Alyeska festival celebrates telemark turn

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2005

ANCHORAGE : Tim Charnon zigzagged gracefully across the finish line, a smile on his face. There was no tension in this race.

Skiers had put on skins, raced up Mount Alyeska, skate-skied across the ridge and then descended in telltale telemark lunges. No one knew who'd come in first : and no one cared.

The second annual Jeff Nissman Telepalooza telemark festival was a weekend of remembrance, not results. It was a time for backcountry skiers to showcase their sport while celebrating the life of a departed friend.

Nissman died in January 2004 when a giant slab of ice slid off a U.S. Forest Service building roof and landed on him.

It was not the way one would expect a 29-year-old man like Nissman to leave this world. His adventures took him to Australia, Ecuador and all over the Alaska backcountry. He was an avid telemarker : hence the festival in his honor : with a bold technique that took him down mountains as fast as he could go.

Immediately after his death, a few of Nissman's close friends decided to name the festival in his honor. Brooke Edwards, an organizer and telemark-ski instructor at Alyeska's Mountain Learning Center, said it was the right thing to do.

Last year's inaugural, held on a sunny weekend just two months after Nissman died, attracted a couple hundred people to Alyeska. Some were there to learn about telemark skiing; others simply wanted to honor Nissman.

''It was just unbelievable, the support we got,'' Edwards said. ''The community came together, and we raised $2,000 that we gave to the Jeff Nissman fund. The Forest Service is using that money this summer to build a memorial, an outdoor stage for people to camp, with tent platforms and a place to cook. It will be built for him.''

This year's telemark festival was even more successful, despite an unseasonably warm and wet weekend and a slightly lower number of participants.

The event raised $4,000, with prizes donated by local heli-ski operations as well as national companies like Patagonia, K2 and Atomic. All the money goes to Challenge Alaska, a nonprofit that provides sports and therapeutic recreation opportunities for those with disabilities.

While Nissman was on the mind of most telemark skiers, Edwards said the event also offered an opportunity to show off what may be the next trend in resort skiing.

SnowSports Industries America, which tracks snow sport trends across the country, reported in February that the sale of telemark ski equipment grew 14 percent this season, ''reaching sales of $3.7 million.'' Snowboard sales, on the other hand, showed a slight decline.

Some in the industry claim the 14 percent figure is skewed, more accurately representing all backcountry ski equipment, including telemark and Randonnee techniques. Still, the figure shows that skiers are venturing farther, searching for new places to explore.

Carl Skustad, one of Nissman's closest friends and a co-worker at the Forest Service, said he has noticed the increased interest. At Telepalooza, he relaxed after the skin-up, ski-down race, looking very 1850s in wool knickers and old leather boots.

He skied the race in period clothing, celebrating the discipline's beginnings that date to a country boy named Sondre Norheim, considered the 1800s pioneer of telemark skiing in the county of Telemark, Norway.

Laura Bowen was on her way up the mountain for a beginner telemark-ski clinic with Mountain Learning Center instructor Matt Wendell of Anchorage on Sunday. The clinic was one of many events during the three-day Telepalooza.

''I'm tired of skiing this mountain,'' she said, sweeping her hand toward Chair 3 and beyond. ''I want to go where there are no people and I can be by myself. Telemarking looks like a waltz on skis. I want to learn to do that.''

Indeed telemark skiing has traditionally been a backcountry sport that attracts the nature lover or the person who wants to make the first tracks down a scenic mountain slope. The idea of telemark skiing in a crowded ski resort seems almost incongruous.

Yet in Alaska, Alyeska provides just such an opportunity. Much of Alyeska's guests are locals, Alaskans who already know how to ski and want to learn new techniques.

''Telemarking is to downhill skiing what fly-fishing is to rod and reel,'' Edwards said. ''If I'm fly-fishing, I can be totally entertained by the art of the cast. In telemarking, I'm so in love with the art of the turn, it's like poetry in motion.''

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