Long before the Web and social media, I can remember getting snowboarding magazines in the mail and reading about the Legendary Banked Slalom. Many of the best snowboarders from all over the world have made the trek to Mount Baker in Western Washington, each sharing in the exhilaration of a two minute ride through one of the most radical runs ever created. Based on what I read, the photos, and the amount of annual snowfall that Mount Baker receives, I made a mental note to get there one year. Twenty years later, a move to the Pacific Northwest placed me just down the road from the place where legends are made. Having ridden at Baker over the last five years, I’ve come to love the deep snow, crazy terrain, and family feel of the mountain. Each year, I entered the lottery to participate in the LBS, but I had never been lucky enough to be selected. Until this year.
The family owned and operated vibe comes through in the way the event is run, the traditions, and the duct tape trophies. Yes, the duct tape rolls are sacred, and to score one is awesome, but just being in the event brings a sense of stoke and honor for all snowboarders. It’s not about winning at the LBS; it’s about riding through one of the most radical runs of your life through banked corners and the people you meet throughout the weekend, who also share the same love of making turns. Throw in 24” of snow in three days, and you’ve got the recipe for an epic weekend.
I went to bed early Wednesday night knowing I needed to hit the road early a.m. to make it up to Baker in time for registration Thursday morning. My anticipation and excitement got the better of me. I didn’t get to sleep until 1:30 am. I was up three hours later and on the road driving my friend’s VW van packed full of food, snowboarding/camping gear, and some caffeine. The last hour of the drive is nothing short of epic. The views along the Nooksack River, the vibrant green mossy trees growing over the road, and the tight turns through evergreens that reach to the sky are just a taste of the natural beauty that lies at the end of the road to Mount Baker. I parked at the back of the lot in the line of RV’s, vans, tents, and trucks made into cozy overnighters. It was obvious the weekend was going to be fun.
I made it to the registration lines, and I felt like I was at a reunion. I exchanged names with a few people and was welcomed by those around me. Friends high-fived, hugged, and caught up while in line for a goodie bag, including a bib and many other nice surprises. Next was attaching the bib to your front leg of your snow pants with duct tape. It’s tradition.
Once to the top of the mountain, riders lined up for a slip through the course. As we stood in line, I made new friends from Tahoe, Montana, Japan, and Calgary. Some had participated before and willingly shared advice, secrets, memories, and excitement from previous experiences. I made it to the front of the line where so many legends have gone before and into the infamous “say your prayers” starting shack. It’s another tradition. There’s history in those old wooden boards, and the carved quotes like “say your prayers” and “stay low be powerful” are tidbits of advice to newcomers and reminders to legends. The practice run was just a taste of the fun to come.
The emcee called out names, shared high-fives, and kept the flow of the event rolling perfectly. I was only a few riders away from my first official run, and already my anxiety was in full effect. Snow was blowing sideways, our goggles were fogging, the visibility was low, and we were all trying to stay warm until our names were called. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait too long for my turn. A countdown by the attendant in the shack of three, two, one, and I pushed off the 2x4s, just like so many have before me. Through the first few corners, I don’t think I took a breath. I bobbled here and there, but halfway through the banked course I found a rhythm. Anxiety turned to pure stoke, and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I reminded myself of the carved words on the shack: stay low, be powerful. The leg burn began, but the fun that came with sliding through the banked corners trumped any pain. As I crossed the finish line, I let out a “yewwwwww!” Other riders responded similarly along with a few laughs. One of the previous riders piped up in the background, “Hey bro, not sure what you’re all excited about. You looked slow.” I responded the only way I knew I could and should. “Doesn’t matter, dude. I finished the course, and to be in the event is an honor.” Others shared my sentiments and high-fived me. After all, it was one of the most radical runs of my life, and I had been waiting to ride it for many years. My time wasn’t good enough to qualify for finals day, so I would get one more crack at it on Friday.
I made my way back to the top of the course before heading to take some laps around the mountain. I stopped by the competitor’s tent and bumped shoulders with a few legends I have looked up to for many years. Inside the tent, volunteers served chocolate-covered strawberries, hot tea, salmon sticks and paella, but there wasn’t time to eat. The snow was dumping, and turns needed to be made. I joined a few new friends, and we made fresh tracks for a few hours in the steeps and deeps Baker offers. End of the day, I made my way back to the parking lot shaking my head side-to-side in disbelief. What a day!
My friend had driven up to join for the next couple days, so once at the van, we caught up and cooked some gourmet two-minute noodles. Darkness had settled in and as we were finishing our meal there was a knock on the window. When we slid open the window, a friendly stranger who worked for Traeger barbecue mentioned they were having barbecue pork, kielbasa, veggies, and a keg down the way if we wanted to join. No need to ask twice! Many others from the long line of campers showed, and we all stood around a big fire pit making new friends. I ended up talking story with one of my favorite riders from the old Robot Food movies, Scotty Wittlake. It had been years since we last spoke, but it didn’t feel like it. Keeping people entertained, one of the Traeger guys pulled out an old German contraption used for snuff. It included a mousetrap ‘snap’ which, when held up to your nose and triggered, launched snuff up into your nose. Many laughs followed. We all exchanged snowboarding and travel stories for a couple hours, and eventually people trickled away to go crawl in their mummy bags. More snow was predicted, so it was time to call it a night.
Friday was a true Baker day. Huge heavy snowflakes filled the air, and again visibility was tough. Like the previous day, my LBS run was early in the morning, which was great. This meant we could go ride fresh snow around the mountain the rest of the day. “Forerunners” rode through the course and sprayed blue paint lines around the banked corners, but the snow was falling so quickly that they were covered within a matter of minutes. As I dropped in for my second chance to qualify for finals day, I realized the course was much faster and had a lot more flow than on the first day. Didn’t think it was possible, but the ride was even more fun than the day before. I made my way down into the middle section and noticed what sounded like an entourage of people cheering me on with hoots, hollers, and cowbells. My friends had recruited a few others standing along the course to make some noise. I was in the zone. The corners felt fast and smooth… until one corner near the end where I went down and lost valuable time. I flipped over, hopped up and let out and expletive or three. I made my way down into the "toilet bowl" section and retained plenty of speed through the finish. As I crossed the finish line, I again let out a couple hoots and exclamations of joy. Even with the fall, I beat my previous time by two seconds. But, it wasn’t enough to qualify for finals day. It was my last chance to ride the run, an opportunity I will always remember and cherish.
The freeriding the rest of the day was exceptional. No one on the lifts even though the snow continued to dump; free refills all day. Not even Gore-Tex can keep you dry on days like that. Some bash the Northwest for the wet snow, and we’re fine with their sentiments. It was glory days in the trees for hours that afternoon, occasionally running into other pro riders I recognized who shared the same feelings about the storm that was delivering. There were a lot of head nods and smiles between riders throughout the day. Late afternoon, we made our way to the competitors tent for some hot paella and tea. Everything tastes better when you’re tired and stoked from riding pow with your friends. Off the mountain, we peeled off all our wet gear and ran the heater in the van for hours drying everything out. We partied with the Traeger guys again for a while by their RV/camper/bbq set up before making it back into our mummy bags for the night. It was still nuking snow, and another 12” or more was predicted overnight along with colder temps. The freezing level dropped 2000 feet, and the snow didn’t stop all night.
The next morning, everyone awoke to the light, white fluffy stuff everywhere. I heard the snowplow pushing away snow nearby early in the a.m. and slid the door open to stacks of dry pow. Saturday was legends day at the Legendary Banked Slalom. All previous winners of 30 years of racing were invited back to compete. Knowing we would watch some of them in the afternoon, we set out for a day of riding pow. We all knew this was going to be one of the best snowboarding days of the year. No one could contain his or her excitement. You could hear it all around you, no matter where you were on the mountain.
Only a couple hours in, a few spots of blue showed between gray clouds. There had been rumors the clouds would clear and we would get bluebird conditions as the day went on, but in the Northwest, you only listen to half of what is said in any weather report. But the rumors were right! The sun came out, and Mt. Shuksan and surrounding peaks displayed themselves in all their glory. Local or not, it’s hard not to stare when it happens.
After destroying fields of pow for a few hours, we made our way to the banked slalom area to watch a few of the pro riders. Seeing legends like Terje, Jamie Lynn, Tom Burt, Mike Basich, Tex Davenport, Lindsey Jacobellis, Annie Boulanger, Nate Holland, Temple Cummins, and many others was a treat. To see them on the banked slalom course was incredible. The style, flow, and rhythm they displayed were inspiring.
Later, we made a run under chair eight, and, on our way back up, we noticed some guys were hiking "the arm" and riding some of the backcountry area. One of the first riders set off an avalanche, and fortunately he was able to ski off to the side of the ridge while all the snow made its way down into the gully. Not one minute later, another rider dropped in and set off another avalanche. We could see him get caught in the middle, and soon concern and panic filled the air around us. It felt like an eternity as we all stared to try to make out some trace of the rider in the puff of snow, praying that he would be okay. As the cloud cleared near the bottom of the avalanche, we saw the rider right in the middle of the pile of snow. He stood there not moving--I’m guessing he was saying his prayers of gratitude. Once we made it to the top of the lift, we watched a few more riders take runs along "the arm" that were obviously not safe. The snow was not stable, yet people were taking their chances in an area known to be dangerous in these conditions. Crazy.
Saturday ended with another awesome LBS tradition: the salmon dinner. Hundreds of snowboards lay on their sides outside the raven lodge. While eating a hearty meal of fresh Alaskan salmon, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes, people reminisced banked slalom runs, powder turns in the trees, and soreness in their bodies from a three days of riding. Salmon never tasted so good.
Though we didn’t stick around for it, Sunday was finals day. The race times were fast as can be. Legends were made. Duct tape trophies and other awards were handed out. What people find in the LBS is a sense of community and family. It’s contagious. As a competitor in the event, I felt legendary the entire weekend and I have everyone that was there to thank for that. Even the guy that told me my race time sucked.
As I look back, I am grateful for the opportunity to get up in the mountains with friends, old and new, enjoying one of the things I love doing the most. I can easily say it was one of the best weekends of my life. Thank you to Mount Baker, the Howat family, the staff, the volunteers, and legends and amateurs alike. I hope my name gets called again.