Sometimes it feels like the free-heel tribe is growing by leaps and bounds each year, and recent information from SnowSports Industries America (SIA) may provide some empirical evidence for the trend.Sales of telemark skis for the first half of season jumped by 38 percent from the same period last year, according to preliminary SIA data. Telemark boot sales were up 11 percent during the same period. The numbers are from a preliminary report based on information gathered from about 40 percent of SIA’s member retailers. The same report showed flat sales for the alpine and snowboard segments.Some local retailers confirmed strong early season sales, not only for telemark gear, but for all sorts of backcountry ski equipment.In Vail, Gore Range Mountain Works manager David Baker says he’s already sold out of K2’s She’s Piste, a gender-specific tele ski. "We’re definitely having a good year. Sales are up, solid and we’re doing lots of rentals," he says.Baker attributes telemarking’s increased popularity to improvements in equipment. "It’s great. The sport has evolved to where a lot of people can have fun. People are psyched about the skis, and the binding and everything else is just easier to use and more reliable," Baker says.The story is similar in Summit County."I don’t have a percentage figure, but our sales were definitely up in November," says Wilderness Sports owner Tom Jones, Jr. "It’s not just telemark skis, but the lighter-weight touring stuff, too," adds Jones, who co-owns several Summit County shops with his father. Jones says early season snows helped fuel consumer enthusiasm.Jones says he’s also sold out of the She’s Piste. "Women love it. It’s the first ski we sold out of. We could have sold three times as many if we’d ordered more," he says.Jones and Baker were getting ready to head for the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market Trade Show in Salt Lake City at the end of January, and both say they’ll be looking for more of the recent innovations in tele gear that have helped fuel the discipline’s growth. Advances in skis and bindings have made it easier for alpine skiers to switch to the free-heel mode without suffering through a painful learning curve. Jones sang the praises of Rainey Designs’ Hammerhead binding, with an under-foot center-pull spring that offers an unparalleled (no pun intended) feel for pressuring both the lead and trailing ski."There’s probably at least a dozen reasons why it’s an improvement over every other binding," Jones says, adding that the Hammerhead is the only binding that he hasn’t had any returns on this season. Reliability of telemark bindings is a huge factor, especially in the backcountry, where equipment malfunction can quickly become a life-and-death factor. Even for in-bounds skiers, pesky binding problems have plagued freeheelers since the early days, so any progress in that area is welcome news.By routing the tension mechanism under the center of the boot, the Hammerhead improves ball-of-foot pressure by moving the pivot point rearward. Instead of tippy-toe dragging the trailing ski across the snow, the active design of the Hammerhead and similar bindings of its ilk enable skiers to exert more constant pressure on both skis.Jones also highlights the binding’s one-piece stainless steel toe unit. "It’s the only toe piece that screws directly into the ski without a shim," he says. The Hammerhead also boasts by far the largest spring (double the length) of any other binding. Why is this important? The larger the spring, the more energy it can store and release. That means the ski quickly snaps back to the boot rather than dangling loosely where it can trip up unwary skiers. In its binding review issue, Couloir magazine says the Hammerhead has set the standard for downhill performance against which all other tele bindings are judged.Baker touts the Linken step-in binding his Vail store carries. Tele skiers have long wanted to enjoy the same convenience Alpine skiers have taken for granted since the 1960s; that is to get into their bindings without having to squat down. Apart from convenience, ease of entry also is crucial on steep, sketchy backcountry slopes where a misstep can lead to disaster.With its rigid plate design, the Linken also offers unsurpassed edge control and responsiveness, also a sore point with performance-oriented freeheelers. Baker says all demo skis at Gore Range Mountain Works are set up with the Linken, making it easy to try the latest generation of free-heel technology.Both bindings make it clear that there is still a lot of grassroots innovation going on in the tele world. As well, customer feedback is taken seriously, and new designs are based on a direct feedback loop from consumers rather than on the latest marketing brainstorm.Wyoming-based Russell Rainey, creator of the Hammerhead, is the perfect example. Rainey has improved the design of his bindings incrementally each year based on input from skiers who use his product.Jones says he’ll be looking for even more innovation at the upcoming trade show. Jones says he’s expecting yet wider skis, more twin tips and stiffer boards as skill levels continue to improve. One of this year’s biggest hits was the Karhu Jak, a wide-body twin-tip that’s on par with the latest alpine boards.Jones says Karhu will deliver a womens’ version of the same ski, dubbed the Jil, for next year and expects most other ski makers to offer womens’ models. He says the jump in sales could at least be attributed in part to the success of K2’s She’s Piste.Baker says that, based on the success of the Linken, he’ll be looking for signs that binding makers are moving toward fully releasable and accurately releasable tele bindings, on par with alpine gear.Live Webcasts from Salt LakeFor live updates from the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market Trade Show in Salt Lake City at the end of January, point your Web browser to http://www.telemarktips.com, a popular free-heel news and chat forum. TelemarkTips will be featuring live Webcasts, including interviews with manufacturers and their reps. That means getting an early glimpse of next year’s gear from Tua, Voile, Black Diamond, G3 and Backcountry Access, among others.Rumor has it that Tua, a leading tele ski maker, will introduce a mega-fat twin tip tele board called the Bubba. Beefy at 125-92-112, the new boards promise the big, all-mountain ski feel while hopefully retaining the smooth flex Tua is known for.In other news gleaned from the Telemarktips Website, Black Diamond has issued a recall for the risers delivered as part of the O2 tele bindings.Finally, rumor has it that K2 will sell skis with preset binding screw inserts in the four-hole pattern used by the G3 Targa and Black Diamond O2 bindings. Even though stripped bindings are not as big a problem as they once were, a standard insert could enable skiers to move bindings between different skis. ~B.B.