Tailgate Alaska 2011: Hurry up and Wait

I recently attended the 2011 installment of the World Freeride Festival. This annual festival takes place on Thompson Pass in Alaska, and draws riders from all over the world to tailgate and ride some of the sickest terrain on the planet; hence its name, Tailgate Alaska. A friend told me that the problem with going to Tailgate Alaska is that you end up being compelled to return every year. My response to him was: so what's the problem? As it turns out, he was exactly right. Having attended the 2010 edition of the festival, and made many friends there, the decision to return this year was made even before the last one had ended and I once again found myself on Thompson Pass: no problem.

DSC_0015The Chugach Mountains seen from the Glenn Highway

I left my home and native land early on Friday April 1st. Being April Fool's day, I was slightly suspicious that this might be a cosmic prank or joke. However, I arrived in Anchorage without incident — and all my money; last year I was robbed in transit at Detroit Metro — then made my way to Clippership Motorhomes to pick up my mobile home for the next ten days; this was no joke.

Following a quick stop at the Fred Meyer for some supplies, I started toward Thompson Pass. However, by the time the sun went down — which is sometime between 9:00 and 9:30 PM AKDT at this time of year — the jet lag was catching up to me. I was still 30 miles outside of Glenallen and only had approximately half a tank of fuel left, so I decided to stop at the next highway pullout, park my rig and sleep for the night. This is one advantage of travelling with your home in tow.

Being by myself on the side of the Glenn Highway was very isolating. It was so eerily still that the sound of passing cars was a welcome break from the silence. Perhaps I was getting a sense of what Christopher McCandless felt like while living in that abandoned trailer (see Into the Wild) in the "great land": isolation. Fortunately, the sense of isolation was only temporary. Upon arrival at the Tailgate basecamp, I was soon re-united with some old friends and proceeded to make a few new ones (even though it was bluebird when I arrived and most people were out playing in the snow... lucky bastards).

Tailgrab in Light FlatRob boosts a tailgrab in flat light over the spine that was built at the Tailgate Alaska basecamp.

Unfortunately the blue skies did not last. It was not long before the clouds rolled in and the Pass was bathed in a flat light. All the groups that were in the field started making their way back by any means necessary while it was still possible to see, and the World Extreme Skiing Championships (WESC) were put on hold yet again.

The grey skies would prove to be an on-going problem. Last year I had been spoiled by five or six consecutive bluebird days broken up by one or two grey days (at most). This year I seemed to be in a constant holding pattern: hurry up and wait. This was not too much of a problem, however, as Black Ops was on hand with snow cats to build fun features to ride in basecamp for when the weather would not cooperate. The New York boys and I decided to session a spine and cheese wedge until the next sunny window that would allow us see well enough to get to higher ground and ride the terrain we came here to ride.

In general parlance, "window shopping" is an activity that shoppers engage in by browsing shops with no intent to purchase, possibly just to pass the time between other activities, or to plan a later purchase. In the Alaska backcountry, however, this expression relates to waiting for a window in the cloud cover which would allow enough sunlight to see the relief of the snowy mountains, thus facilitating their safe descent at high velocity. I suppose the two terms aren't entirely dissimilar, however, in the latter case the intent is to pass the time between good shredding (the planned purchase). So unlike 2010 when it was on all day, every day, my first five days of Tailgate Alaska 2011 were better described as constant "window shopping". In spite of this, I got out riding most days as the New York boys and I took advantage of a window or two to go on some skinning adventures near basecamp. On one occasion, we even made it about 1000 feet up Gully One (Vertigo) before the clouds rolled back in and we had to pull the plug. Although short, those were definitely well earned runs.

ABA Giving Tailgate the Bird
When the skies turn blue, ABA gives Tailgate the bird.

World Freeriding Championships

This pretty much became the routine until the skies finally broke and the gods graced us with a bluebird day (April 6th). This meant that the world freeriding championships — combining the weather cancelled WESC and the big mountain snowboarding event The King of the Hill (KOTH) — could take place. Last year's queen of the hill, most recent Westbeach Chinese Downhill creekside queen, and all around cool girl Vera Janssen was present to defend her crown. However, the defending king of the hill, Travis Rice, was notably absent from this year's contest so the king's crown was up for grabs. After all was said and done, Kirkwood local Will Brommelsiek was crowned the new King of the Hill, with second place going to Ross Baker, and third to Mammoth local Scott Sheer.

On the women's side, Vera was unable to defend her crown. Holly Enderle of Juneau took the title, followed by North Face Masters champion Iris Lazzareschi and Australian Rachel Sheidow in third.

The WESC skiing title was taken by Dan Vandermeulen who put down a hairball line that even impressed snowboarding legend Mike Basich.

Ashes to Ashes

Although it was a great day for the contest, I felt sorry for the participants because it was the first bluebird day in quite some time and they would be spending it waiting to drop in for their contest runs. The New York boys and myself, on the other hand, were already checked in with ABA and were scheduled to be the fourth group to fly even before the contest had started.

Even though we only managed to get three runs in (Stalefish, Cold Smoke, and Ripping Ridge), those three runs could only be described as epic — there's no other way to describe blower pow turns with your bros on a bluebird day — our mate Bill even went so far as to say they were the best turns of his life (so far).

For Bill, however, this heli day was significant for more than just the snow and the terrain. Bill's father passed away shortly before Tailgate. Having been his teacher in the art of sliding down snowy mountains, Bill decided to spread his father's ashes in the Chugach range a la Theodore Donald 'Donny' Kerabatsos in the The Big Lebowski. On our third bump of the day (up to Ripping Ridge), an ad hoc ceremony was conducted, presided by the next nearest thing to a priest, our guide Danny Caruso, in the greatest church in the Universe, the mountains.

The Storming

The Storming
Following the first bluebird day on the pass since having arrived, Ullr decided to bless us with two days of snow.

Unfortunately our bluebird luck was short lived as a snow storm moved in that night and continued for the next two days. Raeann, a Valdez local, confirmed that this was the biggest snow storm to hit the pass so far this winter. This was a huge gift considering that the mountains had received several feet less of snow this year than the average; possibly the worst snow season in memory (although considering the Chugach mountains receive an average of 600 inches of snow per year, a few feet less doesn't seem like that big of a deal to us east coasters). Still, for those of us who are temporary residents on the Pass, it is slightly disappointing to miss out on epic heli turns. For the next two days, we huddled around camp fires and in RVs watching movies, playing poker, and whatever else to pass the time while waiting for the storm to break. Some might consider this ruinous fortunes for a snowboarding trip, however, the snow and terrain are definitely worth the wait.

The Stoke

Ten days goes by quickly on Thompson Pass. Before I knew it, the World Freeride Festival was coming to a close and it was time for me to pack my gear and make my way back to Anchorage for the long flight home. However, I wouldn't be making the trip alone this time as Dave Geiss' long time friend Chris needed to get back to Anchorage and he jumped at my offer of a ride. We shared Doritos and talked about many things during the six hour drive, however, one story in particular stuck with me. Chris told me how he had lost the stoke for snowboarding since moving to Las Vegas; even though it had been the most important thing in his life until the age of 31. Dave had talked him into coming to Tailgate Alaska, and being there allowed him to rediscover the reason to seek out the mountains: preparing for his annual pilgrimage to AK to shred pow. That's the kind of effect Thompson Pass has on people: once you get a glimpse of the promised land, even the tiniest local hill takes on a whole new meaning. If your stoke is gone, find a way to get to AK, you'll rediscover it for sure.

Tailgate may change slightly from year to year, but the underlying spirit will always remain the same as only those truly passionate about sliding down a mountain are willing to camp out in the middle of Alaska to ride the greatest cirque on earth. That's why Tailgate Alaska cannot be compared to any other events (especially not a gong show like Arctic Man). It's also the reason why people are compelled to return from year to year to bro-down at this addictive escape. I'm already looking forward to returning to Thompson Pass next winter to see old friends, and hopefully make many new ones. The only thing left to do is hurry up and wait.

Winter Matters Bubble

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Wow! Bien écrit. Aller en AK pour Tailgate c'est beaucoup plus qu'un voyage, c'est une expérience spirituelle.

Nice one Marc - can't wait until next year - already planning.

Marc's picture

Thanks Mark. I'm looking forward to bringing the family ;-)