Darkside Calling – Telemark vs AT

Darkside Calling – Telemark vs. Alpine Touring
by Paul Butler

telemark grace

the grace of the freeheel

Right before the end of the year, I went out skiing. After a week of torrential and monumentally depressing rain turned Christmas into Slushmas, cold from the east brought December back to the way it should be in these parts.

Two friends and I began making our way up “the cache” – a 4,000-foot, north-facing shot. The morning brought light snow and low clouds. It was a relaxed start, nothing remarkable, even considering the six inches of new.

Still, it was an auspicious day.

After over 15 years of touring on telemark gear, I had gone over to the “dark side.” Here I was trying out a pair of alpine touring boots attached with Dynafit bindings to some Atomic skis that used to be mounted with cable bindings for dropping knees.

The difference was immediately noticeable.

The advantages of an alpine touring (AT) setup when it comes to ascending are obvious from the get-go. In fact, I was worried that not only would it be so easy, but it would look obviously so, and thus I would have to break trail the entire way.

See, my companions were on telemark skis.

I had been Mr. Randoneé for fifteen minutes and I already felt sorry for them. Damn, did they make climbing look hard. I felt their pain.

I figured over the years I would eventually acquire an alpine touring setup at some point. Many of my friends had. It seemed like an excellent option, particularly for ski mountaineering. Not that telemark gear has ever held anyone back, right? This was just a case of more arrows in the quiver.

Unfortunately, things like this can never be so simple.

Comparisons are made. Indignant attitudes emerge. Insults are hurled. It’s point and counterpoint ad nausea. Well, they have to fill those backcountry ski magazines with some sort of fodder.

But, in my opinion, what is really more disconcerting than all the background squabbling is the sad circumstance of a few former pinners who have converted over to AT gear while forsaking their freeheel roots. Perhaps you know a few of these lost soul types.

Yes, I’m sad to say I know a few skiers who used to expound endlessly on the merits of telemarking almost to the point that you figured they believed world peace could be achieved if everyone simply freed their heels. Minds would follow, they said.

Back in the day, if you weren’t dropping knees, you were pretty much dropping bombs. The telemark turn is so graceful, so elegant, they claimed. It was the original turn, you know. Just ask Sondre.

But then the dark side beckoned. And soon these poor souls were lost in a world of bliss like nuns discovering the joys of masturbation.

I believe it may have started with a few parallel turns. The gear was still pure, but it was logical, they reasoned, in certain conditions or terrain, not to drop into the requisite stance. In hindsight, this was the first sign of the dark side’s ominous pull.

Soon, it was parallel city, anywhere and anytime. The siren song of that previously ridiculed euro-dog Randoneé get-up beckoned strongly. Keeping your mind free was forgotten. The dark side was calling.

telemark vs AT - darkside calling

the power of the fixed heel

After the conversion over to alpine touring, these hardcore telemarkers were pretty much born-agains in the backcountry.

There was no looking back. And the way they went on and on about how miraculous it was to tour on AT gear was like they had just discovered that toast tastes better with butter and jam.

All of a sudden touring on telemark gear was so laborious.

Breaking trail on AT gear had never been easier. There weren’t any wistful remembrances of that graceful telemark stance. It was nothing but scorn for what once was so sacred.


the freedom of the heel

It was almost as if they had been possessed. When out touring, I would remind them, what about the good old days? Remember the elegance, the purity, that feeling of righteousness?

I hoped that a spark of memory would ignite the cold ashes of what once was a burning passion.

Alas, on their AT gear they were always too far out ahead to hear my plaintive remarks. Or, perhaps, I was panting to loud for them to discern my hopeless pleas as I struggled to keep up in my lowly telemark gear.

It was pointless, I thought. The dark side had corrupted them. Not even burning some blessed herbs could stir them from the evil grip of locked down heels and robotic stiffness.

So I decided to cross over myself. Perhaps by immersing myself into the dark side mentality, I could understand their conversion and discover a way to bring them back. Maybe seeing myself as their savior was a little over the top but wasn’t the world waiting for a Second Coming?

Fool that I was, I underestimated the forces at hand. Little did I know that it was my own soul that I would be battling to save.

A few days later I went back out again – same place, some more snow. This time I was on my trusty telemark gear.

It was fun. There are spots where one needs to traverse. That supple, cross-country feel of telemark gear felt good. I even threw in a few parallel turns for good measure.

At the end of the day, heading back to the car, I thought, this is good, the best of both worlds. I’ll telemark one day and lock ‘em down the next. What is the motto for that Polygamy Porter they brew in Utah – why just settle for one? It was the same reasoning here.

But quickly my confidence waned. Uncertain thoughts surfaced as I unbuckled my boots. I realized in the back of my mind I had been suppressing one particular notion the whole day – what would it have been like on my AT skis?

I shuddered.

The dark side was calling.

Paul Butler lives in Mazama, WA and is contemplating salvation by learning how to snowboard.

Darkside Calling first appeared in Off-Piste Mag Issue 28