At the top of Wolverine Saddle at Alpine Meadows, California, competitors settle into the start gate. They laugh with ease, trading jokes and barbs and take in the view of Lake Tahoe from the corner of their eyes. And in a moment, all of this changes.
Their butt cheeks clench. Their grip on the start gate tightens. In 3-2-1 they drop into Wolverine Bowl, navigating gates together at high speeds. With luck, skill, and precision on their side, they'll make it through bumps, ice slicks, and chunder to the welcoming Red Bull arched finish line. If not, it'll end in defeat. Or carnage. Only the best skiers, with a little luck, win the Rahlves' Banzai Tour.
Three of the Banzai Tour's four years in Tahoe have seen drought conditions, and this year, the weather challenges have been even moreso. Tahoe didn't see a significant snowfall until mid-February, when five feet of snow came just in time for the Kirkwood event. A few weeks later, Banzai racers stood at the top of the Squaw venue in the rain. And at Alpine last weekend, conditions were… sporty.
"The weather all year has proposed challenges," says competitor and Squaw local Josh Anderson. "Even when it's snowing, it's raining somewhere on the mountain. We haven't gotten storms, or when we do get storms, they're wet. It doesn't make sense. The weather has made the tour extra exciting."
While multiple events including the Freeride World Tour and Grand Prix events opted to cancel their events in Tahoe due to a strange snow year, moving to other locations in different states, the Banzai Tour has soldiered on, rain or shine.
"It's been a tragic year for us in terms of events," says Rob Giustina.
Giustina, 45, has been running the start gate the last three years. "To see the Banzai come together is awesome," he says.
In its fourth year, the Daron Rahlves' Banzai Tour shows no signs up letting up. Held at four Lake Tahoe ski areas—Kirkwood, Squaw, Alpine, and Sugar Bowl—the action culminates in a four-person skiercross-like downhill race. To make it more fun, Rahlves tosses in gates in precarious places to ensure interesting compressions and airs. At each event $15,000 is on the line and points are accumulated in order to crown an overall men's and women's champion.
"With the loss of boardercross and skiercross in the X Games, as soon as Daron figures out the TV package, this will be the next big tour," says Giustina, a professional snowboarder in the '80s and '90s. Guistina builds terrain parks and skiercross courses, and he met Rahlves on the World Cup skiercross circuit. "General Joe can understand it. Last guy down buys beers…except here the first guy down buys beers because he wins money."
Most competitors live, work, and ski in the area, traveling on the weekends around the lake to tour stops. Anderson, a cook at the Crest Café at the base of Alpine Meadows Road, has been competing the last two seasons in the Banzai. At the Alpine Meadows stop over the weekend, he was celebrating his 30th birthday.
"I did three last year and two this year," says Anderson, a Squaw Valley local. "I like going fast, getting into it, and going for it through unimproved terrain. Kirkwood and Sugar Bowl are similar. There are a lot of rolls and gullies and weird stuff to ski through."
Anderson says he wishes it was required that all skiers ski on 100mm or more waisted skis.
"Shit. I used to ski on GS skis, but I don't want to do that anymore," he says. "You don't have to have a race background. A shred background helps though."
Competitors' backgrounds are as diverse as the terrain. Zac Horrocks of Lake Placid, New York, comes from moguls, Kyle Smaine competes in the Winter Dew Tour, and current Banzai Tour points leader Kyle Coxon of Seattle, Washington, has a history with racing. Coxon, 23, lives in Salt Lake City, skiing at Snowbird, and he drives from Utah through Nevada to Tahoe four consecutive weekends for the Banzai.
Coxon's introduction to Banzai is somewhat unconventional. While studying for a midterm, he received a call from friend Marcus Caston.
"He said, 'Kyle, I have an extra space in my car. I'm sitting in a grocery store parking lot if you want to go.' I was sitting there studying with my book open and just…done. I grabbed some skis, got in the car with him, and we drove out here," recalls Coxon.
At that stop, Coxon qualified third then missed a gate in a later round. This year, he came back and won the first three events. He attributes his wins at Kirkwood, Squaw, and Alpine to his ski racing background.
"I like to go fast and see where my limits are," says Coxon. "And it's fun to experience a little intensity."
The fourth and final stop of the Rahlves' Banzai Tour lands at Sugar Bowl this weekend. Going into Saturday, Coxon says he plans to stick with what he knows and hopes the tour eventually expands outside of Tahoe. This weekend he's hoping to race against Rahlves in the super-final.
"It's a gnarly tour," he says. "I ride the lifts at Snowbird and dream up courses for this event. I love it and my friends out in Utah love it. It's just a good excuse to go out and ski fast."