Occasionally I've seen skiers free-heeling it down the slopes in telemark style but not understood why they do it. Is the main benefit for exercise, style, control or just to try something different?
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Telemark -- where the toe is attached, and the heel is free to rise up and down -- allow skiers to skin up back-country slopes with a more natural and efficient stride. However, AT (or randonee) rigs allow skiers that ability while doing alpine turns on the way down.
So, in this day and age, why do people still Telemark:
In short, yes to all points in your question. It is different, requires more control, has more room for style, and is a hell of workout. But beyond that, and beyond back-country access, it is pure, unadulterated, fun.
"Free your heels and your mind will follow."
The main (and classical) advantage of telemark skiing is not when you're going downhill, but when you want to travel on skis. Telemark skiing goes back to the days before chairlifts, when the ski was a flotation device used for ascending as well as descending. The free heel (and a set of skins or scales) allows the telemark skier to skin up a hill much like in randonee(AT)1, cross-country skiing, or even snow shoeing using a natural motion. Contrast your ability to walk in telemark skis with downhill(alpine) skis where your ankle and heel are fixed in position.
As for the fancy telemark turn (with the big kneel/dip at each turn), it's because the soft telemark boots without heel tension (think plain three-pin bindings with leather boots) couldn't efficiently transfer the force to the ski's edges so the dip helps transfer some of that energy. It also imparts greater stability during the turn. Essentially it was a way of finessing the ski through a turn vs the alpine approach of powering/driving through a turn. Modern telemark gear often uses rigid plastic boots along with bindings that provide some tension/resistance on the heel. These "improvements" transfer more energy to the edges and give greater stability. Which in turn results in less of a need to use a traditional telemark turn. They also diminish some of the benefits traditional telemark gear gave in terms of traveling on skis.
1: Telemark skiing is very similar to randonee except with randonee gear you can lock your heel back in place to go downhill. In this fashion randonee captures the strengths of both telemark's natural walking stride with the stability and power of alpine gear. This mash-up is reflected in the alternate moniker; Alpine Touring.
Telemark skiis are much more suitable for cross-country skiing than Alpine skis. Having the connection only at the front of the boot allows you to walk and cover long distances very efficiently across flat snow.
But even in cross country-skiing, you will sometimes need to ski downhill, so the style of skiing with one dropped knee on corners was developed to allow for controllable steering. You can't easily ski normal downhill style with a free-floating heel.
So people with Telemark skis will do this for practice, and for fun.
The benefit to telemark sking is being able to go anywhere you want easy and skiing down sick lines. You can tele turn or alpine turn on tele's. You can fly off back country cliffs then hike back up and do it again. Plus all the gear is lighter. Then after you ski, whether it's the back country or the ski area, you can go après ski in your boots then drive home in them. I put my boots on at home in the morning ski sick lines all day then drive home or go out without changing anything. Why would anyone want their heel tied down in the mountains? Especially when you can ski it all with a free heel. Bumps steeps powder groomers it's all easy on tele's. Free the heel free the mind!
The two main skiing traditions are nordic & alpine.
What we now term alpine skiing was refined in europe, even though there is concrete evidence that it may have originated in asia. Alpine skiing has gone through many changes in technique, but generally speaking: the boot is fixed to the ski at the heel and toe, and turns are performed with the legs parallel which is why they are called "parallel turns".
Telemark was originated much later in Norway, and is basically a turn that exists as an adjunct to the "classical", or "diagonal stride" cross country technique, also known as "kick and glide". ALL TELEMARK IS NORDIC- and the defining factor is that the heel is ALWAYS FREE.
Most people differentiate two types of nordic skiing: "cross country" and "telemark". Cross country is ideal for covering all grades of terrain in a straight line, and telemark is itself a turn used to gracefully arc down a mountain. And just as a light cross country set up with either wax or scales can get you UP a mountain, so can a modern telemark set up with either wax, skins, or scales.
Whether someone is a "cross country" or "telemark" skier is primarily based on the personal choices of what type of terrain a person wants to ski (mountains, rolling, or flat), and whether they want to focus on covering distance in a straight line or making turns. The new "adventure" or "backcountry" skier inhabits the demarcation zone between "classical nordic", and "telemark", and many spend as much time climbing up the mountain as they do shredding it on the way down.