Long Live Banzai Downhill

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I start this with two disclaimers. First, this is a re-posting of the blog I put up a few days ago, that started with a lame disclaimer justifying my use of the term Chinese Downhill by its widespread use in ski culture ever since the release of Hot Dog…The Movie. (Hint: One should probably not justify any of one’s actions based on Hot Dog.)

Second, I am hereby ceasing all use of the term Chinese Downhill, in favor of the far more appropriate term already popularized by Daron Rahlves on his Banzai Tour. Honestly, I put a lot of thought into this, and now feel strongly about it. I had never seen the harm in using the term Chinese Downhill because I didn’t see how it was disparaging. But then that’s the way it always works isn’t it? You only see things through your own lens until you are forced, or force yourself, to look through another one. As skiers, we have the privilege of seeing the world through a very small lens if we choose to. It’s on us to seek the wider perspective. If a term makes any person or group of people feel stereotyped and all it takes is a bit of creativity to propagate a better term, then making that effort is a small price to pay for the richness that accompanies inclusiveness. And besides, Banzai is simply a better term.

This from our friends at about.com:

“Banzai” is a Japanese cheer that can be translated as “Long life!” or “Hurrah!” It is usually repeated three times to express enthusiasm, celebrate a victory, applause and favor on  happy occasions while raising both arms. It is commonly done together with a large group of people. 

I can’t think of a better way to describe this most honorable institution of ski culture, this no holds barred celebration of all that is fun, spontaneous and irreverent in our sport. Beyond that, Banzai DH is also a darned good way to learn how to make speed, something that comes in handy this time of year.

What is Banzai Downhill? It is an unsanctioned top to bottom event on any mountain, with no rules. I take that back. The one hard and fast rule is that there are no rules, which of course is why it must be unsanctioned. As an authority figure, when you hear whispers of Banzai DH it’s often best to slink away. (Note: I’m talking here about kids who are old enough to fully understand the consequences of doing really dumb or dangerous things. It takes some judgment to know when benevolent neglect is appropriate.) It’s sort of like sending your kid to camp—if you knew the details of what happens there you might never let them go. But some of life’s best lessons happen when we’re not looking, and hovering, and directing.

What is happening is this: kids are learning to find speed in any situation, and often out of nothing more than tiny variations in slope, terrain, body position and snow conditions. That’s what makes it so valuable. You don’t need a big mountain or a hairy trail to run a Banzai DH. All you need are people and enthusiasm and that innate desire we all harbor to WIN.

These skills are especially important today, when the combination of easy carving skis and slopes groomed to perfection has taken away the need for the nuanced movements that used to be required for survival. Even modern ski lifts play into this built-in skill deficit. Skiers beyond a certain age can remember logging much of our youth on a T-bar or a Poma track. All the time we spent moving our ankles to adjust to the track, pumping over those crazy waves in the Poma track trying not to take air (or to take max air), and constantly adjusting to maintain balance and direction—that edge control, ankle movement, weight shifting and speed management was all good stuff.

In Banzai DH you must often make the most out of minimal terrain, absorbing every roll and milking it for speed on the back side, looking ahead to pick the ideal line, setting up big turns to put yourself into an ideal position on the exit, and fine tuning aerodynamics to sling shot past the competition at just the right moment.

Style? As in an actual race, there are no points for style. Coaching? No time for that. Preparation? A true Banzai Downhill starts and ends without skis, making the mount and dismount all part of the contest and leaving little potential for any precise pregame plan, or over thinking of any kind.

Surprisingly, common sense, in the name of self-preservation, often emerges. Contestants learn to stay away from the trees, pick an isolated trail and disperse in crowded areas for minimal interference. Sometimes, rules, or rather codes, evolve. “Don’t worry mom,” my son assured me, as I was looking worried while trying to ignore the periodic sight of kids emerging from a side trail, laughing hysterically, with fists raised in victory. “When the group got too big we made the ‘no contact rule.’”

When he said this I immediately recalled the scene Moose Barrows once described of early Hahnenkamm “inspections,” the origins of what are now commonly referred to as “Austrian Inspections.” Unlike the civilized and controlled protocol at today’s Downhill races, inspection then was a mass start that involved jockeying for position, verbal repartee and significant over-the-helmet pole whacking. It’s a wonder they made it to race day.

Even there within the scrum, with national and personal pride at stake, I suspect a spirit of camaraderie thrived. That’s really the heart of what makes this time-honored tradition of anarchy so special. It is competitive and inclusive, intense and completely meaningless, a respectfully irreverent group effort of every man for himself. And it can be yours for the low, low price of…free! Just grab your tuck and go, and do try to have fun out there.


10 thoughts on “Long Live Banzai Downhill”

  1. I recall having a blast doing this growing up. Today safety services at our area will yank passes if the kids (whatever their age) did this. Too many lawyers, I think.

    • The key is not to get caught. They key to that is not to get hurt or let anyone get hurt. So that ought to keep it self-policing, and off the main trails in rush hour. But yeah, that’s in theory. I am amazed at how little vertical and actual speed it takes to be entertained though.

  2. Hi Edie- this is funny. I was recently chastized for using the term “Chinese lights” referring to the lights that we are using for night mountain bike rides that are inexpensive and available on Amazon. They are made in China but the younger folks in my riding group last fall told me I was old school and that I should refer to them as Asian. Ok- whatever. So now when I see them, I comment on their Pan Pacific Asian Illumination Devices. 🙂

  3. As it turns out, the grown-up version is taking place tonight at Whaleback. 16 people at a time lined up with the finish line inside the pub up a flight of stairs. Not just for kids anymore?

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