In March 2021, we went cross-country skiing. But this wasn’t your typical kick-and-glide XC outing in spandex on an impeccably groomed trail. This was backcountry West Virginia telemark skiing at its finest. Over a span of eight hours, we climbed up through tangled forests of beech, birch, and spruce trees, repeatedly stopping to scrape wet snow that stuck to our ski bases. We drank beers in t-shirts in a sunny meadow, making awkward step turns to connect the remaining patches of snow while trying not to fall over in the blueberry shrubs.
We ascended and skied (if you want to call it that) down icy north-facing slopes that hadn’t seen the sun in months, biffing it and laughing as we bruised our hips (and egos) and slid on our backs like flipped turtles. I think I made one decent turn between all the wrecks. One member of our party broke one of his skis, lashing it to his backpack and skiing the entire way back on one foot, hopping from edge to edge with a surprising deftness, keeping up—and passing—the less skilled skiers (me included).
We ended in an open pasture, where one remaining patch of snow resembling a giant Nike swoosh served as proving grounds for our motley crew—the patch was about a foot wide at its narrowest point, and we all took turns seeing who could run it out at speed. The guy with the broken ski? He was right there with us, lifting his ski-less leg over thawing cow patties as he somehow navigated the narrows on one foot.
It was one of the best days of the entire ski season. Conditions-wise, it was on the low end of marginal, and downright awful in places. But the conditions don’t really matter when you’re on an adventure. The freedom of traversing a mountain on skis, uninhibited, with your comrades and time as your only limiting factor, is what tele skiing is all about.
While there are many ways to enjoy sliding on snow, there’s just nothing quite like telemark skiing. The charmingly niche sport seems to attract fun-loving folks who buck the norm and like to blaze their own trails—even if it’s just on two inches of snow in the backyard. But telemarking is more than a subgenre of skiing, it’s a whacky culture that embodies adventure, exploration, self-expression, and fun. While many nouveau backcountry skiers have labeled tele skiing as a relic of the past, the telemark culture is surviving—and thriving—here in the Mountain State.
A Brief History of Tele
Telemark skiing originated in the mid-19th century in the Telemark region of southern Norway. Ski pioneer Sondre Norheim is considered the father of the telemark turn. Sondre hand-crafted his own wooden skis and birch-branch bindings that wrapped around the heel like the modern telemark cable binding. With these advancements, Sondre was able to lift his back heel and drop into a lunge—the signature stance of the telemark turn.
The concept of the telemark turn is simple: drop into a lunge with your downhill ski forward, distribute your weight evenly over both skis, and engage the edges to initiate the turn. This alternates from turn to turn, giving the appearance that the skier is bobbing up and down as if running down the mountain. But the concept is where the simplicity stops. To execute a proper telemark turn with grace, control, and intention takes a lot of practice. A veteran telemark skier will look as if they are engaged in a graceful ballet, dancing and weaving through pillows of powder.
The discipline mostly fell to the wayside in the 20th century as alpine ski and binding technology progressed. But in the early 1970s, a free-heelin’ group of ski hippies brought tele back to the mainstream. Able to ski up and down the mountain on what was considered advanced gear at the time, telemark opened up the backcountry to a whole generation of skiers and took the U.S. by storm.
By the 1980s, telemark skiing had become commonplace at mountains from Vermont to Colorado, and the counterculture found a home here in Canaan Valley with Chip Chase and White Grass. Mike Sayre, one of the original White Grassers, has been dropping knees since the early 80s. “Everybody was learning the techniques and different styles,” Mike says. “It was just a small crowd of us back then, you saw one or two guys on telemark gear, and you’d ski right over and know them within minutes. Nowadays, we have a really good telemark community up here.”
The sport has now settled comfortably in its niche, but the style continues to progress. There is plenty of footage showcasing Chip Chase’s three sons throwing X-games style tricks on skinny skis. Adam Chase, who works at White Grass, can often be found showing off a stylish skillset that can only be attained by living on skis for 36 years.
If there’s enough snow, you’ll find Adam doing back flips off hand-made jumps, throwing 360s off of stumps, and sliding on fallen logs as if they were rails in a terrain park—all on lightweight, edgeless cross-country skis with a soft boot and a basic toe binding. “I can ski better than I can walk,” Adam says. “The freestyle aspect is super fun, it’s the ultimate finesse and balance. You’ve got to be totally on it, you’ve got to stick the landing. There’s no heavy boot or binding holding you up.”
Backcountry telemark skiing on lightweight XC gear, or Nordic downhilling as we like to call it, can turn the benign into the epic. A 50-yard patch of shallow snow on an angled grade becomes expert terrain; a small jump becomes an Olympic proving ground; icy singletrack trail becomes a death luge. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. If there’s snow on the ground in the West Virginia mountains as you read this, you can bet that someone is out there skiing it with a powder-eating grin frozen in place.
I embarked on my journey of learning the telemark turn several years ago and was immediately bit by “the bug.” While I’m nowhere near proficient, the pursuit of the perfect turn is a lifelong one, and there’s no tele-turning back. I’m the happiest version of myself when I’m out on a long day of schussing and slashing turns in a snow-covered forest. I feel connected to a boundless source of energy, able to ski up, down, and around until I run out of food and water, or my headlamp battery dies. And when I do finally stop, the vibe is pure euphoria, despite quads so wrecked I can barely stand.
A typical day involves touring with your tele-pals up a mountain, through the narrow channels of a snow-covered spruce forest, and back down through open birch glades or wide meadows. This, of course, includes loads of falls, like the time I buried my tips in a four-foot drift and somersaulted, face-first, into the depths. When the plume of powder settled, I was on my back, laughing uncontrollably, skis in the air, head at least a foot below the surface of the drift. Most wrecks aren’t too bad, and the ones that knock the wind out of you only delay the inevitable laughter.
“We all watch each other ski down and make tele turns. It’s not that we’re grading each other, we’re being supportive,” says Sue Haywood. A professional mountain biker turned telemark fanatic, Sue teaches ski clinics at White Grass. “We all know just how hard it is to get to that point where your turns are automatic. We cheer when you link a couple turns in tough terrain, and we’re also there to laugh at the awkward falls. Like, how the hell did that happen?”
Mechanics and practice aside, the bulk of the joy comes from that camaraderie. Skiing is fun but skiing with your friends is way better—especially when your friends are like-minded powder hounds who thrive in cold weather. Picture a rowdy group of skiers dressed in wool pants, flannel shirts, and lumberjack hats. They’re rocking bamboo poles and old leather boots on beat-up skis, hooting and hollering as they parade through the woods like a band of jovial bards. “It’s a very eclectic style,” Sue says. “You might even see camo pants and a Patagonia jacket with a bunch of duct tape to fix all the holes.”
The breaks from skiing are just as wonderful—backpacks spring open, blossoming forth a heady cornucopia of grilled chicken sandwiches, thermoses of hot tea, and, of course, copious amounts of moonshine (high alcohol content means the swill won’t freeze). Sue recalled one infamous ski where an ambitious individual strapped a pony keg to his back and carried it halfway up the mountain to spark an impromptu ski party. “We have our weekly get-togethers, everyone brings something to the table to share,” Sue says. These sorts of rad adventures, where you’re free to let your tele-freak flag fly, are what we really live for.
Free the Heel, Free the Soul
So goes the classic telemark turn of phrase. I can hear the internal grumblings from the modern cadre of alpine touring skiers reading this: Fix the heel, fix the problem. Sure, a free heel might be interpreted as a problem if you’re skiing 45-degree couloirs at high speed with minimal turns. But “the problem” is in the eye of the ski holder. Who wants to be locked down when you can dance on your toes? If you’re trying to squeeze out the maximum number of turns in an open meadow here in Appalachia, a free heel will allow you to get that much closer to heaven. “There’s a floaty, springiness that you get in ungroomed snow, you feel like you’re waterskiing,” says Mike.
With a free heel, skiers are free to put their own stamp on the timeless turn, whether it’s keeping your knees tucked together like you’re holding an egg in between them or dropping one knee all the way down for an uber-aggressive stance. While a purist may judge your technique, there is no right or wrong. “With alpine, you have to do it by the book,” says Sue. “But in our tele scene, people are encouraged to develop their own personal style. Whether you’re good or bad, everyone develops a distinct way they hold their poles and move their body.”
With every joint in your body free to move and flow as desired, tele skiing is the ultimate form of snowy self-expression. “I love the body mechanics and the physics behind the sport, it feels like a dance,” says ski instructor Melanie Seiler Hames. “People display such unique styles; you can get to know people by their silhouette. There’s so much movement that is taking place from turn to turn that you get a different expression with each person.”
Melanie showed up in Canaan Valley at age 18 to become a ski instructor and instantly embraced—and was embraced by—the telemark scene. Now a level two Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) telemark instructor, she still returns every two to three years to take the PSIA telemark refresher clinic. “It’s so much more than a family reunion,” she says. “I get so passionate and excited because it was my coming-of-age place, and a lot of those original skiers are still there. It was always a peer group across all ages, that’s something I love about Canaan Valley.”
Melanie learned from and did the bulk of her backcountry skiing with Canaan local and legendary instructor Darell Hensley. He started skiing at age 26 as a means of backcountry travel to go ice climbing. He learned to telemark at Canaan Valley Ski Resort, and once he discovered the joy of the turn, he hung up the ice tools and never looked back. “I decided that lugging a lot of sharp, pointy, dangerous things around was not going to be my winter sport anymore,” Darell says. Telemark skiing opened up the backcountry for Darell, allowing him to go “anywhere that had a hill with snow.”
Darell is widely regarded as one of the best telemark instructors in West Virginia and says he’s likely taught thousands of lessons over his 13 years of full-time teaching. Over the years, Darell has successfully converted many an alpine skier to the dark side. “I think curiosity kills the cat, they have to cross over and check it out,” he says. “When there’s a little posse of tele skiers out there having too much fun, it’s clearly noticed.”
The Next Generation
Telemark is neither a zombie sport nor a relic of the past in West Virginia. The next generation of tele skiers is enthusiastically embracing the culture, ripping turns with effortless panache. Canaan Valley brothers Mason and Nate Powell are working hard to keep the tele dream alive. Mason, 15, and Nate, 12, have been skiing since they could walk. Their parents, Mike Powell and Sandy Frank, have been skiing and working in the valley for decades.
Mike and Sandy got the boys out on cross-country skis before progressing to downhill telemark setups. Mason taught himself to telemark by watching some of his local ski heroes like the Chase family and Sue. “It was trial and error, just watching all these great skiers because you have so many great influences here,” Mason says. “I would watch them make turns and then try them myself and do it over and over again.”
Once Mason had a grasp of the technique, he taught Nate, who says he barely remembers learning because he was so young. The boys remain close, skiing together every chance they get. I could see the similarity in their turns as I watched them rip down the steeps at Timberline Mountain, crisscrossing each other’s sinuous ski paths. “It’s rhythmic and you just feel it,” Mason says.
Wise beyond their years, the Powell brothers both see the importance of the communal aspect. “Canaan Valley is so special because it’s the culture,” Mason says. “There are all these people that still love it and are willing to teach you and who are super excited to ski with you. I feel like that little niche is something you can’t get it anywhere else; it’s amazing.”
A Life-Long Journey
I am still very much a telemark greenhorn. After snowboarding for over 20 years, I’ve found tele skiing to be the seemingly insurmountable challenge that I didn’t know I needed. I am by no means the best snowboarder around, but I’ve become skilled enough that I prefer a lot of snow or a steep slope to keep it interesting. Tele skiing, even at embarrassingly sluggish speeds, has made a groomed beginner trail exciting once again, making the mountain feel 10 times bigger and badder.
At first, the mechanics of the turn were incredibly challenging to even conceptualize, let alone execute. I’ve watched YouTube videos, read books, taken impromptu lessons on the trail, and I’ve still got a long way to go. But that’s the beauty of telemark skiing. It’s a lifetime pursuit, and you can always improve. As Mason says, “There’s always more to learn; you can never ski well in every condition. You’ve got to be able to ski ice, powder, bumps, and trees, each in different conditions.”
For Adam, skiing is more than just a journey, it’s a way of life. “Cross-country skiing has always been our family’s business, so it was our culture. It gave me an appreciation for the outdoors, for the mountains themselves,” he says. “I pretty much live for skiing. White Grass is why I’m still here, it’s such a unique little spot.”
At the end of the season, it doesn’t really matter how much I end up progressing. If you can measure a ski season in smiles, anyone who ventures into the wildlands on a pair of tele skis is coming out on top. The shared passion for being out on the snow, the inimitable camaraderie, the lifelong friendships; these are the immeasurable intangibles that really matter.
“Skiing just fills your soul. It’s really remarkable how important those friendships are many years later,” Melanie says. “Telemark skiing and the commonality of wanting to share it with others is what keeps us connected.”
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and can be found happily dropping knees—and face planting—all winter long in Canaan Valley.