“He’s on a monoski!"
A French teenager points and shouts at me as I slide past him struggling to stay upright on what he has correctly identified as a monoski – a ski-meets-snowboard hybrid which clips in facing forward.
To be fair to the Val Thorens heckler, monoskis are not something commonly seen on the slopes these days. Or at least not in every ski resort.
After soaring popularity in the 80s plummeted in the following years, the monoski fell into the same box of nostalgia as the fluorescent one-piece ski suits and dubious haircuts so many people rocked while riding them.
Long story short, monoskis got a reputation for being a little bit lame in a lot of circles. They became the snowsports equivalent of telling ‘yo mama’ jokes or turning up for a pint wearing a pair of Crocs.
Here at Mpora though, we’re firm believers in the don’t-knock-it-till-you’ve-tried-it school of thinking - and we’d heard that monoskiing was making a comeback. Three new monoskiing schools have opened in France alone in the past couple of years, and in places like Chamonix people are far less surprised to see a monoski on the slopes than they are in Val Thorens. There are even companies specialising in the sale and rental of state-of-the-art monoskis.
“More than 30 people can come in on any one day in Spring for monoski rental or retail," we’re told by Pierre François Brun of SnowGunz, a company offering stylish easy ski, all piste, freeride and touring monoskis.
“In Chamonix people are used to seeing monoskiers ride the pistes, the forests, big mountain and steep extreme faces – often faster than everyone else. We’re even on posters for the ski resort.
“All the locals know that monoskis rip in the backcountry..."
“The only people who are surprised to see us these days are people who are disconnected from the ski community. All the locals know that monoskis rip in the backcountry."
So, rather than sit back and laugh at the possibility of a rejuvenated monoskiing movement gaining momentum, we decided it would be best to get involved.
Of course, we also wanted to abuse the fact that Intersport let you change your skis as often as you want when you rent your planks from them on holiday. So, in went our pair of Black Crows and out came a monoski.
Next up was to find an instructor. Because without an instructor we feared we’d end up accidentally straight-lining through snowboarders all day like we were on some sort of a bid for vigilante monoski vengeance. So, we found an instructor. His name was Eric "Rico" Franchini. And he had some serious skills on a monoski.
Rico had been riding a monoski since the 1980s, though even he admits to stopping in the 90s before restarting after the millennium.
He was very much a fan of chucking his students in at the deep end. After a whirlwind guide on how to hockey-stop on a monoski and how to move from side to side, making good use of the poles, we were clipped in and heading down the entry to the main piste in Val Thorens.
To say I was like Bambi on ice to start with would be an insult to the skating abilities of the cartoon deer. In amongst the madness though there were some early signs of success that hinted all may not be lost just yet.
Monoskiing is all about body movement. It’s all about using your arms and your hips while largely keeping your knees in roughly the same position. I now completely understand why those skiers in the 80s used to throw their arms around like they were having a seizure. It really helps swing momentum going into the turns and the better you get at the hip movement, the less you have to look like a distressed orang-utan while you’re doing it.
It’s also a lot easier the faster you go, as your energy is easier to transfer at speed. This is of course somewhat hindering for first-timers, but it means that the quicker you get your confidence, the quicker you’re going to progress.
And for anyone who has been through any sort of skiing instruction before, it should be easy enough to learn. All you need to do is stick rigidly to proper two-planked practice. There’s less room for leeway on a monoski, so you’re forced to pick it up fast.
See, as someone more accustomed to riding two skis, I often wanted to shift my legs separately and misalign my knees whenever I initially tried to turn on the monoski. This is bad practice for two planks anyway, but when you’re locked into one it means that you’re almost definitely going to fall flat on your face. It was like the monoski was a training device designed to teach perfect skiing technique. And a harsh teacher it was; reminiscent of a long-lost music instructor of mine who once taped a kid’s fingers to his trumpet because he kept lifting them during recital. Sure she got fired, but Eoghann got a lot better at playing the trumpet. It’s the same with the monoski; you might learn the right technique in a fairly brutal fashion, but you’ll learn it quickly (and with less mental scarring than that aforementioned pre-teen brass band).
We nail a couple of runs over some fluffy powder next to a magic carpet and with our abilities transforming like the skyline throughout the day, the only constant in the experience is the call of ‘monoski!’ from passing revellers eager to remind us of our chosen mode of transport.
Things are going well though. My only grievances are that my left-hand turn is a lot stronger than my right and I can't seem to keep the monoski still while waiting stationary for other riders in our group. I find myself often accidentally drifting in and out of other people's private space like I'm preparing to launch one of the stealthiest and most unsettling monoski-based pick up attempts of all time.
But there were more pressing issues to deal with.
See, while I was stargazing, Rico made the executive decision to take us thousands of metres above resort on a chairlift to try and master a fairly lengthy blue run before the sun set. Things had escalated.
The lift ride did give me a chance to quiz the man himself on exactly why people monoski though. Rico happily rolled off lines about how many powder junkies in France spent time perfecting their skiing technique on a monoski and explained that for beginners, it’s easier to access powder on a monoski than it is on a pair of regular skis, because you don’t have to re-learn for the off-piste.
Snowgunz’s Pierre echoed this praise: “We ride with the world’s best skiers and snowboarders here in Chamonix. We ride the same spots at the same level, and we’re lighter than skiers and more powerful. You can go faster. It’s perfect for soft snow, sunny slopes, off-piste forests or couloirs or freeride."
Flash forward to the the start of the blue run. It’s almost last lifts at this point and I’m not entirely convinced I’m going to make it back to resort before nightfall, but I suck it up, think positive and put my training to work as Rico speeds off like a slaloming bullet from a wonky gun.
After a slow start which features a little float through some nearby powder, my right-hand turning finally starts to click and it’s all steam ahead, albeit with the occasional slingshot to the ground for good measure.
Particularly pleasing is the feeling of the speed through a wide but steep middle segment, the fact that I manage to successfully steer myself away from an ominous cliff, and best of all, overtaking a handful of newbie snowboarders and skiers on our eventual final dash down the piste.
It’s been a tough day of learning through trial, error and Rico’s hints and tips, but I have to admit to enjoying monoskiing more than I expected. Who knows, the second coming of the sport may be on the horizon. Pierre certainly thinks so.
“In the future I see an extension of the Chamonix set up at present," he concludes. "All skiers will have a monoski in their quiver. Monoski touring will grow for sure. Beginner skiers will ride monoski rentals during their ski week on vacation and intermediate skiers will ride monoskis when they want easy off-piste. It’s a perfect combo – so interesting for skiers."
Will it take off again? We’ll just have to wait and see.
February is the 'Challenge Issue' on Mpora. Click here to read the rest of the issue