Snowboarding Ground Zero
As the two lanes of tarmac unfold corner by corner, the infamous take-off suddenly appears at the top of a rock outcrop. To the first-timer, it seems ludicrously high.
Arguably the most iconic and photographed kicker spot in the world, the Baker road gap also happens to be located in snowboarding holy land. Mt Baker, a remote resort in the Cascade mountains of the Pacific Northwest, was one of the first in the US to allow snowboarders onto its lifts, and has attracted a hardcore crowd ever since. It boasts some of the steepest, gnarliest terrain on the continent, giant evergreen forests and incredible snowfall – including a world record 29m in 1998/99. Best of all, strict park laws and a down-to-earth management team mean it has retained its undeveloped charm.
The Gap itself is located on the road that runs between Baker’s main lodge and the upper lodge. As the two lanes of tarmac unfold corner by corner, the infamous take-off suddenly appears at the top of a rock outcrop. To the first-timer, it seems ludicrously high. Things often appear smaller in real life than TV; the Baker gap does not! From lip to road, it averages out at around 40 ft, though the Gap increases in size with each new snowfall (during the record-breaking winter of ’99 it topped out at a whopping 60ft). The landing, on the far side of the snow bank, benefits from road clearing machines which carve out the wall and chuck fresh snow over the edge.
First to take on the Gap was Baker local and all-round hell man Shawn Farmer, during filming for the first of Standard’s TB movies, Totally Board, in 1990. It was springtime, and in classic Farmer fashion he braved the deep snow topless, making his historic method air even more memorable. “By today’s standards the jump [they’d built] was really small – just a little pile of snow,” recalls filmer Mike Hatchet. “Shawn jumped it once, then took his shirt off and jumped it again. That same day, another rider named Jeff Toluch aired it as well.”
Thanks to Baker’s quasi-mythical reputation, and the enduring attraction of the Legendary Banked Slalom event, the Gap has since been sessioned by a who’s who of snowboarding, from Devun Walsh to Josh Dirksen to Iikka Backstrom. For local riders, the Gap is a rite of passage that will earn you the respect of your peers, while for visiting pros it is a spot to tick off ‘classic jumps to hit before I die’ the list. Pretty much every trick you can imagine has been thrown down over the yawning chasm, including 720s and underflips. Perhaps the gnarliest crossing, though, was that of soul surfer Mike Basich, who did a straight air in the middle of the night, lit only by the headlights of his camper van, a couple of flashes and a headlamp. He even took the photograph himself – using a remote hand-held shutter.
The Baker Road Gap is usually tackled early to mid season, when the Washington snowstorms are at their most frequent. The takeoff isn’t too much of a build, and the foundations are usually in place from whoever built it first that winter. During Whitelines’ last trip to Baker in 2008, the kicker was there but conditions on the landing weren’t right for a fresh assault – meaning James Stentiford remains the only British rider to have taken it on, during a Quiksilver team trip.
“The run-in is pretty long – maybe 50m – but it’s changed a bit since I did it. I think they’ve cut away a few of the trees,” explains Stentiford. “Back then you literally had to dodge through trees to get to the take-off, it was quite hairy. The last bit is quite flat, so you’ve gotta make sure that you’ve got a lot of momentum – you’re pumping along going, ‘Oh god I hope I’ve got enough speed!’ You can see the lip, then you just pop out of the trees and find yourself over the road. The landing is actually perfect. Although it’s quite a big drop and a short landing, if you catch the sweet spot you don’t even have to bends your knees.”
How did he feel afterwards?
“I was just happy to be in one piece. I was one of the old freeriders on that trip, and I probably wouldn’t have done it if Gumby and Tommy Brunner hadn’t done it! I was glad I did though.”