Drops of rain pooled on the inside of the soaked pop-up camper that had been our homebase for the past seven days.

Hurried boots slopped past en route to the porta-potties, a generator purred in the distance, and a snowmobile brapped to life as a hopeful rider darted from one end of the parking lot to the next. This was the last day at Tailgate Alaska and though moisture and ominous clouds pervaded, the overall morale remained high. Perhaps this was the day we’d all been waiting for. Never mind the dismal weather reports, our fingers were crossed the sun's golden rays would soon illuminate the grand peaks and vast terrain jutting abruptly above the muddy parking lot we’d inhabited for the week. We and the 300 other people that made their way to Thompson Pass sure as hell didn't come all this way to sit in the rain, or had we?

Now in its 9th year, Tailgate Alaska is the integral backcountry festival that brings together riders of all levels from around the world for 10 days and nights on Thompson Pass. Located in heart of the Chugach Mountain Range just outside of the small fishing village of Valdez, the legendary zone is often the snowiest place in Alaska and boasts some of the most accessible, yet gnarly terrain.

This year Tailgate lured those with a penchant for powder and partying from far-reaching places including Bulgaria, Japan, Scandinavia, New Zealand, and in our case, Colorado. Reasons for each person’s northern pilgrimage were varied—some making the trek to ride epic lines via heli bumps and have a taste of the Alaska terrain popularized by shred movies, others for more visceral experiences. Pam Robinson is among the latter category. She ventures north annually to pay homage to her son, Aaron Robinson, who passed in a snowboarding accident in Chile 2011. Pam spread a portion of Aaron’s ashes on a peak visible from Tailgate back in 2012 and comes ‘home’ to Tailgate to celebrate Aaron’s legacy year after year.

As for Mark Sullivan, the founder, courageous captain, and head honcho of Tailgate AK, his goal is to cultivate an attainable Alaskan experience by creating a staging zone that allows people to see and ride the grandiosity of it all. “When people stop me and tell me they had the best day of their life or a remarkable experience, it’s very humbling to know that I had a small part in that—just to get them here anyway,” Mark mentioned. “My goal is that everyone has something really tangible to take away in their brains after this, something really to chew on for a while.”

As for our crew, we pulled the trigger for this AK-ation last minute, booked flights on a whim, and made our way to join forces with a veteran crew of Colorado rippers who were primed to lay waste to the vast terrain. Jeff Brockmeyer, professional photog and myself found ourselves in Anchorage in early April, a few strokes past 9 p.m, and were greeted by the lingering light of the setting Alaskan sun. We snagged our over-stuffed bags and made our way to the reasonably priced Puffin Inn for the night to discuss details on our loosely planned trip.

Brockmeyer came ready with a solid winter camping setup from the The North Face and claimed he was prepared to "freeze his ass off in a tent for the next month" while waiting for the sun. I planned to stay with a friend I met on Tinder during a bout of boredom last fall. While swiping through digital possibilities, I matched with Miles, a California-born Colorado rider with a zest for adventuring. A few messages and emoticons later, Miles and I met in Silverton, Colorado where we rode with guiding guru, Chris Coulter. Fast forward a couple months and Facebook informed me Miles was on a Canada/Alaska tour and was planning to head to Tailgate AK. I hit him up, told him our plans, and he eagerly offered to be a part of the crew. Luckily he had everything dialed with a truck, pop-up and sled in tow.

Miles swooped Brockmeyer and me from the hotel and we loaded our bulging bags into his camper. We made a few essential stops for food, booze, and fireworks then pulled out onto Alaska Route 1 and set out on our way. We wound through 300 miles of two-lane highways, careening past massive mountains and oddly-shaped trees as we lurched onward toward Thompson Pass and mile marker 29.5, the home of Tailgate.

This was Miles’ and my first time in our nation’s 49th state, and we were certainly ‘green’ when it came to the experience of it all. We hoped for the best, but were ready for whatever would come our way. Fortunately, the crew we planned to meet included Jacob Carey, Colin Spencer and Ritchie Colasanti—all of whom have a few seasons of AK riding under their belt. This eclectic trio of Colorado-based riders had been planning their trip for months and were prepared on all fronts. They made the six-day, 3000 mile journey in Ritchie’s pickup truck, complete with a camper topper, trailer and three sleds in tow. The guys had already been on a bit of an epic mission having stopped at Mt. Baker, Whistler, and Haines before sending it over to Thompson Pass. When they arrived, the truck was littered with curious collections from the road, including a few crumpled Hustlers and candy wrappers.

Colin Spencer
Jacob Carey
Ritchie Colasanti
Jacob and Colin were Tailgate vets, having been the past two seasons, which gave them keen understanding of the terrain and what it takes to actually get out and into it.

“I had expectations for this year to ride spiny and feature zones that we had discovered on previous years’ visits, and I spent all summer constantly thinking about how I would ride them,” said Jacob of the lines he hoped to get out on.

Ritchie, the most outwardly ambition the crew, was fired up and had an alluring understanding of the possibilities that lingered in every direction. “Bringing together this group of people into a small parking lot, then adding helicopters, planes, and snowmobiles to access the mountains, makes it feel like controlled chaos,” said Ritchie of the Tailgate vibe. “The options to ride are seemingly endless, and it’s cool to see people come from all over the world to enjoy these mountains for a small few windows,” he added.

The weather at the beginning of Tailgate was fickle, and the first few days blended together like a dirty sock stuck on spin cycle. The sky was a mass of swirling grey, and its dull tones darkened as the days continued on. We couldn’t see any of the terrain that lurked before us as it was cloaked by a thick weather wall. Despite this, we kept busy exploring the myriad of adventure-mobiles that had been tugged to Tailgate by its slew of characters.

We made multiple trips to the town, where days of drinking didn’t quite seem so dismal, since everyone else was doing it. Initial days spent checking out the harbor quickly turned more aggressive as the whiskey intake ramped up. By the third day, the whole crew was fueled up enough to take the polar plunge, which provided a burst of adrenaline that was welcomed and helped keep our mind off the current monotony and the snowboarding we pined for.

As day one melted into the next, the morale remained optimistic, but town trips turned more frequent and longer. Then on day seven, grey skies continued to pervade, so the majority of the crew roared back to town. I stayed back to wash dishes and contemplate my actions around the bonfire the night before then peered out of the pop-up. The most amazing sight blinded my eyeballs; pops of blue started to materialize in the sky, burning away the grey that had invaded our space for days. I stepped outside, looked around in utter awe of the scenery and of the peaks that we were actually—hopefully—going to ride.

Could this really be what we had been waiting for…. Or was this a sucker hole? Would this bout of blue stay long enough for us to taste this expanse, or was it a mere mirage?

Throngs of other Tailgaters who had holed up in their respective zones and RVs for days at a time finally emerged, wiping sleep and other sand from their eyes as they looked at the blossoming blue in the sky that beckoned us.

Was this it?

Miles and I hurried to gather our gear, made sure everything was dialed, then jumped on his sled and dashed out to the closest option for steep terrain—Gully One. We doubled up the center ‘highway’ and stopped to talk with the bolstering group, deciding it was okay to brap up a bit further. We made a few sled-assisted laps that only increased our hunger for pow.

The rest of our crew got wind that things were starting to open up. We caught them on the radio then rallied over to Gully Three to meet up. We doubled up to the base of a zone know as Python, where the dual diamond peaks are positioned like the open mouth of a snake, poisonous, yet alluring.

The peaks were flanked with cliffs, and the crew eagerly picked out lines they’d hope to lap. But just as we made the mental notes of these zones, the impeding grey began to close in. The window we thought could be the one of stellar blue was closing. We needed to ride down and get back to a more familiar zone, lest we’d be lost in the bleak sea of clouds for the unforeseeable future. We rode down, slashing and buttering around, cautious of the dangers we knew existed. One overzealous slash caused a small slide that was easy to out-ride, but the moving snow reminded us of the ease in which things could be triggered. Back at the bottom, the crew built a gap jump over a river, to satisfy the growing need to snowboard. Ritchie guinea pigged it then sessioned throughout the evening until the landing was bombed out.

Though this day only provided a small sample of what could be attained, it stoked the fire for the crew to get after it as soon as the weather allowed. Unfortunately for me, my time in Alaska had come to a close, but the rest of the crew stayed on and made plans for a plane and camping mission in a zone know as The Books. This area was stacked with accessible lines and spines that beckoned in all directions. The crew lined up a plane, packed their bags and had everything in place for the weather window to open.

After a few days playing the waiting game, the guys awoke to clear skies. It was time to go. They jumped on the sleds and pointed toward The Books as Brockmeyer and filmer Conner Winton took off in a fixed wing.

“The camping and plane trip was interesting for sure as we were on a time crunch to get out into The Books and have camp set up before rest of the crew arrived in the plane,” said Jacob.

“As we were unloading the snow machines, the handle bars on Colin's sled broke. We scrambled to rig his bars back together with a bolt and a few metal hose clamps, then right as we got out on the trail, we found out the snow bridge crossing over the river had melted out and broke. The only way across was to drive through the river on the sleds. The second sled through got water on the clutch, stalling it out on the other side of the river. We pulled that sled out and got all the remaining sleds across the river. 50 minutes later, we made it to the base of The Books, but we only had ten minutes to get the tents set up before the plane arrived. We scrambled to get everything set up in time, and just as we put together the last tent the boys soared overhead in the plane. Though our camp was very basic, we only had four tents and barely enough sleeping pads, but we made it work,” Jacob recounted.

“The Books is an iconic cirque of multiple pages to hike and ride,” said Ritchie of the zone. “It had a very sci-fi feel that the longer you stare at the pages, the more lines open up to your eye, so it was a lot to take in when we first got there,” he continued.

Despite the enormity of it all, the crew knew what they needed to do. This is what they had been waiting and wishing for. They woke up early the following morning, brapped out to the zones and quickly started hiking lines.

“The lines we rode out here where insane picture perfect Alaska lines, 2500 to 3000 vertical steep and knee deep blower pow,” said Jacob.

“My favorite line of that trip was my last one of the day. I strapped in at about 9 p.m. and had to crab crawl my way over windblown ice to get into the line. Once over the gnarly entrance, I had a small panel filled with exposure and a 2000 foot cliff on the other side. I made my way down avoiding the rocks surrounding me and about two-thirds of the way down, I opened it up and pointed it towards the exit. It was quickly filling up with sluff from the turns above. I made it through and got spat out into the glacier below. I was stoked; it was by far one of my favorite and most terrifying rides in Alaska,” he continued.

With a few satisfying lines under their belts, the riders jumped back on their sleds and zipped out of the zone, just as the milky murk of skies began to close once again.

That's the thing about Alaska that some fail to understand. It’s a full-on waiting game. Weather is fickle as fuck, and it’s absolutely essential to be patient to get the goods. If you come expecting to get lucky right off the bat, you'll either blow your load too quickly on bunk heli days, destroy your sled by toppling into sink holes in flat light, get injured by jumping into a blind abyss, or you'll drive yourself crazy banging your head on the wall of your RV. All of these outcomes suck but can be avoided if you tug into Tailgate Alaska with an open mind and, better yet, an open schedule. No one can control the weather, but patterns dictate the way things will swing and sure enough, a time will come when it’s prime to fire up the bird, rev up the sleds and get out in the endless terrain that beckons. Until then, settle in, settle down, and enjoy the AK-ation.

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