The Sweet Spot


As it was the early 1990s, I honestly don’t remember why I decided to try telemark skiing. What I do remember is being vaguely disenfranchised by skiing in general, turned off by the euro-style stretch pants, the macho swagger that went along with 220 cm skis, and the hey-i-went-to-a-ski-academy perfect turners. It wasn’t a great snow year. I wasn’t a great skier. And those telemark freaks simply seemed to be having more fun than anybody else on the mountain. I was sold.     

I was fascinated by the rippers who were flashing their free-heels from the first chair to last call, and I remember the feeling of seeing my first telemark movie: tingly and exciting, like getting a love letter from a long lost girlfriend. It didn’t matter that my boots were too flimsy, the skis were too narrow, and I had zero idea of what I was doing, because the whole thing was contagious, refreshingly different and totally addicting.

More than 20 years of turns past that sweet spot, however, my Tua Montets (with Voile releasable plates) are rusting away in the garage, a real world analogy for the quiet end of an era that was brought to light last month when Mad River Glen hosted the last-ever NATO Telemark Festival. (LINK)

The Tele Fest at MRG ran for 40 years, bringing flocks of free heel faithful to the extreme variable conditions of central Vermont. If you’re doing the math at home, the thing started when Gerald Ford was president, a lift ticket cost $10, and people still drank martinis out of a Thermos while they drove their unseatbelted kids around. There were other festivals, sure, but the MRG Tele Fest was the first to the party and the last to leave, providing a complete bracketing of the rise, the sweet spot and the quiet demise of telemark skiing.

The question isn’t whether a sweet spot existed in telemark skiing -- or anything else –– but rather when it existed. And it’s not as simple as calling out the “peak” of participation, as that sort of misses the point. (The peak is when you played Wembley Stadium in front of 100,000 rabid moshing fans. The sweet spot is when you toured for a year, perfected your sound, and recorded that album that got you the stadium gig in the first place).

Pre-sweet spot, you’re in the undiscovered country. Post-sweet spot, you’ve jumped the shark.  And somewhere between the two, there is a sweet spot that emerges, gets noticed and makes fans.

The sweet spot is pure, electric and magnetic. It’s when charisma and energy combine, and when you can’t help but get sucked in. The more you get, the more you want, and the more you miss it when it’s gone.

But the fade of a sweet spot is also very real.  Everything has a life span, and quality has nothing to do with it. Was it too many people? Not enough people? Lack of expectations? Burden of expectations? The simple passage of time? Hey, even M.A.S.H. went off the air eventually

For telemark skiing (and skiers), there is a distinct yearning for a return to that sweet spot. Ironically, though the gear is better and lighter and more durable than ever before, the more it advances the further away the sweet spot seems in the rear view mirror.

That yearning for a return to the sweet spot exists for lots of other stuff … other places, other brands, other businesses, other trade shows.  It’s a normal, human and almost expected urge to want to go back to when numbers didn’t matter, when pure participation was its own reward, and when all the best accomplishments were still in front of you. Like daydreaming of seeing Yosemite before the crowds, of catching a steelhead before the dams went in, or seeing the boys from San Francisco before they were the Dead (LINK)

But that cooling cup of coffee isn’t going to warm itself. Enjoy it while it lasts, and don’t sweat it when it’s over.

When was the sweet spot of telemark skiing?  When was it at its pinnacle? At it’s moment of peak soulfulness, coolness and peak contagiousness?

Interesting question...I would say late 90s/early 2000s. As alpine skiing was going through an identity crisis (thanks to their insecurity brought on by snowboarding) that put Charlie Sheen to shame, tele skiers were getting down and dirty with face shot after face shot. Downhill and AT gear still sucked, while tele was still the best way to get into backcountry--and hence, ski powder--and it was strong enough to rip it inbounds. Enough people had been doing it for some time that they made it look amazingly stylish, but it hadn't yet been played to death. There were festivals all over the place that encouraged drinking and embracing your inner dirt bag. Alta, Steamboat, Crested Butte, Telluride, Grand Targhee, Bridger Bowl, Alpine Meadows and Mad River Glen were all hotbeds for tele, and it's no coincidence that these places were also where you'd find the most soul. The first nail in the coffin was rockered skis, which made skiing easy and cool and surfy. And the second, and perhaps final, was the improvement of AT bindings, rendering tele burdensome and a huge pain in the ass on the skin track. Thanks a lot, Dynafit! -- Matt Hansen, Powder Magazine senior editor

if you can take a five-year span, I'd say 1997-2001. Not coincidentally, this mirrors the peak in popularity of whitewater kayaking. It's not so much that telemarking and whitewater kayaking were both considered "cooler" then, though that was certainly part of it. It's that what came to replace each of them—far better/easier/fatter alpine gear and randonne gear for tele, and stand-up paddle boarding for kayaking—wasn't around yet.  Also, there were tele specific and whitewater kayaking-specific films being made at the time. Now? Not so much. --Tom Bie, The Drake editor (and former editor, Powder Magazine) 

If I had to pick a single year, it would be 1987. Why, you ask? The gear was getting better compared to when I started telemarking in 1980. Yes, Super Comps helped but wider, softer skis helped in the PNW snow too. I was working at a shop, and we were mounting 700 pairs of skis a year with 3-pin bindings so it was contagious, I guess. I was also 30 years old and probably at my best in terms of fitness, experience, ambitions, and mostly void of family or relationship responsibilities. There were like-minded kooks in every ski town ready to close a bar, at 1 am, and meet-up at a trail head at 6 am for a day of turns and laughs … (Interrupted here by a day of ski testing, for Off-Piste, with Dave Waag. During which time we discussed the question, at hand, while skiing AT gear, with no apparent irony)…. Dave’s epic year is more like 1995. This is not completely hinged on the fact that he is 10 years younger than I, but he makes a great argument that there was an epic bump in equipment refinement then, allowing us to make better, faster turns in any snow conditions. When did the first purple Scarpa T1 boots arrive: 1991-92? By 1995 everyone had a pair of plastic boots, maybe release bindings and wider skis, like the Voile Mt. Surf. We were skiing big lines, in deep snow, in BC, Alaska, etc with the ease and efficiency of AT gear while maintaining the "Tele" snobbery, that seemed so necessary then, and so useless 20 years later. -- Don Pattison, Off Piste columnist (and former outdoor industry heavy hitter)

Tele was at its most contagious when Terminator showed up, which was 1993. It took almost 10 years for the delusion of that moment to wear off and the reality of how hard tele is, and how inefficient it is for earning turns to set in. But the soul never left, just a bunch of wannabes who couldn't make the turn work for them left and those that stuck with it figured out the turn struck a chord with their soul and couldn't let it go -- Craig Dostie, Founder, Couloir magazine

“I think it was at its peak in the early to mid- 1990s…that’s when, like idiots, we’d all show up on these week-long heli-hut trips in British Columbia on our teles while the Canucks on their ATs looked on incredulously. We were beating ourselves up without even realizing there was a better way. I also still remember trading in a one-piece ski suit my mom gave me for Christmas for a pair of Fischer GTS skis.”-- Eugene Buchanan, Former editor Telemark Skier magazine

Two times- stick out.  Spruce peak in 1993, 6 inches of fresh and laughing in the liftlines and giggling as a bunch of ex alpiners rolled around on the snow and learned together, sharing tips and essentially teaching each other how to tele.  The other was Telefest at Mad River with Dickie in 97- surrounded by the tribe and feeling truly connected in a way with the tele movement and feeling part of the brotherhood.
Kenny Ballard, former Vermonter and forever telemarker

I'm going to go with 2002. Looking at the December 2002 Issue of Couloir and there are two pages of AT binding reviews (six bindings, including the Alpine Trekker!), and 11 pages of telemark binding reviews (including 17 bindings from the usual suspects--Rottefella, BD, Voile, G3, Rainey--as well as the likes of Bishop, Linken, Peak Rigs, and the Ultimate Telemark Co.!). I think there was a real garage band mentality still, and people were still inventing their own gear, and putting together rigs that were uniquely their own. It was still about the turn, too, and not so much about SKUs and selling free-heel in alpine shops, and access. Then the AT stuff got good (great!) and everybody started talking about how they had only tele-d because they had to in order to go OB, not because they loved making that knee deep waltzing turn. -- Peter Kray, author "The God of Skiing"

Telemarking might have been at its most soulful in the late-80s. How would I “know”…I don’t. My book was published in 1988 and was well-received. There was a place for it. We were very enthusiastic, missionaries preaching the gospel, and people were listening … (but) in terms of interest, buzz; I would say in the early 90s (1992) when the Terminator was launched. That created quite a dialog, well-deserved as it was a ground-breaking product. The Terminator really changed the sport … It’s still cool, BTW.
-- Paul Parker, author "Free-Heel Skiing"

Telemark skiing was cool in the mid to late 80’s when it was evolving and innovating.  Starting with Alan Bard and Tom Carter doing the Redline Traverse people started to see what could be achieved on free heel gear.  And the gear was constantly being upgraded and improved to allow people to push farther. But the true measure of its pinnacle was that being a tele skier gave you “cool points” with the chicks.  As any ski bum can tell you, in any ski town, the ratio of guys to girls is about 10-to 1. So anything that gives you street-cred with the few female skiers was pure gold.  -- Steve Gladstone, former marketing director Merrell/Karhu

 Any time you see Ellingson in the backcountry -- Mike Geraci, Pearl St. Bagels alumni


  1. I fear that the question is not when the sweet spot occurred; that will be different for every person. Rather, telemark sweet spot and even the "stadium gigs" are clearly past. We telemarkers are relegated to skiing's fringe (lunatic enough to work hard at something tricky, counter intuitive, and elusive?) What now? I'm going to keep enjoying the couple of other turns that I can make free heel that alpine skiers will never experience, riding that long edge is addictive. Why not? As long as I can find a decent boot and bindings, it's all good, yes?


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