Mt. Baker: Snowboarding Mecca

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By Heather Hansman

Photo at right: A snowboarder takes flight at Mt. Baker, Wash., one of the first ski areas in the country to allow snowboarding. Photo by Stephen Matera

 

In the Northwest, Mt. Baker is the Mecca of snowboarding. It has a history that’s as long as the sport itself. Home to some of the best riders in the world, its steep, technical chutes and cliff drops provide constant challenges. For decades snowboarders have been coming every winter to prove their worth at one of the sport’s favorite mountains.

Baker was one of the first mountains in the country to allow snowboarding. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, as the sport got its start, many resorts wouldn’t let snowboarders in. They argued that snowboarding was a menace, snowboarders were rebels and the sport was out of control. Only a few places would let them ride.

In 1982, Duncan Howat, Mt. Baker’s general manager, who has been running the mountain with his family since 1968, told snowboarders they could ride the lifts. Baker, located an hour and a half drive east of Bellingham, has always been small and down home and he didn’t see the trouble in diversifying by letting non-traditional snow sliders use the mountain.

Snowboarders call Baker ‘home’

A snowboarder grabs some air at Mt. Baker, Wash. Photo by Tyler Mitchell

Snowboarders claimed the mountain as their own. Part of the push for snowboarding at Mt. Baker, and what made it so core to the sport right off the bat, was the community of riders who made it their home.

Snowboarding started in small pockets across the country. In Vermont, Jake Burton Carpenter started making boards in an operation that would become Burton Snowboards, and in California, Tom Sims started organizing snowboard events. In Washington, Bob Barci, who many people call the father of Northwest snowboarding, started selling snowboards in his Lynnwood bike shop.

Barci started hiking to some of the passes to snowboard, because resorts wouldn’t allow riders and when Howat decided to allow snowboarding he started riding at Mt. Baker. Barci brought riders like Craig Kelley—the breakout snowboarding star of the late ’80s who some people call the best rider of all time—to the sport.

Impressed by Baker’s terrain, and excited that they had a place that would let them ride, they became devoted to exploring the mountain. A group of them, including Kelley and other professional snowboarders like Jamie Lynn, jokingly dubbed themselves the Mount Baker Hard Core. They became known as some of the toughest and best riders in the industry.

In the early ’80s, Barci and Tom Sims, who was the winningest snowboarder in the world at the time, asked Howat if they could hold a race on the mountain. He agreed, and on Super Bowl Sunday, 1985, Sims kicked off the first-ever Mt. Baker Banked Slalom, which became known as the Legendary Banked Slalom.

That race, which is now the longest continuous event in snowboarding, has kept riders coming back every year.

“People make it their annual get-together,” says Amy Howat Trowbridge, Duncan’s daughter, who has been the starter for the race for years.

Highest annual snowfall

And, people come for more than just the race. Mt. Baker averages the most snow of any ski mountain in the world. During the 1998 –99 season the mountain received 1,140 inches of snowfall, a world record. It also boasts the highest average annual snowfall of any resort in the world, with 641 inches. That means it’s appealing to more than just pro snowboarders, or people who want to race.

When you look at the stats, Mt. Baker doesn’t look like a huge mountain, it only has 1,000 skiable acres, but between the two base areas—Heather Meadows and White Salmon (with 10 lifts and 1,500 feet of vertical gain)—there’s a ton to explore. Baker has lots of nooks and crannies, and the terrain is rolling and variable, which keeps the small resort interesting.

For beginners, the mellow runs off of Chairs 2, 3 and 4 provide lots of fun. From there, the mountain gets vertical quickly. Expert skiers and riders can push themselves on the steeps of Chairs 1 and 5.

Baker is also known for its backcountry access into the North Cascades. The mountain has a fairly progressive boundary policy: they put the responsibility of going out of bounds on the rider, so you can leave the ski area and head out into the backcountry from almost any boundary on the hill. They strongly recommend avalanche gear and knowledge of the snowpack, but they’re not going to police you.

It’s not just a snowboarder’s mountain. Skiers and riders can shred in peace. Part of what separates Mt. Baker from other ski resorts is its simplicity. There are no big condos, or real estate; it’s all about the riding. It’s just a mountain with a few base lodges, record-breaking snowfall, really great terrain and an open, welcoming vibe, whether you’re a pro snowboarder or a first-time skier.

Heather Hansman is a Seattle-based freelance writer, a skier, and a former editor at Powder and Skiing magazines.

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