Prepping for Tailgate AK
Hey kid, come here. You want the good stuff? You want the deep, steep, pure, untouched stuff? You want Alaska.
I know what you're thinking: It's too expensive. What if I told you it wasn't? I know a guy who can hook you up.
Tailgate Alaska, founded by former Snowboard Magazine editor Mark Sullivan, just finished up it's seventh season of helping riders get the goods. Sullivan started Tailgate to "share the unique experience Alaska offers."
"Unique," as in mountains that stretch from sea-to-stars just minutes from your Subaru hatchback or tent flap. If you want to experience all that Alaska has to offer, you should really consider coming up for the parking lot party next year. This is why:
Your Tailgate ticket gets you discounts everything from restaurants in Valdez to heli operations on Thompson pass to restaurants in Valdez. It gets you daily snow and avi-condition reports as well as safety training from the Alaska Avalanche Information Center. For those 21 and over, there is also a nightly beer garden, compliments of Alaskan Brewing Company.
It also gives you access to the little amenities that you need when you're camping out of your car, like parking, porta-johns, and cell phone charging.
But mostly, it gets you a big party full of like-minded friends who come from all over the world for the same reason: camping (read: cheap lodging) that is a 15-minute sled ride from movie-worthy snowboarding lines.
It's called Tailgate for a reason, but you feel like doing Valdez like a player, spring for the VIP pass and leave everything to Tailgate. They'll hook up your hotel room, meals and transportation. All you have to pay for is the chopper.
And if you want to get to get the AK goods on a ramen-noodle budget, you can do that, too.
Across the highway from Tailgate basecamp is Camp One Love. There are no porta-johns, no beer gardens and no frills. But the snow caves are elaborate, and the bonfires rage into the wee hours. This is mostly the on-hill home for Alaska locals, but they're welcoming -- hence the name "One Love."
Catching a ride on the back of one of the many snowmobiles parked at Camp One Love to the top of an AK peak is often as easy as supplying your own tow rope. The reliability of this method is sketchy, though. If you don't have your own sled, it's better to count on commercial operators to get you into the mountains.
Of course, the cheapest way to get to the top of a line in AK is also the cheapest way to get to the top of any line, anywhere: use your own two feet. Skin tracks are broken quickly and lead into the hills right out of the Tailgate and One Love base camps, so self-powered access is easy.
Commercial operations at the pass offer snowmobile rides and snowcat rides into the mountains, but if you want to ride the best terrain possible and get there with a quickness, you know you want to shell out for a helicopter.
Tailgate can get you discounts with various heli-ski operators (H20 Heli Guides being the official provider) but you still need to budget around $1,000 for a full day of guided heli boarding. This will get you anywhere from 4-8 of the best runs of your life: Think 4,000-6,000 vertical feet each.
What's more, the guiding service takes care of all the logistics. You don't have your own beacon, probe, shovel, harness or radio? (And ALL of these tools are required for travel in glaciated, crevasse-pocked avalanche terrain -- don't be an idiot.) Many operations include gear rental in their cost. Companies like H20, Black Ops Valdez and Alaska Rendezvous Lodge even offer lodging, food and transportation rolled into one package.
Valdez may not have a snowboard shop, but they do have plenty of hotels. And hotels offer something in short supply on Thompson Pass: showers. Think about how many dudes are going weeks up on the Pass, shredding, drinking and standing around campfires without showering. If you have a little money to spare, a hotel room is worth looking into -- even it it's only for a couple of days of clean-up times.
If you can't/don't want to spring for lodging, you still have options. One way to go is to rent an RV. RV companies will arrange pickup and drop-off from the Anchorage airport.
One thing to remember about RVs, however, is just because they have beds for four people doesn't mean it's a good idea to fill them all. You'll run out of room for everyone's gear to properly dry, and no one likes shredding in wet, swampy polypro for two weeks. Don't forget a boot dryer along with extra gloves and goggles.
Budget $500 - $800 for a 2-4 person RV. Then budget another $300 - $500 or so for gas. These beasts guzzle at a 10 miles per gallon clip -- that's before you account for the gas needed for your heater and generator. On second thought, have you ever tried snow camping?
For those set on tent camping or carving a cave-home of their own from that same snow they shred all day, key preparation considerations are: a negative-degree-rated sleeping bag, thick, reliable sleeping pad, extra warm clothes and a camp stove with plenty of fuel. If you thought it was hard to keep clothes dry with four guys sharing a heated Winnebago (and it is) try doing it in a frozen snow cave.
Sullivan has a hot tip for sleeping: "Before you got to bed, boil some water and put it in a cheap thermos and put it in your bag. It should leak some heat all night." It might not be the easiest way, but by camping you can use the money you didn't spend on a hotel or RV for heli time.
But the most important tip is this: whether you want to live like a baller or run your program skid-style in snow-cave squalor, snowboarding in Alaska is a dream that is attainable to anyone. Come up next year for Tailgate, make some friends, learn the ropes. And don't be afraid that the terrain is too advanced for you.
"About 70-percent of the terrain in Alaska would be considered intermediate or advanced at a resort," says Sullivan. "So everyone can enjoy riding."
Just be careful, you might get hooked.