November 21, 2017 North Pole, Alaska — On March 30, the 11th annual Tailgate Alaska will commence in the heart of Thompson Pass, Alaska, where snowboarders and skiers from around the world gather in Alaska’s dreamworld of snow and peaks. A lot of things will be the same this year as in the past, but some things will be different. Including new leadership. Mark Sullivan, who created and ran Tailgate Alaska for the past ten years, is handing over the responsibility of sharing Thompson Pass to me, Dustin H. James, to continue the movement that transforms the Alaska scene with each passing year.
People have been calling Tailgate Alaska the “Burning Man of the North” for years, but of course we are an event about snowboarding and skiing and our focus is different than Burning Man’s.
Although we do embrace the creativity, expression, camaraderie, brotherhood, and life changing experiences that a unique environment, such as Burning Man, or Tailgate Alaska, provides. At Tailgate Alaska the art is in you—the snowboarder, the skier—and these mountains are your canvas.
After 10 years, Tailgate Alaska sure has made its mark. Not only on those mountains, but on the day to day lives of those who have ridden here.
Tailgate started in 2008, after Sullivan sold Snowboard Magazine. The event was small, only fifteen people that first year. There were a few recreational riders, but most of the attendees were professional athletes. This is where the power lied in those days—with the heli guides, sponsored athletes, and uber rich who were feasting on the bounty of the Chugach each year. Then Tailgate Alaska happened, among technological developments for access, and, for the first time recreational riders, of a variety of skills and financial levels, began to come in droves.
The third year was the catalyst. That was the first year of the contest. It was 2010. Tailgate brought back King of the Hill, an epic freeride event from the 90s. Some really big names decided to show up for it. Travis Rice, Mike Basich, Scotty Lago, Mark Landvik, and Shawn Farmer. But it wasn’t Travis Rice’s winning run, where he stomped a gigantic 720 off a natural windlip above exposure, that would change Thompson Pass forever. For Travis, this was another trophy and couple hundred high fives to add to his collection. It wasn’t even Mark Landvik’s arm wrestling victory over Shawn Farmer for 6th place that would change Thompson Pass. Nope. It was Nico Demetrio, a chubby Chilean who now lives in WashingtonState who also competed. For Nico, this was a transformative moment on open display. Not only was he riding in Alaska, he was doing it alongside Travis Rice, riding off the very same peak. For Nico, that moment captured the awe and wonder of living. Because anyone who loves riding can experience snowboarding, and perhaps life itself, at its absolute zenith here.
Along with the groundbreaking riding we have also witnessed a rise in creativity, the likes of which no one could have foreseen. The Gypsy Crew, with their pop-up cabins, have become the true artists on Thompson Pass. Their door is always open to the fellow snow traveler. One year they created a 20 person sauna in a snow cave. The Eagle’s Nest was a highlight of 2016, a remote basecamp atop Demolition Hill that served as a happy hour stop-in where you could gaze out across the entire corridor of Thompson Pass, lighting off fireworks over the tailgate party. And who could forget Camp One Love, a crew of locals that did it all across the street. The craziest parties, the best snow caves, and the most technical terrain parks were the mark left by One Love.
While the apres scene has been an undeniable good time, the real excitement has been the mountains and unlimited powder. Exploration has taken on a whole new meaning. Riding in Thompson Pass used to be all about the road corridor, not anymore. People from around the world are learning to lead their own glacial explorations, and they’re doing it by foot, skin, sled, plane and helicopter.
Over the past ten years, snowmobiles have undergone a radical transformation in their design, allowing the average skier and snowboarder to reach locations once reserved only for helicopters. And then there’s Zack with Tok Air Service, a homegrown Alaskan bush pilot who parks his plane at Tailgate giving affordable access to glaciers overhead. Zack has created a spectacular way for splitboarders and skinners to access the infinite terrain that spans hundreds of square miles.
What does all this boil down to? There are more access options available to the regular person than ever before. We are just beginning to peel back the layers of the Chugach mountains and what they can offer for the recreational snowboarder and skier. Indeed, available first descents out there may number in the millions.
For the past decade, mainstream progression has been defined by filling the tops of podiums with taurine infused athletes, adding one 180 after another, and publishing stories about professionals on dream trips that most people will never come to experience. As these riders continue to push the limits of what is possible on snow, the regular rider has faced more and more disconnection from their sources of inspiration.
So, what’s gonna happen over the next ten years in Thompson Pass? I couldn’t tell you because it’s not up to me to decide. I’m just here to be a sherpa—making it easier for you to have the same experiences that Jeremy Jones or Sage Cattabriga-Alosa have become famous for. The ultimate goal of Tailgate Alaska is not to be an event where the regular person comes to hang around the professionals. The goal is to have an event where the professionals come to get back in touch with the soul of our sport. John Jackson gets it.
And if you’re wondering if you’re ready for Alaska, then you’re asking yourself the wrong question. The answer is a resounding yes, unless you hate powder, because there are no groomers. But remember, if you want to have someone hold your hand through the experience, then your best bet is to book a week at a heli lodge. I have the phone numbers, just don’t forget the checkbook. If you want to do Alaska for yourself, then boy do we have a parking lot full of dedicated, like-minded riders waiting for you.
Discover life without limits for yourself, March 30 – April 8, 2018, in the heart of Thompson Pass.
— Dustin H. James