maneuver," Boehm said, seeking ways throughout the morning to explain to me how dropping a knee and lunging into my turn actually works. It's additive, she said. Whatever that meant.
As we got to know each other in our one-on-one session, Boehm tried different drills out for size, seeing how I processed each and how each impacted my telemark skiing ability, which is a whole eight days old. And to think, I even owned a telemark setup last year before turning it into alpine touring.
Sensing an eagerness to try telemark skiing again, and invest again in a pair of skis on which to mount the bindings I put back in the box, Boehm began brainstorming reasons why telemark skiing shouldn't be dying the way it seems to be.
With the birth of lighter and more efficient alpine touring and splitboarding gear, telemark skiing's boom of a few years ago is waning. It's a revered method of climbing and descending mountains in the old-school world, but the new school is one of deeper access and steeper descents often requiring burlier gear. I say "often" because I know there exist - and I've watched - some amazing free-heel skiers who could ski a line steeper, deeper and more technical than yours truly!
Nonetheless, for those of you who have read this far in this story and are intrigued enough to think, "Well... Maybe...," here are some reasons to pick up free-heel planks:
> If you have time free when your charging ski partners aren't, it's a great way to stay entertained on the hill by yourself.
> For those feeling at the top of their discipline, telemark skiing adds a difficulty factor sure to keep you busy for years. (Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer of A-Basin, admits he has been a mediocre telemark skier for years. While I somehow doubt the modest man is giving himself enough credit, to a certain extent, his statement is true: It's tough to get to the expert level on a telemark setup).
> Children who are learning to ski are slow. Instead of pizza wedging the entire way down that green slope, why not learn a new discipline alongside your child (and empathize with him or her)?
> Statistically speaking, telemarking produces fewer knee injuries. Caveats here: Learning the proper technique is key, because the proper movement is a natural one. As Boehm says, "It enhances natural movement patterns."
> It's an elegant way to descend the mountain! Think about it, when you see an excellent telemark skier next to an excellent alpine skier or snowboarder, which one do you watch?
> The equipment is more comfortable. I get cold toes no matter what I do, and with all the foot movement, my toes got toasty - even on a single-digit day.
> It's a great workout. Denver's Paul Bruchez and Tommy Giarratono stopped to say so before ripping down from Lenawee Chair, dropping their knees far lower than needed, because telemark skiing lunges can be as easy or difficult as you make them.
The original randonee method is losing steam, but the free-heel "geeks" - as Boehm likes to call her esteemed telemark companions at A-Basin - won't depart from what they've learned.
"It's a beautiful form to take into the backcountry," Boehm said. "It's a fluid way of riding the snow.'
It's also challenging - which I like about it.
And which also encouraged me to take a lesson.
"I feel proper instruction is important for any snowsport to enable better alignment right from the beginning and to help those that are more advanced to refine their technique, but I feel having instruction with telemark skiing is even more critical because of the misperceptions about the stance," Boehm said.
Boehm encouraged me to stop thinking so hard about each turn, and to try to swish into a beginner's telemark stance from an alpine turn. It worked! As I concentrated on weight distribution - that part is certainly more challenging - I tried to be "body aware" and apply what Boehm told me to what my body was doing automatically.
For instance, I learned that I have an extremely hard time turning from left to right.
And so, I have filed away a few drills I can take with me as I head onto the slopes solo to continue to practice my skills. It's one of the first things Boehm suggested at the lesson's start, so her student can have targets to expand upon on their own or in future lessons. It's best to be engaged in your lesson, ready to ask questions and find ways to apply what you learn as you progress.
A-Basin hands out discount cards following lessons. And Boehm would like to see the tele aspect of Legendary Ladies grow, because it offers camaraderie as well as discounts to those involved - so long as there are women wanting to participate. Maybe I'll be back to try my luck at skiing bumps on telemark skis - once I get the hang of not letting those skis slide out from under me, that is.