Tele and Backcountry Ski Wrap -- SIA 04

Glenn Plake summed it up best. Following the widely hyped, immensely dull "Great Debate" and holding in hand a modern telemark binding and boot, the notorious fin-haired gonzo alpine skier commented, "You guys got a lot of problems."
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Glenn Plake summed it up best. Following the widely hyped, immensely dull "Great Debate" and holding in hand a modern telemark binding and boot, the notorious fin-haired gonzo alpine skier commented, "You guys got a lot of problems."

What promised to be an interesting sideshow to SIA -- Craig Dostie, publisher of Couloir magazine, and Mike Hattrup, the force behind K2 Telemark, debating whether bindings or boots hinder telemark skiing more -- drew a large crowd that soon drifted away. The poor venue and weak beer didn't help, but the pointlessness of the argument (between two guys who build neither) caused interest to fade.

Dostie's contention is accurate that bindings which provide adequate control interfere with touring capability. While Hattrup's demonstration (using four bathroom scales and a skier) that modern plastic boots over-pressure the tip of the rear ski during the turn also rang true. Those in the audience who actually hung around until the end (primarily waiting for the salmon and aquavit at the Norwegian party) generally agreed that it isn't an either/or answer -- it's both and we need a better boot/binding interface.

The real outcome of the debate was to demonstrate to the alpine world once again that telemark skiing isn't quite ready for primetime. In fact, at every single booth at SIA (Atomic, Fischer, K2, Rossignol and Volkl), the telemark skis were tucked away in an obscure corner…almost as if they were an embarrassment. While telemark and alpine touring are getting a lot of buzz about growth, and passion, these categories remain the underdogs as far as the alpine companies are concerned.

Identity crisis
A much more entertaining discussion on the future of telemark took place the evening before upstairs at Mandalay Bay. Perhaps it was a Freudian slip from SIA that the sign on the door read "Free Heal Forum" (sic).

The evening was launched with a PowerPoint presentation by Josh "Bones" Murphy, a film maker focused on tele turners, who argued that the word "telemark" has too many negative connotations for newcomers and should be changed to "freeheel skiing." With a room full of manufacturers, media and rising athletes, this sparked a lively debate that eventually devolved into a shouting match between the most self-important attendees.

Before things deteriorated, however, a consensus was reached that the tele world could do a better job of presenting itself to the public in general and to youth in particular. A quick look at Backcountry, Couloir/Telemark Skier and various regional magazines reveals remarkably boring advertising. Very few companies are selling the passion and excitement of telemark choosing instead to chest-thump over widgets and gewgaws.

It was evident from the shouting that some NIMBYs would prefer to maintain the status quo or even see backcountry skiing and snowboarding decline in popularity. But growth, whether from ex-alpiners or new blood, means better products and more diversity, not to mention a healthier outdoor and, yes, ski industry.

The women's market segment is finally being courted properly with a fresh crop of telemark skis, boots and even bindings with appealing colors and graphics. With K2 offering three female-specific skis, and Atomic, Black Diamond and Karhu each offering one, it's likely more tasteful and inspirational advertising aimed at the Tele Betties will appear next season.

Even our corner of the industry is starting to realize that a stable supply of telemark skiers in the next decade or two depends on bringing in the next generation. Garmont has offered a kids' telemark boot for several seasons, but few shops had any decent skis. Now, both K2 and Karhu are introducing kids' tele skis suited to snow parks and freeskiing. The K2 Small World ($219) gives World Piste performance in a reduced size (139 cm and 149 cm) and with a raised tail for the half pipe. Meanwhile, the Karhu Special Agent ($249) is a full-blown twin tip for grommets (123 cm, 133 cm, 143 cm).

This enthusiasm for bringing kids into snow sports has caught on in recent years and is gaining momentum (www.growthesport.com). The Snow Monsters trend will culminate April 3-4 at Keystone with the first national all-mountain, all-terrain freestyle championship for ages 9 to 13. The "Sports Illustrated for Kids nextXsnow Search" is open to snowboarders, alpine and telemark skiers who rip it up. There are no divisions based on age, sex, equipment or handicap; everyone competes together and best combinations of performance and attitude win spots on the nextXsnow Team. The finals will be broadcast April 11 on NBC and may pump up kids across the nation.

Sidelines
Behind the scene talks at SIA may lead to great things to come. Representatives from the major ski and binding manufacturers met with K2 to discuss ski inserts for mounting bindings. One possible outcome is an AT-telemark hole pattern standard that is based on the existing K2 tele pattern but would have slightly wider holes in the rear to accommodate AT bindings and additional ski inserts to allow fine-tuning position.

Such a universal mounting system would allow consumers to easily swap different telemark and AT bindings between skis. It's easy to imagine that avid skiers would own three or four pairs of skis, two or three different bindings, and one or two pair of boots that they would combine differently depending on the trip and the mood. This freeheel insert system would also encourage upgrading equipment since it's easier to afford one component at a time than a whole package. Skiers will also be more likely to experiment with different bindings and skis if remounting isn't a hassle (at best).

Modifying future AT and telemark bindings to an industry standard will take time. In the interim, it's possible to make adaptor plates for the four current AT bindings to the K2 tele hole pattern; nearly all tele bindings are now compatible.

Already for next season, we have the first boot that truly bridges the alpine and AT worlds. The Garmont Adrenalin is a high-performance freeride boot that converts to alpine touring by swapping the rubber sole (22 screws in all). It's likely this trend for increased performance and versatility will continue.

It also appears that NTN, the much-fabled new telemark norm boot/binding system, is catching a fresh breeze. Although the program has been held back yet another season, until a limited release for 2005/06 at the earliest, more input and testing will ensure better products for everyone. Kudos to both Rottefella and G3 for delaying the release of bindings they didn't believe would be ready in time.

Musical shows
Many of the traditional outdoor companies increasingly see dollar signs in the alpine skiing world. Brands such as Marmot, The North Face and Patagonia have long made the high-end downhill clothing market a significant part of their business. But only Marmot has been an SIA regular in recent years -- though with one caveat. Marmot this year and last, packed up its booth at the end of Day 3 at SIA in order to make Outdoor Retailer by the show opening.

Following two years of participation on a smaller scale, Arc'Teryx took advantage of the trade show overlap to expand its presence in Vegas last year. Despite the hassle and cost, SIA was deemed a success and the brand returned in full force. Both Cloudveil and Mountain Hardwear enjoyed lots of traffic at their new SIA booths this year -- each launched significant lines of alpine clothing at the show.

Given Patagonia's major focus on the new Edge line of skiwear, and the large number of staffers seen wandering the aisles at SIA, it would be no surprise if the Californians returned to the show next season. Even The North Face has brought back its line of Zipper-Wear-Without-Compromise (aka Steep Tech alpine clothing) for next season and has hinted about a return to SIA.

The rollout of Gore-Tex Softshell is yet another reason that outdoor companies are plunging back into the SIA pool. While this clothing category still baffles many downhill and snowboarding companies, its roots in climbing and backcountry skiing give performance and authenticity. As opposed to most of the alpine brands, clothing from the outdoor world shows a mountaineering heritage. This gear often works well in the backcountry yet is fashionable enough for the resorts.

The tacit disapproval of alpine parent brands, and relatively few outdoor specialty retailers attending SIA, led several Nordic divisions to return to Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. Despite the demise of the two-day on-snow demo and the uncertainty of the new one-day Backcountry Base Camp, Alpina, Atomic, K2 and Karhu showed up in Salt Lake.

Falling into place
It appears the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together for the telemark world. More companies are talking to each other about ski inserts and the NTN boot/binding system; meaning well-tested, highly compatible designs should ultimately emerge. Women will have their choice of six telemark skis, doubling the current offering. Kids will finally be able to get an early start with performance equipment. And a lot of alpine skiers and snowboarders are interested in crossing over to the freeheel side.

It's clear that AT is growing because of superior bindings (release and heel lockdown functions with touring capability) and a rise in the freeride tide in the alpine world. The new generation is looking for more excitement and is taking tricks from the terrain parks onto the mountain. And it's likely that AT will be a steppingstone to heavy-duty telemark for many as the technology catches up.

Ironically, this also bodes well for light backcountry equipment, which also has matured greatly in recent years. Dissatisfied with the weight and clunkiness of big boots and skis, though great for learning to telemark, more skiers are attracted to the freedom of fast and light offered by bindings like the new NNN-BC Magnum and Rossignol backcountry skis. These aren't your grandparents' cross-country skis!

With all these forces at play, and a snow year in most parts of the country, outdoor specialty shops are in an excellent position. The alpine shops and big-box stores don't know how to sell these products and consumers are willing to seek out expertise.

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