Behind the Scenes at the Super Bowl of Snowboarding
On snowboarding’s packed competition calendar, one event deserves to call itself legendary (and it does). The Mt. Baker Legendary Banked Slalom is one of the country’s longest-running snowboard comps, having started in 1985 as a flowy ride through a naturally-formed halfpipe that snakes down the White Salmon side of the mountain. Today, the pioneering snowboarding event is also one of the last in which pros compete alongside amateurs. There’s no cash to be won, there’s no sponsored after-party—and that’s the point. The course is a thrill ride, the crowds are spirited, and everyone (pros included) is there to have a good time. Think of it as a huge reunion for boarding fiends—one where you also get to watch the sport’s best make high-speed turns on a huge, twisting course.
After a dry winter canceled the 2015 race, the Banked Slalom returned to northwest Washington determined to make its 30th year of competition the biggest yet. The multi-day event drew 473 riders, counting among their ranks pros like Terje Haakonsen, the event’s winningest male, and Olympian Lindsey Jacobellis. Even the snow gods seemed determined to get in on the action, dumping 32 inches over four days. As photographer and snowboarder John Webster discovered, the Banked Slalom is still the best display of the sport’s funhog spirit.
Photo: Turning may be the most basic move in the snowboarding, but it’s also the most demonstrative. Riders at the Banked Slalom need to know how to pick the fastest line and stay on it.
Thanks to an annual lottery system, the Banked Slalom offers fearless amateurs the chance to share the course with the biggest names in the sport. In 2015, 1,130 entrants competed for 95 slots. Organizers hold a qualifier specifically for locals in January.
The first Banked Slalom was held in 1985, when Mt. Baker was one of the only resorts on the West Coast to allow snowboarding and riders still duct taped their Sorel boots to their boards. The sport has grown up, but duct tape, in the form of a tape roll-shaped metal trophy, still ends up in the hands of the winners and the front leg of every rider.
The race runs 16 different categories, from 7-year-olds in the Next Generation class to 68-year-old Super Masters. It’s a family affair, with parents and kids both racing and friends boarding alongside the course, blasting boom boxes to pump up riders. This year, the little groms impressed, provoking excited whispers among the pros that the sport’s future is in good hands.
Builders change the Banked Slalom course annually, with this year serving up 43 quad-busting turns. The idea is simple—make it around all the gates with the fastest time—but the course is punishing, taking riders up and down steep banks for an exhausting two-plus minutes and sending more than a few off course and into deep powder.
The start list reads like a who’s who of snowboarding. This year, Barrett Christy, Terje Haakonsen, Temple Cummins, Maelle Ricker, Jamie Lynn, and other legends took part. Josh Dirksen, who runs the Dirksen Derby banked slalom race at Mt. Bachelor, benefiting paralyzed snowboarder Tyler Eklund, checked out the course before walking away with fourth in the Men’s Pro Division. “It’s been a lot of years since [we had] a classic Baker course,” Dirksen said. “It’s a pleasure to ride.”
The clouds separate, revealing Mt. Shuksan in all its glory. When the snow falls, many competitors slip away to lay fresh tracks in nearby Shuksan Arm and Hemispheres backcountry areas or to take an inbounds powder run, hoping to return with enough leg strength to lay down a good time.
Competitors and onlookers camped out in Mt. Baker’s White Salmon parking lot, strumming guitars, shooting off fireworks, and trying to avoid the attention of local cops. Those who didn’t car camp ventured down to the nearby town of Glacier, population 211, where a cold beer at Chair 9 made up for the total lack of cell service.
Riders in the start shack are a bundle of nerves and adrenaline, both of which they hope to channel into a fast time. Once you’re out of the shed, though, it’s all thrills. “Everyone who rides the course is like, ‘It’s just fun.’ You don’t have to risk your life throwing yourself off a 50-foot gap to be rad,” says race organizer Amy Howat Towbridge, who’s won a couple gold duct tape trophies herself. “It just reminds everyone snowboarding is really, really fun, and that’s what it’s all about.”
From blue skies Saturday to nuking snow Sunday, riders saw a range of conditions. Wax strategies changed, but spirits stayed high.