In late March, at mile marker 29.5 on Alaska’s Thompson Pass, you’ll find an old muddy airstrip filled with RVs, snow caves, tents, and trailers. The inhabitants are backcountry enthusiasts —skiers and snowboarders, young and old, Alaska vets and Alaska virgins. They make the trip to Tailgate Alaska every spring from more than a dozen countries and stay for a little over a week with minimal accommodations, save for a dumpster, some porta-johns, and what they packed in their bags. If the weather cooperates, they get more than a few days filled with the greatest lines of their lives.
Mark Sullivan founded Tailgate Alaska in the heart of the Chugach Mountains in 2008. Since then, Tailgate Alaska has drawn hundreds of mostly recreational skiers and riders, which has been by design. The annual trek is about making Alaska’s vast terrain accessible to the everyman and everywoman. This year’s event is March 30-April 8.
“For the recreational skier or rider, it’s a transformative life experience,” Sullivan says.
Long Island, N.Y., resident Jimmy Laghezza surprises himself with firsts here every year. A couple years ago that was driving a snowmobile to the top of a peak and onto a glacier. Last year it was ski touring. “Alaska definitely gets your adrenaline going,” he says.
At Tailgate Alaska, your agenda is up to you and your budget. Wake in your tent, eat ramen, skin up, and ski down. Or stay in a posh RV, go heli-skiing every day, and eat out in Valdez every night. A fee covers permits, insurance, security, wifi , toilets, garbage, and entertainment, and Tailgate Alaska partners to provide discounts from vendors offering access by snowmobiles, snowcats, snow planes and helis. This year, for the first time, Ski-Doo is providing beginner lessons on how to use snowmobiles to access the backcountry.
Off the slopes, guests indulge in the ultimate tailgating party. From snow-cave sauna and Man Games (axe throwing, keg tossing) to remote base-camp happy-hour stops, it’s not your typical après scene. “There is no feeling more magical that I’ve experienced in my life than when everyone is sitting around the beer garden, and it’s a sea of ear-to-ear grins,” Sullivan says. “I mean it’s like 200 Jokers from Batman; it’s a remarkable thing that I haven’t experienced in winter sports anywhere.” To join the party, visit tailgateak.com.
Tailgating Must Haves
Yeti 10oz. Rambler Lowball
Like its coolers, Yeti isn’t messing around with these. The 10 oz. Lowball is the perfect size for coffee in the morning and whiskey at night. Its double-wall vacuum insulation keeps hot drinks hot, and cold drinks cold. [yeti.com, $20]
Kelty Discovery Low-Love Seat
An excuse to get close: Stay warm and cozy with this camp chair for two, complete with insulated cup holders big enough for a 32-oz. Nalgene. [kelty.com, $100]
Camp Chef 90X Three-Burner Stove
Max your brat capacity with this camp stove born for tailgating with matchless ignition and a three-sided windscreen. The system is configurable, with add-ons like a grill top, griddle (pancakes anyone?) and even a pizza oven. [campchef.com, $300]