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Is telemark skiing dying?

Telemark skiing's regularly reported death knell began almost as soon as its revival began. But now, after more than three decades of free-heel fun, will the explosive growth of alpine touring finally cut off tele's main source of growth? SNEWS talks to insiders to get the real story.

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Is telemark skiing, two-planking’s sub-category of skill and style, already shrinking even further into its niche? After a short but spirited two- to three-decade resurgence of skiing’s original turn, anecdotal evidence would certainly say the answer is “yes.”

In just a two-hour span at the end of February, an e-mail from a friend who taught dozens of people in New Mexico how to telemark announced she was selling all of her free-heel gear in favor of AT equipment. And K2 Outdoors brand manager Graham Gephart, a longtime ski buddy who I have never seen on anything but free-heel, sent video of he and his wife happily skiing in Japan with all four heels locked.

Wondering if it was just mere coincidence, I counted through the photographs of the spring issue of Backcountry Magazine–telemark always being so closely associated with off-piste adventure–and found only two images where the skier was obviously free-heeling. One was on the subscription card, and the other was a retro photo from the late ski explorer, Ned Gillette.

A call to Kelly Davis, SIA director of research, revealed the worst: telemark ski sales have gone into a faceplant. After registering $1,596,791 in sales from August to January during the 2007/08 season, for the same period 2010/11, total telemark ski sales have hit just $160,583–a nearly $1.5 million drop! In that same time, AT skis have jumped from $1,463,789 in sales in 2007/08, to sales of $2,648,216 through January 2011.

“Yes,” Davis confirmed. “The data indicate that telemark sales are suffering while AT sales are through the roof.”

When I e-mailed longtime tele-vangelist Mike Hattrup, who at K2 Sports helped define free-heel attitude by giving skis names such as the Piste-Off and World Piste, and by producing the famous, “If it were easy it would be called snowboarding,” t-shirt, he sent me a “Bring out your dead” clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian with the title, “Not Dead yet.”

“Hatt” still telemarks on a regular basis, but as for any deep growth potential in the market, he remains circumspect. He thinks that telemark’s largest potential market, alpine skiers, were mainly attracted to telemark as a way of accessing the backcountry, and they don’t have to free-heel anymore due to the quality of new AT equipment.

“I don’t have any empirical data to back it up, but I do think tele’s shrinking,” Hatt said. “And I think it is because the AT stuff has gotten so good. Telemark used to be the mode for getting into the backcountry, especially for alpine skiers because AT gear used to be such a step down in terms of equipment. At least with telemark, how bad you sucked on it in-bounds was a fair estimation of how bad you were going to suck when you got to the trailhead.”

But Hattrup is quick to caution that skis should not be used as the main metric to measure the health of the telemark market. Particularly since the steep drop-off in telemark ski sales over the past three seasons coincides with the decision of category leaders such as K2 and Rossignol to discontinue their telemark-specific lines, focusing instead on skis for any kind of binding, and any kind of boot.

In terms of boot and binding sales, the telemark category is actually slightly up. Boot sales grew from $2,080,223 through January of last season to $2,010,086 through January of 2011. Bindings also grew in that same period, from $1,217,925 to $1,332,090 in total sales so far this season.

“I don’t think we are really losing telemark skiers so much as everyone is just adding to their quiver,” said Kim Miller, CEO of Scarpa North America. “Telemark is still half of our business, and it’s still a relevant part of our customer’s business. It also continues to branch out and innovate, which I see as a sign of a healthy market. For example, we reintroduced our T4, which is really in a rugged mountain touring category, and right now that is our third best booked boot.”

Miller said anyone skiing at Loveland, Steamboat Springs or Crested Butte these days, would see all the kids free-heeling and “think they were at a telemark farm.” He added that, “Telemark is still one of the most versatile systems out there. We recently got a request from the Marines for telemark boots because they say it’s the most efficient equipment if you can ski on it, and it’s a much more agile boot to have on their foot.”

But while telemark boots hold their own, the AT boot market is absolutely exploding right now. AT boot sales more than doubled in the past year, jumping from about $3.1 million in sales through January of 2009/10 to $8 million in sales so far this year. Rather than seeing that as any knock against tele, Garmont NA President Gordon Bailey said it signals a strengthening backcountry market that is continuing to define its reach.

“Skiing today is far more category-general than most people realize,” Bailey said. “People aren’t out there choosing one skiing style over another. They’re adding to their quiver and building on their capabilities. This is a time of expansion in the ski market, not closure, and to portray it as a black and white world of “AT vs. Tele” is (a) very old-fashioned notion.”

Like Miller, Bailey points to the growth of more touring specific boots such Garmont’s Master Lite as a sign that the backcountry market continues to thrive, while a new generation of in-bounds and sidecountry-minded skiers drive telemark toward a more in-bounds specific experience.

“The new telemark skier is young and athletic, often female, purchasing high performance product and skiing telemark in-bounds and side country more often than in the back country,” Bailey said. “Telemark interest is shifting quickly from a 75mm base to the more powerful NTN system because the NTN system greatly outperforms 75mm on the new generation of wider skis. As skis continue to get wider, the move to NTN will accelerate.”

As for that issue of Backcountry Magazine with hardly a telemarker in sight, Height of Land Publications also publishes Telemark Skier, which as editorial director Adam Howard told SNEWS, “was really where we focused on using the best telemark shots.”

Howard pointed to new developments such as the more powerful NTN binding, as well as rockered telemark–and even touring!–skis as signs that category continues to innovate. And to hear Josh Madsen, the magazine’s editor tell it, intertwining telemark so closely with the backcountry experience in the first place was the biggest mistake the sport could make.

“I think lumping telemark in with backcountry didn’t do enough to credit the experience of the turn, the culture, or especially the great history around it,” Madsen said. “I don’t think that telemark and alpine touring should have ever been put together in the same sentence.”

For Madsen, the future of the sport is moving beyond having telemark seen as synonymous with “the backcountry market,” and talking more about it as a separate, standalone sport. “If you’re just looking for an efficient way to hike in the backcountry, then you’re probably an AT skier,” he said. “But if you’re on telemark, it’s because you really love what that turn feels like.”

–Peter Kray

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