Steamboat’s Winter Carnival would not be complete without Lighted Man, a.k.a. Jon Banks, cruising down Howelsen Hill as a human fireworks show. We caught up with Banks, 67, in advance of this year’s celebration, Feb. 5-9.
What exactly is Lighted Man?
My dad started the tradition in the 1930s. He was an avid skier who created the Wasatch Mountain Club and was fascinated by Steamboat. His early uniform was a leather harness where he mounted flares and then, later, flashlights that ran off of four-volt batteries—the kind you use on model airplanes. He carried the batteries in his backpack. Then he upped the voltage to six volts and was carrying a car battery, and he built a helmet that looked like a sombrero and had a spike with a roman candle strapped to it.
And dangerous. The setup would burn a hole in his ski clothes.
When did you join your father?
In 1971 he was getting close to retirement age and he talked me into doing it with him. I had no intention of becoming the next Lighted Man.
Did you make any changes to the show?
My big problem was with his helmet, which held a bundle of fireworks sticking up two feet above my head. It was top heavy. My goal was to maintain the effect and get rid of the weight.
You are now about the same age your dad was when he stopped skiing as Lighted Man. Are you ready to hand over the reins?
I am. I’m getting near retirement and hope to have someone else up there with me this year who might take over.
When your dad retired, was it a given you would take over?
No, he talked me into it. I didn't want to get hooked into doing this for the rest of my life. I wasn't really into commitments.
You've kept up the commitment every year since 1971. How?
It doesn't matter where I have been or what I'm doing. I have always managed to get the second week of February off and be Lighted Man.
Why is this so important to you?
There are very few things in life you can count on. In the places I've been and traveled around, I probably know more people in Steamboat, and Winter Carnival is the only thing that has been constant in my life. I have a brother in Budapest who flies over, another one in San Diego who comes, and a nephew in Reno. I’ve got a team of six guys in Steamboat who help, one who’s a high school pal. It’s that kind of consistency.
Is it physically hard?
If you took everything and hung it up—the skis, the poles, the suits, the battery packs, and the fireworks—it would weigh 60-70 pounds. That includes three lead acid batteries and a controller the size of a brick. But a few years ago we went to a controller the size of a credit card with LED lights, and it cut the weight in half.
The technology has improved by quantum leaps. The intensity of the lights was really impressive and much better than the incandescent. All of a sudden we could generate 256,000 colors. We could be any color in the rainbow.
Describe the skiing.
You have to ski cautiously. It's not difficult. You just don't ski the same way. It takes about three minutes to ski 200 yards and we're making nice big S turns.
How do you ignite the fireworks?
If everything is working correctly, I have buttons on my poles to push and ignite them.
What's the most intimidating aspect of being Lighted Man?
You get a lot of eyes on you, and they're expecting to see something besides darkness.
Info: Check out Lighted Man and a host of ski and fat bike races, the donkey jump, and other events at the annual Steamboat Winter Carnival, Feb. 5-9. While you're there, make sure to check out the skiing and riding at Steamboat Resort.