Lighted Man lights up the night

Dave Shively
Master of ceremonies Tom Whiddon interviews Jon Banks, the Lighted Man, in front of the Winter Carnival queen, attendants, little princesses and family during the 94th Winter Carnival in Olympian Hall at the Howelsen Hill Lodge.
Courtesy Photo

96th Winter Carnival Night Extravaganza

When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 7

Where: Howelsen Hill

What: An evening of entertainment with a Winter Sports Club exhibition, glowstick and torchlight parades, fiery hoop jumpers and an elaborate fireworks display highlighted by the Lighted Man. The Lighted Man's first appearance will be between 7 and 7:15 p.m., and his final run will be at the end of the exhibition and immediately before the fireworks finale (about 8 p.m.).

— Jon Banks can set his annual watch according to the few minutes he comes blazing down Howelsen Hill, launching an elaborate bundle of pack-mounted Roman candles to kick off the Winter Carnival’s Night Extravaganza.

Banks, a 60-year-old electrical engineer from Washington state, returns to Steamboat Springs every February to carry on his family’s legacy as the Lighted Man.

“It’s kind of like a milestone for every year – you’ve got Christmas, New Year’s and Winter Carnival,” Banks said last year. “It’s like a beginning point, or the first of the year. You set your clock and you set your calendar by it, and it makes the winters go by fast.”

The work on his Lighted Man outfit – a fire retardant Nomex racing suit supplemented by a fiberglass helicopter pilot helmet and welding sleeves for his arms – begins in November. Banks estimates he puts 100 hours of labor into preparing the outfit, then another 100 in Steamboat with the pyrotechnic team that coordinates his two runs with 10 timed fireworks firing stations along the hill.

“Then it’s five minutes of glory,” said Banks, who moved to Redmond, Wash., in 1985 but continues to light up the Winter Carnival year in and year out. “It’s a lot of work for a short period, but it’s appreciated by a lot of people and something special we can contribute to Steamboat.”

Banks’ father, Claudius, started the tradition of skiing down Howelsen with road flares strapped to his ski outfit more than 60 years ago. Jon Banks joined his father for the run in 1971. The duo skied together until Claudius retired in 1978, and Jon Banks has continued to carry on the legacy solo since then.

Banks donated his father’s original rudimentary suit to the Tread of Pioneers Museum. Trial and error has helped him modify his current suit throughout the years.

For instance, a leather cape now protects the modular gel-cell battery-powered system that pumps 300 watts of electricity through the suit. Banks downplays the complexity of the control system, activated by buttons on his poles that run microprocessors with programmed sequences.

But the often frigid night weather adds an extra thrill for Banks – who hopes the suit’s control switches will again spark the fireworks – the Carnival’s marquee night celebration.

“It’s always unknown – you push the button, but will it work?” Banks said. “There’s anxiety and then it works and it’s a feeling of relief and reward.”

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