Mike Lynch
Ron Konowitz demonstrates a telemark turn.
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The first run was awkward and clumsy as if I were riding over the snow-covered ground during an earthquake.

I made my way down the slow and easy Mixing Bowl trail at Whiteface Mountain — the “bunny hill” — on telemark skis for the first time ever, wobbling back and forth with the newfound freedom of my heels not being firmly attached to the bindings of my skis.

It was the 20th annual Telemark and Alpine Touring Demo Day held Sunday, Dec. 12 at Whiteface Mountain and hosted by High Peaks Cyclery — the perfect opportunity to test out some fancy new gear, most of which was outside of my price range and ability level, but free to try, at least for a few runs.

“All right, your training heels are gone,” said one ski rep, sizing up my skis before sending me on my way. “It’s time for the real deal.”

I wore a new pair of Black Diamond Kilowatt skis made with “Formula One technology with integrated 3D dampening” (whatever that means) and Scarpa T3 telemark boots that were surprisingly comfortable, flexible and (luckily) waterproof.

A mist of wind-swept rain — snow at the top — fell across Whiteface under a covering of low, dark clouds. Despite the weather, a cluster of skiers and riders gathered at the base of the gondola, the lifts carrying a steady bunch. Everyone seemed to be in a similar mind-set: If we ignore the cold and irksome rain, it can’t get in our way.

After a second run on my own, the outside of my jacket already soaked and dripping, I joined four other “newbies” for a telemark skiing lesson.

Our instructor wore the same pair of Black Diamond skis I did, except his were written on with a permanent marker. In big block letters each ski said: RON KON.

Ron Konowitz, a retired teacher from Keene Central School, works with ski company representatives during demonstration days, mostly, he said, because he likes to introduce people to the sport.

Standing at the top of the Bear lift, Konowitz went over the subtle movement of the “tele turn,” the shift in weight and the similarities to alpine skiing. He stood tall with puffs of long gray hair sticking out from his hood, wearing large mirrored goggles and a bright-colored backpack.

“The most important thing is to keep your shoulders facing down the mountain,” he said. “Everything else will follow.”

Before long, a train a wobbly telemark skiers chased Konowitz down the trail, trying to copy his every move.

After a few runs, the movement felt natural and I gave in to the tele form, pushing my trailing ski back, heel up, and focusing my weight on the downhill ski in a crouched position.

I’ve been watching telemark skiers with interest since I was a little kid bombing down the slopes of Gore Mountain in the early 1990s. My brother and I would sit on the chairlift spotting free-heel skiers who we called “snow ninjas” — clearly out of respect.

I’ve been on skis my whole life, but it’s taken way too long to try out the old and graceful form of telemark skiing.

A legendary teacher

By the end of the hour-long lesson, I was moving down the mountain at a normal speed; I owe the quick progression to a good, experienced teacher.

Konowitz has been attacking the Adirondack mountains on skis since the early 1970s. “Except we weren’t using this type of gear back then,” he said, sitting on the lift as sheets of rain continued to fall. “We were out there on skinny skis and leather boots.”

In his late-20s and 30s, Konowitz was part of a group that has become legendary for backcountry skiing in the Adirondack High Peaks. A club called “Ski to Die,” whose members blazed hundreds of trails and routes through the mountains surrounding Lake Placid and Keene Valley, skiing down slides, stream beds and anything they could find. And for years they did it on narrow, wooden, cross-country skis wearing only low-cut, leather boots, Konowitz said.

“It’s what we had, and it worked for us at the time,” he added. “Nowadays everything is established, the equipment has all changed. But back then we were some of the only people doing that type of skiing.”

Konowitz was the first person to ski all 46 Adirondack High Peaks, and as far as he knows, he’s still the only one.

It’s all skiing

After the lesson, I headed straight for the Cloudspin Gondola, and found myself at the top of Little Whiteface Mountain with my borrowed telemark skis and comfortable boots, ready to take on anything. (Well, at least an intermediate trail.)

The most important thing I came to realize as I made my way down the hill, was that whether it’s cross-country, alpine, backcountry or telemark — it’s all skiing.

“People often lose sight of that,” said local guide R.L. Stolz, of Keene Valley. “There are much more things in common than there are differences. It’s all about having the proper weight distribution, making good turns — the basics.”

Stolz, who owns and operates Alpine Adventures guide service, said one of the reasons he has a deep appreciation for tele skiing, is that it forces people to become better skiers.

“Alpine gear is easier to control, you’re always going to have more control,” he said. “Basically with telemark equipment, there are more moving parts. You have to think about fore and aft space so there’s a bigger chance of something going wrong.”

When choosing gear, Stolz said one of the most important things to consider is: “How far you’re going and how steep are the downhills.”

When in the backcountry he almost always uses a “free heel” ski, and when he’s at the resort, almost always alpine.

“I drink coffee in the morning and I drink wine at night,” he said. “It’s kind of like that. If I were to switch things around it would just be weird.”

For me, trying telemark skiing was about two things: One, it opens up the door to the backcountry, to the High Peaks and more rugged, less expensive terrain than an established ski area. My push-and-glide cross-country skis would probably be good enough for Ski or Diers, but they can only take me so far.

Secondly, it’s something different. I’ve tried snowboarding a few times, and, although I had a “gnarly” time, I found that my feet prefer to be independent from each other, and that, no matter what, I can turn quicker and move faster on skis.

“Nowadays, I think that a lot of people try (telemark skiing) just to experience a new way of moving across the snow, another way of feeling things happening underneath you,” Stolz said, adding that in some circles the style of skiing is of cult status and that many free-heelers are “absolute purists.”

“But I’m not a ‘telemarkervangelist’,” he said. “To me it’s just a different type of skiing. It comes down to which approach is going to feel the most comfortable, which makes the most sense. I’ve tried just about every type of ski there is, and the point is that they’re all fun.”

Whatever the case, I’m convinced it is a form of skiing worth checking out.