Mobs Raising Heel

By Pete Gauvin /Photo by Martin Sundberg

Everything that’s old is new again. The telemark turn, the first technique relied on to change course while careening down a hill on a pair of wooden planks, has come a long way since Norwegian Sondre Nordheim popularized the method at a ski jumping competition in 1868.

In the early 1900s, the telemark turn began to die out as newer techniques based on the stem christie gained favor for use in steeper terrain. By the ‘30s, the advent of ski lifts accelerated the acceptance of fixed-heel alpine gear, and the telemark turn was relegated to the back corner of the thrift shop.

It rested in these dusty recesses for decades. Then, in the 1970s and ‘80s, isolated pockets of backcountry bohemians in the U.S. – the guys who shopped for their wool ski clothes in these thrift shops – discovered the technique and began to refashion it for exploring on lightweight touring gear, as well as adding to the downhill challenge at resorts like Crested Butte.

With their lace-up leather boots and anorexic skis, these pinhead pioneers scattered the seeds that sprouted into today’s vibrant telemark and backcountry scene. From these granola-fed roots, the sport has been fertilized by ever-evolving equipment improvements and growing legions of resort skiers yearning to venture beyond the leash of lift-accessed terrain.

But there’s another factor in tele’s renaissance that’s often overlooked; a critical ingredient for most any progressive social movement. What else, but a good party!

Known popularly as telemark festivals, these weekend gliss gatherings helped unite enthusiastic souls from the fledgling, dispersed little universe of free-heel disciples. With days packed with instruction clinics for everyone from tippy-toe novices to scissor-legged rippers – as well as equipment demos, all-terrain races, backcountry tours, beacon contests, and party necessities like beer and music – word of the kind vibes began to spread.

Over the past 10 years, the size and number of telemark and similar backcountry festivals has continued to grow. Chalk this up to the collected buzz generated by a passionate, adventurous group of skiers, as well as the simple numerical fact that more alpine skiers, snowboarders and others have been stricken by the free-heel bug. According to industry sales figures, telemark is one of the only sectors of the ski industry that’s been growing over the past couple years. Which, to put in perspective, is the difference between a drop in the bucket and a steady drizzle.

Whatever. It’s still a fringe sport. And whether it’s a belief in UFOs or collecting garden gnomes that stirs your stew, fringe people need to get together every once in a while to celebrate their quirkiness and validate their lonely pursuits. Voila, the tele festival.

“I think the main way telemark festivals promote the sport is that once you get a bunch of tele’ers together their enthusiasm builds and it just kind of spills over,” says Craig Dostie, publisher of Couloir and Telemark Skier magazines. “It no longer feels like a fringe sport during the festival. There’s safety in numbers and there’s power in numbers. And the raw enthusiasm becomes contagious beyond the bounds of the festival.”

Neither California, nor Colorado, nor even Norway can claim the oldest and largest tele fest in the world. That distinction belongs to Vermont’s Mad River Glen, which hosts the 32nd annual NATO Telemark Festival, March 10-11. More than 1,000 pinners are expected to descend upon Mad River’s densely forested slopes for this genuflectors gala.

Free-heel fests have caught on across the Atlantic, too. The La Skieda International Telemark Festival held in Livigno, Italy, now in its 13th year, is the second largest in the world. There’s even a sizeable tele festival in Scotland, the Braemar Telemark Festival, held since 1999 in the Grampian Mountains of northeast Scotland.

In California, the Bear Valley Telemark Festival, now in its 11th year, is unparalleled in size and reputation. It brings together about 300 free-heelers and some of the best instructors in the country. And it almost always sells out. This year’s fest runs Feb. 8-11.

“We had no idea that this festival was going to grow the way it has. It surpassed our expectations years ago,” says festival founder Aaron Johnson, owner of Mountain Adventure Seminars. “From its original 14 people it’s taken on a life of its own. We’re just trying to hang on and morph with it.”

From the beginning, “we really focused on instruction and showing people how to access the backcountry on our Sunday backcountry trips, since a lot of people are wary of heading out on their own,” Johnson says. “It’s not a big money maker, it’s more a community builder. We’re limited by lodging and we’re off the beaten path at the end of a long road, so we can’t really get any bigger. But since people must make an effort to be here, they’re quite a committed and inspired bunch.”

This year promises not to disappoint. Albino, a Bay Area-based 12-piece Afrobeat band, which shook the house last year, will be back, and there will be a fourth day added, a full day of instruction with the PSIA Nordic Demonstration Team on Thursday.

“The whole mountain is under new ownership and they’re very supportive of our efforts,” Johnson adds. “They’re allowing us to do a lot more stuff and put the festival right up in the front of the resort.”

While it’s certainly the best-known free-heel shindig west of Winnemucca (if not New Hampshire), the Bear Valley festival now has more company. Most of these newer festivals tend to be smaller events of less than 100 people, but no less fun.

  • Sierra-at-Tahoe hosts the Telegrass Festival, March 31-April 1, which fuses a tele festival with après-ski bluegrass music and dancing (legs willing), now in its fourth year.
  • Sierra Summit, the central Sierra resort above Huntington Lake, hosts a homegrown tele festival. Sierra Summit Telefest is set for March 9-11.
  • In December, Kirkwood hosted TeleFair, a nationwide tour of telemark clinics and gear demos, plus snowkiting clinics. It will be returning to the Tahoe area March 24-25 to a resort yet to be announced.

Combined with the advent of backcountry festivals that cater to telemark, AT/randonee skiers (tele’s locked-heel counterparts), and backcountry snowboarders – plus competitive events such as randonee rallies and telemark freesking competitions – and there’s a powder stash of resort-based events to interest backcountry skiers and riders this season.