Kids, do not try this at home. Or even think about this kind of thing, unless you're an expert, over 18 and well-insured. And then don't fall...
MOUNT BAKER — How did the snowboarder cross the road? In the case of a section of highway near the Mount Baker Ski Area, the answer can fly as high as 60 feet above the pavement and involve multiple spins and flips.
A leap of faith from a rocky ledge over two lanes of traffic near the ski area’s Heather Meadows lodge, the Mount Baker Road Gap is spoken of in hushed terms throughout the international snowboarding community. With everyone from globe-trotting professionals to hungry, local amateurs stepping up to the challenge each year, the legendary jump has become a rite of passage for snowboarders looking to make a name in a competitive industry. Not for the weekend warrior, the jump is beyond ski-area boundaries and includes a short, dangerous run-in that winds its way quickly through the woods before opening up to the cliff above the highway. Those who clear the road also face a landing that rapidly culminates into more trees. And, what if someone comes up short?
“It’s like falling off a 40-foot building to concrete,” said Dean Collins, founder of Baker’s “Freeride” instruction program. Besides the highway, riders also have to be sure to clear the snow bank on the other side, which grows larger with every passing storm.
“One day, there was a snowboarder imprint in the wall,” he added.
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While local ski patrollers know of no documented major injuries on the jump thus far, Collins doesn’t recommend trying it.
“It’s a big jump, bottom line,” he said.
The legend begins
Snowboard legend Shawn Farmer pioneered the gap in 1989, and he immediately followed his first launch with another sans clothing on his upper body. Farmer’s bare-chested bomb-drop was documented in “Totally Board,” the first snowboard film released by the Tahoe-based Standard Films.
“I heard about it before I ever saw it,” said Gwyn Howat, the ski area’s marketing director. Over the past 19 years, Farmer’s legendary leap has been followed by countless encores from big-name professionals and locals alike in almost every snowboard film and magazine imaginable. Despite the heavy traffic, the jump has retained its appeal over the years.
Up-and-coming local rider Lucas Debari hit the Road Gap for the first time this past year. Raised in Glacier, a town of 300 residents 25 minutes from the ski area, the 19-year-old literally grew up studying his heroes jumping the Road Gap.
“I watched many sessions from the road before I was old enough to try it,” he said. Debari, who edged out Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott to win the 2007 pro division of the Mount Baker Banked Slalom, described his first time over the road as intimidating.
“It’s definitely a high-consequence jump,” he said. “You’re just thinking worst-case scenario.”
“It took about three times of hitting it before I was comfortable and not thinking about it anymore,” he said. Debari attributes some of the Road Gap’s international fame to its artistic appeal.
“Aesthetically, it looks really good,” he said. “It’s been filmed so many times, and it’s created a reputation.”
When asked about what his parents, who own an Italian restaurant in Glacier, think about his aerial exploits over the highway, Debari is relaxed.
“They just say be safe,” he said. “They trust that I’ll ride within my limits.”
Debari’s technique for hitting the jump?
“I just went as fast as I could,” he said. “There was no speed checking.”
And then there were skis
Another local whose limits don’t stop at soaring 40 feet over a road is the 44-year-old Collins. A pioneer of freestyle skiing at Mount Baker, Collins has dropped nearly every cliff at the ski area, both in- and out-of-bounds. While the Road Gap was made famous by snowboarders, skiers have begun to take notice. Collins said he was goaded into hitting the jump by one of his fellow coaches several seasons ago. He was 40 at the time.
“The idea was that we wanted to get a photo of someone jumping over the school buses as they went down,” said Collins, referring to the buses that bring local students up to the mountain every winter Saturday. He said he watched the first skier land with his tails hanging over the edge of the landing.
“We’re looking at each other going, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” he said. But after hanging around a little longer, Collins decided to go for it.
“We were all set up with radios, and all I heard was, ‘Clear landing, go left,’ ” he said. “I was thinking about doing a back flip, but I hit a big straight air. I remember looking down and thinking you could stack another two buses.”
While Collins cleared the road, he landed badly in a bomb-hole made by another skier.
“I just splatted it and called it a day,” he said. Collins hasn’t hit the jump since, but isn’t opposed to the idea.
“If the conditions were right, I would probably do it again,” he said.
Despite expert snowboarders and alpine skiers hitting the gap with some frequency, telemark skiers flying over the road still remain an anomaly. That didn’t stop 21-year-old Utah native Paul Kimbrough from stepping up to the challenge.
An aspiring professional skier and Western Washington University environmental-education student, Kimbrough hit the jump with his friends for the first time this season, but without the benefit of observing another skier first. He lost a game of “rock, paper, scissors” and was forced to “guinea pig” the jump.
“I was pretty confident, but if I’d have put one speed check in, I wouldn’t have cleared the road,” he said.
Although Kimbrough has a portfolio packed with big jumps, he was excited for the chance to try Baker’s famed leap of faith.
“It’s one of those legendary things,” he said.
And as skiers and snowboarders around the world continue to tempt fate at the Mount Baker Road Gap, the legend only grows.
John Kinmonth is a freelance writer, a Mount Baker Ski Patrol member and snowboard instructor who lives in Glacier, on the Mount Baker Highway.