When I landed in Alaska, I had already been up for fourteen hours. My flight left Logan Airport early that day, and I touched down in Alaska with a lot of day left to go. But I was committed to breaking through my jet lag as quickly as possible. I hopped on the shuttle the the saddest little Ramada in downtown Anchorage, and made a point of staying awake until nine o’clock.
That wound up being a challenge, because for all the space they have there isn’t actually a lot in Anchorage, at least the part I was able to access by foot. I was restricted to foot travel, because as I will discuss shortly, I didn’t have a ride out to Thompson Pass, where Tailgate Alaska actually takes place. But that was a problem for the next morning. I pushed myself around town for a few hours before I could have dinner without feeling like a geriatric running to the early bird special, then headed back to the hotel. By 9:15, I was passed out.
The next morning I woke up at seven and couldn’t go back to sleep. Maybe it was my brain insisting it was still on East Coast time, maybe it was my own excitement about finally being in Alaska. But either way I got up and got ready, knowing I had just a few hours left to figure out how I was getting out to Tailgate Alaska.
Getting to Thompson Pass
For people used to the scale of the lower forty eight, that doesn’t seem like too much. Valdez is the next “big” town heading east from Anchorage, so it can’t be that far. But it is. First off there’s no road running directly between the two. So you have to drive well inland before heading east to Glennallen and making a turn south back through the mountains. All told, it’s about five hours. Not far, but not the kind of distance you can just cover without thinking about.
In an ideal world I would have been driving out already, but as mentioned above things were less than ideal. The plan had been for a bunch of us to come out, and all pool resources to split an RV. But one by one people dropped out until eventually, it was just me going. And my pooled resources weren’t enough for an RV. Luckily I’d sorted out lodging once I got to Thompson Pass; the staff of Tailgate had generously offered me space in their massive military surplus heated tent, and that suited me just fine. But I still had to get there.
So I called in a few favors on people who called in a few favors and eventually found myself on my way out of Anchorage and on my way to … Wasilla. Which is actually the wrong direction, but it’s where someone was willing to drive me to and there were people in Wasilla willing to let me crash on their couch. That’s a step in the right direction. I spent the next two days playing with power tools, eating outrageously good food, and watching the Northern Lights. Anything would have better than that sad little Ramada, but this was unquestionably a great way to kill time waiting for a ride.
Eventually a ride did come. Four Austrians (two of whom were Olympians) were heading out to Thompson Pass and they had space in their RV for one more. I loaded up, tried to be the best passenger possible, and stayed out of their way. After months of planning, but clearly still not planning enough, I was finally on my way.
Finally at Tailgate
The next morning I woke up to an eyeful of Mount Billy Mitchell. We’d pulled into the parking lot at Alaska Rendezvous Heli Guides late the night before, and I’d grabbed my things and went over to crash at (Tailgate and Snowboard Mag founder) Mark Sullivan’s cabin. No electricity, no running water, but there was space to sleep and eventually we got the heater working. But none of that mattered because I was finally there. Kind of. I mean there was another quick drive up the road before we got to the airstrip that served as the base for Tailgate Alaska. But I was there, even if I wasn’t quite “there” yet.
After everyone got their coffee fix we drove over to basecamp. It was a big space, surrounded by big mountains. But when I arrived the only visible structures were the green army tent we’d be sleeping in and Tailgate’s staff of four. After spending the last couple days waiting to get out here I was anxious to get up in the mountains and ride, but a few steps away from camp and it became clear I would have to keep on waiting. A wind event a few days before had blown through the pass, leaving us with nothing but hardpack and ice as far as the eye can see. Frankly the conditions kind of reminded me of back east. Unfortunately I’d only packed my powder board for this trip, because I’m an idiot. But it didn’t matter, I had plenty of time left and everyone was confident we’d get a reset soon. Whether it was more snow or warm enough to thaw the hardpack, we’d be riding good soon enough so long as the weather didn’t stay the same.
And honestly the weather was kind of nice. Cool but not cold and plenty sunny, it was the perfect weather for hanging out in a tent and focusing on getting the facilities ready for Tailgate Alaska to really start in a few days. So we worked on setting up the party tent, plotting out the parking spaces, and getting the supplies in storage down in Valdez up to the Pass.
Very quickly, life settled into a routine. We’d usually get up around ten; the surplus tent was designed to keep light in as defense against air raids, so it also kept light out and we were all happy to sleep in. Even when the fire went out overnight and it got down to twenty degrees inside. We’d step outside, see another bright beautiful day and resign ourselves to another day of prep work. And it was fine, it would have been really hard having to stay in that parking lot if there was beautiful powder out there to ride. Or, more realistically, things just wouldn’t have got done because we’d be out riding. But that never happened and eventually it came time for Tailgate Alaska to officially start.
Honestly the biggest challenge of the entire trip was when people started showing up. I’d become acclimated to having this massive space and all these mountains to ourselves, with only the helicopter of our neighbors at ASG to keep us company. So when a couple hundred people showed up, in trucks and RVs, hauling all manner of snowmobiles and other toys with them, it suddenly felt cramped. But all of that was forgotten when I realized this was when the fun began. (Most) of the staff’s duties from here out were light, which meant we were finally free to get out and ride.
Unfortunately, the snow was still not cooperating. In fact I’m not going to hide it, the snow never actually got good. Like there was definitely fine riding to be had, and I definitely feel comfortable claiming “I’ve ridden in Alaska” going forward. But I never got the epic powder day I imagined Alaska had to deliver. I’d planned my trip out knowing sometimes you have to wait for the weather, I just assumed I’d given myself enough time to wait. And I didn’t.
But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t fun to be had. For example, snowmobiles. Or, as Alaskans almost apologetically insist on calling them, snowmachines. It’s almost like the soda/pop divide that’s familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the midwest, except this time there’s a group of people who realize they’re the ones with the weird word. On multiple occasions I had Alaskans give me an uncertain look when they’d say “snowmachine.” As if they were speaking some different language and had to make sure the foreigner followed what they were saying. Which is funny, because I came up there knowing that’s what they called snowmobiles. Granted, I think “snowmachine” is an amusingly unspecific term. It could just as easily refer to a snow blower, or snow making equipment, as it could to what I call a snowmobile. But Alaskans spend WAY more time on these things, so they can call them whatever they want as far as I’m concerned.
On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned before I’m aggressively east coast. Haven’t lived anywhere else since I was four years old, and haven’t wanted to live anywhere else … ever. And while I’ll defend the mountains here past the point of reason, even I can’t claim we’ve got any kind of snowmobile scene here worth … anything. Before this trip my sole experience on a sled was ripping around corn fields back in Pennsylvania, fifteen years ago on a machine that was ancient even then. In other words, none. But I came in with a fair bit of confidence. I have spent enough time on mountain bikes, and riding ATVs, that I felt confident that I would at least not suck at snowmobiling.
I was profoundly wrong.
I’m not going to write about how snowmobiling is different from what I expected, because frankly I don’t think I’m qualified to speak with any authority on it. I was that bad. I was so bad I was even a bad passenger, and scared the shit out of overly-generous friends offering me a bump more than a few times. If you have the skills a snowmobile is clearly the way to access these mountains. And plenty of people with only marginally more experience than I had managed to get out on the available rental sleds and have a great time. I’m just that bad that I quickly decided to go back to my original plan and focus on what could be accessed on foot.
Snowboarding in Alaska
I’d picked up the first dedicated powder board of my life for this trip, counting on the overhead days magazines and movies had been telling me about for years. My Jones Hovercraft has had more than a few great powder days this season, where it lived up to every ounce of hype that board has around it. And it’s performed surprisingly well on less than ideal conditions too. But as I’ve already mentioned, conditions were beyond less than ideal in Thompson Pass this year. But I wasn’t about to let that stop me. One of the advantages of my east coast outlook is that even bad snow is better than no snow, so I loaded my pack with all my necessary gear and headed for the hills.
And by hills I mean massive fucking lines that I’d seen challenge way better riders than me. The snow being what it was we were as avalanche-safe as could be, but the mountains were still more than capable of kicking my ass. In fact, I had the best scorp of my life in Gully Two. My way-too-buoyant powder board got kicked out by a patch of hardpack, sending me into a pretty good ragdoll that I eventually managed to arrest, but not without scratching the back of my helmet with my heelside edge. Good stuff.
With that said, I still had a damn good time riding at Tailgate Alaska. I accessed most of my lines on foot, aided by my trusty Verts. They performed exceptionally well on this their first test on snow, and honestly I felt more confident on them during some of the icier traverses than my riding buddies did on their splitboards. And if we had to get up an icy ramp, forget about it. I’d be casually climbing straight up, rarely struggling for grip, while they’d be sidestepping and mainly sideslipping. The Instagram doesn’t lie, Verts rule.
This wasn’t “squeeze in every run you can” snowboarding. We’d take our time heading uphill. We’d stop along the way to discuss our planned routes for the way up and down, and occasionally pause for a snack and to enjoy the view. If you’re looking for low-effort snowboarding Tailgate Alaska isn’t for you, but then again neither is freeriding in general. But if you’re willing to put the work in, it’s unquestionably high-reward.
Riding mountains this big, and this good, and this empty, is a surreal experience. Thompson Pass is a mecca of snowboarding (and skiing now that they’ve figured out how to make skis that work on powder) and I knew the names of half a dozen famous lines here before I even knew I was coming. And yet you get here and it’s just you and the mountain. No kooks blocking your way down with the classic falling leaf, and no local leveraging their superior knowledge of the the terrain to make you feel slow. There’s so much space that any rider of any ability level could come here and find something to help them grow as a snowboarder and as a person. I spoke with seventy year old OGs who told me about “the good old days” (when they were fifty and riding harder than I ever could) and a few people who were going snowboarding for, no joke, the twelfth time of their lives. And all of us were out here because putting the work in to get up, and enjoying the ride down, is reward enough even when the conditions aren’t all-time.
All of that is the real “reason” for Tailgate Alaska. Without those mountains, and the opportunities they provide, the event would have no purpose. But those mountains are there all year long, and the snow nearly is too. You could stop reading this article right now, book a flight to Valdez, and be riding in Thompson Pass in less than thirty six hours. From anywhere in the world. So what exactly is it that buying a ticket to Tailgate Alaska gets you?
The cheap answer is stuff. Shirts, souvenirs, and discounts at a number of local vendors and heli ops are included in the price of admission. Plus you get access to the facilities (nearest open-to-the-public bathroom is a half hour away in Valdez), admission to regularly scheduled parties, concerts, and other good times. There’s Internet access for Tailgaters. Getting to ride in Alaska is good, but getting to broadcast on Instagram Live so you can rub it in the face of friends who decided not to come is even better. Plus there’s space. Before the Tailgate Alaska staff showed up this parking lot was just an empty snow field, a couple feet of snow sitting on top of a bush airport just waiting for summer. But before everyone gets there the whole thing gets plowed with a sweet-ass vintage snowcat. Entrances are carved into snow banks and signs are erected so people can know where they are supposed to be.
But the real answer, which might also be the cheesy answer, is a community. Everyone that shows up at Tailgate is there for two specific reasons; to ride snowboards and to have a great time. And while the mountains are there all year long, the party isn’t. And it’s a damn good party. Partially it’s because this type of riding encourages people to work together in groups, building connections and friendships before the music starts playing in the party tent. Everyone has already stepped outside what is normal and easy, so the “difficulty” of talking to new people and working together feels like no effort at all. So you make friends fast, and that’s something to value.
Before we get to the good times, it’s worth addressing a certain elephant in the room. Tailgate Alaska has a reputation. There’s stories of debauchery and substance abuse that would make Burning Man blush. And talking to employees at a few local businesses makes it sound like they’re more than just stories. But having been there for the entire duration of the event, it’s clear that by and large those stories are a lot of hand wringing and nonsense. Were people drinking alcohol and smoking weed? Yes. Of course they were. Whether you like it or not that’s part of snowboarding’s culture and you’d be hard pressed to find a snow industry event that doesn’t have at least some of that going on. But beyond that? Harder, more illegal drugs? I never saw it. I have reason to suspect there was more going on beyond that, but I also have reason to suspect that’s going on in several houses on the block you live on. Drugs are around, and maybe that’s a problem. But that’s hardly a problem unique to Tailgate Alaska, in snowboarding or society at large.
All told the parties were much tamer than you’d come to expect. Not that they weren’t a good time, but anyone who’s heard stories of taking peyote at a glacier cave orgy would probably be disappointed. Most nights it was a relaxing evening around the fire. A few beers and a good conversation, provided not by Tailgate Alaska but by attendees and participants. That’s the community I was talking about earlier. Most nights people were trying to get to bed at a semi-reasonable hour and go ride the next day, so stuff usually wound down before midnight.
When it didn’t wind down though, things were popping off in the “Party Tent.” Part living room, part ping pong stadium, and part performance venue, the Party Tent was the biggest structure on Thompson Pass. A bigger version of the military surplus insulated tent I was sleeping in, it was heated, illuminated, and way more comfortable than just sitting around in the cold. The best party though was on the final night of Tailgate, when there were performances from The Avery Wolves, a two-piece psychobilly group with a lead singer that reminded me a lot of Glenn Danzig (in a good way) and The Gutter Sheiks, the spiritual successor to perennial Tailgate favorites The Shoot Dangs. The music was loud, fast, and fun, and it was a hell of a way to close out the festival.
The Alaska Experience
It’s not easy to describe Tailgate Alaska to people who haven’t been there. I’ve tried, in talking to friends and family, to give an account of what I did while I was out there, and while I think most of them are happy for me I don’t believe many truly understand. Part of that is because Tailgate is more than just the things you do, it’s who you do them with and where you’re doing it. It’s the conditions, be they good or bad, and it’s the open possibility of it all combined with the knowledge that for the most part there never is an “easy” way. It’s the community you find late at night around a campfire, and the community you build trying to solve problems when you’re a long way away from basecamp. It’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to explain because it’s essential that it be experienced in order to be understood.
With that said; if you’re reading this and considering planning your own Tailgate Alaska adventure, if it seems like this sort of thing that might be up your alley, you need to do it. It isn’t easy, it isn’t always comfortable, but it will absolutely deliver on what sounded like a cheesy marketing slogan before you get there.
Alaska changes everything.
Acknowledgements and Thank Yous
I put a lot of work into planning and preparing for this trip. At times it felt a little overwhelming. And all I had to care about was myself. So no discussion of Tailgate Alaska can be complete without acknowledging the super-human effort Dustin Huebner put in to make this all happen. Without his energy, vision, and leadership there is no way Tailgate could have kicked off its second decade as well as it did. And there is no question in my mind that it will only get better from here.
But on a more personal level, there were a lot of people who I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude (as well as literal financial debt) to for making my Alaska experience as amazing and powerful as it was. I was already missing them as I boarded the plane to go home, and at most I had known them for twenty days. In roughly chronological order:
- Tom and Lydia; for bailing me out of the saddest Ramada Inn and giving me a lift out to “real” Alaska.
- Rattail Randy; for the spray foam guidance and support.
- Loan, Pat, and Lien; for being unreasonably hospitable to someone who just showed up on their front door with little to no warning. (Check out Bao Food Truck if you ever get the chance. Seriously good food.)
- Julia, George, Daniela, and Steffi; for picking me up in a random Walmart parking lot and hauling me all the way out to Valdez.
- Mark; for letting me crash in his cabin on my first night in Valdez and getting up to help us fix his heater.
- Pirmin; für die Board-Design-Gespräche und die Scheiße erledigt. Auch wenn es in schlechtem Schweizdeutsch.
- Greg; for optics upgrades, keeping it East Coast in the staff tent, and most importantly hauling my incompetent ass around on a sled.
- Mike; Alaskan Fusion Chef extraordinaire, Poland’s finest Adventure Snowboarder, and the photographer that made this article possible.
- Brix; for the scariest set of hangover braids Valdez has ever seen.
- Pam; for being the snowboard mom none of us really needed, but all of us were glad to have.
- Martin and Oliver; for the “industry” talk, the ride back to Anchorage, and the ill-advised offer of lift tickets for life.
And then there’s the businesses that actually put time and money into making this event go as well as it did-
- Ski-Doo for bringing a whole bunch of 2019 sleds for people to try, plus doing the best you could to help me not be terrible at snowmobiling.
- Team CC, Delta Powersports, and Iron Dog Outfitters for hanging out, bringing the good times, and generally being good people.
- Bill and Steve from OTG Rentals for helping all of us non-locals get out into the mountains.
- Alaska Rendezvouz Heli-Guides for the parking, the party, and possibly most importantly the shower.
- Bao Food Truck and Insomniacs for keeping base camp fueled up and fed.
- The Gutter Sheiks and The Avery Wolves for good tunes and good times.