Telepalooza: backcountry wild men do the resort thing

Like many Telemark skiers, Stephan Poirier likes to get away from the crowds and civilization, into the backcountry.

Like many Telemark skiers, Stephan Poirier likes to get away from the crowds and civilization, into the backcountry.

“I’m out there for the beauty — the silence,” he said.

So it may seem strange that Poirier and fellow Telemarker Shawn Taylor, and a handful other backcountry enthusiasts, piled into an old school bus for the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood, Alaska, last week for the fifth annual Telepalooza Festival.

However, even Grizzly Adams had a hankering for human companionship once in a while.

The three-day Telemark extravaganza features bands, clinics and races at the resort.

The whole thing is held as a memorial to Jeff Nissman, an avid Telemarker, mountaineer and avalanche ranger from Girdwood who was killed in a work-related accident in 2004.

Poirier said that the festival was not only a great deal — $200 for three days of skiing, all the races, music and prizes, and a pair of merino wool socks to boot — but helps to support avalanche research as well.

For the first time, the festival has grown to include the World Telemark Free-skiing Championships, which Poirier and Taylor competed in.

Organizers even opened up non-public ski areas of the resort for the Championships, a spot known as the Headwall.

“It’s free-skiing, you choose the line you want through the steep wall,” he said. “It’s all natural, there’s all these chutes, and very steep.”

Poirier said the competition was intense, and he finished 38th of 49 skiers, while Taylor finished 42nd. “It was only my second day skiing,” said Poirier. “With Sima closed the only skiing for me is out in the backcountry, so my legs were pretty tired.”

Judges watched the skiers for line, aggression, fluidity and control, and the skill level varied from amateurs to sponsored skiers riding for companies like Atomic or G3. “There was a team from Crested Butte, Montana, that was very strong,” said Poirier.

Crested Butte is known as the home of the Telemark resurgence of the 1970s — a movement that eschewed the big resorts, and favoured more traditional attire as well.

The fundamental difference with Telemark skis is the free-heel binding design.

It allows for easy traversing, like cross-country skis, while the width of the parabolic ski allows for a fairly controlled downhill descent.

Performing turns during a descent requires a unique stance, with the inside knee bent over a trailing ski, while the outside leg carves, taking 80 per cent of the weight.

This is known as the Telemark turn, and Poirier said it’s much more elegant to see that a standard downhill run.

“Downhill is choppy, Telemark is more like a dance.”

Telemark is a region in Norway, and for Poirier, it’s seems like the heartland of this most traditional kind of skiing.

“People in the Telemark region would travel from village to village, through the valleys — I do believe that downhill skiing evolved from there.”

In the past, skiers would use sealskins on the bottom of their skis to provide a grip during climbs; nowadays they use synthetic mohair.

Aside from the two Yukoners that competed in the championships, the rest of the Yukon crew donned pirate outfits for the costume relay, and two-person uphill/flatbowl/downhill race that covered all the Telemarking basics.

Although Telemarking is still something of an underground sport, the Yukoners are hoping to have more of a presence at the next festival.

One school bus is good, but they’re hoping for more.

“We’d like to get a convoy going next year,” said Poirier with a laugh.

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