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Paul Parker. 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.

Descender: 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.

Scott Cramer Photo

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 goal.

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.

  D: Telemark 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 them.

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.

Scott Cramer Photo

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 ski.

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 the book.....

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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