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The discussion about, well, anything on the internet is ridden with pitfalls. Forums, Facebook groups, and comment threads all seem to have the potential to become virtual minefields. And while these places may indeed be filled with well-meaning folks whose discussions can certainly be thoughtful and poignant at times, all too often, when humans get in front of a computer monitor and start penning a comment via keyboard, the radioactive signature of online anonymity and 2020s indifference froth forth, devolving discussion toward entropy.
Such is our world anymore. Talking without listening and hiding behind sterile avatars has won the day. The digital dialogue of society has suffered greatly.
But there is a corner of this electronic wilderness that bucks the trend – it’s a place not particularly well-populated, and it doesn’t delve into the most pressing of topics. But it certainly gives telemark skiers a place to learn about and discuss the absolute bleeding edge in gear and ethos – BackcountryTalk.com.
While much of the visible discourse about telemark skiing – let alone the outdoors – often panders to stereotype and cliché, the conversation on BackcountryTalk is of the highest factor. With a lean toward backcountry skiing, it is home to the most cutting-edge discussion on telemark found anywhere, where members dissect new binding interfaces like the New Telemark Norm (NTN), telemark tech system (TTS), and even their own creations. Users there also delve into other topics, like technique and the role free-heel skiing’s evolving culture takes, creating a resource that few ski shops – that few entities anywhere – could provide. It’s a heady mix of equipment analysis and cultural clout at a depth rarely seen not only in telemark or backcountry skiing, but in the outdoor world at large.
The forum was started by Craig Dostie in the late summer of 2013. The preeminent free-heel forum of the time, TelemarkTips, had seemed to slip away – little did many know that its founder, Mitch Weber, was in the final stages of his fight with cancer, which took his life at the untimely age of 60. Dostie picked up the torch from his friend, keeping the online discussion on telemark alive.
Dostie’s role in free-heel and backcountry skiing was then anything but new. In 1988, Dostie started a newsletter that would morph into the core backcountry magazine Couloir, stating in a BackcountryTalk forum post from August of 2013; “when I first began spreading the news about earning your turns in the backcountry it was via a crude newsletter that was Xeroxed and sent to about 50 people under the title ‘le Chronicle du Couloir.’ A lot has changed since then, but not my interest in promoting this activity. I'm not the first, nor will I be the last person to recognize the value that comes from exploring our world on a pair of skis.”
Dostie – an engineer by training – had long brought an analytical mind to gear review at Couloir and EarnYourTurns – his pivotal telemark-leaning blog and successor of sorts to Couloir. He continued that with BackcountryTalk.com.
Speaking to his personal aptitude for gear minutia, Dostie says, “I encouraged and set an example for that [on BackcountryTalk] because I saw that telemark was crying for innovation, but didn't have the market lure to motivate commercial development like Alpine Touring had. So it wasn't a goal, or a mission, but it was an organic outcome because like minded people realized that their crazy DIY projects would be received with the respect they wanted, and respectful criticism that they needed to refine their ideas.”
This tinkerer bent to the site has made it the source of record for many telemark DIY innovations. One of the chief contributors as such on the forum is Robert Tusso, who has been instrumental in recent homegrown telemark invention.
“I'm definitely a DIYer, and I've always appreciated how so many of the advances in telemark gear over the years have come from people's garages more so than from big companies' R&D departments,” says Tusso. “So I used the forum to study up on what people had done up to that point, then started building my own setups. I've improved on things other people have done, and other people have improved on things that I've done.”
At BackcountryTalk Tusso has found a unique environment; one populated by an eclectic fusion of innovators and thinkers. “There is a good blend of egghead engineering minds and old heads with encyclopedic knowledge of what's come before. Some ski instructor types, and some cardio monkeys. It's really a fertile environment for making cool stuff,” says Tusso. The site and its members have played a pivotal role in modern free-heel skiing, continuing the grassroots legacy of telemark. “Some of the projects that've come from forum members are mind blowing, and better for certain use cases than anything at retail at the time,” Tusso concludes.
Tusso and his cutting-edge inputs – and those of other core members – are high-minded and expertly thought out. These creations come from the intelligentsia of free-heel skiing.
While a long-time nucleus of members exists on the site, newcomers routinely make their way to BackcountryTalk and contribute to the discourse. That includes Jeremy Utz, a local of the Adirondacks who works at a cross country-downhill / Nordic ski shop and trail center. “I came across the forum from EarnYourTurns. I used EarnYourTurns a lot to learn about bindings when I got into telemark about 3 years ago,” says Utz.
But the forum not only operates as a gear think tank, it also acts as a cultural meeting of the minds, with Utz saying “my hope is to learn tips and tricks for modding gear, make some friends, and feel like I am a part of telemark culture. [And] to chat with folks who are also obsessed with the turn! So far, all of those things have happened here.”
While the modern intricacies discussed on the forum may not always be readily evident in telemark skiing at large, long a world of fragmented connections and fiercely independent practitioners, Dostie has indeed created a space for the cutting-edge in the sport. And these advents and philosophies in fact seem to be seeping into the larger telemark hive mind. DIY creations first broadcast on the forum can occasionally be seen in the wilds of the resort and backcountry.
In doing this Dostie has established a home where a civil, broad-based, and thoughtful discussion on backcountry skiing with a heavy focus on telemark can take place. It’s a wonder of the internet – a mostly self-policing site where people are treated respectfully and where the deepest thought on telemark can find a home. Without BackcountryTalk there would be little opportunity for the same broadcasting of the cutting-edge in free-heel skiing.
Dostie notes how the site – while not necessarily dedicated solely to telemark – embodies a devotion endemic to the telemark experience. “The people who are passionate about telemark skiing are adamantly loyal to that style of skiing,” Dostie told me via email. “There are plenty of limits and shortcomings that can be easily listed, but those have only strengthened the resolve of those who like to telemark to continue practicing the sport, regardless of whether or not it is embraced by the majority.”
Dostie has long espoused the philosophy that telemark’s beauty lies not just in the sweetness of the turn, but also in its strong independence, something indicative of free-heel skiing, saying, “an argument could be made that it attracts those who are not swayed by popular opinion, and thus attracts only those who are strong enough to do it for the rewards it provides in and of itself, not for social reinforcement by the majority.”
BackcountryTalk.com captures this dogma in telemark – and does so in a way where the bleeding edge in the sport can be recorded, referenced, and built upon. And something larger may be afoot in the wider telemark world, with Dostie noting that BackcountryTalk has seen a marked increase in traffic, more so than at any time in the last five years. Perhaps the time is nigh for an uptick for the ancient turn, and if so, it was undoubtedly helped along by this humble forum, one that not only has provided a source for the deepest information on the sport, but also encapsulates the notion of telemark as independent, homegrown, and self-sufficient. BackcountryTalk.com has undoubtedly built on that legacy.