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Heroes of Telemark

Published: The Scotsman (TSMAG) 02 Apr 2005

The Braemar Telemark Festival

THE weather wasn’t kind to this year’s Braemar Telemark Festival. In fact, it was downright hostile. On Friday 11 March, as the welcome was taking place by Braemar Mountain Sports shop, gales whipped snow across the A93 to the south of the village with such ferocity that several people heading for the event had to be towed to safety by police.

So on Saturday morning the road to the Glenshee Ski Centre was closed at first light, and it wasn’t deemed safe to drive until 10:30am. Even then, 60mph winds threatened to scupper ski lifts. But thanks to the determination of the management at Glenshee, four were up and running by 11:30am and all telemark lessons went ahead, although the day’s races had to be postponed.

The elements conspired to disrupt the outdoor programme, but not even a full-blown tornado could have kept the 200 or so telemarkers assembled in Braemar away from that evening’s Waymark Grand Ceilidh at the spectacular Stag’s Ballroom at Mar Lodge (home to the skulls of approximately 2,500 deceased stags). “It was a bit windy this morning”, noted Dave Latham, MC and a festival organiser, announcing that cancelled races would be held the next day and hinting that conditions might be about to improve.

Braemar Telemark Festival has taken place since 1999, when it was started by a group of local enthusiasts. In its first year it drew around 200 people, and attendance peaked at 500 three years ago. Since then the Braemar Telemark Club – a voluntary body which administer the festival – has reduced the capacity of the event to around 200 again. Consequently, telemarkers must book well in advance if they want to get tickets. The event may be relatively small, but it is truly international – this year people travelled from as far afield as Switzerland, Denmark and Finland.

For years, telemark or “free-heel” skiing (in which only the toes of the boots are attached to the skis, via a flexible binding) was a minority sport. Norwegian Sondre Norheim used telemark skis to win Norway’s inaugural national skiing competition in Christiania (now Oslo) in 1868 but it was eclipsed by Alpine skiing for much of the 20th century. Then, in the 1970s, another Norwegian, Stein Eriksen, kickstarted a telemark renaissance in the USA which spread to the rest of the skiing world.

Not only does free-heel skiing let the skier move efficiently uphill as well as down, it makes it easier to manoeuvre in deep powder. As pistes get more crowded, the appeal of a skiing style giving easy access to empty backcountry slopes became increasingly obvious.

And any kind of ski can be fitted with a telemark binding. When I arrive, bleary-eyed and hungover, at Braemar Mountain Sports the morning after the Mar Lodge ceilidh, I am expecting to pick up a pair of huge, old-school planks. Instead, Guy Carey-Miller issues me with bright yellow Black Diamond Havocs – aggressive, state-of-the-art carving skis just 163cm long and almost as wide as my snowboard. “These are actually set up for a pretty aggressive skier,” says Guy, “maybe somebody who likes the funpark. I’ve got a much longer pair I could give you, but these will be more fun for downhill.”

When I get to Glenshee – still breezy but sun-kissed for most of the morning – I am in a group of five other first-timers under the tutelage of instructor Alan Gilchrist. “This is the bit where you get to smile at snowboarders,” Alan grins, as we stroll effortlessly along a flat patch of snow towards the first lift. In a three-hour lesson our group doesn’t get as far as attempting a full telemark turn – the pinnacle of our achievement is traversing in a telemark stance, with our downhill skis about a foot in front of our uphill skis, and with our uphill knees bent. But we all come down the mountain feeling much more comfortable about free-heel skiing than we were when we went up.

We take a break to watch the Exodus Mountain Race, a gruelling event consisting of a climb, a descent, a lap of Loch Vrotachan, another climb and another descent. Winner Ali Hubbard completes the course in less than 30 minutes. An alpine skier would probably have taken twice as long. A snowboarder would still be there now.

For more information about Braemar Telemark Festival, visit www.braemartelemarkfestival.com Glenshee Ski Centre: 013397 41320; Braemar Mountain Sports: 01339 741242

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