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January 21, 2010

Joonas Karhumaa – The Best Telemarker in The World?


Joonas Karhumaa is probably the best telemarker in the world. Here it is, I said it.

Joonas is not a stick chaser nor a pure jibber, so there might be a few guys that are a bit faster or spin and land even crazier, more technical tricks. But for an all-around skier Joonas doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of among the elite skiers in the world. He skis fast and fluid in all conditions, competes in big-mountain events, lands huge fakie fives and zero spins in jib comps and nails urban rails like the best of ‘em. And all that in true nordic style, skiing with the free heels.

I first met Joonas many years ago at a local freestyle club’s trampoline training. I was already an “old fart” and just goofed around with couple of friends, trying to land/learn something that would even remotely help my clumsy freestyle efforts. Joonas was there with some friends and started to chat with us in very polite and mature way. We started to talk about tricks and skiing in a way you would talk to a 14-year old jibber. But we eventually ended up discussing telemark turns, powder, mountains and skiing in general. Friend of mine said to me afterwards that he had a feeling we are going to hear from this kid sooner or later. Already back then Joonas wasn’t your typical teenage park rat.

Since then I have met him here and there occasionally and even skied with him a few times here in Finland. Joonas always goes big on skis and really amazes people on what can be done on a pair of telemark skis. Off the snow he has the ability to surprise too…read more and find out how. (all photos in this interview by Tero Repo).

Joonas Karhumaa going big in Les Marecottes, Switzerland

Joonas Karhumaa competes against alpine freeskiers

Hello Andermatt? How is life? I heard you had some nice early season conditions there?

Actually I am home in Sweden again. I am going to take part in a jump contest in Helsinki next week and then head back to Andermatt for the rest of the winter. In Andermatt ski resort every early winter for like five or six years has been pretty good. All the lines have been skiable from early on etc. Everything works fine there. Of course the last season (08/09) was incredible in Andermatt as anywhere in the Alps but anyway I have no complaints about this early season.

What is your plan for the winter? Or do you have any? Are you going to focus more on the big mountain side of the sport now that you pretty much live there in the Alps for the whole winter? Your (opening) part in Virne Ski Movie was pretty straightforward good old big mountain ripping…

Well, last winter was a bit different for me. For three earlier seasons it was all about six to seven photo shooting trips per winter, and all hard work, not much time to just ski and have fun. In the summer 2008 our second son was born and I decided to take it quite easy. We had a nice climbing trip to Thailand and then I skied as much as I could in Andermatt but didn’t take any stress about results or photos. I skied more and had more fun. The result was also some good progression. It is good to ski just by your own at times, without any pressure. The (big mountain competition) results also proved that I can ski, and encouraged by that fact I actually got really enthusiastic about training real well this fall. I have a real coach now and a well planned training program.

The goal is to go compete with the alpine guys and see how far I can go in that field. I am going to do some Freeride World Tour qualifiers, Engadin Snow, Flain, Monte Rosa…We’ll see.

Joonas Karhumaa, road gap, Bruson, Switzerland

Life as a professional telemark skier

Do you have any plans for the USA? I would think the whole “tele-market” and audience is there these days (maybe beside Norway I guess)?

For me it has been a bit complicated. I wasn’t actually that interested about the States at all when I was younger. Then I went there to do some shooting with Lipstick Films and I was surprised: people were super friendly, skiing was great and overall the experience was very, very positive. I’ve heard that the telemark market bigger in the States. However, it seems like the mainstream ski media is a bit more reserved towards telemarking, the disciplines seem to be more separated. For example, the instant feedback from the general audience or media has been better in Europe. In the USA some people might be a bit too worried about the “hippie” and “underground” feel of the telemarking scene.

In general how hard is it to “break through” as a tele skier? I mean for general public snowboarding still seems to be the hottest new snow sport around and even alpine jibbing/freeskiing often is left from the lime light – what do you think? Or does it even matter to you?

I’ve been asked that so many times! In a way it is good to speculate what I would have become had I put all the effort to snowboarding. On the other hand, it is pretty useless. Telemarking is what has been the key to my success. In the end there is so little competition, which can be a bad thing too. I don’t see telemarking growing as big as snowboarding or new school skiing, I guess it is going to remain somehow underground in the future too. Telemarking is pretty damn hard too. There are days when I think that is there no reason to ski free heeled after all. Then, a few good turns make me change my mind again (laughing). Every winter you still realize that in the end telemarking is a very difficult and hard sport.

I see myself more as a freeride skier anyway. Telemarking is just a little addition, “spice” to that, it doesn’t have to be raised too much into the limelight. In soccer there are some guys that shoot right footed, some left footed and some are good on both legs…well, a clumsy comparison but you get the point. Freeride as a bigger concept offers also better opportunities for an athelete, and also money, I have no shame to admit that.

Joonas Karhumaa on his way to Trondheim, Norway

Is the tele gaining some more “mainstream” popularity again? I have a feeling it slowly is…

Maybe I should call my sponsors and ask? On the slopes, yes, you see quite a lot of freeheelers. Especially in Scandinavia sometimes you feel 50% of the tourists ski telemark. But you don’t see as much of a movement towards a more “professional” direction and progress as you would see in the freeride and new school skiing. The amount of people skiing telemark is maybe growing just a tad but that doesn’t seem to mirror in the progress of the sport. But I can also see why a lot of people try tele and quit after a while, frustrated.

We pretty much think you are the best! Probably not knowing that much about current top tele freeriders…so, give us some names that are really coming up in the tele-scene? Or do you follow your free-heeled “competitors” at all?

When I was in the States I saw some pretty good rail action. Per Jonsson (Sweden) is one solid freeride guy. Most of the time, I don’t ski or hang with other telemarkers, so I also don’t see a lot of good telemarkers around often. I know there are some though. In the videos I’ve seen some double back flips and some big airs but nothing as impressive as you see in (alpine) new school or snowboard flicks. I don’t remember any names at the moment, gotta admit that.

Also, there are a lot of really good more “extreme”/mountaineering skiers in the mountains anywhere who couldn’t care less about sponsors or films or any publicity. And this holds for any discipline (alpine, snowboard, telemark). In general in telemarking it is hard to get noticed, you have to be the right guy, in the right place at the just right time. You can say I have had some luck too!

How about telemark girls?

There sure are some. Skiing in general is maybe a bit male-dominated but the telemarking seems to attract ladies as well which is nice

Joonas getting deep in Moiwa, Japan

Joonas Karhumaa recommends old school gear for telemark first timers

Any advice on tele-novice…I mean at first the whole damn free heel thing feels very hard, especially on the varying, natural snow. How to get more aggressive, to really control those floppy things? (Or do I think too much based on the alpine technique…when I feel I lack the power and control?)

I guess you are right. It is not that easy. There are a lot of factors that you should be taken care of in every turn and every conditions and different terrain require some more knowledge and feel. It is not easy in a way that you just go ahead and turn right, turn left, turn right, turn left…

By the way, tell us about your own way – how did you learn your first tele turns?

I got the classic straight, narrow and long skis and leather boots set-up. I’d say that is still the key. I hope the ski instructors won’t kill me for saying that, heh. But seriously, just for starters take the old school gear for a few days. You can ditch them pretty soon but you won’t learn the basics as well with modern gear. Cross country gear works fine too. With that kind of equipment the turn doesn’t get easier if you parallel. And the feeling is really different from alpine skiing and fun in its own way.

And hey, before I even got started, I trained at home with wool socks on and did “tele-turns” on the living room floor. The burn to learn was that high! After that, the first season, I skied in Ylläs (Lappland, Finland) with those old school sticks and leather boots. I hiked up and skied down and broke some skis. Today, I don’t mind a parallel turn here and there. When skiing telemark it is not good to get stuck to a mentality of only making “perfect” tele-turns everywhere. When I see some line, I don’t think of how I ski it with text book turns, I just go on and ski, and do parallel turns when or if needed. Parallel turn as a back-up makes your playground much broader. Two straight legs have more power than one bent one, right?

Ziggy Stardust, lurex and glitter…

Skiing is skiing but there is still something to be said about the freedom feeling in tele etc. But I won’t go into that because maybe your off-the-snow antics tell even more about what I mean…tell us a little bit about your studies for example?

Before my older son, Benjamin, was born I started in a clothes design school. During that year I had some pretty big things going on: moving to Stockholm, starting the school, my girlfriend was pregnant, a lot of huge changes at the same time. And at about the same time I also first realized that I was going to make living from skiing.

Yes, but the school. It was a “classic” clothes design school. A super intensive course of one year, which I had to break to shorter periods because of the ski season. We learned everything from history of clothes design to material science, and the main focus was on sewing and pattern design. That was really interesting and good time. During the second fall I got less time to study but I still finished the school. After that I haven’t had too much time to concentrate on the design stuff but I still got a passion for that. Skiing, renovating our house and being a father have just taken all of my time. Last summer we moved to new, bigger house in Piteå (North of Sweden) and finally I have had some more room and time to design and draw. I hope I can make something out of clothes design later in my life. For now, skiing is and has been my profession for some three or four years. But of course, now already I’m designing a bit for my new clothing sponsor, FourElements, and it’s just great fun and good experience.

Your typical day?

For example, in the fall I did two to three hours of design work every morning. Then some training: running, gym, biking, jumps, sprints etc. for maybe three hours. Then maybe some more creative work in the afternoon and the evening spent with my family. In winter it is more irregular because if the all ski trips, shoot and competitions etc.

By the way, I played soccer quite serioysky until I was nineteen or so. Then there was five years that I didn’t train at all, just skied, skateboarded, and climbed some etc. by the feel. Only this fall I really got into the training again, mainly because if the good results in the 2008/2009 season. I want to give everything to skiing at the moment. I thought that if I did so well without any formal training, I want to see where I can go after giving it my 100%!

How about music. lifestyle…David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, all that androgynous stuff etc?

Dawid Bowie / Ziggy Stardust is still my thing for sure. Later I have dug Madonna quite a lot too, and some Frank Sinatra among others.

I was about to say that for me it seems that Freeriding scene (especially big mountain side) is almost exaggerated masculine, often in a very stereotypical way. I mean, for example in skateboarding there are currently a huge variety of styles and personalities around and it seems to me that the scene is a bit more open to all kind of variety/minorities too…what do you think? Is this something that matters to you at all?

I just like to dress up, maybe put on some make-up too…you know for parties and so. At the moment I rarely go to parties though because of the two little kids. But no, that kind of stuff is not a statement. Maybe that was a bit when I was younger, I wanted to provoke and irritate people sometimes. But for all my life I have just loved all things visual and aesthetic. You know, for example, as kids when we used to build ski jumps with my friends in our neighborhoods, I was really careful how all the edges had to be straight and all things shaped very well, just for the right look. I think that dressing up and make-up etc. just looks good. I think I think more aesthetically than people in general, maybe? In my opinion it is very important to do what you personally feel good and also not to be afraid to do it. For example Bowie just makes very great music and lives his passion.

The so called ski scene is very hetero nominated though; you are right for sure, if you compare to e.g. fashion world or people in the big cities in general (Stockholm as an example). For me this is  quite suprising because on the other hand skiers as people are usually very liberal and tolerant in many other ways, skiing kind of unites people from many different social backgrounds etc. I haven’t seen anything like that elsewhere, the Army excluded maybe (– but I didn’t like that otherwise at all). Hard to say why it is like you mentioned, maybe only the straight people like skiing? (laughing). Or maybe we just lack idols who are different from the standard and who open the way for more people..?

Joonas Karhumaa, keeping it real to the nordic heritage, Ruka, Finland

Joonas Karhumaa on family and risk taking

The family – for a relatively young guy you have a family with two kids. Many readers probably wonder how to combine a freeskier’s job and a family. Can you tell us how the family has affected for example your ability/will to take risks? (For us it surely has!)

I am aware of the risks. Freeriding is nice in that sense though that experience helps you to evaluate risks and conditions in the mountains. And every year I feel I know a little bit more about the mountains, snow conditions and skiing. That said; somewhere in the background I always feel that there are two small boys waiting for me at home. But that feel doesn’t have to be negative sake. I have also been a father for my entire professional freeride career – that is my everyday life after all.

I was in Chamonix with Andreas Fransson some days ago (note: Andreas Fransson is one of Joonas’ best ski partner and friends. He taught Joonas how to ski telemark some ten years ago. Andreas is a soul skier and we have an article of him coming soon!). Andreas skied a steep and tight couloir skier’s left of E.N.S.A (Famous couloir in Chamonix, France). It looked good and frightening at the same time. And I decided to ski the E.N.S.A first, did it four times actually. I can always ski the steep stuff later when it feels right, but this time I felt like not going for it. I’ve always been skiing pretty much from my instincts and it never has been a problem for me to say no for a run that I don’t have good vibes of, even though I’d hike for it ten hours… I know I have so many days under my belt that if I make the decision to ski something it doesn’t depend on the turns.

But you can say that I am a freeride man. The real extreme stuff is not for me. The places where it is not allowed to fall are not for me. I can understand someone enjoying that situation and I know that you can get so much from just being in that spot and that those moments give quite intensive experiences.

You have shot alot of pictures with Tero Repo – you guys have a nice “team”, or…?

We met at the office, Tero was taking pictures and I was flying from the kickers – business as usual. The team thing just formed because of the mutual professional attitude towards skiing and shooting. Immediately we worked together in a way that we just don’t shoot pictures, we shoot some GREAT pictures. We got along very well from the start that way. Last winter we didn’t shoot at all together, and some sponsorship issues were one reason for that. Now I am stoked to work with him again. It is just hard to find enough time, as a family men, you know. We shot one day in Chamonix already and I guess we get to do some more days this winter.

Finally, give us three reasons why tele is better than alpine? Or is it?

(laughing) I could give you ten reasons why alpine is better…

Joonas thanks his sponsors: FourElements, Battery Energy-Drink, Bollé, Elan, Samsung, Scarpa, Rottefella, Kask, DaKine, Alpingaraget, Andermatt

Spinning corced, Joonas Karhumaa, Laax, Switzerland

Joonas Karhumaa bio

  • Age 26
  • Lives in Sweden
  • Born in LA/Finland, january 1984
  • Family: girlfriend and our two sons
  • Favourite ski resort: Andermatt
  • Interests: clothes designing, skateboarding, climbing
  • Favourite music: Bowie and everything from Faithless to Frank Sinatra
  • Favourite movie: The Million Dollar Hotel (at the moment, but I got millions of them)

Competition results

  • 2009 1st telemark (6th in alpine category), Scandinavian Bigmountain Championships, Riksgränsen/ Sweden
  • 2009 1st telemark (7th in alpine category), Engadin Snow, Corvach/ St Moritz
  • 2009 1st Swiss Championships Telemark Cross, Andermatt/ Switzerland
  • 2008 2nd Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships, Riksgränsen
  • 2008 special telemark-award Engadin Snow, Corvach/ St Moritz
  • 2007 1st Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships, Riksgränsen
  • 2007 only telemarker in BigMountainPro -tour
  • 2007 XtremeVerbier telemark-demo
  • 2006 1st Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships, Riksgränsen
  • 2006 Rookie Quest, Andermatt & Champery
  • 2006 special telemark-award Engadin Snow, Corvach/ St Moritz
  • 2005 1st Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships, Riksgränsen
  • 2005 1st Finnish Freeride Championships, Kilpisjärvi/ Finland
  • 2004 1st Finnish Freeride Championships, Kilpisjärvi/ Finland
  • 2003 1st Finnish Freeride Championships, Kilpisjärvi/ Finland

Also check out the renewed JoonasKarhumaa.Com

Huge thanks again to photographer Tero Repo. More Tero’s pics can be found in his site TeroRepo.Com. Tero has been shooting a lot with some of the greatest riders and skiers in the world lately, and for example did a trip to Antarctica last spring, shooting guys like Jeremy Jones and Xavier DeLarue.

Have your say

I said that Joonas Karhumaa is the best telemarker in the world. Do you agree/disagree? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.



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About the Author

Janne Niini
I am a former (not-so-competitive) mogul-skier who nowadays enjoy many aspects of snow-gliding: alpine, telemarking and occasional snowboarding too. I have two small daughters and try to ski with them as often as possible.


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  1. Who cares? Telemarking has been cancelled. It was cool through the 90’s and 2000’s. It is now finished. Who cares who is the “best telemarker”, that’s like the best windsurfer. Totally pointless.

  2. Nick, I disagree. Telemarking is not finished, not at all. Did you read the article? Check what Joonas says right after fourth picture. I don’t know about North America, but here in northern Europe telemarking is pretty popular.

  3. Yo Nick, how’s life in Negativeland? Best in the world or not, Joonas charges. Anybody who can’t respect a telemarker who rips harder than most alpine skiers has clearly got cool guy issues.

    “Free the heel and your mind will follow.”

    Great report, Homeboy. Keep ‘em coming.

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