Yeah, OK, telemark mountaineering is impractical. Even with perfectly refined boots, lightweight bindings, and pleasingly plump mid-fat skis (the likes of which you'll find reviewed below), our AT and snowboard buddies are more efficient both up and down the mountain. Well, big whup. They win. And we don't even mind buying the beers because, without invoking counterculture mantras or struggling to explain the masochistic appeal of our odd sport, telemarking has one remarkable advantage over fixed heeling. Quite simply: The snow is always twice as deep. Drop a knee and ten inches of fresh powder feels like 20. Sure, a loose heel theoretically affords less control in the steeps and crud, but reality seems to disprove this notion. These days telemarkers from Hafjell, Norway, to Valdez, Alaska, are launching "telecopters" off 50-foot cliffs, ripping 55-degree faces, and descending so fast it looks as if they're falling. What's even better, a year ago manufacturers like Black Diamond, Scarpa, Garmont, Fritschi, and Rottefella announced the second "plastic revolution." Lightweight step-in bindings and boots without awkward flipper-toes will debut in the winter of 2002. Just imagine what telemark mountaineering will be like when you can wear front-pointing crampons, kick steps efficiently, and still eat pow on the descent, all without the alpine shackles of a fixed heel.
1 BINDING: G3 Targa T/9 $195 For the same reason that bikers obsess over the weight of their wheels, telemark skiers pay dearly for light bindings. A set of T/9s, introduced this year from Vancouver, B.C.based G3, will burn a substantial hole in your wallet, but they'll also ensure that you don't have to kick flimsy three-pins up your peak de resistance. At just 2 ounces over 2 pounds, it's 8 ounces lighter per pair than the proven G3 Targa, which we tested last June, making the T/9 (along with the Rainey Superloop, $125) the lightest cable binding on the market. With stainless-steel springs, a titanium-and-aluminum toe box, and a cable rated to 1,000 pounds, there's no question that it's also the strongest binding available. The Downside? The accompanying ski leash attaches to the boot via a plastic clip. In half a season, one clip ripped off and another shattered during a hard fall.
2 BOOT: Scarpa T2 $450 Nine years ago Scarpa introduced the first all-plastic telemark boot, the Terminator I, whose "collapsible" bellows were famous for mashing toes into raw burger meat. Thanks to some diligent testing, tweaking, and fine-tuning of design, that's not an issue with the T2, a softer, lighter (7 pounds, 11 ounces), version of the Terminator that achieves a superb balance between stiffness and flexibility. In other words, it drives a ski with force and precision but doesn't chafe feet. The Downside? The liners pack out at least a full size, so buy small or you'll be swimming in them.
3 SKI: K2 World Piste $440 When snow conditions flow from black ice to death cookies to cold smoke powder on the same run, one pair of skis won't carve it all with aplomb. So the question to ask when choosing boards for ski mountaineering is, which conditions do you enjoy most? Stiff, narrow, quick-turning skis can make a disheartening descent tolerable, but since mediocre snow never makes for great memories, invest in something that turns good fortune into godsend—something fat like the World Piste (dimensions 107/75/98). Ample sidecut helps you turn through heavy Sierra cement without reefing on your ACLs. Moderate toe-to-tail stiffness holds an edge well enough—barely—to descend a couloir you'd feel safer down-climbing. On the best winter days it floats like a water ski. The Downside? With a 75-millimeter waist, the World Pistes are understandably slow edge to edge.
TIP: Finicky Goldilocks-types should also try Garmont's Gara (slightly heavier, $500) or Crispi's CX-A (slightly softer, $370) to find a boot and feel that's just right.
Where to Find It:
Dynafit, Life-Link International 800-443-8620, www.life-link.com
Scarpa/Fritschi/Ascension, Black Diamond Equipment, 801-278-5533, www.blackdiamondequipment.com
Atomic Ski, 800-258-5020, www.atomicski.com
Lowa Boots, 888-335-5692, www.lowaboots.com
Rossignol, 800-437-6171, www.rossignol.com
Silvretta/Grivel, Climb High, 802-985-5056, www.climbhigh.com
G3 Genuine Guide Gear, 604-924-9048, www.genuineguidegear.com
K2 Sports, 800-972-4063, www.k2sports.com
Voilé Equipment, 801-973-8622, www.voile-usa.com
Garmont USA, 800-343-6752, www.garmontusa.com
Crispi, Alpina Sports Corp, 603-448-3101, www.alpinasports.com
Nordica, 800-283-6647, www.nordica.com
Evolution USA, 801-484-5811, www.evoskis.com
Rainey Designs, 303-417-0301, www.raineydesigns.com
Charlet Moser/Petzl America, 801-327-3805, www.charlet-moser.com
Backcountry Access, 303-417-1345, www.bcaccess.com
Boeri Sport USA: MPH Associates, 781-551-9933; www.boeriusa.com
Osprey Packs, Inc., 970-564-5900, www.ospreypacks.com
L.L. Bean, 800-809-7057, www.llbean.com