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Catching Mono

Catching Mono

Travel
By Rob Story
posted: 11/03/2005

KIDS CAN SMELL WEAKNESS. THEY FEAST ON vulnerability. Ask any substitute teacher. Or ask those who witnessed monoskiers getting pelted with snowballs during a Friday happy hour last February at Squaw Valley, California.

The monoskiers, of course, don't think of themselves as weak or vulnerable. On the contrary. They've gathered at Squaw to celebrate their odd way of sliding down snow - on one big ski, with two side-by-side bindings facing straight downhill. To attend this, the sixth annual Monopalooza, is to drink the monoskiing Kool-Aid. It is to believe that monoskiing truly is a superior way of enjoying powder, that it will save your knees, that it will, at the very least, keep you from crossing your tips. Monopalooza attendees hold these truths to be self-evident. They nod in knowing agreement, almost pitying two-plankers, considering those who need a ski on each foot as people who "learn on training wheels."

The five preteens in a courtyard outside Le Chamois bar aren't buying it. The kids see soft targets. That the monoskiers are acting goofier still by doing wheelbarrow races - one guy holding the bindings of a monoski, Superman-style, while his partner holds his feet and runs - as part of a "monoski carnival" event, has sent the little brats into something like a feeding frenzy. As I watch safely from inside Le Chamois, enjoying pints of Sierra Nevada, a dozen or so monoskiers gamely attempt their carnival as snowballs whistle across the purpling sky.[ NEXT "PAGE 2"]

TWO DECADES AGO, ATOMIC AND DYNASTAR sold monoskis and Rossignol even sponsored a team of monoskiers to market its boards. The genre enjoyed a brief window of acceptance in the mid '80s. But so did New Coke and Huey Lewis. And like those flashes-in-the-pan, monoskiing quickly became an object of scorn and ridicule. Snowboarding became the only acceptable way to ride a single board, while the rise of fat and shaped skis greatly minimized monoskis' soft-snow advantages. Today, only nine or ten small companies you've never heard of make monoskis. Long before Monopalooza 2005, monoskiers had become a miniscule cult of guys - and almost zero women - with their feet held together. Like potato-sack racers, or Greg Louganis.

Monoskiers have heard all the insults. When a Monopalooza attendee remarks that "it's about time ski magazines covered monoskiing," festival founder Scott Gordon says wearily, "Oh, they have. But they always make fun of it." Which, more or less, is why my editors sent both an open-minded ski writer (me) and an amenable, tobacco-chewing big mountain skier (Jeremy Nobis) to this event. Just give it a whirl, they advised me. You never know, you might like it. And as for my sidekick, Nobis, well, I think the editors were hedging their bets-if one of us fell under the spell of the single plank, the other could gently steer him back to safety.[ NEXT "PAGE 3"]

Because monoskiing resembles old-school wedeln and remains - like Jerry Lewis and bloated duck livers - more popular in France than anywhere else, the default wisecrack paints monoskiing as Euro-dorky. (The board Gordon loans me, incidentally, is called the "Esprit de Glisse.") Yet Monopalooza is proof that American monoskiers don't, as a rule, wear turquoise one-piece suits and white Vuarnets. For the most part, they wear earth-tone jackets, knit hats, and goggles just like real skiers do.

A big-wave surfer named Mike Doyle made the first patented monoski in 1977 in Encinitas, California. Twenty years later and a few hundred miles north, Lee "Mono Maniac" Dubé gobsmacked spectators at the Extreme Skiing Nationals when he stuck a 90-foot huck off Squaw's Granite Chief - on his monoski. Strange as it may seem, monoboarding is in the midst of what its adherents claim is a mini-renaissance. Attendance at the annual festival is up, I'm told. More women and young guys and old hippies with bad knees are supposedly joining their ranks. In fact, it's not uncommon to see Tahoe-ea ski film icons Glen Plake and Shane McConkey periodically - and sincerely - rock the single board. McConkey even enthusiastically offered to loan us his collection for the duration of Monopalooza.

About 80 monoskiers show up at Squaw. Nobis, being Nobis, is sporting a bright red one-piece. Like most contemporary skiers, he has rarely observed a monoskier in the wild, and has much to learn. For instance, monoskiers step into their uphill binding first, or else they slide and stumble helplessly downslope till halted by friction or passersby.

Monoskiing distorts truths that alpine skiing holds dear. With two fewer edges, boots don't matter as much. In fact, stiff plastic can knock monoskiers into the backseat, so they favor old softies with tongues they can whale on. Mono Maniac, for example, rides Salomon Force 9 rear-entries held together with duct tape and baling wire. Bindings, meanwhile, because they function more or less as a complete unit, experience as much as three times the torque as does a normal alpine binding. Witnesses of mono biffs have noted that when release finally happens, the board can shoot 20-some feet into the air. Monoskiers habitually explode bindings, especially upward-release models and anything made of plastic. Gordon calls modern bindings "ridiculous" and hunts on eBay for old ones with mostly metal toes and heels.

After loaning Nobis and me boards, Gordon gives us tips on how to navigate our first lift maze: Kick out of one binding so you can paw - like a wounded coyote - to the chair. We reach the Squaw One Express lift. We're ready to go except for one little thing: technique. Oh, that. Advises Gordon: "Bend down, close your knees, and act like you're taking a shit."["PAGE 4"]

NOBIS IS IN DEEP. MAYBE IT'S THE ONE-PIECE that makes him immediately adept at monoskiing. He moves smoothly down the intermediate pitches of Mambo Meadows, throwing just enough hip into his carves to pull the unseemly wide tip around. He jabs his pole tips at the ground for balance - sometimes both at once. The mono universe, you should know, allows double pole plants.

Nobis seems unconcerned that the feet-together posture of monoskiing prevents him, a former U.S. Ski Team racer, from aggressively driving one femur down the fall line, unweighting, then powering, the other leg. He happily wiggles and swivels through symmetrical linked turns. It apparently doesn't bother him that monoski converts must forget everything they've ever learned about inside edge pressure.

Several runs elapse. When I finally catch up with him, Nobis gives monoskiing the standard blessing bestowed on alternative sliding methods: If you get bored on traditional skis, he says, this makes the mountain tough again.

He elaborates, though, that he likes more than the novelty. "I dig the mono turn," he says. "It's not just different. It feels groovy."

Paul Brennan, a friend of Nobis who refuses even to attempt one-love, much less admit that traditional skiing can be boring, counters that "Monoskiing is so gay..."

"But 'gay' means happy," Nobis interjects. "And the French are gay, and monoskiing's French, and...you're not French, are you?"

Which seems like a compliment of sorts. At any rate, Nobis embraces all things monoskiing. He surfs off a 30-foot cliff with Mono Maniac. Another time, when a graybeard sporting rear-entry boots and a cowboy hat noodles by in full mid-'80s glory, Nobis zips up his unitard and gives chase, shouting, "Game on!"

I'm more agnostic. I figure Nobis, McConkey, and Plake enjoy monoskiing because they're world-class athletes and it's easy for them. It's a struggle for me. I repeatedly weight the wrong edge, wrench my spine, faceplant. I simmer with resentment. We're land-based, bipedal humans, damn it - why should we move over ground like mermaids? You know why nobody monoskis? For the same reason we rarely ski in leg shackles: Independent leg motion is, for most people, a good thing.

Still seething, I share a lift up with a thickly bearded guy who says his name is "Mono Mark" DeMaio. He's ridden half the normal number of boards for over 15 years now. A soothing presence, he assures me that a tweaked lower back is common. "Mono is like the Pilates of skiing," he says, "It's all about skiing with your core, from your gut to your knees."

The appeal, he says, is that "a monoski turns the whole mountain into powder. You can skim along the top of crud and slush." I'll enjoy skiing's Frenchy subgenre, he promises, when I relax my alpine notions and concentrate more on floating. Says Mono Mark: "Part of monoskiing is letting go."["PAGE 5"]

IN THE RENO/TAHOE AIRPORT hangs an advertisement for a casino show called "Perfect 10." It features Adrian Zmed, an actor memorable for his blow-dried hair and smarmy unctuousness in Grease 2 and T.J. Hooker. The ad actually calls him "superstar Adrian Zmed." These words initially spur a textbook gag reflex, but then a realization that one can reinvent oneself here on the wild California-Nevada frontier. If Adrian Zmed can be a superstar, then by golly, monoskiing can be a relevant mountain sport.

The zeal of Monopalooza attendees is striking. Their passion is as expansive as their numbers are diminutive. Never mind that Vail and Heavenly denied permission for monoski demos because they couldn't see what was in it for them. Never mind that Squaw Valley management doesn't know Monopalooza 2005 is happening, that the resort's website fails to mention it, and that no signage or banners accompany it. The monoskiers still make themselves known, gathering en masse for events like the Chinese Downhill and something called a "monoski pole race."

Gordon, being a sensible fellow, constantly surrounds himself with well-wishers and sympathizers. I overhear him and Nobis waxing happy about steering with the "outside knee," which I can't even begin to understand. Nobis indicates an interest in buying a used monoski, and Gordon says, "You gotta look on eBay Germany. You can find them there for 20 to 40 bucks." Nobis has been brainwashed, that much is clear. I'm starting to panic.["PAGE 6"]

AT NIGHT, MONOPALOOZITES fill the Plaza bar to watch monoski videos, and then retreat to a salmon-and-beer feast at a sprawling mansion that sleeps 32 (29 men and three women). There, I run into a tall, cheerful Tahoe native named Tom "Doc Mono" Wendell, who expounds on just about everything except monoskiers' compulsion to put "Mono" in their nicknames.

He also explains, in excruciating detail, why he'll never go back to two skis. The way he and his people see it, monoskiing "takes the best things about skiing - straight-ahead vision, rolling ankles, and poles - and combines them with the balance and flotation of snowboarding." He boasts of the letter he received from Earth's most esteemed knee clinic, Steadman Hawkins, praising monoskis for causing less pressure on the lateral compartment and reducing torsional stress.

Mono Maniac, standing nearby, shakes his head and says, "I'll go to my grave not knowing why monoskis didn't take off."

Mono Maniac, Doc Mono, and their comrades tend to discuss monoskiing with the self-assured smile, almost a smugness, of a true believer. "It's not how you get down the mountain," Doc Mono purrs, "but whether you respect it and the people you're sharing it with. That's what matters...just to be weightless for an instant...it tickles your consciousness."

I float along for a moment, entranced by the universal joy of sliding down snow. But Doc Mono loses me when he claims, "You give up some things and gain others. You can't skate, but you don't have to worry about crossing tips. Everything's a trade-off..."

No. Sorry. Sacrificing the security and mobility of independent leg motion to quell the negligible fear of crossed tips - that's not a trade-off. That's handing the Dutch the island of Manhattan for 25 bucks' worth of beads.

I don't voice my disagreement, I share a lift up with a thickly bearded guy who says his name is "Mono Mark" DeMaio. He's ridden half the normal number of boards for over 15 years now. A soothing presence, he assures me that a tweaked lower back is common. "Mono is like the Pilates of skiing," he says, "It's all about skiing with your core, from your gut to your knees."

The appeal, he says, is that "a monoski turns the whole mountain into powder. You can skim along the top of crud and slush." I'll enjoy skiing's Frenchy subgenre, he promises, when I relax my alpine notions and concentrate more on floating. Says Mono Mark: "Part of monoskiing is letting go."["PAGE 5"]

IN THE RENO/TAHOE AIRPORT hangs an advertisement for a casino show called "Perfect 10." It features Adrian Zmed, an actor memorable for his blow-dried hair and smarmy unctuousness in Grease 2 and T.J. Hooker. The ad actually calls him "superstar Adrian Zmed." These words initially spur a textbook gag reflex, but then a realization that one can reinvent oneself here on the wild California-Nevada frontier. If Adrian Zmed can be a superstar, then by golly, monoskiing can be a relevant mountain sport.

The zeal of Monopalooza attendees is striking. Their passion is as expansive as their numbers are diminutive. Never mind that Vail and Heavenly denied permission for monoski demos because they couldn't see what was in it for them. Never mind that Squaw Valley management doesn't know Monopalooza 2005 is happening, that the resort's website fails to mention it, and that no signage or banners accompany it. The monoskiers still make themselves known, gathering en masse for events like the Chinese Downhill and something called a "monoski pole race."

Gordon, being a sensible fellow, constantly surrounds himself with well-wishers and sympathizers. I overhear him and Nobis waxing happy about steering with the "outside knee," which I can't even begin to understand. Nobis indicates an interest in buying a used monoski, and Gordon says, "You gotta look on eBay Germany. You can find them there for 20 to 40 bucks." Nobis has been brainwashed, that much is clear. I'm starting to panic.["PAGE 6"]

AT NIGHT, MONOPALOOZITES fill the Plaza bar to watch monoski videos, and then retreat to a salmon-and-beer feast at a sprawling mansion that sleeps 32 (29 men and three women). There, I run into a tall, cheerful Tahoe native named Tom "Doc Mono" Wendell, who expounds on just about everything except monoskiers' compulsion to put "Mono" in their nicknames.

He also explains, in excruciating detail, why he'll never go back to two skis. The way he and his people see it, monoskiing "takes the best things about skiing - straight-ahead vision, rolling ankles, and poles - and combines them with the balance and flotation of snowboarding." He boasts of the letter he received from Earth's most esteemed knee clinic, Steadman Hawkins, praising monoskis for causing less pressure on the lateral compartment and reducing torsional stress.

Mono Maniac, standing nearby, shakes his head and says, "I'll go to my grave not knowing why monoskis didn't take off."

Mono Maniac, Doc Mono, and their comrades tend to discuss monoskiing with the self-assured smile, almost a smugness, of a true believer. "It's not how you get down the mountain," Doc Mono purrs, "but whether you respect it and the people you're sharing it with. That's what matters...just to be weightless for an instant...it tickles your consciousness."

I float along for a moment, entranced by the universal joy of sliding down snow. But Doc Mono loses me when he claims, "You give up some things and gain others. You can't skate, but you don't have to worry about crossing tips. Everything's a trade-off..."

No. Sorry. Sacrificing the security and mobility of independent leg motion to quell the negligible fear of crossed tips - that's not a trade-off. That's handing the Dutch the island of Manhattan for 25 bucks' worth of beads.

I don't voice my disagreement, though. I'm a tolerant, kind-spirited man. Let the monoskiers enjoy their party. Let them regard their snowy modality as cool and smart.

There's no need to argue or judge. Better to follow the lead of my friend Jeremy "Mono" Nobis, who leaves the event/convention/propaganda-fest of Monopalooza quietly, saying, "I gotta take a couple days and think about what just happened."

OCTOBER 2005nt, though. I'm a tolerant, kind-spirited man. Let the monoskiers enjoy their party. Let them regard their snowy modality as cool and smart.

There's no need to argue or judge. Better to follow the lead of my friend Jeremy "Mono" Nobis, who leaves the event/convention/propaganda-fest of Monopalooza quietly, saying, "I gotta take a couple days and think about what just happened."

OCTOBER 2005

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