The Wall at Kirkwood Mountain Resort can be an intimidating descent on its own. Add three other skiers or snowboarders charging down the steeply pitched area into one of the resort’s natural gullies in search of cash and glory, and you’ve got a spectator sport with a uniquely Lake Tahoe flavor.
Rahlves’ Banzai Tour kicks off at Kirkwood this weekend before moving to Squaw Valley March 1-2, Alpine Meadows March 8-9 and Sugar Bowl Resort March 15-16.
The tour features heats of four skiers or snowboarders flying down wide-open, ungroomed courses that allow competitors to choose a wide variety of lines in search of the fastest way to the bottom, said Daron Rahlves, a former World Cup skiing champion and the event organizer.
“To me it’s like a true test of skiers’ and snowboarders’ ability,” Rahlves said Tuesday following some runs off Squaw Valley’s KT-22 chairlift, which provides the venue for next weekend’s tour stop.
“We have ideal mountains and terrain for this kind of event,” Rahlves added.
Now in its fourth season, the Banzai Tour is inspired by Sugar Bowl’s Silver Belt Race, which first took place in the 1940s and was brought back to life in 2009 and 2010.
The Banzai Tour is open to competitors 18 years or older. Registration starts at $110. Rahlves will challenge skiers at the Sugar Bowl stop and, new this year, Olympic competitor and X Games gold medalist Nate Holland will take on snowboarders during the final event.
This year’s tour will also feature an award in honor of Chelone “Chilly” Miller, the 2013 winner of the Banzai Tour’s snowboard division and brother of Olympic skier Bode Miller. Chelone Miller died from a seizure in April. Although Rahlves has not figured out the exact criteria for the award, it will be given with Miller’s spirit in mind.
“I really got to know Chilly and it was really sad to see what happened to him,” Rahlves said. “He was a free-spirited, kind of live-free-and-send-it kind of guy.”
Due to snow conditions in the Sierra Nevada, Sunday’s “Wall Banzai” will start from just below the top of the Wall. Snow conditions are better than many expect and the course will still provide plenty of high-speed action, Rahlves said. Runs down the course should take about a minute.
“It’s got really good flow to the track, big open turns up top and you got a little traverse across the hill, then a big airplane turn coming with a compression, a little hip jump, and then off this catwalk air and then you just blast into Snow Snake Gully and then you’re just working all that natural terrain,” Rahlves said. “I think it’s one of the more ideal tracks. It just has really good flow.”
Although spectators can venture to the venue on foot, Rahlves encouraged people to get a lift ticket and ski prior to coming out to watch.
“For watching, for spectating, it’s the most exciting race out there,” Rahlves said.
The Cornice Grill at Kirkwood will host a welcome party Friday night from 4-6 p.m. Solo qualifying runs are scheduled for Saturday, with a Rahlves’ Banzai Après Party taking place from 3-6 p.m., also at the Cornice Grill. Heats are scheduled to start at 11 a.m. Sunday.
The tour carries a total purse of $80,000, but pride is also on the line.
“It’s like when you’re a little kid,” Rahlves said. “You don’t want to be the last one down the mountain.”