Free Your Heel (And the Rest Will Follow)11/24/2020 01:17PM ● By Bethany Blitz
Sal Malone, 14, makes a tele turn at Steamboat Ski Area.
Story and photography by Bethany Blitz
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS- Dark forces have been swirling around the sport of telemark skiing, limiting its growth. The lack of available gear and the commitment required to buy new-generation gear dissuade skiers from this time-honored sport.
Tele skiing, where skiers drop a knee and lunge through each turn, has been a mode of transportation for hundreds of years. As skiing became popularized, most turned to Alpine skis because they were easier to use, although the 1970s brought the “Telemark Revival,” when skiers used tele gear to access the backcountry.
Andrew Stoller, the gear-buyer at Ski Haus, has been tele skiing for 20 years and has lived all over Colorado. When he started his job at Ski Haus, the demo program boasted 40 tele set-ups and a kids’ season tele rental program capable of outfitting 50 kids. Now the shop has 14 adult demo set-ups and 12 kids season rentals. Stoller attributes the decline to fewer people being interested in the sport and less gear being on the market.
“No one makes great kid-oriented tele bindings,” he says. “So when this gear is done, it’s done.”
Fewer companies are producing telemark gear, so options have become limited, especially for kids. Skiers use their boots until they disintegrate because their preferred boot was taken off the market years ago.
Lyndsay Richter, a local tele skier, was lucky to find her current set-up on Craigslist, but if her gear breaks, “I’m SOL,” she says.
Tele skiing took another blow when Alpine touring gear was introduced. AT bindings are light and allow skiers to clip their heel in when going downhill. The new gear has made backcountry touring easier and more accessible. Many tele skiers have even switched over.
In 2007, the New Telemark Norm, or the NTN binding, came onto the market – it’s one of the only major technological advancements for telemark gear in the past 30 years. The new system requires skiers to buy new bindings and new boots, which has proven to be a lot to ask of buyers.
But in Steamboat, where the area’s rolling hills allow skiers to explore the back country without stopping to adjust gear between uphill and downhill, an enthusiastic tele community has proven resilient.
One person who saw the suitability of Steamboat’s terrain was Eric Baker, who started making skis in his garage in 2015. Now his company’s Harvest Skis can be found in most local ski shops. An avid tele skier, Baker wanted to make a powder ski with fish scales so he could tour the backcountry and make turns without stopping to put on and take off climbing skins.
“Fish scales are great for touring in this area because you don’t have to transition, and with tele bindings you’re always moving – which is what it’s about for me. I like hiking in the woods and getting some powder turns while I’m at it,” Baker says.
Another tele skier in search of the perfect terrain is Jerry Miller, who skied more than 50 mountains before deciding on Steamboat. He chose it mostly for the tele community, he says. For the past 28 winters, the Vietnam veteran has dropped a knee in the incredible powder that made Steamboat famous. Miller worked with the STARS program for about eight years and skis almost every day during winter. Tele is a workout, he says, and easier on the knees because it focuses on muscles and not ligaments. But most of all, Miller sees tele skiing as a way to let go of everything else in life. “I need to ski,” he says. “You can’t think of anything else when you’re tele-ing.”
When Kathy Wichelhaus taught her kids to ski, she got cold and bored on the mountain, so she switched to telemark and the mountain became more challenging. Now she splits her time among Alpine, telemark and snowboarding. “Because my ex-husband and I tele, the kids got into it for a few years,” Wichelhaus says. “Because we knew it, we could introduce it.”
Sarah Westendorf started skiing in Snoqualmie, Washington. When she moved to Steamboat, she saw someone telemarking on the mountain and thought, “Those were the coolest, most beautiful turns I ever saw.”
Every community has its local gathering place. Backdoor Sports is that hub for Steamboat’s tele community.
Pete Van De Carr opened Backdoor Sports 44 years ago. The tele ski shop also sells kayak and climbing gear in the summer. Van De Carr might be more passionate about tele skiing than anyone else in town. He says there are a million reasons to start tele skiing, the big ones being the comfortable equipment, freedom of movement and low-impact on skiers’ joints.
Van De Carr wants to make telemark accessible to anyone who wants to try it. He often gives away old gear and is always there to answer questions and help solve problems anyone might have.
Even though AT is pulling people away from telemark skiing, Van De Carr says his shop is doing better than it ever has. “Tele is not declining here because of our terrain,” Van De Carr says.
The next generation of athletes is essential to keeping any sport alive, which is why the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club plays an integral part. You don’t have to search long to see kids wearing the SSWSC’s blue jackets and making aggressive tele turns on Howelsen Hill or the Steamboat Ski Area.
Charlie Dresen, a former U.S. World Cup tele skier, has coached tele skiing for SSWSC for over a decade now. He says half the kids who join come to race and the other half join just to get better but end up racing anyway.
Since there’s no age grouping within the sport, Dresen’s knee-droppers range from 10 to 17 years old. In recent years, the number of kids in his program has dropped. Where previously eight to 15 kids joined the group, in recent seasons the number has dropped to as low as five.
“So many local kids have Olympic dreams in this town and gravitate toward winter sports that participate in the Olympics,” Dresen says. “(The U.S. Telemark Ski Association) is trying to get tele into the Olympics, and once that changes I think we’ll see more athletes gravitate toward the sport. Right now, the majority of the kids I work with, their parents tele or have tele skied, so it’s kind of a generational hand-me-down.”
Sal Malone, 14, was inspired by his parents and started tele skiing when he was six. The minute his feet could fit in tele boots, he was hooked. He says he loves tele racing and the welcoming nature of the tele-skiing community. “That it’s dying is a sad idea,” Malone says, adding that the hashtag #spreadtele is a great way to stay connected to the community. “We need to show that people are still telemarking and we need to gain awareness.”
Emma Poper, 15, started telemark skiing when she was nine. She says she loves the atmosphere at races where everyone cheers for each other and there’s a great sense of camaraderie. “It’s really fun to know you have that support around you,” she says. Motioning to her teammates on the chairlift with her, she adds, “Tele was the first way of skiing. We’re here to bring it back.”
The freedom of telemark skiing thrives in Steamboat Springs, liberating people with each turn, delighting those who participate and enticing those who watch. For decades, Steamboat has been a safe-haven for the sport. Here, telemark skiing has all it needs to stay alive: advancing technology, perfect local terrain and – above all – a passionate community.