by Annie Fast

30 Years Of Turning Through Mt. Baker’s Legendary Banked Slalom

A pure, untainted event built on simplicity, tradition, friendships, and family.

 Photo: Tim Zimmerman

Ten years ago, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the Legendary Banked Slalom and the enduring nature of the event—how it’s on a level above the ephemeral whims and trends of mainstream snowboarding. So much has changed within snowboarding in the past 10, 20, and now 30 years, but that sentiment remains true and it’s more relevant and more revered than ever. The LBS continues to be a pure, untainted event built on simplicity, tradition, friendships, and family, which stands out in an era where traditions have a tendency to morph into consumer events. But that’s not how they do it at the LBS.

Bob Barci. Photo: Kevin Ward

At its core, we’re looking at a timed slalom race around gates through banked turns—fastest rider down wins. That scenario alone is not what brings Terje Haakonsen all the way from Norway year after year. It is, however, the exact event that the late, great Tom Sims and snowboard advocate Bob Barci dreamt up and then petitioned Mt. Baker GM Duncan Howat for heading into the winter of ’84/’85. The first LBS was held on held on January 20, 1985. Bud Fawcett shared his account of it in the March issue of Absolutely Radical Snowboard Magazine. He wrote, “The banked slalom course ran about 500 feet, with 12 gates through some excellent terrain. The course’s action was fast, aggressive, hard-packed snow. 19 out of 28 competitors completed the event.” Tom Sims won that first year, followed by Sims team rider and World Freestyle Champion Terry Kidwell, Camp of Champions founder Ken Achenbach, Craig Kelly, and a whole slew of legendary riders and early industry leaders.

Photo: Nick Hamilton

A Freeriding Mecca

That first contest set the wheels in motion for Mt. Baker to become the beating heart of snowboarding culture on the west coast. The Mt. Baker Hardcore (MBHC) was formed that day among hard charging locals including Jeff Fulton, Carter Turk, Dan Donnelly, and Craig Kelly—an influential crew of local riders who lived and rode by the now legendary motto “No chute too steep, no powder too deep.” New riders, many there for the first time, were exposed to Mt. Baker’s terrain. Mike Ranquet, a stoked skate and snow grom at the time, remembers when he found out about the upcoming race on a flier posted at Bob Barci’s Bikefactory skate/snowboard/BMX shop in Bellevue, Washington, announcing both the race and that Tom Sims would be competing. Ranquet says, “I was so stoked to meet Tom Sims. I wanted his autograph. He was in the beer garden, had this mustache—looked like Tom Selleck, you know. It was a big deal!” In addition to the race itself, Ranquet vividly remembers seeing Carter Turk and Eric Jenko riding lines under the lift by the racecourse and being blown away by how badass and steep it was. “That blew my mind more than anything, seeing Carter fly down this f—king 45-degree chute on his roundtail Kidwell, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the baddest thing!’ It totally inspired me.” And that’s the exact style of riding and terrain that still inspires legions of riders to make the annual pilgrimage to Baker.

Nate Lind goes off course. 2012. Photo: Scott Sulivan
Josh Dirksen, picking up speed. Photo: Ben Gavelda

The mountain’s terrain also makes for the best banked slalom training. The course runs through the natural halfpipe, which is centrally located for lapping through the Hemispheres and Shuksan Arm zones and rushing back in time for your run, hopefully with enough leg strength to make it to the bottom. But if the powder is that good, priorities might shift. That’s Ranquet’s excuse for lapsing from a competitor into a cheer-and-chug powder lapper. 

Terry Kidwell, Bob Klein, Tom Sims in 1985. Photo: Bud Fawcett
Gwyn, Duncan, Amy, and Gail Howat. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

Friends & Family

But beyond pure stoke for the race and Mt. Baker’s terrain, what else explains the unwavering enthusiasm for the LBS through the people and the traditions around the event make it even more legendary. Mt. Baker GM Duncan Howat has been here since the beginning with his two daughters working alongside him. Amy Howat Trowbridge is the marketing director and Gwyn Howat is the operations manager. Warmth and welcome emanates from the entire Howat family—they’re personally invested, not just from 30 years of hosting the Banked Slalom, but their own deep history within snowboarding. Amy started riding the winter of 1985 trailing behind the MBHC crew, went pro at 15 years old and competed on the World Cup circuit, also claiming a couple gold Duct Tapes for herself. Gwyn worked for Gnu as their pro team manager and photographer. Together, they traveled the world, eventually ending up back home at Mt. Baker. Their relationships with the competitors are personal and during the event, Amy and Gwyn are everywhere from check-in to drop-in, setting the course and emceeing the awards ceremony. Their enthusiasm and positivity even in the face of the most tremendous weather conditions is infectious. Gwyn attributes a lot of the enthusiasm for the LBS to just how fun the racecourse is and the uniqueness of the natural halfpipe. She says, “If the course was boring, people wouldn’t come back year after year,” adding, “It’s organized—we try not to have people wait, and the times are accurate.” And this is something in which Gwyn, as the course setter, takes a lot of pride. She says, “I really look forward to setting a fun course. I get a huge amount of satisfaction out of setting a beautiful turn and watching someone ride it and see it working.” Gwyn adds, “I like watching everybody test themselves, from the amateurs who are about ready to puke in the start shack because they’re so nervous to the famous pro riders and Olympians who get totally perplexed by the course because it’s so different than other courses.”

Baked Salmon bonfire. Photo: Dano Pendygrasse
Pete Saari and Jason Robinson. 2012. Photo: Jeff Hawe

And then there are the traditions—traditions that revolve around food. Northwest food, to be exact; salmon, to be really specific. The biggest group dinner in snowboarding is the baked salmon bonfire under the moon shadow of the mountain, where huge quantities of salmon are cooked on open grills and gobbled up by hungry competitors, mountain staff and race volunteers. Originally, as Gwyn tells it, the bonfire started as a “goggle melting” weenie roast and s’mores session. In ’98, the next generation of hardcore riders after the MBHC, including Teal Copeland, Scott Stamnes, and Andy Johnson, came up with the tongue twister of an idea for ‘Baked Salmon at the Banked Slalom.’ They worked on Alaskan fishing boats in the summer to fund their winters and offered to source the fish. Sadly, Teal died in a car wreck that winter. Scott and Andy saw the idea through in 1999 to honor Teal’s memory. Scott tragically passed just as suddenly the following year, the victim of a hit and run. This history imparts the gathering with even more significance to those who knew these radical shredders. Today, local fisherman Reidar Solberg carries on the tradition sourcing the fish and serving as the master chef, feeding some 800 people.

Bryan Fox in the start shack. 2014. Photo: Andrew Miller
Photo: Scott Sullivan

There are unofficial traditions as well—impromptu jam sessions and skate sessions around the small town of Glacier. Legendary board waxing get-togethers and talks out back of the Mt. Baker Snowboard Shop once hosted by the late George Dobis, big group dinners at Milano’s, Scott Sullivan acoustic sets. Ranquet characterizes the weekend as a high school reunion, which isn’t far off.

Photo: Nick Hamilton
Photo: Meg Haywood-Sullivan
Photo: Jeff Hawe

Down To Business

It all comes down to Sunday—finals day for those riders who made it through qualifiers. The atmosphere is friendly at the top of the course, but make no mistake, riders are here to win. Josh Dirksen first came to Mt. Baker with the Morrow team in 1998 and, like others, he was hooked. He helped Morrow sweep the podium the following year with a third place finish alongside Matt Goodwill and Mario Paolo Dabbeni. Since then, he’s been the reoccurring subject of “he looks fast” commentary from sideline spectators, earning two second place finishes, four thirds, two fourths (“those are the worst!”), and a handful of top 10’s—he’s also been second-to-last twice. Asked what it takes to get on the podium, Josh verbally shrugs and points out one of the biggest draws of the race—“Any normal person who rides a lot has a chance of doing well.” In a race where 40-year-olds can compete against 17-year-olds in the pro division, he finds that age doesn’t matter. He says, “The old guys try to think that we have a benefit being old and wise or the young kids come in fresh. I think it’s really just the person as a snowboarder.” You’ll see this sentiment reflected in the diverse range of men’s and women’s winners over the years from Olympic racers to hard-charging locals, first-timers, and longtime competitors. As for the longevity of the event, Josh says, “It’s much more appealing of a sport when you know you can do it forever. Snowboarding is losing that in certain aspects, and the Banked Slalom gives us hope because it’s something riders can always strive for—winning the Baker Banked.”

Harry Kearney’s winning style. 2014. Photo: Andrew Miller

It’s the kind of race where a kid from Colorado can show up, compete against, and beat his heroes. 2014 Men’s Pro winner Harry Kearney started traveling from Colorado to the LBS in 2006 at age 12. Now 20 years old, he has two gold Duct Tapes to his name. This winter, he’s looking forward to his third season living in Glacier and going for his third gold…or at least “beating the boardercross guys.” (Shots fired!) As for his winning strategy, Harry says it’s to think about the race as little as he can. He explains, “I’ll hang out and check the course out, make little mental notes on anywhere that’s going to be crazier than elsewhere, but honestly, it’s just getting confident in it and then not being around it and going out riding with the bros and doing laps elsewhere.”

Four-time champion Temple Cummins on course between pow runs. 2013. Photo: Ben Gavelda

Finals day culminates in the grandest tradition—gathering in the White Salmon Lodge with legends, locals, pros, ams, parents, and kids packed in. The windows fog over and the air is heavy with the smells of bonfire, heady microbrews, wet layers. The final race times aren’t revealed until the awards ceremony. It’s anybody’s guess who won—who “looked the fastest” continues to be a topic of conversation (and surprisingly accurate) as the bounty of locally-sourced treasure of Pendleton blankets, embroidered Carhartt jackets, and the legendary Duct Tape trophies are stacked up. Gwyn takes over the emcee duties and reveals all results to a roomful of cheers.

The Debari family accept the Craig Kelly Thunderbird award. 2014. Photo: Andrew Miller

Traveling down from the mountain, the spell of the Legendary Banked Slalom slowly breaks as you pass the towering snowdrifts, down the winding road, through the mossy old growth forest, under low hanging clouds, and into the tiny burg of Glacier. Cell service trickles in along with pangs of reality.

The 30th Legendary Banked Slalom will be held February 19–22, 2015. In celebration of the anniversary, a special legends race will be held on Saturday for past Duct Tape winners. We’re excited to see who wins, but one thing’s for sure, there are no losers at the LBS.