The question isn’t when is tele going to resume growth, the question is, as the torch of tele passion is picked up, will it be via a retro return to leather, pins and waxless metal-edged skis? Instead, perhaps a stubborn refusal to abandon the duckbill and free pivoting cable bindings. Or, follow the trend unfolding, a slow embrace of NTN.
Scarpa’s Kim Miller, President of Scarpa USA confirmed it, “No question, NTN is outselling 75mm now. It looks like the future of tele, especially now that there are other [binding] choices.”
The US distributor of Crispi and co-owner of telemarkdown.com, Erik Fey agrees, saying, “The Evo and Shiver, the NTN models, are definitely outselling 75mm boots this season.”
The variety of bindings to chose from is part of the lure. It’s no longer just Rottefella’s Freeride. Their Freedom has taken the lead with a binding that is lighter, easier to operate, engages quickly with soul and it has a nice, lightly tensioned tour mode. If you spend more than 50% of your ski days yo-yoing, this binding rocks. Plus there are other options to chose from now although they don’t use the patented 2nd heel. More importantly there’s another on the way that does.Indeed, the only new telemark binding at the recent Outdoor Retailer Winter trade show was a prototype NTN binding unveiled by 22 Designs to announce they had licensed the use of the 2nd heel from Rottefella. The nameless duckbutt binding demonstrated true step-in functionality, no release, adjustable power and a free-pivoting tour mode like the son of Hammerhead, Axl.
Meanwhile, in the duckbill pond, Axl and Switchback continue to sell healthy numbers, but not 10,000 strong numbers. Maybe combined, but no one is sharing sales secrets.
Those are decent numbers, but not the kind that instill excitement, and in turn, growth. It’s hard to be profitable in business with no growth.Interest in telemarking as a cult tribe of skiers won’t die because of the enthusiasm it demands from its players. In spite of a steady reduction in participation, improvements to telemark bindings continue to be developed. However, it is clear interest won’t grow again until tele boots are at least on par with what is available with AT boots in terms of downhill and uphill performance. In case you forgot, it was the quest to be on par with alpine for downhill prowess that led to telemark’s popularity in the 90s.
However, it wasn’t all about downhill skiing. It was also about the lure of the backcountry that had captured the imagination of skiers thanks to the writing of people like Steve Barnett, Doug Robinson, Tom Carter and Alan Bard, and Rick Borkevec and films like the Blizzard of Aaahs. When Terminator visited earth in 1993 it promised the control of an alpine boot via a plastic shell, with the freedom of a free heel. The result was the American backcountry scene exploded..Unfortunately the control PTBs promised inevitably sacrificed the freedom of the free heel and with it telemark’s backcountry appeal. Bindings offered a free-pivot to save the day, but for many it was too little too late. Telemark binding makers continue to tinker, but there’s little more to be done with 75mm, and any radical improvements to NTN need a complimentary improvement in boots.
While Kim Miller admits it is time for some improvements to Scarpa’s line of telemark boots, he also adds, “when binding makers settle down a bit then we’ll reassess what is going on and apply it. We don’t want to be designing our boots to a moving target and we’re very interested in what 22 Designs has up their sleeve.”
I’ll admit, I don’t know the numbers and how many it takes to motivate a boot company to modify or built a set of molds.There may not be 2-million active telemark skiers in America today, but I’m confident there are still at least 200,000. At $500 per pair of boots that’s a potential $100-million dollar market. Even if only half upgrade, that’s still a $50-million market.
Maybe I have my math wrong, so let’s look at it from telemark’s greatest attribute, enthusiasm. Whatever the market was back when the Terminator was developed, it was a fraction of what the customer base is now. I asked Paul Parker, author of Free Heel Skiing if he knew the size of the tele market in the late 80s and he put it at 15k-20k strong, but also admitted that was a “wild ass guess.” My recollections of conversations with other boot makers suggests that number was in the ballpark, but nobody really knows. And yet Scarpa, with the encouragement of Black Diamond, developed the molds for a plastic telemark boot based on what? Certainly not the size of the existing market. It had to have been on their faith that if they built the right product, the customers would come and the market would grow.By comparison today there is already a market large enough to justify development. Though AT has supplanted tele as the dominant form of backcountry skiing, a good portion of that shift is because telemark equipment failed to keep up with meeting those criteria. To restore interest, telemark must at least offer parity for touring efficiency. The best first step is to improve the cuff range of motion and the best chance for that to happen is for Scarpa to step up, again, and fix the shortcomings in telemark boots.
If it seems like I’m holding Scarpa accountable over other brands I’ll admit I am for a number of reasons. First, they have demonstrated with their AT boot line that they already understand and own the technology available that telemarkers are lusting after. Secondly, they are the dominant telemark boot brand, generally due to superior products, but also to simply providing a product others have lost interest in. Which is due, largely to their leadership role, not only in the development of plastic telemark boots, but also in spearheading and managing the introduction of NTN in the marketplace.
Now I know I’m asking a lot here, and it isn’t my money being put on the table. However, Scarpa has shown in the past that they not only have the ca-hones to lead where others follow, but they also have good instincts on what needs to be done. So I’m both pleading and provoking Scarpa to stop waiting for the tele market to grow and provide a reason for it to grow — a tele boot with walk mobility like Maestrale, Dynafit inserts for touring efficiency, their trademark smooth flexing sole, and if you could shave half a pound per boot while you’re at it without compromising anything else, what telemark skier in their right mind wouldn’t upgrade their boots?