This story appeared in the October (42.2) issue of POWDER.
For nearly two centuries, they were the most mobile of all winter folk. With merely a toe attached to long wooden skis, they welcomed Ullr with open arms and frolicked within his deep snows. Whereas most skiers could only go downhill during winter, they went up, over, around, and down—wafting unpleasant odors and causing a paradigm shift in how the rest of the world perceived mountains.
But it was precisely the down—what they deemed "The Turn"—that set these humans apart. Lunging forward over a bent knee, pressuring the toes and rolling the balls of their feet, they teetered between clumsiness and grace—the challenge being to find that elusive sweet spot as gravity pulled them downhill. The Turn did not generate unusually high amounts of speed. But that was never the point. Done correctly, it was intended to be fun, goofy, weird, dorky, utilitarian, and even somewhat stylish—a discipline that delivered an exciting rush of snow straight to the face. Addicted to this full facial freeze, the telemark skier kicked and glided deep into the backcountry and pioneered some of the most famous zones in America.
As time went on, their leather boots turned to plastic, and their little toe-clip bindings came equipped with stiff cables and tight springs, which helped improve control and downhill speed. Then their beards became manicured, they lost their peculiar smell, and their clothes went from being duct-taped and tattered to form-fitting and technical.
In the early 2000s, the worshippers of The Turn experienced their golden age. They had movies, festivals, dueling magazines, sponsorships, and marketing money. Fed by mocha skinny lattes, annoying jam band music, yuppie fashion, and liberal arts degrees, their population spiked, albeit with too many pretenders. Bystanders saw The Turn being done so poorly by so many that they started to view telemark skiing as nothing more than having "a license to suck." They hounded The Turn's followers with degrading comments such as "Drop the knee, squat to pee," "Fix the heel, fix the problem," and everyone's favorite, "Nobody cares that you tele." Which was true, except for the people who cared enough to make stickers about not caring.
And so the glory of The Turn began to falter. Conspiring against its survival were: a) Rat traps. b) Leashes. c) My binding broke. Again. d) I got off the tram, bent over to put my skis on, and by the time I stood up, all my friends were gone. e) My ski tip hit me in the head, requiring stitches. f) My ski tail hit me in the head, requiring stitches. g) The Alps. h) Alaska. i) I forgot my kneepads, decided to risk it, and splintered my kneecap. j) No, for the last time, NTN is not the answer. And finally, k) what a huge pain in the ass.
Meanwhile, everything else was getting easier. The emergence of Rocker and Alpine Touring allowed every mediocre backseat-driving arm-flapper to become an instant hero. All those pretending to make The Turn didn't actually need The Turn anymore. They just needed a few thousand bucks, a Dynafit, and a walk-mode.
With that, the herd has been culled to historic lows, and only the truly fit survive. Today's practitioners are usually quiet and unassuming, just like their ancestors. The men are hairy and strong, while the women have pigtails and round firm asses. Their equipment gives them away, and it's temping to feel sorry for them, as if they didn't get the memo. Then you see them explode down the hill with the mastery and grace of a ninja, and the truth comes out: They really don't care what you think.