Telemark skier ups challenge to new heights

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Standing near the top of a 10,000-foot peak and staring down a 40-degree drop with 30-foot cliffs can be pretty intimidating. Then imagine having only a pair of skis and thin poles to help you get down.

That's the experience of a telemark freeskier every time he competes. Craig resident Mark Leier is one of those competitors.

"It's pretty crazy," he said. "There are cliffs from 10 to 80 feet and there are times when one slip and who knows what you could be free falling off of."

Leier got into competitive skiing by way of skiing bumps on the normal slopes. After finishing as the Colorado state champion in that series in 1998, he looked for another challenge and found telelmark skiing.

"It looked like a challenge and at the same time it seemed so graceful," he said. "I've always tried to challenge myself so I took it up."

What looked like a challenge to Leier may look insane to many. The freeskiing competition basically consists of the riders hiking up to some of the steepest terrain on a mountain, picking a line to jump down and then trying to look good for the judges as they practically free fall down

the mountain.

The competitors must have full life and health insurance to be on the tour because of the dangers.

After a year of learning to telelmark, Leier went to the first-ever U.S. Freeskiing Championship in Colorado. At the event, he finished third.

"I was on the top of the world," he said. "I thought I had conquered the sport after one year of learning."

Then he discovered the United States Telemark Skiing Association, a tour that was a little different.

"I entered that tour and realized that the championship in Colorado was probably with just a bunch of local Colorado people," he said. "The USTSA was the world's best."

In his first tour event three years ago, Leier went to Lake Tahoe in California. After his first run, he packed up and went home.

"I left after the first run because I was scared," he said. "It was so icy and so dangerous. I felt I didn't belong there."

During that first season and the next, Leier only qualified out of one first-day competition. Each competition has three days and there are four events each season.

"I was second guessing myself when I got to the top of the ridgeline," he said. "When you're staring down 35-foot cliffs, it's not good to second guess yourself."

Last summer, Leier decided he was going to better prepare himself for this winter's season. He started running, lifting and yoga in July for the physical preparation. He also became a student of Taekwondo to help him battle the mental part of the sport.

In January, he returned to Lake Tahoe and discovered the training had paid off.

He qualified through the first day and on Saturday, after the first run, he was sitting in fifth place. In the second run on Saturday, he fell, dropping back to tenth, but he moved on to his first final round on Sunday.

"I'd spent two years getting spanked," he said. "So I was stoked just to make it to the day where I could score some points."

In the series, points are scored in the final round on Sunday. So Leier earned a spot on the board for the first time in three years.

In the season's second event at Jackson Hole, Wyo., Leier was unable to get into final round, leaving only two more competitions to prove the first wasn't a fluke.

Event number three was held in Crested Butte and it is a weekend Leier will always remember. On his second run on Saturday, he "pounded" -- or landed -- three cliff jumps and made what he thought was a "pretty solid run."

At the end of the day, he found that he had the best run and was in first place.

"That may have been the biggest day of my life," he said. "That run was just as relaxing as driving to the supermarket and back. I went from just hoping to qualify to being in first place after day two."

Leier finished eighth after Sunday, earning a top-10 spot among skiers who are sponsored and are ten years younger than he is.

The final event of the year, the world championship, was cancelled because of insurance reasons. So to tally the season standings, the cumulative points from the first three events were taken and Leier finished 13th in the world.

"I think by getting out and training earlier this year, I was more physically prepared," he said. "But the big thing was having the mental edge that I learned from Taekwondo."

He said he hoped to finish in the top 10 next season, but that his days on the ridgelines are limited.

"There are only so many 40-foot drops you can walk away from," he said.

"It's such a rush but I think I'll leave it to the younger guys."

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