Ski special: Trail of the unexpected

THe Mount Baker Slalom
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The Independent Travel

You don't need FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) points to qualify for the oldest snowboard race in North America. Team uniforms would be treated with bemusement - there are no teams - but fancy dress is welcome, should you be so inclined. In 2004, there was even a "Retro" category, though entrants had to actually have been riding during the specified period (pre-1989) to enter, in addition to taking to the course in retro gear, on retro boards.

The Legendary Mt Baker Banked Slalom (to give its full name) has nothing whatsoever to do with national pride or corporate sponsors. Olympians and World Champions past and present are on the starting lists, but so are no-namers who will never enter any other competition in their lives. The oldest entrant on the 2006 roster is 66; the youngest, just 11. And the prize? A roll of duct tape.

Mount Baker itself is a rolling, tumbling mountain of trees and powder in Washington state's North Cascades. Facilities are basic and there are only seven lifts, but Baker has a dedicated following. The slopes are graced with the most snow of any resort in North America outside of Alaska, a whopping yearly average of over 16 metres.

A blend of racing, transition and freeriding skills are needed to navigate the gates, which are set in the steep gullies of Baker's natural halfpipes. As the race proceeds, more bumps and berms appear: essentially, the course is a giant whoop-de-doo, a child's playful shortcut through the woods made massive.

And that's the point: it's all a laugh. Terje Haakonsen, forefather of modern freestyle snowboarding, refused to compete in the Olympics but is a regular at Baker. Winners get peer acclaim and the satisfaction of knowing that they rank among the fastest people on the planet, but for most the Slalom is more about taking powder lines between runs, Saturday's salmon barbecue, hanging out with friends and having the chance to ride with their heroes.

Entry is $40 (£22); $50 (£28) for pros. Spectators are welcome, but the roster for the 21st annual Banked Slalom is full. Actually, the organisers are dubbing it the 21st-and-a-half Legendary Banked Slalom; last year's race was cancelled due to lack of snow, so they declared Mother Nature the winner.

21st-and-a-half Banked Slalom will be held at Mt Baker 3-5 February 2006. Regular lift tickets cost $40.50 (£22.50) per day. See www.mtbaker.us

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