The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Tony Gorman
For The Valdez Star 

Hundreds hit the slopes on Thompson Pass

Tailgate Alaska going strong after five years


Tony Gorman photo

Tailgate revelers attempt to dig out their own quarter pipe at base camp.

It started as a small gathering of friends who loved shredding the white stuff around Thompson Pass. Today, Tailgate Alaska is one of the fledging winter festivals in the world.

In its fifth year of existence, Tailgate Alaska has attracted winter sports enthusiasts to test their skis, snowboards, and snow machines in the backcountry of Thompson Pass.

Founder Mark Sullivan said he is pleased at how the festival has grown over the years.

“We’ve kind of grown from 200 people to about 400 people last year and maybe 400 people (at) this year’s event,” Sullivan said. “That’s a good size for the event. I think with the area we have here, we fill it up and it’s a good time for everybody who does make it.”

This year’s festival has a major emphasis on safety. Every morning, the Avalanche Information Center holds briefings on the avalanche forecast and other conditions. Afternoons feature classes on certain situations such as glacier travel, crevasse rescue, beacon use, and companion rescue. There are also clinics on snowmachine riding.

Sullivan says having a balance of safety and entertainment makes Tailgate Alaska unique. With more people heading into the backcountry, he believes more people need to know what they are getting into.

“It’s very easy to get this set of high tech equipment, but not know anything and go straight up into the mountains like this. And you’re putting yourself in harm’s way when you do that,” Sullivan said. “I think festivals like this make people aware that they need to know more about the decisions they make and really the best decisions about the backcountry are made through awareness on when to go and not to go.”

With all the safety classes, Tailgate Alaska still offers a variety of fun for everybody.

Outside of the winter sports there are skeet shooting, Man Games, and a beer garden. Last year’s event was a challenge for organizers. The area experienced a “warm winter” by Valdez standards which made it difficult for official to hold certain events.

“Last winter it was like balmy and a lot of wind events had come through. There was no snow all winter long,” Sullivan recalls. “It made it a lot more challenging in setting up the event.”

The setback didn’t stop people from showing up.

“It was kind of our first year in such a larger area,” Sullivan said

The festival also has a history of resurrecting well-known winter sports competitions. King of the Hill made a comeback in 2010 after an 11-year hiatus. Last year, plans were on the table to hold the 20th Year Anniversary of the World Extreme Skiing Championships, but the warm winter forced organizers to push the competition back a week. It was renamed the World Freeriding Championships and Valdez’s Dan Vandermullen took last year’s top spot in the competition.

Olympian Scotty Lago and pro-athletes Mark Carter, Mikey Basich, and Rob Kingwell headline this year’s list.

Tony Gorman photo

Tailgaters prepare to hit the slopes last Saturday.

The success of Tailgate Alaska has extended beyond the Alaska border and into Canada. Earlier this year, organizers held the first ever Tailgate BC in Revelstoke, British Columbia, a small railroad town located in the southeastern part of the province. Sullivan has no doubt that Tailgate BC will be as successful as his Alaska counterpart.

“I’m excited about where it can go in the future,” Sullivan said. “Think it’s something that will always progress.”

The group posted news of its contest qualifier Monday on Facebook. The results will be published next week.

Monday’s forecast? Perfect bluebird conditions, ideal terrain and NO TRACKS!


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