How to ski? That timeless subject has inspired literature back more than a century. Free Heel Skiing, by Paul Parker, is a modern (3rd edition circa 2001) addition to the genre. As the title implies, the book focuses on the unearthing, in North America, of historic “nordic downhill” or “telemark” ski technique.
Past books on free-heel skiing have focused on survival turns, or assumed the reader had a background in alpine skiing. Parker goes farther. Via a brief study of ski history, he infers that the rift between Nordic and alpine ski technique is rapidly shrinking. No problem there; just watch most free-heel skiers, they frequently make as many parallel as telemark turns. He than goes on to relate a series of technique tips — with a marked focus on alpine technique. As a result, Free-Heel Skiing brings free-heel and latched-heel skiing into the same room, and the same bed.
But, anytime you narrow a “sportisophical” rift, you run the risk of losing identity. Indeed, it’s possible that part of telemark skiing’s popularity is that it sets you apart from the crowd. Ever cut a tele under a ski lift, just to wow the tourists? Parker teeters on the edge of that pit by touting the virtues of doing telemark turns, while at the same time emphasizing many ski techniques that work as well — or better — with a fixed heel. For me, his telemark arguments go too far. For example, he says the telemark is the best free-heel turn for deep powder — while many free heel skiers I know will beg to differ. He claims the turn has superior for and aft stability — if that is so, why do you see so many double hinged forward face plants? Finally, I severely disagree with his premise that the telemark is better with a loaded pack. I can’t tele with a heavy pack, but even when I’m fat and out-of-shape, I can smile my way through a chain of latched heel crud or powder turns.
So on to doing alpine turns with free heels, which is a big part of what this book is about. To begin, Paul takes you through a brief introduction to the wedge. It is the best introduction I have ever read — I recommend it to any novice. The on to your basic telemark intro and a a basic learning sequence that is well known to any classically taught parallel skier, and works fine for free heelers as well.
After a brief digression into ski tuning (nothing new here), Parker digs into the P-tex with “Advanced Free Heel Techniques.” Here, you can tell by the superb tips just how hard he has labored to put into words what makes a good skier function. One example is his hints about poling, with an emphasis on hand movements that is especially adroit.
In another section Parker covers powder, crud, and moguls. The powder overview is useful. But here, things get confused by trying to cover telemark and parallel turns in the same paragraphs. He then moves on to crud snow; bane of many a backcountry skier. I assumed Parker would cover this in depth. Sadly, Parker glosses over the jump turn for handling crud, and he ignores less strenuous and more graceful techniques like the rebound turn — or the holy grail of setting a graceful carve through the most difficult snow. But a gold star to Parker for one comment on crud skiing, “make one turn, regain your composure in a traverse, than make another”. In other words, no need for linked falls.
After several reads, my gut feeling about Free-Heel Skiing was that I wanted more: more detail, more varied techniques, more on equipment. But even with those shortcomings one thing about this book works for me; the sharing. Parker uses small doses of first person prose to link his didactic segments. His tales of skiing hither and yon made me drip with ski fever sweat. You read this stuff, and all criticism aside, you know the author loves to ski. You make some of that passion your own, and before you know it, you get bits and pieces of wisdom as well. Those bits and pieces add up no matter what gear you choose. Thank you Paul.
Editor’s note: In 2014 author Paul Parker wrote us this commentary (condensed from email):
The 3rd edition was 2001. 1st was 1988, 2nd 1995. Italian version (Non Solo Telemark) was 1997.
My first edition was published 26 years ago, with the writing and photos compiled over a period dating back more than 30 years. Subsequent editions, by definition, were about 30% revised, but still relied on the general theme and key techniques of that first edition. Back in the 80s the tele turn had its place as an effective technique because the AT gear was just as bad as the tele gear. Many tele skiers argued that AT gear was worse. While tele boots were leather, and soft, and even the widest skis were very narrow by modern standards, everything was light and comfortable and easy to tour in. AT was different but equally primitive: very heavy, perceived as uncomfortable. One could have argued back then that if you could telemark —- if you could telemark — tele gear was actually better for most touring.
When I wrote the first edition I knew that much was to be learned from the AT and alpine side. I used AT (or alpine) gear when it seemed the better tool for the job. I thought that many skiers stuck to telemark simply because that was all that they could do, and I wanted to expose them to more. There was always this discussion among telemark skiers about alpine being cheating, blah blah. In most cases those arguments were posed by those who couldn’t alpine ski very well. No such thing as cheating — it’s about doing more and having more fun. So the book was part ski primer and part skier philosophy to expose tele skiers to alpine techniques and their efficacy.