Photo Credit: Steven Nereo (http://www.stevennereo.com/)
It’s hard to not get defensive.
An internet search looking for information about “telemark skiing” is just as likely to direct you to the latest “telemark is dead” article as it is to the latest gear or nearest pro-tele group. But the best telemark gear ever made is being made right now. Bindings have never been better, more responsive, or more durable. We've come so far from the old leather boots and three pins. Hell, you can even step into your skis these days, and when you fall hard, they occasionally even release.
But what if they’re right?
Until last year, I skied on a pair of 2008 28.5 Black Diamond Customs. I loved those boots. I ride lower than everyone I know, with the exception of my father, and the Customs were the most responsive boot I had ever used. It was the first time I felt like I could accurately and predictably transfer the energy I was putting into my boots directly into my skis. They also had a primitive version of the BOA system currently seen all over snowboard boots, which at that time signified the progression of and desire for companies to pursue innovation in their telemark gear. Also, they just fit perfectly.
But after nearly a decade of abuse, my Customs died last year forcing me to open my eyes to what had happened to telemark boots over the past ten years. Scarpa was still the manufacturer of record, and Scott was now stewarding the original Garmont Voodoo design. Oh, and my beloved Black Diamonds? They were out of the game all together. To increase the difficulty of my search, trying to find a shop that sold all the various options or even any telemark gear at all wasn't trivial either. I'm making my new Scarpa's work, and they're undeniably a great, responsive, high-quality boot, but they'll never fit me quite right. The reality is, the last ten years have not been kind to telemark skiing, and I miss the Customs.
Maybe they are right.
So how does one reconcile the clash between perception, reality, and the passion? Telemark gear has never been better, more durable, and easier to use thanks to companies like 22Designs, Bishop Bindings, and Scarpa, but many major ski and boot brands have lost interest. I meet people every day on the slopes who love telemark skiing, will never stop, and will aggressively defend it, but it's become fashionable to take shots at telemark as passé and no longer viable. Once again, it's easy to get defensive, but I think the defensiveness is born from this kernel of truth. It's perhaps hyperbolic to say telemark is dead, but I'm not sure it's wrong to say it's dormant, or worse, maybe dying.
What I personally find most disheartening though, is that a lot of this is self-fulfilling. Every sport has a degree of “back-in-my-day-ism” that serves as the basis through which the sport's natural evolution is degraded, disregarded, and generally pushed back against. And it's clear that in the niche-est corner of an already niche sport, the problem is worse than in others. Take a quick search through comment threads posted on telemark-centric articles. You’ll find plenty of thoughtful comments defending the sport or praising the new gear, but you’ll also find far too many with an almost religious attachment to the “old leathers” and the like. How can the ski media not make fun of us? We should remember the history of telemark like alpine fondly remembers step-in boots, powder straps, and 210 Atomic Arcs. They are beautiful relics of the past, pieces of art that are brought out to occasionally celebrate our history… and occasionally for gaper day. But to use them every day is to remind yourself of just how bad it used to be. Far less often than in the telemark community, do we see an alpiner who pines for the simplicity of straight skis and the damp warmth of woolies. I've used the "old leathers", learned how to telemark on them even, and I feel completely confident in saying the following. They suck.
I'm in no way advocating we should forget our roots. Adoration for "the tribe" and for how beautifully tight knit our community can be should always be celebrated. But it's time to rebrand. It’s time to ditch the old and patronize the companies designing and manufacturing the new. It’s time to continue the progression of telemark skiing, and to evolve the culture away from “back-in-my-day-ism” and toward evangelizing the future of our sport, the future of our tribe. We need to convince people that we're not exclusively backcountry centric, that you can ride park, and that yes, it's hard, but it's incredibly rewarding, beautiful, and downright fun. We need to cultivate a new generation of telemark skiers, a generation that telemarks for the sake of the turns and not in spite of them.
While we fondly spit our telemark hallmarks such as “Free the Heel, Free the Mind”, let us sit back and consider what that truly means. Telemark has always been about pursuing something outside the norm, freeing our mind from the everyday constraints of the alpine binding for something more. It is time again to truly “Free Our Mind” and look toward the future. The future of the gear, the future of the turn, and the future of the terrain obtainable to the telemark skier. If not, we sit back and stoke the negativity, insinuating that telemark is, in fact, dead.
So, what if they're right? The reality is, it's up to us. And I refuse to die.