(SKI Magazine) -- No longer hippies on sticks, telemarkers are some of the strongest skiers on the mountains these days. They wouldn't have it any other way.
That setup is da bomb!" a young snowboarder gushes as he points at my skis, a pair of fat Salomons dangling off the toes of my plastic telemark boots. "I've seen tons of you tele-dudes this season. It's totally rippin' that everybody's getting into a new sport!"
"New?" I respond incredulously as our chairlift speeds toward the top of Vail's Back Bowls.
"Yeah," he replies with utter naiveté. "When did they invent that? Like three years ago, right?"
"Uh, 1860, I think."
Pray for our youth, I think to myself as I ski off the lift. Yet as I speed toward the Genghis Khan Cornice, launching over it and snaking down through a fluffy 15-inch January dump, it occurs to me that my clueless chairmate might be onto something. After all, I never would have attempted such a move on the feeble tele gear I used when I first took up the sport in 1983. In fact, I had quit in disgust the following season after snapping three pairs of skinny Rossignol Descents. For all the sport's grace, the equipment was too fragile in the days of leather lace-ups, three-pin bindings and squirrely 2-inch-wide skis.
But then, about seven years ago, a few innovators embraced high-tech ski design. Gearheads like Paul Parker, one of modern telemarking's progenitors, had already wrapped plastic cuffs around the uppers of their leather boots for better control. Then, in the mid-Nineties, manufacturers designed high-performance plastic tele boots inspired by their alpine relatives, and cable bindings that wouldn't rip out, as did the old three-pins. Meanwhile, converted alpine skiers began attaching tele bindings to their alpine skis. Manufacturers caught on, adding telemark lines that adopted the radical sidecuts and fat profiles of the newest alpine shaped skis.
In a fit of "convergence" not unlike that now blurring the lines between computers, TVs and telephones, telemarking has undergone a metamorphosis. Adopting a "whatever-works" approach, today's tele skiers aren't just donning state-of-the-art equipment. They're trading alpaca flap hats for helmets and slipping in a few parallel turns when they feel so moved. "Everything's blending together," says Parker, whose book, Free Heel Skiing, includes examples of this melded New/Old-School approach. "It's not that purist sort of thing anymore. It's more in line with the whole freeriding movement, where you're skiing everywhere and you're not following a lot of strict rules about form or technique."
Some diehard telemarkers, in fact, howl that lines are too blurred between knee-benders and alpine skiers, that the sport has sold its soul, both in attitude and equipment. Yet for all the recent change (not withstanding protests from the purist fringe), telemarking has preserved its inimitable cool-an anti-establishment ethic that harkens back to the days when folks like Parker were protesting the Vietnam War. That may explain at least part of telemarking's appeal, especially among youth. "It's totally alternative," my snowboarder chairmate says. "It's like, you know, different."
Although a similar sense of "cool" helped turn snowboarding into the fastest growing winter sport, the growing buzz around tele-skiing isn't likely to ignite the same sea change. Despite technical improvements, telemarking still requires a level of fitness that's beyond most weekend warriors, let alone a generation of couch-potato teenagers. And although it's easier on the knees than alpine skiing, telemarking's steep learning curve requires a willingness to endure face-first embarrassments that most alpine skiers and snowboarders would rather not relive.
That said, telemarking is enjoying a growth spurt. The North American Telemark Organization (NATO) estimates there are about 550,000 telemark skiers (versus 7.4 million alpine skiers), with that number increasing 20 percent annually. Telemark boot and binding manufacturers estimate sales are growing about 15 percent annually, a rate any alpine gear manufacturer would envy. Moreover, much of the recent uptick in demand "is coming from 16- to 24-year-olds," says Craig Hatton, product manager at Black Diamond tele gear. "I don't know if they're giving up their snowboards, but they're at least adding to their gear."
Some are retiring their single planks completely. "Tele skiing is so much more dynamic, so much more fluid and challenging than snowboarding," says Bryant Compton, a five-year snowboarding veteran who recently ditched his board for tele skis.
While in the past most tele converts were nordic skiers looking for backcountry thrills, many of today's crossovers are switching from alpine skiing and boarding. "They're taking up telemarking like a tennis player might take up squash," says Dick Hall, NATO president. "It's by far the most demanding of the three disciplines, so it's a way to tweak their interest with a new challenge."
Both backcountry and resort telemark programs are brimming with newcomers. Last year's NATO Summit drew more than 1,000 tele skiers to Mad River Glen, Vt., with some alpine skiers being turned away in the parking lot. At Washington's American Alpine Institute, demand for tele lessons is growing 30 percent annually. Even ski schools are adding tele instructors. "We've had a big increase in private lessons," says Jean Naumann, who directs Vail's nordic program. "And we had about 100 women at our last tele clinic. I'd say more women are getting into telemarking than men."
Perhaps for a reason. "Guys on telemark skis are definitely more sexy than any other guys on the mountain," says Elizabeth Hutchins, a 22-year-old who teaches alpine and telemark skiing at Breckenridge, Colo. "They're more fit, and they're drawn to work harder-which isn't exactly a quality you see in many snowboarders."
It's not just their tele-genic physique. "It's their attitude on life," says Leslie Ross, founder of Backcountry Babes, an all-women's backcountry program. "A guy with a free heel tends to be more of a free thinker. And maybe more sensitive. 'Cause if you're on tele skis, everything's more sensitive."
The same holds true for female telemarkers. Down to earth (literally) and adventurous, they dance down the slopes with a grace rarely exhibited by their knuckle-dragging or clamped-down sisters. "They're the kind you can take dancing one night and snuggle up with in a ski hut the next," Compton says.
Of course, there are other reasons to free one's heels. Anyone in search of fresh tracks will aid their cause by donning tele gear. With resorts like Jackson Hole, Wyo., Alpine Meadows, Calif., and Vail opening up more backcountry terrain, tele skiers can take best advantage, shimmying past alpine skiers and snowboarders postholing their way toward the untracked.
And take a look what your local ski patrollers are wearing these days: "It's the perfect way to get around a mountain like Vail," says Gregg Gunn, one of five Vail patrollers who switched to teles this season. "I can maneuver an evac sled no problem. And if we need to do a real rescue, I'd much rather be on teles."
Oddly enough, telemarking promotes skiing with groups of mixed abilities. When I got back into the sport this winter, I was thrilled to find that slopes I might otherwise have fallen half-asleep on proffered a challenge. You can ski with friends who are intermediates without getting bored. And parents like Richter say it's the perfect way to hang with their kids: "I can ski slower and more passively, but I still feel challenged."
For single folks, skiing groomers on tele skis is about the best way to meet the opposite sex since the puppy dog. Little wonder guys like Parker have been doing it for years. "The only reason I telemark is to be a chick magnet," he laughs.