Alaska: The Impossible Possibility

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FOR MOST OF US, ALASKA HAS ALWAYS SEEMED LIKE A DREAM that will remain forever out of reach. It may as well be on the other side of the Earth, because everything we see and read about it is so otherworldly. Yet the desire to go never disappears. Despite the fact we lack the means to make it happen, despite the fact that most of us probably aren’t good enough, despite all of the despites, the feeling only grows stronger with each passing year.

Well, the “out of reach” excuse for not going to Alaska is no longer acceptable. A couple of years ago, this magazine’s founding father, Mark Sullivan, had a revelation. Having been to Alaska numerous times throughout his editorial career, he noticed that the crowd was very exclusive. “I thought, I need to share this with more people. valdez.jpgI want to make it easier, because there are a lot of barriers to Alaska, and skill is only the first one,” Sullivan says. So in 2007, Sullivan started Tailgate Alaska, a grassroots program designed to show the snowboarding community that Alaska was, in fact, possible.

Tailgate is a new concept in AK riding, one “targeted towards anyone who has it in themselves,” as Sullivan puts it. “Tailgate is designed to be as turn- key as possible, while at the same time allowing people to be responsible for themselves. We provide a base of operations and a place to hang out. For all the down time, and there is a lot of it, we want to provide the rider with entertainment, education, food and shelter with a logistical approach to getting up and out there,” Sullivan says. 

The obvious location for any program to bring a wider audience to AK is Valdez, the epicenter of Alaskan snowboarding. This port town located at the head of Prince William Sound is one of the state’s most accesible destinations. The town’s economy revolves around fishing and oil, except for two months out of the year when a different breed shows up to reap Valdez’s bounty. Every March and April, as the days grow longer and the weather begins to break, Valdez is ground zero for a small but important movement in snowboarding. It becomes the big-mountain capital of the world.

Before Tailgate, an Alaskan riding experience amounted to a plane ticket, a rental car and a hotel room, and that’s before dropping serious cash on a chartered heli and guides, all for an unpredictable amount of heli time given the weather patterns coming in off the Gulf. While you will no doubt still butt heads with the weather, Tailgate provides more options. Whether heli, hiking or snowmobiling, Tailgate facilitates alternative options to get uphill. One notable service is called Big Mountain Taxi, a snowmobile shuttling system designed to get you into the upper bowls for very little cash. But remember, this is still unguided riding, and you’re on your own up there, so having ample knowledge of glacial terrain is a must.

Tailgate encourages strong local involvement, and it is as much about respecting the community as it is affording outsiders the opportunity to enjoy it. “Even if you’re Travis Rice, you need to realize that you are no better than anyone in the town of Valdez,” Sullivan states. “Snowboarding ultimately drives the economy up there for a couple of months out of the year, and if we want to have this long term thing going on, then everybody needs to be a part of it and feel welcome.” 

With the local involvement and like-minded individuals roaming the base camp, one of the most important things you will gain from Tailgate is experience. That’s one detail you learn real quick up there – you don’t know shit. You see very clearly that you are going to need some help, and because everyone was at that stage at one point or another, if you have the right attitude everyone is willing to impart his or her invaluable knowledge on you. 

This sense of community is probably the most amazing thing about the gathering at Tailgate Alaska. A journey like this isn’t directed just by your snowboarding, but also by your spirit. Only you know what you’re ultimately after, and if that happens to be “the ultimate,” then the Chugach is definitely that. As Sullivan says, “With Alaska, everyone is enlightened in the same way, no matter what you accomplish. With snowboarding becoming an industry of cool rather than substance, it’s time we recognize what is really important.”