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Freeheelers flourish

BOB BERWYN
Summit Daily/Brad OdekirkBreckenridge resident Noreen Galaba prepares to turn, free-heel style.
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SUMMIT COUNTY – It’s a powder day at a A-Basin. A steady west wind blows streamers of polished crystals over Pali’s bulky shoulder, constantly reloading the steep gullies and slide paths with skiffs of fresh snow that rustles like paper beneath my edges.I look back at the lift before heading toward the Alleys – six chairs in a row are carrying tele skiers, then a gap, a couple of snowboarders riding single and another skein of free-heelers right behind. Dropping into the tight trees, I meet another pair of telemarkers, Dave and Clark, both from Boulder. We carve a few low-slung arcs through the pillowy bumps, then stop in a glade and give thanks to Ullr as fine flakes sift down between the evergreens. Later, riding triple up Lenawee, I remark on the exceptionally large number of Nordic downhillers visible from the lift – it looks like at least half the people on the hill are dropping knee.”It’s the only way to go, dude,” says Clark, before skating off toward the East Wall traverse. I never catch the duo’s last name, but our chairlift chat has spurred my curiosity, so a few days later I call Ken Emrick, one of the founders of the historic Summit Telemark Series. Before long I’ve talked to half a dozen folks with long-time roots in the freeheel community, from retailers to teachers, athletes, resort marketing brass, and even outdoor industry analysts, who track these trends for a living. I’m trying to pin down the origins of the tele boom, particularly as it pertains to the sprawling Front Range and ski areas like Loveland, Winter Park and those in Summit County.”There’s more interest now than at any time since the mid-’80s,” Emrick says. “There’s a huge potential market out there,” he adds.

Emrick credits Breckenridge Nordic guru Gene Dayton, as well as Jana Hlavaty at Keystone, with supporting the initial late ’70s flowering by providing instruction and hosting special events, planting the seeds for the current boom. Without the early pacesetters pushing the evolution of gear and technique, freeheelers might still be consigned to double-cambered popsicle sticks and wire-bail bindings, Dayton says.Emrick says most of the skiers attending Arapahoe Basin tele sessions are from the Front Range, and despite the legendary free-your-heel, free-your-mind counterculture roots, the present demographic in the discipline matches the overall trends in skiing, with well-heeled urban adventure seekers looking for new thrills.The widespread perception of a tele boom is supported by a few sets of numbers floating around out there. Anecdotally, tele activity has doubled in the past five years or so, says Tom Jones, Jr., co-owner of Wilderness Sports in Silverthorne.Although historical numbers are a little hazier, there has been a distinct jump in the number of people who identify themselves as tele skiers, from 2.3 percent in 2002-2003 to 3.6 percent in 2003-2004, according to Joy Spring, a long-time ski sport analyst with Boulder-based Leisure Trends. While Spring can’t break out specific numbers, she says the Front Range is one of the ski industry’s driving, trend-setting regions.Spring says that, on a national basis, tele sales are up again dramatically this year, doubling from last winter both in units sold and in dollar volume. Spring said an early season number shows 33,000 telemark units sold (through October). For the sake of comparison, the snowboard number is about 409,000, she adds, pointing out that tele is still just a drop in the big-picture bucket. But it’s a big enough drop that some resorts are taking notice, especially those near large urban population centers like Summit County’s.

At Loveland, marketing director Kevin Wright says the ski area also has seen healthy growth in the tele segment.”It’s the fastest growing segment of our business,” he says, explaining that the number of tele skiers has doubled in the past five years, jumping from 1.5 percent to 3 percent of the area’s skier visits. For the 2004-2005 season, the tally was an impressive 5 percent.The selection at the ski area’s sports shop is part and parcel of the trend, with one-quarter of the hard good display space dedicated to freeheel gear, he adds.Even more impressive numbers come from A-Basin, where marketing director Leigh Hierholzer says freeheelers make up 8 percent of skier visits averaged over the past five years, with the number going as high as 17 percent in one recent winter.”It’s a market we’ve really tried to focus on,” Hierholzer says, explaining that Front Rangers are savvy skiers who consider themselves locals, and who participate enthusiastically in all sorts of outdoor adventure sports.Freeheeler Ed Ryberg, a regional U.S. Forest Service ski expert who has a broad geographical perspective, says the availability of low-cost season passes has helped drive the tele boom, along with other segments of the ski market. According to Ryberg, the Front Range is packed with high numbers of experienced ski freaks, and many of them are ready to try something new, or to scratch that lingering backcountry itch. For good alpine skiers, the tele turn offers a different way to experience the mountain they’ve been skiing for years, he explains.”The line you can take on teles is fundamentally different. You can utilize the terrain a little more creatively,” he explains, adding that the experiential part of skiing shouldn’t be underestimated. “It’s cool. The cool guys and girls are on teles and it looks good.”

He adds that he’s noticed a big surge in the number of outstanding female freeheelers in recent years, speculating that the softer tele style may be especially suitable for women athletes. Ryberg also sees a tele demographic skewed away from the teen end of the spectrum, tilted more toward the late-20s and up crowd, and says that the freeheel style is softer on older bodies and knees, helping boomer-aged skiers extend their on-slope half-life. Emrick and some of the others credit retailers with helping to fuel the boom by making the gear accessible and supporting clinics and demo days at resorts. So, along with a critical mass of skiers, there’s enough fuel for the reactor in the form of gear to maintain momentum.Manufacturers are helping to spur the growth by putting out varied lines of skis, boots and bindings, giving American consumers what they love – choice.Tele gear-makers have widened their palette to include everything from ultra-light backcountry and mountaineering gear to beefy twin tips suitable for landing major park air.It’s not clear how to break down any of the numbers by age, although the longtime industry insiders I’ve talked to all seem to say the demographic is skewed a little more toward the middle and older end of the spectrum. The teen and early-20s segment is smaller but growing, with a wave of tele-specific media – movies, mags and websites – helping to spur interest among the park and pipe crowd.Bob Berwyn can be contacted at berwyn@mountainmax.com.


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