Bryan Fox feels the berm in Baker. All photos: Jon Weaver
For over 30 years the Legendary Banked Slalom at Mt Baker has been the Holy Grail of snowboard events. With nothing but a shonky handmade trophy up for grabs, it's a soulful glimmer of hope amongst a wasteland of competitive confusion.
Despite decades spent making snowboarding his life, Jon Weaver had never made it to the hallowed slopes of Washington State. Until now...
I’ve been very lucky in snowboarding. No messing around there. I’ve managed to blag my way onto trips, have worked with some amazing brands, and have ridden and worked alongside some of the most amazing people you could wish to meet. I’ve also had my fair share of misfortune in terms of injuries, but to be honest the majority were my fault for not keeping myself healthy or in check enough when riding.
Somehow thus far, I've never made it to Mt Baker and the Legendary Banked Slalom, despite the fact that it's long been on my bucket list. It's one of those events that has shaped snowboarding, and the wonderful culture we have within it. Along with the Innsbruck Air + Style (back when it was in the Bergisel Stadium), The US Open (when it was in Stratton, Vermont) and the Burton European Open (now the Laax Open), it's one of four events which have the wonderful mixture of being an amazing event, a flagship of snowboarding culture, and a gathering of some of the most amazing riders in the world.
The Legendary Banked Slalom was started in 1985 and - minus a couple of years where it was cancelled - is still going strong 31 events later. The list of winners is unreal; a who's who of your all-time favourite riders. Tom Sims, Shaun Palmer, Rob Morrow, Craig Kelly, Terje Haakonsen (a seven-time champion), Temple Cummins, Lucas Debari, Mathieu Crepel and now, after this weekend, Nils Mindnich.
For all the riches that can be won in snowboarding, it seems that until you have this one and its duct tape prize in your locker, you haven’t really made it. It's around one minute and fifteen seconds (if you're fast) of banked slalom, and when you think about going flat out for that long (especially at 37 years of age) it's quite a feat. This event can and will mess you up if you aren’t on it 100%, as the course develops a few kinks through the week which can spit you off like a rodeo bull.
"For all the riches that can be won in snowboarding, it seems that until you have this one and its duct tape prize in your locker, you haven’t really made it"
Watching some of the riders - Curtis Ciszek especially, and Austin Sweetin at the double tap a while ago - gets you pretty motivated to get out and start really ripping some turns. After watching years of X Games featuring kids who learnt to jump on a trampoline, but who have the square root of zero ability to actually turn a snowboard, to see the hype that people had on purely turning was very refreshing.
Have i got jaded on contest snowboarding? Well, people like Sage Kotsenburg, Mark McMorris, Danny Davis and Halldor Helgason (when he competed), have kept me somewhat san - but with some of the robotic flips you see nowadays, it's easy to get turned off.
The Legendary Banked Slalom, on the other hand, was exactly what I needed.
This year, the rider list was insane. Terje, Temple, Josh Dirksen, Travis Rice, Bryan Fox, Austin Smith, Curtis, the industry crew from Bend, the locals from Glacier, half of Portland, some Europeans including Elias Elhardt, some Aussies, Jake Blauvelt, Hana Beaman, Spencer O'Brien, Leanne Pelosi and many more. It was such an amazing group of people; they were all here to race, but also to celebrate everything that's good with snowboarding.
And there is a lot of great with snowboarding right now. All you have to do is look at what people are riding to see that. Twelve years ago, snowboards were all pretty much the same: directional twin or true twin shapes with classic camber profiles, and not changing much from year to year other than the graphics. There were a couple of exceptions, of course, but that was the norm.
Since then snowboarding has exploded in terms of new innovations for riding, and that in turn has led to such a new interest in terrain, conditions and product. If you had looked down any lift line this weekend you would seen a fish, a square-looking powder shape from a brand you'd never heard of, a swallowtail, crazy wide noses and tiny tails - and all of them were being used for racing, jumping and everything in between.
Without doubt, these three days riding Baker were some of the most fun I've ever had in North America. The resort reminds me so much of some of the small resorts in Austria and Switzerland; ones with few lifts, lots of access, amazing steep terrain and great snow. Trees, open faces on the arm, cliffs, frozen waterfalls... Baker has it all.
"Mt Baker represents a glimmer of hope and a reminder that snowboarding is for the kids who are happy to live in an RV, tent or car for weekends on end, just so they can ride every day"
Culturally, its also a throw back to simpler times in snowboarding. Much like I mentioned above, for those of you who remember Laax before the Rocks resort was built will know what I mean. Back then the huge parking lot was home to kids who were living in their cars, BBQing on the tarmac, drinking beers, playing music and just loving life. Yes the Rocks resort is great now, and as someone who managed to rent team accommodation there, I loved it - but for the young kids coming into snowboarding, I fear that's been lost.
The same is true in resorts like Vail and Aspen in Colorado, where day tickets run to $150 and the mega corporations running the operation appeal only to the 1% of the 1%. But for the locals in Glacier, Mt Baker represents a glimmer of hope and a reminder that snowboarding is - and should be - for the kids who are happy to live in an RV, tent or car for weekends on end, just so they can ride every day.
The other thing that this event, and also a couple other videos over the last few years have made me realise, is that maybe now snowboarding has grown up and finally embraced its heroes and idols.A decade ago, it felt like you hit 30 and that was it, but now you see what Terje still does for Burton, what Barret Christy does for Mervin, what Gigi Rüf and Bryan Iguchi knock out every year... They're all helping to shape the brands, and the culture. It feels like we are finally learning from the skateboarding in that regard.
"This weekend felt similar to how a Catholic must feel when they visit the Vatican"
Snowboarding needs events like this. It needs resorts like this too, and it needs those kids in their early 20s who want to live and breathe snowboarding to work on these events, and spread the gospel. Thats how snowboarding grows.
The thing no-one in events seems to have grasped is that kids nowadays who switch on X Games will never think to themselves, “oh yeah, I want to go do a cab quad cork 1800" - but they can think about turning their snowboard like Terje or Nils. You've got be able to relate to what you're seeing, at least on some level.
It's like football. I watch it religiously, and scream at the TV that I could do better - because when I have a kick about, it isn't that far removed from what the professionals are doing. Meanwhile, no shred kid on a weekend warrior program is amping to be the next Max Parrot unless he has a coach, regular trampoline training sessions, and the backing of a national team.
Do we need to take a step backwards to go forward with snowboarding? Probably. Ed Leigh has written about it before, but for snowboarding to do what surfing is doing and become something tangible and appealing again, it needs to organise a coherent tour, with a combination of pipe, Big Air, slopestyle, banked slaloms, backcountry and street - something that lets you really see what the diversity of our sport is all about.
Think about the film Glue by Christian Haller, or Side Hit Euphoria by Arthur Longo and Oliver Gittler, or The Eternal Beauty Of Snowboarding, and you will see what I mean. There is less spinning and less flipping, but it's a lot more fun and relatable for the average person like me.
And it's that side of snowboarding that the Legendary Banked Slalom does so well. This weekend honestly felt similar to how a Catholic must feel when they visit the Vatican; reinvigorating a love for something bigger that yourself, and a belief that there is a belonging to which we are all drawn towards.
God, I love snowboarding.