Expert Feature: Telemark Skiing with Jeff Horst!

EvolvEd Intern Johnathan Dean gets the chance to sit down with Telemark Skier Jeff Horst. Jeff talks about how he got his start, a bit about basic technique, how it can be an excellent form of exercise for individuals over the age of 60, and what coaching would look like on EvolvEd. 

Could you describe how telemark skiing differs from other types of skiing?

The best description of telemark skiing is called free heel skiing, because the bindings do not lock down your heels–you can flex up and down on the balls of your feet, similar to cross country skiing.

I started out cross country skiing, just flat areas, small hills. Then I kicked it up to backcountry skiing, same thing–free heels, heavier skis, beefier bindings, tight trails and more hills. I really liked being out, but I was having trouble making telemark turns when I was backcountry, because I didn’t know that much about it. But I just liked the style and the technique and the way it felt. So, to really get a better understanding, I went to Gore Mountain and took a two-day seminar on telemark skiing, and I was such a novice–everyone who was in the course already had experience and I just struggled so much, especially on groomed trails that were steeper than I was accustomed to. I slogged it out through that weekend and I sort of understood the concept but I could just not get the muscle memory. So I had that in my mind and then I started going up to Belleayre in the Catskills which has family-friendly slopes, not too steep, wide and nicely groomed. I just really started carving nice turns and it took a while. And did I take some spills? Yeah, I took some beauties going down and falling.

I’ve done alpine skiing too but I have a torn ACL in my knee and alpine skiing really seemed to put a lot of stress on that. With telemark, besides the free heel, you sort of drop down in a lunge on each of your turns, alternating right, left, right, left. So you drop down in the lunge which I’ve found to be a very stable position for me and it took the strain off my knees, even though I’ve spent a lot of time at the Vassar gym doing lunges with weights to build up my knee joint muscles. I mean, you know that’s what you have to do because there’s so much leg work involved, especially with telemarking. One day my partner and I were up at Belleayre and I counted how many lunges we did on about 13 or 14 runs… and we did 500!

I was in pretty good shape but when you get tired, you start crashing. I usually try to stop before I start crashing, because when you’re older than 60 you can take a crash but you get these injuries that take a far longer time to heal than for a young person.

When I’m out and I’m feeling more confident about my turns–and when you see a telemark skier, they’re very graceful, sweeping turns, carving down the slope. Truthfully, at Belleayre and even out here [in California] I’ve gone skiing, you don’t see too many telemark skiers, at least where I’m going. More often than not a lot of snowboarders, a lot of downhill and the occasional telemark skiing but the style is so distinctive, you can spot it, whenever you’re on the lift. Anyway, my friend and I are both over 60, and gosh, we both really like it, barring the muscle fatigue, we found it to be great for us for our age, preserving our knee joints and legs. 

For telemark skiing, it matters less where you’re skiing, rather the style in which you’re going down the hill. Like you said, there’s greater heel flexibility with lunging, graceful turns. 

Absolutely. In fact, it’s a great technique for back country. Just north of us is Mount Lassen and I haven’t gone up there skiing yet but I’ve been up there, and you can see mostly telemarkers. They’ll trek up the side of the mountain, and that’s deep powder. They carve these swooping turns coming down, it looks like great fun, especially on powder you can crash and it’s a lot more forgiving. 

How do the telemarkers trek up? Is there a particular strategy they use?

There’s different ways to do it. If it’s not too steep you can cross back and forth and switchback your way up which takes a little bit of time. Forget herringbone or any of that, it’s just way too much. If I was going up something long and steep you can strap on your skis something that’s called “skins,” and it’s usually some kind of synthetic or hair; it attaches to the bottom of the skis so you can slide up but they don’t backslide, so you can essentially ski up the hill. Some cross country skis have something that’s called scales on the bottom so they’re waxless, and those allow you to ski up the hill.

For steep terrain you’d use skins and strap them on, sometimes they stick on, you ski up, and then you strip them off and you ski down. Or, I like to snowshoe too, and I thought well, I can pack my skis and chug up the hill in snowshoes. In deep snow, you have to be on skis or snowshoes otherwise you’re just wobbling and not getting anywhere. But I like telemark skiing because you can go to groomed trails at a resort, or backcountry–it gives you a whole lot of options.

For me the best thing is that it’s a great way to condition and get some strength training and aerobic training. I was thinking for people over sixty you can tailor it as difficult or easy as you want, but the bottom line is you can get a lot of good exercise out of the whole process. 

Do you have any favorite places to telemark ski? Or locations that you’d like to get to? 

Out here (California) I’ve gone to one place near Tahoe called Sugarbowl, but I hope to get to some of the Tahoe slopes next winter. One of our sons lives out here and he has two kids–everyone snowboards, but that’s okay. When we Sugarbowl my grandson who’s eleven–this was very very cool for me–he was on skis at that time and we went skiing together. We got up on some better slopes and I carved turns down the open areas and was skiing the trees and it was really a good bonding experience for us, and I thought, man, I can’t remember my grandparents doing anything other than walking around for a little exercise.

For me and my grandson it was just a really wonderful experience, we’re going to do it some more only, I think he’s going to be on a snowboard. He probably thinks I’m very old fashioned on my ‘teles’ but, that’s what we do and that’s what we like. So we’ll get to some Tahoe slopes next winter and I’d like to get up to Shasta mountain, too, which is near Lassen. It’s more of a family resort and it’s just a big mountain with easy slopes so that would suit me perfectly. 

What would your first lesson for telemark skiing look like? 

If someone’s interested, we’d probably talk once or twice about telemark skiing, especially if they have no experience. Then I would send them a video of me carving some turns, and ideally we’d get together on some beginner slopes and start working through the techniques.

There are so many things that you have to remember, and that’s the challenging part. You have to remember to drop, you have to remember to cut your edges in, and at first you have to do it slowly to get this muscle memory going. But when you’re 1-on-1 or 1-on-2 with some folks, it can just be a whole lot of fun working through the technique, getting to know each other, carving some turns, and taking a welcome break when everyone’s legs are on fire. But yeah I think meeting somewhere in person would be really the best way to go. 

What aspects of the telemark skiing technique are most important to focus on while first learning? 

First of all, you have to recognize where the “fall-line” is, and that’s pretty easy to do. You want to look down the fall line, face your body down the fall line, and you’ve got to drive that into the person’s head. Keep your body down the fall line, and your legs are going to do all the work turning.

You also want equal weight on each ski. Often people will put all their weight on the front ski. Twist your ankles so the edges are cutting into the uphill side of the slope. Watch the fall line, you know, face downhill, cut your edges, come up from the lunge, let the edges glide and then drop into your next turn. It’s so hard to explain, but you come up, stop cutting your edges and the skis are going to find the fall-line again and you drop into your next turn and carve around that one.

Hard enough to explain but to do it, that’s really a trick. But when you do it right, when you do it right Johnathan, it’s the best feeling, because you feel those edges just cutting in, no sliding, then you float, and you cut into the next turn. Really, I think that’s it.

And my last big rule–when you’re totally out of control and heading for the trees, bail out. Get low, drop down, and slide it out. 

What is one superpower that you’d want to have? 

My wife says I already have it in terms of making friends! However, I would like to know exactly where the big trout are when I’m out fly fishing.

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In addition to Telemark Skiing, Jeff also offers subjects on Nutrition and Healthy Living, and Outdoor Carpentry.

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