In the world of big mountain slaying, Alaska has a reputation for being the ultimate dragon and Thompson Pass, just outside of Valdez, is its lair. The clouds that billow up and cover these mountains hold riders at bay, as they wait for that chance to strap in and drop into something that they've personally never done before, or in the case of some top-level riders, something that's never been done before by anyone.
There are few places in the world where you can car camp, and access a ridiculous amount of vertical feet from the zone right outside your Subaru. But the parking lots along the Richardson Highway -- the main road that cuts through the Thompson Pass -- are some of them. And so they have seen many gatherings, going back to the 80s.
Tailgate Alaska, then, is both carrying on the tradition, and taking it to another level. Founded in 2008, the festival has become a place where likeminded powder seekers, both of national and international persuasion, can come together to share in the pursuit of shredding world-class terrain on a dirtbag budget.
The festival culminates in the World Freeride Championships: a two-day, rider-judged big mountain competition. With a snowfall tally of 651 inches as of early April, the competition was exceptionally exciting, as there were options for riding lines that haven't been doable in years.
The way every rider in the comp, male and female, rode was insane, but in the end it was Brandon Reid who took the top honors. Runner up Sammy Luebke's line was stylish and smooth, and could have been in any video part, but Reid looked like he was riding 100 miles an hour. He stomped his line, savage style, for the win.
But the contest is just one part of the festival. Tailgate Alaska isn't about pro glory, it's about creating an environment where people who love powder can come learn how to do it safely. Attendees can get heli and snowmobile bumps up into the mountains from the parking lot, and every day classes ranging in topics from backcountry safety to snow machine travel are offered, and well attended.
"I was very scared to come here," explained Brynja Bowman, who came up to Tailgate from Nevada. "It's always been my dream to come to Alaska, but I didn't know if I could. What makes me think I am good enough to do what the pros do?"
Even though she wasn't riding the steepest lines, she was surprised by how comfortable it was to push her riding because of the support, education, and a good time that the festival provided.
A Tailgater since the festival's start, pro Rob Kingwill says he's seen all different levels of riding, from the those with some backcountry experience to those who come up here and think "it's on" with every peak they see.
"You still have to have respect for the mountains and wait a little bit," said Kingwill. "Sometimes it's not on."
Sean Wisner, the director of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, runs the snow safety and technical rescue for Tailgate and the World Freeride Championships. His team of 15 is there to run classes and provide technical rescue when necessary.
Wisner said, "Every morning we put out an avalanche forecast for the day using the North American danger scale. Also, we are interpreting that bulletin for people. Explaining what we mean."
Greg Sperry and Jesse Fryer, two returning campers from Utah, have improved their festival modus operandi. This year, they rented snowmobiles and an RV for their trip and put together a tight group of friends who were similar in skill level and who wanted to ride, and not just party.
On top of their continued education on snow science and backcountry safety, this year they learned a lot about about sleds.
"They can be awesome when they work," said Sperry.
Pro rider Mike Basich, a long time trekker to Valdez and a festival attendee since day one, added, "The one thing that people don't experience before coming up here is the down days. When you see snowboarding in the films, it's really all the highlights of a month of being here."
When the weather is socked in you can't safely do much. The depth perception is minimal, and because the vertical descent is so abrupt in these mountains the inability to see can lead to certain death. So you have to find other ways to amuse yourself.
The Gnar Bumps, one of many Alaskan crews occupying the parking lot on the other side of the highway opposite Tailgate came up with their own way to pass the time during the down days. Digging and cutting into the mound of snow that previously covered the parking lot, they created a snow cave large enough to party in.
This is the third year the group of friends have attended the festival and besides the obvious reason of riding the big mountains, they come back because of the great people and vibe of the event.
"It's like Woodstock, if you can imagine," Joey Dowd, one of the Gnars, commented. "You don't see fights out here. There are no cops out here. There doesn't need to be."
Scotty Lago, who also returns to AK year after year, summed it up best: "Everyone is here for one purpose: to ride big mountain lines and good snow."
"Tailgate is just what we call it right now," added Andy Morrison, who runs a snowmobile guiding service out of Girdwood and rented sleds at the festival. "It's in the spirit of coming out here, setting up a tent, bringing an RV, sleeping in your van, sleeping on a trailer, or whatever. It's getting out into the mountains."