The man, the myth, the legend. If anyone is qualified to speak on
the current state of freeheel skiing, it's Mr. Parker. His background?
One of the early American tele skiers in the early 70s, author of
Free-Heel Skiing, first edition 1988 Chelsea Green Publishing, second
edition 1995, The Mountaineers Books. Member PSIA Nordic Demonstration
Team 1980-88, developed the first backcountry ski product line at
Chouinard Equipment (now Black Diamond) in the early 80's, worked
with Tua in development since those days, about 1985, innovating ski
developments that became classics: Toute Neige, Tele Sauvage (very
wide and very sidecut for its day), Magnum Sauvage, Montets, Mega,
Mito, Excalibur Plus, Big Easy, etc...
And, of course, he conceived the first plastic tele boot, the Terminator.
On a napkin in a restaurant over a bottle of Nebbiolo.
After years with Patagonia, Scarpa, and Black Diamond, Paul now
works as a Ski Product Manager for Garmont, Tele and Randonnee development
for Tua, and a Brand Consultant for Marmot.
You've been seen a lot of freeheel evolution. What's your take on
the current freeheel vibe?
Paul Parker: In
the big picture I'm glad to see freeheel--and skiing in general--get
some attention. Skiing is cool again. Unfortunately along with that
attention--always--goes hype. Personally I don't care for that part;
too much hype can obscure the soul of it. But peel that hype away
and I think that there is a lot of good energy today in freeheel,
a lot of skiers following tele as an alternative, a challenge, many
of the reasons that we've been doing it for years. I just hope to
keep sight of that.
D: How has the culture
of telemark skiing changed over the years?
PP: We're talking
about 25-30 years, so telemark has changed at least as much as our
American culture has changed. In those days our generation was full
of anti-establishment sentiment, Woodstock, hippies, the Vietnam
war. Telemark had practical roots, being good transportation to
backcountry powder, a viable survival technique on scrawny little
skis and boots. But I think it was attractive as well because it
was alternative, another way to buck the establishment. Alpine was
very flashy and hyped up then-it seemed tastelessly so-and telemark
was a sort of cool hippie alternative. Not for everyone. Today tele
is more mainstream, for sure, with much less of that tie-dye feel.
But it's still different, still cool, still not for everyone. From
the culture standpoint, the not for everyone is important, and that
hasn't gone away.
Photo: Scott Cramer
D: In your book
"Freeheel Skiing" you say that skiing on skinny skis can be like
"driving a 55 Ford with bald tires - skiddy, unsure, and imprecise"
Now that the skis aren't so skinny, but freeheeling is still skiddy,
unsure and imprecise, what's the new analogy?
PP: I wrote that
for the first edition, which was published in 1988. So it was written
in the mid-80s. When gear was like driving on bald tires: soggy
leather boots, skinny skis. Pretty skiddy. Just putting a buckle
on the boots was a revolution. We got a lot done on that gear, but
there were those of us who occasionally - against the tele dogma
- went out on Alpine gear. I wanted to feel that precision and control
and then try to apply it to tele. That's what I've looked for in
my gear development through the years, and today, tele is very precise,
very high-performance. Some would argue that it's lost some of its
soul with our new hardware. But on the other hand, what you can
do on this new gear is awesome. For me, being able to go anywhere
you want, with an element of precision and control, has been the
D: You discuss the
importance of setting goals in your book. What are your goals for
this season, and long term?
PP: One item on
my agenda is simply planning trips, setting them as goals, something
to look forward to. Early in the season I sit down with my work
schedule and plan a couple of fun trips, usually to Canada and Europe,
to places that are "on the list". Climbing peaks for turns, Haute
Route type trips. When I'm out skiing through the winter, those
upcoming adventures inspire me to identify what I should be thinking
about technique-wise to make them more fun. This sort of skiing
involves a lot of junk snow skiing, so I'm thinking about using
the right turn for the right terrain and snow, skiing with a pack,
conserving energy. For the past number of years I've been working
a lot on parallel turns, as they are really efficient effective
with a pack. These days I'm swinging back toward a few more teles.
Challenging snow is one of my favorite kinds of skiing, and I like
being able to switch techniques at liberty.
D: Do you think
telemark skiing benefits from a "scene"?
PP: As a market,
yes, absolutely. People want to be a part of scenes. Especially
hip, niche-type scenes like tele. Personally, I don't care for it,
because I'm a reclusive person and avoid scenes. So I'm torn. Professionally
the scene is good, personally it's not my gig.
PP: What do you
think when you see guys pulling 50ft front flips on this gear?
PP: I'm impressed.
Very impressed. I am blown away by today's athleticism in skiing.
I can't do it, I don't particularly want to do it, but I do think
it's very cool.
has a long history of doing more with less. What do you think the
new equipment has brought to the table?
PP: New equipment
has brought precision, control, versatility.
PP: I talked around
that a bit in an earlier question, the one about the bald tires.
When I started freeheeling, I had a personal goal of doing everything
on one kind of gear. 'Being able to travel say, to Europe, and go
downhill skiing at one of their gnarly areas, hike to cool skiing,
do a hut-to-hut tour. In those nostalgic old days you could do it,
but only in perfect conditions and it wasn't practical. Your boots
would get wet and wouldn't dry out in damp, dank huts. You didn't
have enough edge on bulletproof, humid snow, or didn't have enough
flotation for one of those catastrophic European dumps. That's changed,
and I like it. Today telemark is a viable alpine sport, not a compromise.
By alpine I mean that the gear is viable for ski mountaineering
and touring in mountains as rugged as the Alps, or Alaska, or Canada.
You can choose to tele exclusively and do everything you can do
on alpine or randonnČe gear. And it shows. You see skiers doing
everything on tele gear. Again: precision, control, versatility.
D: How is equipment
changing the attitudes of those who participate in the sport?
PP: Some will say
that tele has lost its soul with the new gear. My feeling is that
if people don't want to use the big stuff, they don't have to. They
can go out on lightweight gear and have a blast. Personally, I'll
use all of the help that I can get. It's the skier's choice, there
are no rules. That's the rule.
D: What are your
thoughts on the new binding choices this year? ie. G3, Skyhoy.
PP: Oliver's G3
looks nice. I personally don't care for the bulkiness of the cable
with the pistons, but I've heard good things about it, and I like
the concepts: compression springs, stainless steel, etc. I ski on
Raineys and they have a lot in common.
PP: The Skyhoy is
a different animal, and looks very cool. To someone who's done a
lot of Randonnee skiing, it's very appealing. I can't wait to try
PP: There are many
skiers who have chosen tele for a more compact, streamlined skiing
system. Doing more with less, as we have said. There are skiers
who have been waiting for a Skyhoy type binding to come along, at
it will fit the bill. I feel strongly that there's room for both.
As I said, that's what this whole "freedom" thing is about. Choice.
PP: Allow me a bit
of philosophy here... We started tele skiing as a rebellion against
rules. Yet it's human nature to start categorizing each other, in
this case according to what kind of gear one skis and how "traditional"
they are. We are a bunch of passionate people, passionate about
our sport, and it's human nature, too, to want to think that our
way is the right way. I think that we should try to resist that.
We have to be careful about creating more rules. It's not the gear
that has, as some say, "reinvented Alpine skiing". What will reinvent
Alpine is if we create too many rules, create too much of a scene
that obscures the value of a very cool, elegant, free sport. Look
at alpine freeriders-they are rebelling against the rules, and are
taking the sport in a new direction, much like tele.
Photo: Scott Cramer
D: Sure the new
parabolic skis are easy to parallel turn. How does this relate to
the tele turn?
PP: First, some
clarification. True "parabolics", as our market has defined them,
have a tail as wide as the tip. Those skis, as far as I'm concerned,
you can leave in the closet or make furniture out of them. But parabolics
were the fad part of the shape thing when it started - at least
in the public eye. Parabolics work ok for playing around on packed
piste, but most of us don't want to be confined to piste. Off-piste
they are scary: they have a tendency to hang onto the turn too long,
and are very hard to steer.
PP: SIDECUT (shape)
is another story. While everyone was talking about parabolics, the
GS racers at Albertville were winning on very sidecut skis. Shaped
skis. Sidecut rules. The best ski manufacturers have taken the parabolic
idea of extreme sidecut and translated it into something that skis
all terrain. That evolution has to do with the relationship of the
tip-width and tail-width, width underfoot, and amount of sidecut.
PP: Tele skiers,
at least in the States, are freeriders. One could say that our attitude
has defined that all-mountain concept. We've always been the ones
out sneaking around in the woods, skimming above treeline. Looking
to get off of the piste. So tele skiers need skis that go everywhere.
The best tele skis, in my experience, are those that have tails
narrower than the tips, and a balanced relationship between width
and sidecut. They do have lots of shape, but hey tend to have less
than the Alpine extremes. Today we're seeing Alpine freeride skis
going in the same direction. Many hot skiers don't want too much
sidecut, especially if they ski a lot of steeps. The wider the ski,
the more sidecut it can have and still be versatile. Give it too
much sidecut for its width, or a tail that's too wide, and you can
scare yourself silly on steep slopes--the ski doesn't want to let
go of one turn and go on to the next.
PP: That was a bit
long-winded, but once all of that info is pumped through the development
process, I think that if a ski is shaped properly for all-mountain
skiing, it makes great teles or parallel turns, interchangeably.
For me it has to, because I give both turns equal time.
D: What is your
involvement with Tua and Garmont? Can you wet our appetite with
insights of what's coming up on the gear front?
PP: At Tua I am
responsible for Tele and Randonnee product development. At Garmont,
same - I think my title at Garmont is "Ski Product Manager". I also
work for Marmot as what my boss calls a "brand consultant". In each
of these companies I do whatever needs to be done, whether it's
ideas, testing, marketing, catalog copy-writing, or dishes.
PP: This has been
a very busy development season for me. Tua has big changes for the
upcoming season. We've condensed and focused the line, combining
many tele and randonnee skis into one model since, today, the needs
are the same, the dimensions are the same. Many skiers have already
done that-the Excalibur Mito, for example, first developed as a
randonnee ski, is one of our most popular tele models. No longer
are we tele-ing on skinner boards and locking our heels down on
wider ones - they are all wide. For next year we'll also introduce
two new wider platforms. And all our skis are getting beefed up
both for durability, and to respond to boots' getting stiffer. We're
also introducing a few "Alpine flexed" models to the line: stiffer
boards that can be skied with locked-heel Alpine boots/bindings,
but very round-flexing for aggressive tele skiers who want a stiffer
PP: At Garmont R&D
this year we've also been rocking. We introduced the GSM Compact
randonne boot last winter, and have been fine-tuning it all summer
before production. This boot has been critical for future telemark
development as we've been working with different concepts in liners
and cuffs that can carry over into new tele boots. We'll keep our
successful Libero, Veloce, and Gara in the line for next season,
while adding two new top-of-the-line boots with a new multi-injection
technology. The new top boots will be very stiff laterally, with
a sweet, progressive forward flex. The softer of the two will be
comparable to a Super G; the stiffest of the two will raise the
bar as the most aggressive boot that we've ever made.
D: Do you ever get
a chance to ride in the Northwest USA? Can you give us a quick tip
for marking that ever hard tele turn in our famous Cascade concrete?
PP: Initiate the
turn by dropping your inside foot back, rather than stepping the
outside foot forward. Drop that inside foot back, immediately onto
its edge. That gets your skis turning simultaneously - critical
in junk snow - and keeps your body in a collected, athletic stance
that isn't too spread out. For more elaborate detail, check out
D: Looking back,
how has tele skiing positively influenced your life? You've given
a ton to the freeheel community - have you been rewarded as well?
PP: The whole free-heel
thing has been hugely rewarding for me. The best indication is that
I still love to ski on most anything, from skating gear to heavy
metal. That hasn't changed. Come winter, I'm up at 5am every morning
just because it's out there. Waiting for it to get light. There
is so much to do on skis.
PP: It does take
a lot to keep me interested. I like new stuff, I like change, which
is why I got involved in product development. I was lucky enough
to be involved in the early stages of the sport when there was so
much room for development and change. Yvon Chouinard, when he owned
Chouinard Equipment (which became Black Diamond) gave me a huge
opportunity to develop new gear. He also gave me a lot if inspiration
to write my book, both from his words of encouragement and by his
example, having written the mountain classic, Climbing Ice. Peter
Metcalf, back then the boss at Chouinard and still today's boss
at BD, was also instrumental in affording this opportunity. As well
as my friends at Tua, Scarpa, and more recently Garmont. They made
huge personal and financal investments to move our sport forward.
I owe all of those guys.
PP: And we freeheelers
owe them because they have had the vision to see that, although
it's still a niche and not a big-box-for-the-masses get-rich kind
of sport, telemark is very real-not a fad-a sport that's pursued
by the passionate kind of people who do it now, will do it for years,
and will turn their friends onto it.
PP: And it's a community.
Even as the sport evolves into different kinds of riders in different
environments, there still seems to be a common thread that makes
us a community. One that, like climbing and other individual sports,
leaves room for all kinds personalities including the more reclusive.
I hope that we don't lose that. Feeling a part of that community
is my greatest reward.
D: Any final thoughts?
PP: I've said about
all that I can in one sitting. I'd just reiterate our needing to
be open-minded, not caught up in rules. Ski on whatever kind of
gear you want, make whatever kind of turn you want. That's the freedom
in free-heel skiing.
Right on, Paul.
Thanks for talking with Descender!
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