Selecting The Right Telemark Ski
In the past there were distinct differences between telemark-specific skis, alpine-touring (AT) skis, and downhill skis. But as telemark boots have gotten beefier and telemark skiers have gotten stronger the lines have been blurred, especially between telemark and AT skis. Backcountry-oriented companies are producing skis light enough and with the proper flex for backcountry skiing, but burly enough to hold an edge on a turbo-charged day at the resort.
Instead of distinguishing between telemark, AT, and downhill skis, all companies are now making stiff, relatively heavier skis for downhill skiing (none of which we offer on this website), and somewhat lighter, slightly easier-flexing AT- and telemark-specific skis. Don’t get us wrong – these skis are beefy enough to hang with just about everything else out there, but you won’t find World Cup skiers stepping into them for the next GS or downhill competition. What you will find is the best telemark skiers in the world using them to shred everything from steep, backcountry powder to lift-served hardpack and tight bumps.
So within the “non-downhill-specific” category of skis – call it backcountry, sidecountry, tele, or AT if you like – you can differentiate further by flex (aka stiffness), width, sidecut, and camber line (aka “rise” or “rocker”). Let’s start with that last one first since it’s the newest concept in ski technology.
For years, skis were made with traditional camber, also called single camber. This means if you put them on a flat surface, they would touch that surface at the tips and at the tails, and there would be a slight, gradual bend so that the middle of the ski – where the bindings go – would be the highest point off the surface. This bend is camber, and it gives you control over the tips and tails of your skis. If you think about it, because of the camber, the pressure your skis exert on the snow, when you’re standing on them, is about the same at the tips as it is right underfoot. Without camber your skis would “bow” in a concave manner and all your pressure would be right under your feet, giving you little control over the skis and inefficiently abdicating control over the tips and tails.
In addition to the two surface-contact points and the camber in between, there have always been the tips of the skis, which rise up abruptly from the surface to push the snow down under the skis and push the skis up so they don’t nosedive under the snow. A couple of years ago, someone got the brilliant idea to play with the point where the tips start their rise, moving it back toward the middle of the ski. This practice, well, “gave rise” to the concept of “early rise” tips, and is now in widespread use in almost all skis. It originated as a way to create more flotation in powder, but it has caught on because it allows for easier turn initiation. It changes slightly the technique required to control the skis, mostly by requiring the skier to keep his or her weight back a bit more than on traditional skis. Some people like it, some people don’t, and there are still plenty of options available with traditional camber.
WIDTH & SIDECUT
All skis have been on a healthy, waist-widening diet over the last decade, with average widths underfoot now in the 90-millimeter range, and shovels (tips) averaging in the mid-120s. Fat skis run up to the Fatypus A-Lotta, with a 172mm shovel and 140mm underfoot. You can still get narrower skis like the Black Diamond Guru touring ski, which is 75mm underfoot and 118mm at the shovel.
We should regard some skis as powder-only, like the Black Diamond Megawatt. Once you get up into the 125+ millimeter waist sizes and low-camber, early-rise constructions, it’s difficult to make snappy turns on hardpack, in the bumps, or in mixed conditions. These fatties shine in the pow, and that’s about it except for the most accomplished skiers.
The vast majority of tele skiers are on mid-fat skis these days. This is especially true in an environment like the one our brick-and-mortar shop inhabits in Summit County, Colorado. We love the powder as much as the next person, but we are also pragmatic and realize much of the time we’re riding the lift skiing groomed terrain or what our local resort marketing professionals like to call “packed powder.” Fortunately, there are all kinds of skis that are ideal for this kind of terrain but which cross over well when we do get that epic powder day. Skis in this category include the Black Diamond Justice, Revert and Warrant, or the Kendo, Mantra, Aura, and Kenjo from Volkl.
It’s rare these days to find someone who wants to charge hard all the time on hardpack or bash gates, but if that’s your thing then you’ll want a stiff ski with a relatively narrow waist and decent sidecut, like a differential between tip and tail of 40mm or more. The narrow waist means they’re quick edge-to-edge, deep sidecut allows you to carve fast, small-radius turns, and the stiffer construction means the ski is super-responsive to your inputs. But that last quality works the other way too – you’re more likely to feel every divot and ding in the snow, and get tossed around if you don’t have the boots and the legs to drive through.
FLEX AND STIFFNESS
We’ve already touched on these characteristics a bit. In general, a softer ski is easier for a relatively novice skier to use because there’s some “forgiveness” in the system. If you steer into a thick pile of snow or the backside of a mogul, the elasticity in the ski will absorb some of the shock and transmit less to you, meaning you don’t have to be quite as nimble or strong to overpower the obstacle. A softer ski is nice in powder too because it arcs into a boat shape more easily, giving you a cushiony plank to sink into.
On the other hand, when you get a soft ski up to speed, the energy and vibration deform the ski and it starts bouncing and flapping like a white surrender flag. So for hard-charging skiers who like their speed, a stiffer ski provides much more support and control when you roll it up on edge and force a couple of G’s into it. The same principle applies to quick turns, whether at high or moderate speeds: when you initiate the turn and pour your energy into the ski, if it’s stiff it will respond quickly, so there’s no lag time to rob you of your setup for the next turn, which is already upon you before you’re out of the last one. A soft ski first absorbs some of the energy between you and the ground before it responds by finding purchase in the snow and arcing into a turn.
Bumps are a mixed bag: It’s nice to have a somewhat soft ski from boot to tip, so you don’t get tossed around when you bash the tips into the uneven terrain between bumps. But you also need good torsional (side-to-side) stiffness for the fast turns required to navigate the bumps.
The best all-around flex for telemark skiing is an even, “round” one. Some ski experts object to hand-flexing a ski because “you can’t tell anything from that.” But we think there is some merit to holding a ski at the tip, with the tail on the ground, and pushing about where the binding would be with your other hand. If the ski makes an arc that could have been cut out of an oval or a circle, with no variations along the curve, that’s a pretty even flex. If there are a lot of angles and direction changes along the length of the flexed ski, it is displaying some resistance to your attempt to put even pressure on all points of the edges, and it’s going to take more energy to arc that ski into a smooth turn – experienced tele skiers only here, please!
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the variables that define the personality of a ski, but this is a good start to get you on the way to deciding what ski is best for you. If you want some guarantees in your ski purchase, get in here and try out our demos. If you do that, purchase one of our recommendations, and aren’t completely satisfied, the purchase is returnable.
A FINAL NOTE TO NOVICES
Since most skiers with some experience have a good idea of what they’re looking for, we’ll address some final comments to the beginners among us. In terms of camber line, we think something with slight early-rise is the best ski to learn telemark on, because it makes turn initiation easier. However, you can also do fine on a traditional-camber ski that is sufficiently soft, so don’t rule those out. Until you have a feel for how the telemark turn works, you should probably stay away from radical early-rise camber lines.
Don’t go too fat or too narrow – there is definitely a Goldilocks path here. Too fat and you won’t be able to turn it; too narrow and it will feel like you’re on a greased skateboard on ball bearings on an ice rink. A so-called mid-fat will give you the stability you need to get your tele legs under you with a decent enough amount of sidecut so you can initiate turns and then get out of a turn in time for the next one.
The same principle applies for stiffness – not too much, not too little. Too stiff and you’ll be getting tossed around like a ragdoll; too soft and you’ll be frustrated at how sloppy and unresponsive the skis feel. We have specific ideas about what is best for novice telemarkers depending on where you’ll be skiing and who you are.