Nov 07 2016

Burning Tele Down

Sung to the refrain of “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads

To an outsider it might look like the house of telemark is burning down. Let me correct that. Burnt down.

Telemark to the core!

Josh Madsen – committed to telemark!

Like the seed of the giant Sequoia tree, it takes the heat of fire to spark the germination process so a new tree can take root. Make no mistake, I’m not saying that tele will one day dominate the slopes, it never did and never will, but it has a strong spirit and it will not die. What appeared to kill it will only make it stronger, not necessarily bigger.

“That’s the best time to get inside” says the publisher and owner of Telemark Skier Magazine, Josh Madsen. “That’s when the opportunity is greatest, when everybody is running from it because they don’t see what’s inside, they only see a burning house.”

By the Numbers

Madsen on Sugar Bowl's out-of-bounds Lake Run.

Madsen on Sugar Bowl’s out-of-bounds Lake Run.

Forget SIA’s claim of even a million telemark skiers, retailers know that simply can’t be true. It’s part of the problem with parsing data. Even the terms you use to try to categorize something have a definition that may not square with reality. We’re all familiar with how pollsters can twist outcomes by how a question is phrased; all we see are the answers. The same is true of data manipulation.

No doubt the number of telemarkers is down from it’s peak, somewhere between ’05 and ’07 and nobody can say with certainty what the real number was back then; 300-thousand, 500-thousand? Based on equipment sales numbers, the number has fallen precipitously, eventually taking with it Black Diamond’s entire ski boot line (AT boots too), the sale of Garmont’s entire ski boot line to Scott, while gutting half the models from Crispi and Scarpa’s tele boot line. How many active free heelers remain is anybody’s guess.

While numbers are down, there are indications that the decline was an economic reality check. The tele bubble had inflated past the point where it was self sufficient. Like windsurfing before it, it became the fastest shrinking denomination in slope sliding. Culling the herd was good though, if only to let all those licenses to suck expire.

Truth in Tele

Keeping it real.

Keeping it real.

Madsen isn’t the only one who sees opportunity. No one is thinking they will get rich, but many think it will allow them to be comfortable enough to run their own small businesses serving the tribe of tele dancers.

Madsen has been adamant as long as I’ve known him that telemark can’t thrive if it is the minority interest of any company. He is rock solid firm on that, even saying that companies like Scarpa, who built their plastic ski boot business on the backs of the Terminator, the first plastic telemark boot ever made, is not an actual telemark company. They are a boot company that makes telemark boots. They do however make up a crucial part of creating a telemark industry.

For a company to be part of a true telemark industry, their ability to live or die must be dependent on making telemark products. As soon as it becomes the minority interest, it becomes subject to accounting criteria like any good business and exposes itself to being cut.”
— Josh Madsen

He goes on to list other companies that not only aren’t but never were. That includes any and every alpine ski company, plus companies who whose history is synonymous with the growth of telemark skiing like Black Diamond, K2, G3, even Voile if only because they aren’t purely telemark focused.

Josh admits Voile is merely diversified, but he’s adamant about the point. Unless a company is absolutely dependent on the telemark segment for survival, the focus on excellence in telemark will be compromised.

“The idea is to build a cottage industry, a small industry that is self sufficient because they provide relevant products and excellent service to the telemark community. When you have that, then you have an actual industry devoted to telemark that is strong enough to survive downturns like now.”

Tele Innovation Continues

When you tele, it's always knee-deep. Sometimes deeper.

When you tele, it’s always knee-deep. Sometimes deeper.

There’s a rash of recent innovations in telemark bindings, mostly around the combination of a heel cable with a 2-pin tech toe as first proposed by Mark Lengel with his Telemark Tech System (TTS) binding. Three European companies are offering variations on this theme. Moonlight Mountain Gear, out of Norway, is making a knock-off binding with the addition of a heel locator, or an optional AT heel. The M Equipment, from France, integrates a low-tech toe with NTN technology, and Kreuzspitze offers a baseplate that you can mount any Dynafit toe to, with Voile cables. And there’s more. The TTS concept is simple enough the DIY’ers are cobbling up their own variations on the theme, not to mention manufacturers like 22 Designs, 7tm, and Bishop bindings experimenting with the concept.

Madsen knows, it's not about the gear, it's about the turn.

Madsen knows, it’s not about the gear, it’s about the turn.

However, to move forward, tele is waiting on the boot manufacturers to create the next gen tele boot. Manufacturers in turn, say they’re waiting on demand. This is a chicken and egg story and I can assure you that we need the chicken/product first before we’ll get more eggs/customers. That’s where Josh’s perspective becomes more relevant. Unless a company is willing to take a risk and” fertilize” some products, there will be no reward.

Josh should know. Freeheel Life has become an example of what happens when you focus on a niche that demands singular focus. He’s been scrappy, leveraging various outlets like www.freeheellife.com and eBay to get product into peoples hands when most shops are cancelling their orders for telemark gear. Whether or not Freeheel is thriving is mostly dependent on how you calibrate the quality of life. Every business needs cash flow to keep the doors open, but it’s not all about the money.

© 2016

  • djhutch

    Josh deserves a lifetime achievement award for all the ways he has helped to #spreadtelemark

  • Ziggy

    Things go in cycles.
    When ATers discover how poorly a long slog up is rewarded by boring-as-batshit parallels on the way down they’ll make the change.

  • sethg

    The dynamic regarding the manufacturers described here makes sense. At a diversified gear company, the tele line is likely to get less attention than it would if it is the lifeblood of a company. By that token, smaller, dedicated tele companies would be good for the sport. And maybe that’s coming.

    But it’s been hard for me to get my head around all the doom and gloom re: tele. I’ve been skiing, snowboarding and telemarking at a resort in southern VT for 30+ years. I’ve spent some time skiing in the West but don’t do any touring (although I do skin up the resort from time to time). I know I’m not in the heart of the telemark demographic but from where I am, tele has never been bigger. In the 80s and 90s I would see just a few telemark skiers each season. You could count the number on one hand. I now see telemark skiers in just about every lift line. I see them on all parts of the mountain. I see them in the resort’s promotional videos. And I see more than a few skinning uphill just about every day. Not to oversell it. The telemarkers are barely a blip relative to the other ways to get around the mountain. It’s just that the blip is much larger than it was even 10 years ago.

    Manufacturers dropping out is not going to help. Also, the fractured boot/binding technology makes things very hard on retailers and newcomers to the sport. And the fact that recent development in touring has focused on other styles certainly doesn’t help either. Still, it seems to me that there are people who want to make these kinds of turns and the market is there for a company that would put effort into design, marketing and standardization.

  • Dostie

    It is the sales of equipment that has retailers singing tele is dead. Not ALL retailers, but compared to the number selling and promoting it prior to 2005 the difference is stark and undeniable. And yet, as you indicate, the number of people who are participating may not be as low as sales suggest.

    Perhaps the longevity of plastic boots has finally reached maturity and the lack of sales is just the inevitable result of building a better boot that doesn’t require replacement every 200 days of use, or 100 days, as was the case with leather. Agree, with reduced sales two norms is not smart, but NTN was developed to move past the limits of 75mm, which are not exactly low, but are definitely at their limit.

  • skier6

    The people I see skinning up at a resort (here at Jay Peak) are invariably on AT gear. Some are boot packing, with alpine skis/snowboards over their shoulder before the lifts start. But almost no one is actually skinning up on teles.
    And I am a tele skier. I skin up, and ski down before lifts start , and backcountry on an AT Dynafit setup. It’s just lighter, boots and bindings, and the climbing free pivot, boot flexibility is better
    I do see skiers here on teles; locals usually, especially mid week. But they are riding the lifts.

  • http://www.outsideways.com/ Damien @ Outsideways

    It seems to me that the biggest problem is boots. I am not an expert in the field, though I would hazard a guess that it is piece of gear with the largest barrier to entry for a small producer. Everything else: skis, bindings, poles, etc. can be built by a variety of cottage manufacturers. Plastic boots on the other hand would seem to require a level of expense and complexity that pretty much leaves it to the big guys. Maybe someone will develop 3D printing technology that will bring plastic boot building into the realm of smaller companies.

  • sethg

    Building molds for limited production is prohibitively expensive. However, once you have the molds you’re on your way. Maybe Black Diamond’s molds are available.

  • Dostie

    Me thinks 3D printing will revolutionize the development of plastic boots. Molds will still need to be made, but in theory, fewer tweaks to the molds will be required before going to production.

  • Dostie

    There was a time I thought somebody would buy those molds and save themselves the expense of development. Then I spoke with “J” from a company I thought was a contender to buy the molds. His response was it would probably cost more to fix the flaws than start afresh. Bummer.

  • hafjell

    Peter Zeihan speaks about the impact of 3d printing on the global economy in The Accidental Superpower (Ch.7). Fun to think that it will save telemark and lots of other niche sports.

  • Digger

    The Telemark turn will always be on the fringe. Caught somewhere between nordic touring and downhill. It was a nice option before AT gear became more reliable in the BC and remains a solid technique for those who tour low angle slopes.

    I like the reference to windsurfing. It has faded and is being replaced by kiteboarding..Another niche in the world of sailing. Still nothing close to class racing. (Laser, scows, etc.)

    Committing resources to develop gear for this specific turn will remain a niche activity driven more by passion than economics. Unless it becomes a competitive event with TV contracts the big money will still with alpine and a little bit of XC.

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