Free The Heel, Ski For Real!
Free-heel skiing is any form of skiing where the heel is not fixed down as it is in Alpine skiing (commonly known as downhill). Free-heel bindings only attach to the front of the boot but are strong enough to allow no lateral movement of the boot. The bindings and skis become heavier and the boots higher and stronger as you go from Nordic track skiing through Skating and Nordic Touring to Telemarking. Compare these categories with cycling – light racing bikes in velodromes (made for speed), road bikes (stronger but all purpose), mountain bikes (for steeper, rougher terrain).
Many shades of Free-Heel Skiing
Continuing development in technique and equipment means more specialization and much higher levels, particularly in Telemark skiing. Each specialty has its particular appeal, and as your foot and lower leg are not held in a totally rigid system, as in Alpine equipment, there is a wonderful, natural and unrestricted feel to all kinds of free-heel skiing, even in the 'heaviest' Telemark gear. This is due to the heel not being clamped down as well as the sole and ankle flex of free-heel footwear. Using Nordic equipment, there is the special enjoyment of traveling on very light gear.
Free-Heel Skiing can be classified into 6 different main categories:
- 1. Skishoeing
Short skis with skins are ancient, dating back 10 000 years. They represent skis as they were originally. Today they have been “invented” again to suit modern day winter adventurer. Sometimes called sliding snowshoes, they often have a permanent climbing skin glued under the ski, which is used to climb and also helps beginners to go down much slower. They are generally under 150cm and quite wide, usually mounted with universal, 3-pin or NNN-BC bindings.
Originally from ancient China, "Skishoes" are reinvented today for pure backcountry fun
2. Cross-Country Skiing
According to dictionaries, XC Skiing is "The sport of skiing across the countryside, often through woods and usually on relatively flat terrain, using narrow skis with boots that can be raised off the ski at the heel when striding." Generally, it involves using narrow skis without metal edges for use in either groomed tracks for classic XC or groomed lanes for skating. Light and low-top boots are used mostly with either NNN or SNS bindings.
Classic style groomed tracks for Cross-Country Skiing
3. Nordic Skiing
Nordic Skiing is the term used for Cross-Country skiing in the wilderness. Sometimes called BC-XC, for Backcountry Cross-Country, it does not involve the use of groomed tracks. The terrain is often more challenging, and Nordic skiers can travel long distances in the wild and even climb mountains. We can say it's mountaineering on XC skis. Skis are usually wider and the use of metal edges is very recommended. Boots are slightly higher and more suited to accommodate cold temperatures for long periods of time. NNN or SNS can be used, but 3-pin and NNN-BC bindings are more adapted for Nordic Skiing.
Off-Piste Nordic Skiing
4. XCD, Cross-Country Downhill
There is not a lot documented about Telemark before the sixties. But in the 70's, telemark became very popular here in North America. Sturdier leather boots allowed "Cross-Country" skiers to go downhill on alpine or XC skis using simple 3-pin XC bindings. Telemark, or back then nicknamed XCD, was the perfect solution for skiers looking for backcountry adventures or to show their wackiness at local downhill ski resorts. As telemark gear became more advanced and tele plastic boots became the norm in the mid 90's, skiing with pins and leathers became obsolete and totally out of fashion. But some people decided not to go the plastic way and kept XCD'ing with leather boots even though the world had moved on. Today, especially in Europe, there are still manufacturers of XCD leather boots and both Voile and Rottefella are still making simple 3-pin bindings. Since its debut in the winter of 1989-1990, NNN-BC has also been adopted by many for telemark skiing with leather boots. The XCD ski technique requires a perfect balance and stance, and control is achieved by pressuring the ball of foot properly on the ski.
Cross-Country Downhill: Using leather XC boots to ski downhill
5. Modern Telemark
This is the most common form of telemark. Plastic boots (low or high, light or heavy) and 75mm nordic norm cable bindings mounted on any kind of ski. Whether in the backcountry or on-piste, powder or groomers, modern telemark is the current technique you will learn from any certified telemark instructor today. Modern telemark gear is much more forgiving than XCD gear for beginners. But if you learn to be a good XCD skier first, you sure will become a very good modern telemark skier. With modern tele, control is achieved mostly by the stiffness of the plastic boots and soles, and with the activeness of the cable bindings. The skier can rely on the boot plastic structure, buckles and cuff to easily control the ski, something completely different from XCD.
Modern telemark skiing, plastic boots and cable bindings
6. NTN, The New Telemark Norm
NTN was first introduced by Rottefella in 2006. It's a new type of telemark binding that requires specific NTN boots. It's a more advanced kind of telemark equipment. The NTN gear offers improved lateral control and edging, making it the preferred option for telemark racers or people skiing mostly on hard snow. Several NTN variants are also very appreciated by modern backcountry skiers. Due to the very high stiffness of the boots bellows and the bindings, the technique here is more centered around "Driving the cuff" of the boot in order to unleash the full control power of the New Telemark Norm.
Modern Tele racers on NTN gear