PHOTO: David Reddick
Driving on U.S. Highway 395 in a blinding snowstorm, the shadows darting between roadside lamps seem like a pack of lurking yetis, but they are an entirely different beast. These are the Chain Monkeys, men and women who brave the cold, snow, and wind to chain-up mountain-bound drivers before the going gets steep. Steve Miesel is one of these stewards, patrolling the exit off Highway 395 to Mammoth Lakes, California, with a wrench, headlamp, and the occasional can of chili. The 56-year-old moved to Mammoth over 30 years ago to ski and work at a chalet and began securing tire chains soon afterward to fund his mountain adventures. Miesel's knees are shot and his ski career long gone, but these days the smiling Californian gets his kick helping city-slickers to the hill. For $40, he'll throw your chains on before you can open Snapchat, and for a few more he might even tell you where to grab a bite in Mammoth Lakes. Securing up to 20 sets of chains a day, it's rumored that Meisel has saved more ski trips than duct tape and hot chocolate combined. They've built statues of men who have done less.
Kade: What's the toughest part of being a Chain Monkey?
Steve: For me, it's dealing with the other chainers. It's like a bunch of seagulls out there chasing a $20 bill. It's crazy competitive. The weather and being wet and cold, you get used to that. But what's hard to get used to is other chainers in your face getting on your case.
So anyone can get a permit to do this job, but what's the key to success?
You have to like being out in storms. If you're psyched out by storms, don't come here. You get to appreciate the shear amount of snow that comes down and be part of this beautiful thing. It's a force that is kind of awesome.
How long is a typical workday?
You have your busy times—Thursdays, Fridays, and the holiday season. Those can be all day, like eight hours. Most days are about four, though.
So you like the cold, huh?
Yeah, I don't have a problem with it. You have to have good circulation because you can't wear gloves installing chains. I've never gotten frostbite. A customer once offered me a job repairing freezers because of that. Sub-zero freezers.
Who are your clientele?
Mostly skiers and boarders—people that are new to driving in the snow or might have loved ones in the car. They want to make sure they get to the mountains safely, and so do I.
Are skiers good tippers?
Absolutely. I'd say 25 percent give us a tip.
You must not know my friends.
Well, we have that type, too. But I think the average person that rolls over is going to spend a couple thousand dollars on the weekend. So tipping $5 or $10 is nothing.
You're the guy getting people to the hill on a powder day. How does that feel?
I like it. I like seeing a good job done and knowing that I'm helping people enjoy their time in the mountains.
Has anyone ever told you that you are a hero?