“Telemarketers” Found Each Other To Practice Their Distinctive Style.

[Editor Note:This remembrance of Telemark skiing by Roger Lohr first appeared in his publication XCSkiresorts.com.]

The North American Telemark Organization set a record with this group turn at Mad River Glen in 1980.

In the 1970s, telemark skiers were called the free heelers, telemarketers, and the Lunatic Fringe. But these skiers performing the historical telemark turn down the slopes at alpine ski areas were seen as “the vanguard of the slopes” by many for their ability and skill descending the runs at high speeds, in the moguls, and landing aerials on their cross country skis. But telemarkers were often heard commenting that they were only riding the lifts at alpine ski areas to improve their downhill skills for the backcountry. Some claimed “free the heel, free the mind”, but they became intoxicated with riding chairlifts rather than getting their thrills in the backcountry.

These days, as alpine touring and backcountry skiing become more popular, the telemark subculture may be a declining breed at the alpine ski areas. However, there was a time when they were racing down through the gates and partying hard and celebrating their differences based on what was perceived as their retro ski techniques. They were dressed in wool pants or knickers with ear flapped knit hats with elongated tassles (designed by Vermonter Poppy Gall, a woman entrepreneur, designer, and currently a co-director of the Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum).

NATO Founder and Telemark legend Dick Hall wiggles through a narrow spot.

Today, telemarkers, or what is left of this group, are no longer counter culture, but in their heyday, telemark festivals, traveling clinics and workshops, and more were the brainchild of the North American Telemark Organization (NATO) created in 1975 by Richard (Dickie) Hall of Waitsfield, VT. In 2017, Dickie Hall was inducted in the Vermont Ski Hall of Fame, which is a long way from his first time telemark skiing with a dozen others as a group at Pico Mountain, Vt. in 1974.

According to author David Goodman’s article about telemarking in Powder Magazine, “the telemark turn was invented in 1868 by Sondre Norheim in the Telemark district of Norway. As alpine skiing and techniques took over, it was not until Rick Borkovic of Crested Butte, CO, sparked a revival and a number of Nordic skiers rediscovered the old technique.”

I found out about telemarking from the 1977 book “Skiing Cross Country” by Canadian Ned Baldwin while I was living in southern Vermont. Most of us regarded Steve Barnetts’s “Cross-Country Downhill” as the bible of telemarking as it covered downhill techniques in depth. As I improved, I got to know many of the telemarkers in the region, mostly men but there were some women, too. We ran a race series, but beside the competition, it was really a clan of telemark skiers who met on scheduled dates at different ski areas.

As a racer, I felt disadvantaged on my Trucker Light Edge skis, which were narrower and softer compared to the Rossignol Randonee skis, which handled the ruts and hard pack better and were used by most of the other skiers. Always blame the equipment. But Dickie’s motto “Ski Hard. Play Fair. Have Fun” was not so much about winning as it was about spreading the telemark gospel.

Hall developed NATO, (according to Hall, it’s the peaceful one) to conduct workshops, training courses, expeditions, and festivals. He traveled as a telemark evangelist from his home in Waitsfield, VT, and visited the states in the northeast, the Rockies, California, and Alaska among others. These NATO telemark events would feature instructional clinics for all ability levels, and equipment suppliers’ gear for demo use. Hall created the telemark ski school at Mad River Glen as one of the first in the US, and he helped others to become telemark instructors across the country. Over the years, Hall estimated that he has introduced, instructed, or just shared his love of telemark skiing to about 40,000 people!

In 2015, NATO held its 40th and last telemark festival at Mad River Glen, which attracted about 200 participants, a far cry from the 13 attendees at the original Pico event. The races held at the festivals were usually the focus point at these events, but the “group telemark turn” was an activity we all shared together. The telemarkers in Colorado and Alaska would try to top the eastern telemarking crew of deplorables at Mad River Glen, but it is believed that 128 eastern telemarkers in a group turn is the standing record.

At Mad River Glen, Dickie was a task master when it came to the group telemark. In Dickie’s mind, it was paramount that we link two telemark turns for the attempt to count. The photo in the 1984 NATO Eastern Telemark Festival Series poster (and used in many other NATO materials) exemplifies one of those record-breaking group telemark attempts. On the day of that photo (I was there), many of the telemarkers who were near the end of the line got whipped into a gully, and it ended in a yard sale of significant proportion. No injuries, lots of laughs—indeed we played hard and had fun.

NATO is now defunct but Dickie Hall telemark videos are still available via email request at nato@gmavt.net

Author Roger Lohr and two buddies try a three-man tele turn. What’s with the group turning thingy, guys?

7 Comments

  1. I’m a tele skier. Since the 70s. When it was called mountaineering. I had a pair of kongberg mt skis. Now I’m 69. I do locals racing at Sugarloaf. There used to be 5 or 6 of us. So we had are own category. For the.last 2 years I’ve been the only tele skier racing. Over all I come in last unless some one
    falls. I don’t care I continue to drop my knee. I get some points for tele skiing.

  2. Thanks for the article. I started telemark skiing when I was 70 years old(now 74) and mix it up with downhill. I’m not great but the idea of freeing your spirit is what I like about telemarking. “Go freeheelers”. Ed Schultz, upstate NY

  3. Michael Dillon says:

    Thank you for the history. I have been telemarking for the last 20 years and I am looking forwards to trying some new equipment and the new nordic norm boots and bindings. I am 73. Telemarking is a graceful way to ski. Michael Dillon, June Lake, CA

  4. Thanks for the telemark skiing article — it’s really nice to see an article about “real skiing” in the magazine! I’ve been free-heeling for 43 years, since learning the technique in 1976 (on wooden skis, of course) as a means for getting around in the backcountry above Lake Tahoe. We wore surplus Norwegian Army wool pants, used bamboo poles, and leaned on our Swedish ABC Victory cable bindings. Now, like Michael Dillon, I’m 73 years old, live just north of him, and still ski 70 – 80 days a year in the wonderful Eastern Sierra. Telemarking remains the pre-eminent technique for travel in the backcountry in winter, and I still use several sets of ABC cable bindings. —Bodie Jack Shipley, Lee Vining, CA

  5. I was at Mad River in 80 for the NATO meeting. I didn’t participate in the world record tele turn though.
    I used to use Bonna 2400’s in the early 70’s as they were the toughest XC ski at the time. Then Fischer came out with the Europa 99s.with aluminum edges and a floating shovel tip.

  6. Robert mercier says:

    Interesting read. Although NATO may be gone, there is still a two day festival up at Bromley ski area I VT – 31 years strong.

    https://www.bromley.com/winter/telefest/31st-annual-kare-andersen-telemark-festival/

  7. Hi Friends — This is Bodie Jack again. I just learned that my ski buddy Russ Reese posted an hour-long home-made video of three of us average guys telemarking our way through the entire 2016 ski season all over the Eastern Sierra. It’s called “Team Karhu: Winter Challenge”, and it’s on YouTube. No fancy acrobatics, no death-defying stunts, just three nobodies having more fun than we thought possible on mellow slopes. Telemarking is beyond doubt the best way to move around in the backcountry. It is NOT dying. (P.S. If a whopping 68 minutes is too long for you, just start at minute 17:15.)

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