WINTER PARK, Colo. (AP) -- ''Free your heel, and let the telemark set you free,'' a telemark skier yelled from Mary Jane's Galloping Goose lift as a group of novice telemarkers inched down a green run.
But as this group struggled to learn telemark -- free-heel downhill skiing -- they most likely were not feeling the freedom that has turned many skiers to telemarking.
For Winter Park instructor Mike Leiser, telemark's appeal is that it's ''the best piece of equipment if you want to travel in the back country in the wintertime, compared to snowshoes, cross-country skis, snowboards or alpine skis.
''The other reason that I choose (telemark) is because it's a real elegant turn, and it's something anybody can do, but it takes a lot of discipline to do it efficiently,'' said Leiser, who has taught telemark skiing at the resort for four seasons.
Free-heel skiing, according to Allen O'Bannon, author of a telemark book, makes it easier to tour the backcountry or ski expert terrain at resorts by providing increased mobility. The free-heel binding allows a skier to take cross-country strides or walk through flat terrain with the skis attached.
''What's great about free-heel skis is that you ski a slope and ... if it has a long, flat bench, you can cruise down the flat bench and drop in the next slope,'' said O'Bannon, author of ''Allen and Mike's Really Cool Telemark Tips: 109 Amazing Tips to Improve Your Tele-Skiing.''
Telemark skiing isn't a revolutionary way to get down a snow-covered slope, nor is it an ancient precursor to modern skiing. But the sport has inspired those looking to recapture skiing's traditions.
''This is the root of skiing,'' Leiser said. ''The telemark turn is the first turn that anybody was ever to make with skis, and people were skiing for a long time before they learned how to turn skis.''
According to the U.S. Telemark Ski Association, telemark skiing was developed on the mountains around Telemark, Norway, in the 1860s.
Telemark's originator, Sondre Norheim, mixed cross-country style bindings with downhill skis to combine cross-country's accessibility with mountain skiing. Telemarking was ''just one way of (skiers) figuring out how to get down the hill on skis,'' O'Bannon said.
But as any scan of skiers at a resort can attest, alpine is the more popular way of getting down a slope. ''The (alpine) parallel is probably a more efficient technique, so that's why it gained more popularity than telemarking,'' O'Bannon said. Additionally, the creation of lift-assisted skiing popularized alpine skis and fixed-heel bindings.
Telemark's comeback started during the 1970s at Crested Butte, and its popularity has spread, O'Bannon said.
Equipment sales represent only 5 percent of the ski market, said John Schweizer of Garmont, a maker of telemark gear.
Despite its less broad appeal, telemark continues to be a popular discipline for adventure and backcountry skiers.
The real advantage, Schweizer said, is a skier can ski within a resort, and when snow is packed down, can ski into backcountry and powder.
''The best skiers in the deepest powder are telemarkers, because they can get to it,'' Schweizer said.
As telemark's popularity has grown, so have lessons and clinics. According to Leiser, Winter Park's telemark clinics have about 50 skiers, whereas five years ago, ''if we got six people there we would have been happy.''
The biggest challenge for novice telemark skiers, according to Leiser, is relying on an alpine skiing stance, which places a skier's weight forward and disrupts the balance on telemark skis.
The sport takes a lot of practice to develop the proper form and turning rhythm, but the learning curve from beginner to intermediate can take just a couple seasons, Leiser said.
''In telemarking, after the first two days, most people are telemarking 50 to 60 percent of the mountain,'' Leiser said. ''In snowboarding, the first few days are really (difficult) because you fall. In telemarking, other than the fact that the next day you might have trouble walking up and down steps, you don't go through,'' the wipeouts associated with learning to snowboard.
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Winter Park: http://www.skiwinterpark.com
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