LEADVILLE, Colo.—"What are those things? Are they new?"
The queries leave monoskier Prema Zipp shaking his head. After all, his preferred snowriding device has been around for more than three decades, longer than the metal-edged snowboards strapped to the feet of Zipp's questioners.
"It's like they're new," says Zipp, a 27-year-old professional skier who is paid to rip turns on a monoski, a long, wide ski that looks like a snowboard but with traditional ski bindings that make the rider face completely forward.
Twenty-some years ago, there wasn't a European ski maker that didn't have a monoski in its product line. Today, there are three monoski manufacturers in the world, one of which is based in Leadville, Colo., where a ski bum with a bad knee is fanning the long-dormant embers of a sport whose players have grown very, very weary of hearing: "What is that thing?"
"It's pretty much time for a new sport," says Scott Gordon, president and creator of White Knuckle Sports, a monoski design and manufacturing company plotting to infuse several designs of a shaped monoski into today's snowriding industry. "Snowboarding has peaked. It's on the downside. This is the next all-mountain product, and it's virtually new to the young kids today who don't know it's 30 years old."
As far as Gordon is concerned, the impression that a monoski is a newfangled snow toy, like sno-bikes or snow blades, is one he hopes to foster. Essentially, he's trying to reinvent a board that simply fizzled into obscurity after 20 years of tepid interest in the mainstream ski world. Growing up under the shadow of its juggernaut cousin, the snowboard, certainly didn't help the disjointed, largely European effort to promote monoskiing.
Today, the first monoski ever made for mass production is propped unceremoniously in the Colorado Ski Museum in Vail, where it is included in a snowboarding display tracking the history of snowboarding.
Despite a few flare-ups of interest, fueled by the European movement known as La Glisse, or The Glide, the monoski movement of the '70s and '80s just about died in 1990, when snowboarding began its rocket ride to the top of the ski market.
Monoskiing never caught on with Americans like snowboarding, maybe because of the complete lack of the seemingly essential inside edge or its close association with perceived Euro-tackiness.
By the mid-'90s, European ski makers like Dynamic, Dynastar and Rossignol abandoned the monoski, leaving only Duret, a French manufacturer that dropped 14 of its 17 models from its product line in 1996.
That's when Gordon, then a sales rep for Duret monoskis at a small shop at Copper Mountain, started worrying. He had blown out his knee a few years earlier and had grown to rely on the monoski. It was the only pain-free snow toy he could use on the mountain.
"I got scared," says Gordon, a music major from Southern California who's been riding Colorado's mountains for more than a decade. "I had to start manufacturing, because I didn't want to start snowboarding or skiing again. I didn't want to let it die. I couldn't let it die."
That's where Prema Zipp comes in. As the sole monoskier on Alta's renowned free-ride ski team, Zipp earns his living promoting White Knuckle. He launches from 60-foot cliffs in the French Alps and rides stock White Knuckle boards in races across the globe. His job is to overcome the stigma that surrounds monoskis. His message is simple: Try it.
"There's a strong and prevalent misconception that these things are scary and dangerous," says Prema, one of the world's top monoskiers.
"I'm here to dismiss that. These are fun. Falling on this thing is like sliding into home. He scores!" Zipp and Gordon promise almost immediate monoskiing proficiency to both snowboarders and skiers. A decent skier can be skiing bumps in only a few runs. They are marketing the monoskis to skiers tired of crossing their tips, bored snowboarders and snowriders who have suffered knee injuries that keep them off the hill. Gordon has outfitted people with polio on monoskis as well as people with prosthetic legs.
Starting this week, Gordon and Zipp will begin toting dozens of monoskis to ski hills across the West, including Copper, Breckenridge, Keystone and Monarch in Colorado. It's a grassroots effort aimed at educating the snowriding world as well as those who have given up on winter mountain fun.
"We are going to bring a whole lot of new people into winter sports," says Gordon. "It's fun and so easy to learn. With these things, you just stand on top and go."