I’m standing in the gate, looking down a 20’ freefall leading into 1,200’ of bumps, jumps, berms, gates, and gullies that make up this exciting course. Daron Rahlves himself walks up and wishes me luck saying the best strategy is “smooth and steady.” I’m all butterflies as I hear my name over the loud speaker echoing throughout Kirkwood Ski Resort. Exhale slowly, you got this. I want to vomit.
“RACER READY, IN 3, 2, 1.” I heave on the starting gate handles for all I’m worth, immediately crash, and go in to a chest slide. How’s that for smooth and steady?
I get up on the fly, simply glad to be done with that crazy start and ready to focus on my qualifying run. It’s just me versus the clock as I settle in and relax, the fear is gone and now I’m just snowboarding, I remember how to do this. I fall one more time but feel smooth as I replay Daron’s words in my mind, “smooth and steady.” Falling repeatedly, that’s just what I do in Banzai. It’s my tried and true method to not win, and it works every time.
Rahlves’ Banzai is a one of a kind, action packed, adrenaline fueled, high speed bro-down. Best described as part Boarder-X, part Big Mountain, it has a Chinese Downhill quality not rivaled in any other competition on earth. Banzai courses are all natural, containing no manufactured or groomed hits, with gates set here and there. The result is a sort of high speed, controlled fall down the mountain, often in very close proximity to three other lunatics similarly on the edge of oblivion. Wild is understating it.
Banzai attracts some heavy hitters off of the World Cup Circuit and Freeride World Tour, as well as abundant local talent with their intimate regional knowledge. It’s a place where someone like me has lined up next to two-time X-Games Border-X medalist Jayson Hale or Swatch Freeride tour medalist Adam DeVargas. While lining up with, and keeping up with are two very different things, when that gate drops, anything can happen.
Created by three-time World Championship medalist, X-Games Skier-X gold medalist, and Big Mountain powerhouse Daron Rahlves in 2009, Banzai has been gaining momentum and has an almost cult like following. It’s modeled after the Silverbelt Races of the 1940’s and Daron’s own experiences at Sugarbowl, where he and his friends would race from top to bottom with the loser buying the beer.
While Daron doesn’t compete directly in the head to head events, that would hardly be fair, he does offer $5,000 in a one-time event at Sugarbowl in which the winners from each Banzai get to test their salt against the “Banzai Master.” If one can beat him, they get the cash. No one ever does.
Daron’s relatives on the other hand, make their presence known. His sister Shannon has won numerous Banzai events, and this year, in the first ever Mini Banzai, his own son Dreyson, placed fourth. The genetics are strong in the Rahlves family.
So back on the slope, I qualified. Well, all the snowboarders that completed the timed qualifying run did. They take the top 32, a few guys DNF’d leaving me in 20th place out of 32 that advanced. Not exactly a proud standing, but it got me a green bib. A competitor’s place in the qualifier determines which color bib they get. The bib colors represent lane choice in the head to head heats: red, blue, green, yellow in that order. Lane choice is crucial, red gets the deserved carved out pole position, almost guaranteeing the holeshot.
Now comes the good stuff, the reason we are all here, it’s time for the head to head four man heats. This is when it gets juicy. I really would have preferred to not be in the first heat of the day but I guess someone has to. Strangely, my fear is gone, now it’s just excitement and anticipation. I’m happy with my lane choice and we wish each other luck. I need to finish in second place to advance to Sunday’s quarterfinal.
The gate drops, I hurl myself out of the start and into second place. I hold that position for at least 15 or 20 feet before I crash into a Pete Rose chest slide for 40 or 50 feet. I get up, once again on the fly, and decide that smooth and steady isn’t going to cut it if I want to advance. I rally into the first turn knocking boards with yellow and I can still see blue in a position that I feel I can overtake if I open it up. The gloves are coming off. The transition from the wide and bumpy Wall consists of a hard compression (I crashed there last time), over a floater, in to a chattery washboard, on to a catwalk, and off the Deschutes Jump into the Giro Gully. Rolling up the windows as I float 30 or so feet at speed, I’m halfway down and gaining on Blue, I just have to stay upright.
WHAM! What just happened? My head is ringing, is that my GoPro over there? I see spots.
It takes me a second to replay the last 10 seconds. As I was entering the Gully running hard on my toeside edge I began to chatter out, resulting in me hanging up my heelside edge at 40mph. I went straight to my back, thankfully protected by Kevlar body armor, won with a paper thrown in a roshambo and given to me by Daron in 2014 at the same Kirkwood Banzai. Then my head, I hit the back of my head so hard that it turned off my GoPro and knocked the whole attachment clean off of the front of my helmet.
I slowly get back to my feet, where are my goggles? I scan the gully and I have no idea where my goggles are, or where yellow is. He has either passed me, or he’s in a similar predicament up higher. I move to pick up my GoPro and realize that my goggles are hanging off the back of my helmet and I begin to make my way down. I see movement up to my right and realize that I just missed a gate and have been disqualified. I wave it off and just want to get off the course. At least I finished my run. My head is ringing and I’m still pretty winded, but I got down.
So no quarter finals for me on the following day. On the lighter side, at least I can just enjoy Sunday, explore the legendary Kirkwood for a couple hours before posting up and watching these superb and driven athletes advance through heat after heat and in to the climactic final. The final rounds are nothing short of intense. The energy is alive and pulsing across the mountain and hordes of spectators. Coop is hollering into the mic as successes and failures accumulate like cordwood.
The finals are not to be missed, the best place to watch from is at the mid-point as the racers duke it out at heroic speed. From here you can see a huge section of the course: the start and the exciting first turn as the athletes establish their positions. Then the compression and off the Jump. Jayson Hale pulled off an airborne pass that was called the “the sickest pass in Banzai history” off of that catwalk. Then they roost down into Giro Gully at over 50mph.
As I said before, nothing is written until you cross that Red Bull finish line. Reigning champion and ultra fast skier Kyle Coxon, crashed barely 100 yards from the finish, was immediately passed, and after at least a minute trying to get back to his skis, got into a battle for second place. You just never know what might happen.
If there is one thing that I am very consistent with in Banzai, it’s crashing. I crash every time, I crashed five times in my qualifier at Squaw Valley in 2014. I have a 100% success rate at crashing and not winning, I am absolutely unfailing at failing. But I don’t look at not winning as failing, not entering is failing. It’s OK to try and to fail, but don’t fail to try.
So do you think that you have what it takes to Banzai? The simple answer is yes, you do. It’s not about winning, you most likely won’t. It’s about personal barriers, testing yourself. It’s not so much you versus them as it is you versus you. It’s scary and it’s physically demanding, as it should be. It takes intense focus and drive to step up to the gate, but once you do, you can take great pride in the fact that you have joined the ranks of the elite Banzai Warrior.