A pilgrimage: The people of Tailgate Alaska

Photos: Cody Liska & Sebastian Garber

From any one of the surrounding peaks, Tailgate Alaska looks like a muddy peninsula in a sea of white. The Richardson Highway bisects the valley and stands as the last amenity of modern society. It’s also the only way in or out of Thompson Pass. The only thing to do in the parking lot at milepost 29.5 is party and ride.

“I was [in Alaska] — in this parking lot — with Mack Dawg and my buddy DJ Smoky in the early 2000s. I ended up riding blower powder with [David Carrier Porcheron]. It was insane,” Tailgate Alaska founder Mark Sullivan tells me. “On the drive back to Anchorage, I decided that I needed to share that with more people. Tailgate materialized from that. It became a way to share this experience with people. Because, as far as conditions, mountains and challenges go, [Thompson Pass] is the absolute pinnacle of snowboarding.”

The first Tailgate was in 2008. There was a one-wall tent, a generator, a boom box, two snowmachines and about six pro snowboarders. “We just hung out in the tent on the down days and jammed to music,” Sullivan tells me. “And then on the good days, we went heliing and sledding.” Sullivan has always identified Tailgate as a freeride festival, and from 2009 to 2014 a freeride competition was tacked on to the event. It was an effort to reestablish what The King of the Hill had started in the ’90s. Tailgate’s rendition was a one-day competition in a zone called Bro Bowl. So, for the first time in 20 years there was a freeride competition on Thompson Pass.

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Tailgate basecamp from above. The ‘local camp’ is across the highway.

“Travis Rice won [Tailgate 2010] and we had an award ceremony at The Totem [Inn], and they were basically like, ‘Okay, that’s it. It’s 10 o’clock. You guys are kicked out.’ So, I walked across the street to Landshark’s and said, ‘Hey, do you mind if we bring a sound system and like 200 people over?’ And they were like, ‘Sure, bring ‘em.’ Every single drink in the bar was drunk that night — every Rumpleminze, every Goldshlager — everything was gone. The bartender chick got a couple grand in tips. That’s when everyone realized that Tailgate was something. I’d say that was one of my most memorable times at Tailgate.”

Everyone at Tailgate has a story about how they got here. In July of 2011, Pam Robinson’s middle son Aaron died as a result of a snowboarding accident in Chile (“He went off a cliff and, of course, he wasn’t wearing a helmet,” Robinson says). That September, Robinson hosted a carnival at her house in Montana. “It was a celebration of life,” she tells me. “There were over 1,000 people at my house in Montana. We had live music, games and pony rides. It was just amazing. That was the day Mark [Sullivan] asked me if I would like to come to Tailgate because Aaron loved it so much.” In 2012, Mark paid for Robinson to come to Alaska for the first time. “The first year I came [to Tailgate], I brought a little bit of Aaron’s ashes and a bunch of us went up to the mountain and spread them. The [Anchorage Daily News] was up there filming; there were guitar players, people were drinking and singing. It was just so beautiful. There were like 100 people up there — locals and Tailgaters. So, that’s why I have to come here, because Aaron is in these mountains.”

Pam-Robinson

Pam Robinson preparing soup for friends in her motorhome.

Aaron’s ashes were spread on a peak visible from base camp called Berlin Wall. Valdez local Lewis Coffman was in attendance. “The day we tossed A-Rob up to the gods was a good day,” he tells me. “It seemed like every person at Tailgate that Aaron had ever met managed to make it to the spot. Pam was hugging everyone and thanking them for showing up to support her and her family. After we gave Aaron back to the mountains, most of us hiked lines right there and party-shredded our way back to camp. It was a really unique and special moment that Pam shared with us.”

There is a strong localism that permeates Alaska — “Where are you from?” is a prerequisite for any conversation between a local and an Outsider. To ignore or usurp Alaskans in Alaska is never a good idea, which is one reason why Sullivan puts so much stock in integrating the locals. Coffman helped start camp One Love — a local camp that inhabits the parking lot opposite Tailgate. At one point, there were rumors of animosity between One Love and Tailgate. According to Coffman, that was never the case: “[One Love] doesn’t downplay anybody who just wants to have a good time. It’s not like there’s a hierarchy.” This year, Sullivan invited camp One Love to bring their campsite across the road to the Tailgate parking lot. “You don’t go out around here without help,” Coffman tells me. “That’s why Tailgate is such a good event. You could be in the middle of nowhere and roll up on a crew that’s fucked up, and you’re gonna help them. And they’re gonna do the same. That’s how it works out here. Teamwork.”

While the general feeling toward Tailgate is positive, there are a number of people who feel it invites a bunch of gapers to the Pass. “It’s kind of like how the Hawaiians feel when the haoles come over to surf,” one local tells me. “Get off my wave, kook!” This perception has earned Tailgate the nickname “Flailgate” among certain circles. Serious riders don’t like to share mountains with inexperienced riders because it’s dangerous. It leaves room for error in a place where any form of miscalculation can mean death. In a perfect world, everyone who came to Thompson Pass would be prepared. However, that’s not always the case. Heli time and snowmachines and lodging all cost money and sometimes the kooks are the ones with the money.

Sean-Wisner

Tailgate Alaska Snow Safety Coordinator, Sam Wisner.

That’s why people like Sean Wisner are so important. Wisner is the Snow Safety Coordinator at Tailgate. He teaches avalanche classes and crevasse rescue classes. He also does standby rescue work in case anybody gets hurt in the immediate area. Coffman calls him Wisner the Wizard. “I’ve had to dig a lot of people out of avalanches,” Wisner tells me. “I think education is the key. I’m kind of tired of digging people out of avalanches. I want to educate people as much as I can – you gotta respect Momma Chugach. I call it prophylactic search and rescue,” Wisner laughs.

Darian-Draper

Darian Draper wears snocross jerseys when he hikes.

Fluctuating temperatures and variable snow conditions resulted in high avalanche danger this year at Tailgate. Wisner was the go-to consultant for on mountain safety precautions. One morning, he and Sullivan talked about instituting a color-coded flag system — green for low avalanche danger, black for extreme avalanche danger, similar to the North American Avalanche Danger Scale. In these mountains, every bit helps because your ability to access certain terrain is based on a collective knowledge. “Who you surround yourself with is going to determine what kind of terrain you’re gonna get on and how you’re going to evaluate and assess things,” Josh Mandel tells me. “If you have one person in your group that doesn’t feel comfortable, then it’s going to hold you back and vice versa. It’s definitely a progressive learning curve here, I would say.” Mandel first came to Tailgate in 2001 after meeting Sullivan at Copper Mountain in Colorado. Sullivan told him to come up to Alaska with $20 and he’d have the time of his life. “I took it really seriously — I came up for 40 days and camped out across the street [in the local parking lot] and dirtbagged it.”

Not everyone here is a dirtbag or ski bum. A lot of these people are businessmen and businesswomen, pro snowboarders, even a few Olympians. But Thompson Pass is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter what you do outside of this place. Here, everyone is the same because they all face the same dangers and the same rewards. So, on down days, everyone gets together and makes the most of it, always aware that the weather could turn. “Down days bring new experiences,” Jimmy Leghezza tells me. “In two weeks time, you really make good friends. It’s like, we never met before, but by the time we’re going home, we’re crying and hugging each other.” Leghezza’s distinct Long Island accent gives his “Where are you from?” away. “You gotta talk to Jimmy,” Coffman told me after our interview. “He’s got an accent as thick as New England Clam Chowder.” In 2011, Leghezza read about Tailgate on the Internet and, while on a trip with Dean Cummings’ H20 Guides in Valdez, visited base camp on a down day. He came to Tailgate the following year and has returned every year since.

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Lewis Coffman getting Alaskan waiting for dinner in Pam Robinson’s motor home.

“I think most of the people that snowboard like this don’t just snowboard because it’s fun. They do it because it makes them a better person,” Coffman tells me. “It’s like going to church and [Thompson Pass] is the biggest fuckin’ cathedral in the world.”

The Task, Diamond, The Sphinx, Pontoon and Meteorite — a peak that gets its name because it was hit by a meteorite in 1927 — are a few iconic peaks in the Pass. To ride these zones is to achieve something momentous — a milestone, bragging rights, a check off your bucket list. “By the time I’m in my 60s, I want to have done Meteorite and I want to have done Pontoon,” Sullivan tells me. “It’s all a mind game out here. Maybe you’ve done millions of left turns and right turns, but there’s a strategy in how you ride the mountain, in how you interpret the line that’s presented to you.”

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Mark Sullivan outside the WiFi tent on a down day.

Sullivan is the Bernie Sanders of snowboarding. That’s what he keeps telling me. “I’ve always been true to the same values and belief system, just like Bernie,” he says over a few beers in his motor home. In 2003, Sullivan founded Snowboard Magazine. In 2007, he sold it. He used a portion of that money to buy an Audi S8. “In life, there’s this value that most people have that says, ‘You are judged by what you attain financially.’ Whether that means you have a nice car in your driveway or you can afford fake boobs for your girlfriend. I used to think that I could judge my career by a standard way. Now, I judge my career based on the lives that I’m changing and the fact that I have this family of people who have a genuine connection with each other. My values led me to Tailgate. I’m trying to give more than I take. Always. That’s what my dad taught me.” He adds: “I drive an old beater pick-up truck now.”

Sullivan has a theory that one of the unintended consequences of Tailgate is that everyone has a life-altering story or experience while they’re here. Whether it’s in the mountains or the parking lot, everyone has a story that will forever make them part of the Tailgate family. And everyone has a reason for coming back. “Every year, when I get to Tailgate, people hug me and say, ‘Welcome home,’” Robinson tells me. “I can’t tell you what that does for my heart.”

Pirmin Wey came to Tailgate from Switzerland; Shin Biyajima from Japan; Rasmus Ostergaard from Denmark; Nicolas Demetrio from Chile; Johannas Kreutle from Germany; Matt Hicks from Australia; Julia Dujmovits from Austria; Mariq Terziiska from Bulgaria. Every year these people and many others make a pilgrimage to the heart of Thompson Pass because, ever since that first line, the Pass calls to them. They sleep in cars and motor homes and tents, waiting for the mountains to stop holding onto the weather and for it to go blue. It might take days, weeks even, but when it pops, there’s nothing else in the world like it.

“I get to be wealthy by choosing to live my life how I want,” Coffman tells me. “I don’t need a million dollars and a Bentley. I got a Lib Tech and a goddamn case of beer.”

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