Monopalooza

Laugh all you want, but the monoskiers are having more fun than you.

From SnoWorld #66

Spotting rare things in the wild is always a thrill, more so when they are in numbers—a herd of bison, a convoy of hot rods, a crowd of drunks in Santa costumes. That’s clearly what the Jackson Hole ski instructor feels when he catches sight of the monoskiers sliding through the maze at the Sublette quad. “One, two, three,” he calls out. “Wow! Triple mono!”

Monopalooza 2015 at Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Jackson Hole’s terrain parks were a playground for the more than 50 monoskiers who descended on the resort. Here, Tucker Brown kills the quarterpipe.

“Look around. There’s more than that,” says yet another monoskier from farther back. Indeed, 20 or so monoskiers, feet pressed tightly together and poles akimbo for balance, are herding themselves into the maze atop the single planks. Needless to say, it’s a rare sight. 

“Cool! Can I ride up with you?” says the instructor, sliding up to the first trio. “Be careful,” comes the cry from farther back. “It’s contagious.”

It’s an amusing notion that a style of snow-sliding that peaked 30 years ago could be contagious. For those too young to remember the monoski’s moment in the mid-1980s, or who have never spotted one nailed to some ski-town saloon wall, a monoski is a wide ski with a pair of bindings mounted side by side, facing forward. There was a brief time when major brands like Atomic and Dynastar made monoskis, and Rossignol even sponsored a demo team. (There also was a time when there were Hacky Sack and Rollerblade teams too.) 

It wasn’t all novelty, though. In the days of narrow, 200-millimeter-long straight skis, the monos had some advantages. With their broad surface area, they floated easily through powder and plowed through crud, and as adherents still point out, you can’t accidentally cross your tips. Problem was, snowboards arrived at about the same time, and they combined those same advantages with skateboarding’s punk-rock sensibility. Monoskis went the way of ski ballet and skiboards, props that skiers now trot out ironically, along with teal and purple onesies, for pond skimming or April Fools’ Day.

Yet when no fewer than 50 monoskiers converged on Jackson Hole for the 17th annual Monopalooza last February, prepared to flaunt their anachronistic ways and even vowing to recruit new converts, we had to find out just who they were and what the hell they thought they were doing. Pro skier Rachael Burks was picked to embed with Monopalooza as ambassador for Warren Miller, chosen because few people can win over a group as quickly as the charismatic Pretty Faces star. But as it turns out, even the wettest of blankets could do the job. Monopalooza attendees may be the most gregarious and fun-loving ski group ever assembled, and they may actually be capable of reviving their seemingly dated discipline.

Monoskiing with Brendan "Boomer" Zimmerman at Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Monoskiing makes Iowan Brendan “Boomer” Zimmerman a happy man.

It’s 9:30 am, and a flask of Fireball is already making the rounds. The cinnamon-flavored whiskey jogs Burks’s memory. “I dreamed about monoskiing last night,” she says. “We were passing around the Fireball, but we all had cold sores.” She erupts in her notorious full-throated laugh and passes the flask. Burks has monoskied twice before but that was years ago, so the previous day’s warmup at tiny, two-lift White Pine was welcome. Fulfilling the common skier’s fantasy, Monopalooza rented out the entire resort for the day (for the paltry sum of $3,000).

Monopalooza moves to a different Western state each year and has attracted as many as 100 monoskiers. The group typically rents a 15,000-square-foot slopeside mansion or two, stocks the fridge with beer, and lets ’er rip. This year the 50 attendees arrived from 10 states, including Indiana and Florida, and included a few internationals from Quebec, Scotland, England, and Austria. There are pockets of monoskiers in Tahoe, Colorado, and Seattle, but many are lone wolves at their home resorts. “I thought I was the only one,” says Boomer Zimmerman, who has driven from Iowa out to Monopalooza for the past 10 years.

It’s a mostly male crowd (though including Burks, there are a record eight women at this year’s Monopalooza) and a mostly older one (the typical monoski origin story starts with the words “Back in the ’80s”). There are a few exceptions: Rochelle Stroumtsos, a 32-year-old therapist from San Diego, started monoskiing six years ago because her husband did. Greg Spanel, an almond grower from Davis, California, is just 28 and hasn’t clicked into a pair of planks for five years. When I ask why he switched, he cites the monoski’s float in powder and ability to cut crud. Why not snowboard, I ask? Staring intently at me to see if I’m serious, he says simply: “I’m a skier.”

An avid mogul skier living in Tahoe, California, Scott Jones switched from traditional skis five years ago after his knees eventually gave out on him. Despite recent knee-replacement surgery, Jones is skiing his mono pain-free. “It’s like taping two broken fingers together,” he says. Several skiers mention that monoskiing is easier on their knees—it reduces lateral pressure and torsional stress on the joint—and it’s probably no coincidence that many, including Jones, are stout guys, weighing in north of 250 pounds. 

Even for rippers like Jones, Spanel, and Tahoe legend Lee Dube, who once dropped 90-foot cliff Granite Chief on his monoski during a 1994 ski competition, Jackson is proving a tough go. The legendarily steep resort is in the middle of a historically icy stretch. Still, Spanel and Dube draw hoots of encouragement as they bash their way through the uneven, icy moguls on Thunder. “They still make those things?” someone calls out from the chair above. Burks is having a harder time with the bulletproof conditions. “I’m a little dinged up,” she admits. “I thought I had this at White Pine.” She pops off the lip in Dick’s Ditch, a natural halfpipe, heading for a big air, but she catches an edge on the run-in and smacks her head on the ice.

“We usually just hurt ourselves at the bar,” says Kerry Matre, a computer-security contractor from Lyons, Colorado, rubbing her hip after a similar fall. The parties can get pretty epic. At last year’s Monopalooza in South Lake Tahoe, she says, one particularly hungover attendee secured treatment from a paramedic in the group who’d stashed a few IV bags in his luggage. The patient lay on the pool table with an IV bag slung from the rental mansion’s deer-antler chandelier. With that story, Matre and about half the crew head for the hot tub to crack a few beers, but Dube convinces Burks and a few others to catch a last Tram.

Incredibly, they spot a couple of other monoskiers in the wild. A pair of local shop techs are walking through the base with some ancient monoskis on their shoulders in tow, and Burks quickly enlists them for a Tram ride to the top of the mountain. “We do this every Thursday,” one says, crunched into the big red car with 98 other skiers. “We both have screwed-up backs, and monoskiing seems to help. We’re self-taught, so I’m psyched to see some good monoskiers.”

“I actually have,” says the other. “In Chamonix last year on a powder day, they were all over the place.” Apparently monoskiing is still big in France. Several companies still make monoskis there, gatherings of more than 300 monoskiers are common, and riders frequently post videos of each other wiggling down steep, powdery mountain faces in the Alps.

Stepping off the Tram, the group heads down the icy ridge toward a run that would be right at home in Chamonix, the notorious Corbet’s Couloir. It’s closed for the day, with a rope stretched across the cliffed notch, but Burks, Spanel, and Dube walk to the edge and peer over to consider their lines. After a few minutes of contemplation, they click in, traverse Rendezvous Bowl, and stumble onto another of Jackson Hole’s unique and formidable attractions, the Wiggle.

Monoskiing Jackson Hole Wyoming
LEFT: Lee Dube, Greg Spanel, Scott Jones, and Rachael Burks fly down the mountain. RIGHT: Like his monoskiing brethren, Spanel is not deterred by the icy conditions.

Over the course of the two-week dry spell, Jackson riders have carved a hip-deep, perfectly serpentine, banked slalom course down the center of 1,000-foot Rendezvous Bowl. It’s deep enough to be seen clearly from the valley floor. A gaggle of red-coated male ski instructors bang their way down the course as Burks stands atop the groove. Any thoughts she has of ditching evaporate when they stop at the bottom, spot her there, and call up. In unison they start singing the hip-hop tune “Wiggle It”: Wiggle it, just a little bit! I want to see you wiggle it! Just a little bit!

Burks drops in, skidding sideways around a few corners, and is launched from the Wiggle. “I want redemption tomorrow,” she says as she watches Dube neatly snake his way through the luge run.

Two days later, after a group foray to nearby Grand Targhee resort, conditions haven’t gotten any easier at Jackson, but the Monopaloozers couldn’t seem to care less. Despite having put sizeable dents in the homebrew keg at the house and a one-gallon flask of Fireball, everyone is out early on the bright, sunny slopes. They take turns fearlessly bombing groomers at top speed—the big guys can generate a lot of momentum—and making friends on the lifts.

Monoskiing Jackson Hole Wyoming with Rachael Burks and Tucker Brown
LEFT: Rachael Burks, pro big-mountain skier, heads back up for another run alongside Tucker Brown. RIGHT: Boomer Zimmerman, Russ Brinkman, Jonathan Hess, and Dom Fillion raise a glass at Jackson’s Mangy Moose to another day of crushing it.

Three of them, including Jones, drop Corbet’s on their monoskis. It turns out to be Jones’s 55th birthday, and the whole crew takes turns slapping him on the back and sharing swigs from the twin pints of Crown Royal whiskey he keeps in his hip pockets. Curly-haired, mustachioed, and as friendly as they come, Jones has become a celebrity at Jackson after just two days. When he poles past a group of ski patrollers, they call out to him by name. Later, a whole table of tourists starts chanting his name as he walks into the Mangy Moose.

The rest of the crew has taken over the bar’s upper level. Stroumtsos shows off photos of her Telluride wedding. Both she and her husband are shredding on monoskis, she in a wedding dress, he in tails and a top hat. People are passing around a jar of Boomer Zimmerman’s homemade booze. “Boomshine,” they call it, and an attorney from Colorado named Sean Hearrell gets into a dance-off with about 20 MBA students from Columbia University. Pretty soon, Stroumtsos is there too, and all 20 are chanting her name.

At this point it occurs to me that whichever debates Monopaloozers like to engage in on the merits of the monoski seem pretty moot. What the twin-binding plank seems best at is attracting people to a group ski trip who are really good at having fun. People who, like unicyclists, want to start a conversation. Which is why, against all odds, Monopalooza keeps attracting new members. On this trip, for example, they’ve managed to get the lifties at White Pine to buy a monoski to trade off with. They recruit a Jackson Hole ski instructor to ride Targhee with them on a monoski and convince him to take one of their boards on an upcoming trip to New Zealand. “I’ve never made friends with anyone as fast as the monoskiers,” he says. 

Rachael Burks Monopalooza 2015
Burks is the perfect ambassador for Warren Miller: fun-loving and always itching to try something new

As for Burks, she does achieve a measure of redemption. All-in as usual, she spends her last day at Jackson cruising on Dube’s heels, pinging down the steeps and crisscrossing the halfpipe, beaming her big wide smile. She does press her luck a bit at day’s end, knocking herself unconscious for a few seconds in the terrain park, but she’s there at the Mangy Moose in the evening, laughing out loud and hugging all her new friends. Two weeks later, the brand-new monoski she’s ordered arrives from France.