Maybe it was a year he just didn’t feel like beating himself up on the steep tree runs, jokes Tony Forrest, a longtime telemark ski instructor who returns Jan. 28 and 29 for the 30th annual telemark workshop at Ski Santa Fe—but several years ago, he decided to alter course. The group in the clinic he wanted to teach wasn’t the skiers charging off for steeps and moguls, but the beginners warming up on green runs.
"We finally realized that's where we need to pay the most attention to who's coming there and who has the most chance of changing their skiing, who isn't going to be intimidated by the terrain and put into an environment where at least they have a chance for success," he says. He started to spend his time, as the most experienced instructor in the clinic, with these little-experienced skiers. The notion spread, and he's found 25-year attendees enrolling in the beginner-level clinics.
"They were very, very accomplished skiers who could ski the whole mountain, but they had technical flaws that they couldn't fix when they were up flailing in the black runs—that's kind of the crux right there," he says. "So you have to kind of de-evolve and go back to the basics again."
Progress can only be made in a place where experimentation feels comfortable: so people learn the skills they'll take to expert runs on the easy, lower angle terrain. The mantra that's spread, Forrest says, is: "'The level of your skiing is not the terrain that you ski on.' So even if you can ski black terrain, you're not necessarily an expert skier, and if you ski on green terrain really well, you're not necessarily a beginner skier."
Each year, Forrest sets a theme for the clinic, and this year's is "one step ahead." That's all that really goes into make a telemark turn—that funny bended knee, free-heel style of skiing, he says. Put your feet together, and then step one forward.
The workshop started in 1987 as a memorial for Edwin Terrell, a ski instructor from Santa Fe who died climbing in Nepal the previous summer, and whose fellow instructors decided a telemark skiing festival was the best way to celebrate his life—even if his affection for telemarking was hesitant, at best. What drew them in then was a sense of the lifestyle, of traveling through the mountains on their own power away from the bounds and crowds at resorts.
At that time, telemark skiing was in the midst of a major renovation. Forrest was among those crafting telemark skiing as we know it today: with heftier, plastic boots on bigger skis that had edges and could ski race gates. That marked a significant departure from Nordic, or cross-country skiing, better known for often resembling a walk in the woods. He skied on the first Professional Ski Instructors Association telemark demo team and went on to coach it, helped write the curriculum for other telemark instructors and was one of the first three examiners running exams for a telemark teaching certification.
That sense of lifestyle and wanting access to the backcountry is still what he hears people cite when they show up to learn to telemark ski now, same as it was 30 years ago, but whether the numbers are growing isn't apparent in attendance at the workshop, which has held steady for decades.
At least part of the challenge for potential new recruits lies with equipping them. There's no option to rent telemark gear in town, leaving beginners not ready to shell out to buy the setup to beg, borrow or steal gear from friends.
"That's the challenge of it," Forrest says. "We're not really growing the sport. We're sustaining people who are diehards."
And with alpine touring (AT) gear now lighter weight and capable at ascending backcountry terrain, what makes telemark gear worth the weight up and the added difficulty down? He contends it's better at going sideways, traversing through the mountains.
"It's a little bit more of a cross-country feeling, having your heel free like that all the time," he says. "Maybe some people are just wired for that. It's not a real precise place where you go on these things. Things are a little bit squirrelly until you figure it out, and that's why a lot of people go to AT. But there is a certain amount of freedom when your heels are unlocked, and that's what some people get into. …
"Whether it's growing or not, the thing that sustains it is people just liking to get out into the woods."
Telemark Workshop with Tony Forrest
10 am-3 pm Saturday and Sunday Jan. 28 and 29.
Lift and lessons both days: $200.
Ski Santa Fe,
The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community. Disclosure: The author is a part-time instructor at Ski Santa Fe.