Mano y mono
Local ripper keeps retro sport alive and proves one ski is all you need

Mano y mono

Cal Neff with his Faction monoski at Purgatory during a break in the weather and ski action./Photo by Missy Votel

Missy Votel - 04/11/2024

There’s a long-running joke in mountain towns: “The last one on teles, please turn off the lights.” Well, if this axiom applies to monoski-ing, then the lights – really more of a flicker – went out right around the time of mullets and one-piece suits (the first time around, that is).

Or so one may think. That is until they meet Cal Neff, a 20-year-old all-around Durango dude who is trying to, uh, single-skiedly keep the sport alive. At least in our enclave of Southwestern Colorado. In fact, not only is he keeping the mono light on, he’s blaring it like a beacon on a cold, blustery, sideways-snowing day.

Which is exactly the conditions we experienced on a recent spring day when we met up for a ski-terview at Purgatory. So much for my mono ski visions of zinc lips, neon headbands, goggle tans and slush bumps to a Van Halen soundtrack. 

“I’ll be wearing brown pants and a black jacket,” Neff informed me prior to our rendezvous at the Six Pack. OK, so much for the flashy onesie as well.

As a lifelong skier who regards the very rare sight of a monoskier as an anomaly, sort of like a skiing unicorn, I had so many questions for this young buck. Namely: how and why? I needed to delve to the bottom of the deep psychological pinnings that would make a perfectly healthy, capable young person decide to strap both feet together, facing forward, and gyrate down the mountain like a jibbering windsock.

“It’s just about having fun,” Neff confided on our tell-all chairlift session. “It’s about doing what you love and doing what you enjoy. And that’s what I enjoy.”

OK, so he got me there: fun, the main incentive in almost any twentysomething’s motivational cortex … duh.

But what about the “how” – especially when all his friends are snowboarding, skiing, tele-ing and enjoying the freedoms of two-legged mobility, for the most part?

Well, I was about to get an education. Seems it all goes back to “GNAR the Movie,” a 2010 cult classic, which I must have missed when it played in the theaters. An homage to the late, great extreme skiing icon Shane McConkey (who I actually have heard of), the film epitomizes the spirit of freestyle skiing and the irreverent culture surrounding it. All of this I lifted directly from the internet, so it must be true.

Without getting too into the weeds, the film was the work of another freeskiing pioneer and McConkey bro-bra, Robb Gaffney, who died of cancer in 2023. But before he moved on from this Earthly realm, he left us the “Game of GNAR,” aka “Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Radness.” The game scores skiers on a series of challenges that are as much about showmanship and humor as they are about skill.

“In the game of GNAR, you get 1,000 points for monoskiing the whole day at Squaw,” said Neff, referring to the Tahoe-area ski resort now called Palisades. “I said, ‘I want to try that. It looked so fun.’”

Ah, the McConkey effect, so now we’re getting somewhere.

Also, for the record, Neff – whose friends call him Mustard, but more on that later – did not just wake up one day and decide to mono ski. A native of Sacramento, he said he’s been skiing “practically since he could walk.” In fact, his parents, FLC alumni, met on the slopes of Purg, so skiing is basically in his DNA. As a kid, he spent summers and winter breaks in Durango or at the family’s cabin, in the Cimarrons, near Montrose. When he was 18, Neff moved to Durango to follow in his parents footsteps at FLC. However, he decided college “wasn’t for me,” and instead took a job at Backcountry Experience, which allows plenty of time for climbing (another passion of his) and eventually, monoskiing. 

We say “eventually” because, as you can imagine, monoskis are a bit hard to come by these days. Fortunately, after months of internet and thrift store scouring, Neff’s dad (who incidentally graced the cover of Ski Magazine in the 1990s) found one on Craigslist.

“It was a 1985 Dynastar Kevlar monoski,” Neff said. “It was old school and kind of terrifying.”

And, despite the old bindings cracking on its maiden run, Neff was smitten from that day forward by the mono bug (but not that mono bug.) “I said ‘OK, I’m all into this. I don’t really see a reason to go back to skiing,’” he said.

As luck would have it, Neff’s dad had a monoskiing friend from his Purg days, Prima Zip (real name, I was assured), who took the fledgling under his wing. (Prima, if you’re out there – call us!)

“It was nice to have some kind of mentorship,” said Neff. “He said, ‘You’re talking to the right guy for this deal.’ He was stoked to help me.”

Neff said he still has the Dynastar, but fortunately has moved into a modern monoski made by Faction, a Swiss company.

“Monoski-ing is a very European thing,” he said. “It’s still a big thing over there.”

And while other European tastes have (thankfully) yet to catch on in the States, like Speedos, smoking while you eat and David Hasselhoff, Neff thinks it may be on the upswing here.

“I went to Tahoe and saw two in one day,” he said, which we suppose is sort of like seeing two unicorns. “I saw another one at Purg not too long ago, and my friend says he sees them all over.”

Neff said one of the draws may be that the monoski is actually the true quiver-killer (unless, of course, you need a split monoski – which they make – for the backcountry.)

“I used to have six pairs of skis and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” he said. “Now, I only really need one.”

Neff also said modern monos have more sidecut, allowing for snappier turns. “It turns on a dime – in a reboundy [*totally a word], bouncy kind of way.”

Then there is the whole safety third consideration (after fun factor and GNAR scores, of course). 

“It just feels safer to be locked in, there’s no way for your legs to twist up on each other,” he said, adding that many of his friends who ski have suffered torn ACLs, jacked knees and the like. That said, his DIN is cranked to a stout 13 to avoid any unintended ejections.

But best of all, even at a place like Purg known for its, shall we say, abundance of horizontal, Neff gets around just fine on one ski, thank you very much. In fact, on our character-building day of flat light and graupel on crust, there was nothing the mono couldn’t handle, from the giant icy bumps of lower Hades to airs with questionable landings under the Six Pack. 

Dare I say, we had fun over the course of our two-hour ski outing? In fact, Neff even got catcalls of “Mustard!” from the lift, which made me feel like I was skiing with a local celebrity.

(Which reminds me I promised the origins of the Mustard name. Apparently, a friend named “Jack” decided Neff’s previous moniker of “Mono Man” was lame and came up with “Mustard Man,” which stuck. Neff has no idea why – he likes mustard but not “outrageously.”)  

So for now, Mustard the Mono Man will continue his trajectory in local monoskiing lore. And who knows? Maybe one day, he will become the Shane McConkey of monoskiing – which by then will have become all the rage just like in “Hot Dog...The Movie” – and we can say we heard about him here first.

“It’s all about pushing boundaries, finding the limits and living my best life in the game of GNAR,” he said. ?

Mano y mono

Cal Neff airs it out under the Six Pack on his monoski.