Tailgate Alaska 2014
Words / Stacey Alonzo
I flew in from Reno knowing I was in over my head, knowing I was about to step far outside of my comfort zone. I had no idea how fast and how far out of it I would have to go. It had been less than 24 hours after I stepped off the airplane in Anchorage when I found myself climbing 4,000 feet to the top of a mountain – doubling up on a sled going 60 plus miles per hour in Thompson Pass, the mecca of backcountry riding.
I was scared. No, I was terrified. Through muffled tears, beneath my face mask, I yelled "I'm not like roller coaster scared. I'm scared like someone has a gun to my head." Suddenly I was flooded with thoughts, with regrets. Why had I come here so unprepared? I didn't even know how to use my beacon yet.
I had only been to the backcountry 3 times. I had never been on a snowmachine. I had little to no first aid skills. Suddenly my 11 years of resort riding seemed to leave me utterly unqualified for an experience of this magnitude. From then the trip became about learning. You learn to react. You learn to breathe. You learn to read the mountain, to be aware of your surroundings at all times and to always plan ahead.
Beyond that, I had to learn to trust. When I used to think of Alaska, I thought of it as being the ultimate test of self-reliance. What I found myself doing was having to rely on other people and on machines, some of which I barely knew anything about.
Out of everything I learned, the most life-changing aspect was those times when I stopped thinking. Every once in awhile you get that perfect turn or perfect sunset, and for a moment your mind turns off. It's nothing short of meditative.
Most everyday at Tailgate involved one of the scariest moments in my life. This is no exaggeration. By the end of the week, I had laughed and I had cried, but I felt a kind of confidence building that can only come from a life-changing experience, from a week of finding boundaries and destroying them.
My trip culminated in one last sunset run that had surreal qualities only worthy of a dream. That panoramic view of the vastness that is Alaska will forever be etched in my mind. When I got to the bottom, I felt such a sense of trust, of respect, of appreciation for the entire experience and for how it shaped me as a person. I realized I had surpassed Mark Sullivan’s goal for Tailgate. I was not just a little bit smarter as a snowboarder, but a lot more whole as a person.
? / Dustin Huebner
A / Mark Sullivan
How did Tailgate Alaska get started?
Well, I started Snowboard Magazine and then I sold it to Storm Mountain Publishing and I decided that, after I sold it, I had some money and I was going to take the best snowboarding vacation that I could imagine. So, I came to Valdez because I thought it was the best place on the planet I’ve ever been anyway. I had a vacation with a buddy of mine, it was just me and him and all of these pros like Jussi Oksanen and Andreas Wiig and Bjorn Leines and the whole Mack Dawg crew. It was basically me and my buddy and them hanging out in this parking lot right there (points to Tailgate parking lot). It was such a phenomenal experience that, on the drive home, I thought “man, I gotta figure out a way to share this with more people." And that’s what became Tailgate, I guess. That idea is what lead to Tailgate. That’s how it began. That was in 2007-2008. That was the first Tailgate Alaska.
Did Nick Perata fit into the equation?
Not in the planning or the idea of it. He was the host of the event for a few years. His job was to shake hands and kiss babies. And he’s really good at that, honestly. I would say the idea really came from the personal experience I had. I had been [to Valdez] before. I competed in the King of the Hill, the original one in the 90s. So I knew how good an [event like that could be]. I was really more affected by the riding than the contest, you know. The contest was cool, but I didn’t need to prove myself to anybody. I was here to write a story for a magazine. That’s how I got here actually. Same way as you.
A lot of riders come to Alaska to get away from people. How do you think an event like Tailgate, where hundreds of people come, balances that individualism?
I think there’s enough room here, even with the amount of people we have. I don’t think it should get any bigger really. I think it’s about the right size. I would say this is about as close to tracked as I’ve ever seen it. We just had like 10 days in a row of bluebird conditions. So, that’s about the right amount of people. As far as being an individual here goes, I think there’s room to be an individual and that’s what I think everyone finds here: their own line. You don’t need to share your tracks. Even with 500 people hanging around for 10 days you still can find your own line. And you can still be an individual, as a rider. Or just don’t come [to Valdez] during Tailgate (laughs). [Valdez] is always here. We just come for 10 days. I think the naysayers would actually be stoked because it’s kind of like one of those bug zappers, it just draws these people in for 10 days and come Monday, you can have it to yourself again.
It’s good having a group too because there’s a lot of information flying around. You know, safety wise.
Yea, my goal is to have a good time. And I know it’s going to be a good time. Once you get in these mountains, the experience is real. My goal is that everyone goes home a little bit smarter and that they learned something about snow science, about how to stay safe out there, relationships with people, or whatever. Right? There’s a lot of interesting experiences people have out here.
Valdez has always been a pilgrimage for snowboarders. In a lot of ways Haines is the new Valdez. Did you ever think about doing Tailgate there?
I thought about it. But this is the spot, right here. Look at the access you got right here (points to mountains on either side). Look, uphill, [it's] uphill in every direction. Unlimited access. You don’t have that in Haines. Unless you’re on some crazy, sponsorship budget you can’t afford to actually access the mountains. Like, I run this shit and I can’t afford the helis (laughs).
That’s the nice thing about sleds
Oh yea man. I love sledding. For years I sledded just [to get access to] snowboarding and now I’ve come to enjoy the sledding in and of itself.
[Jason] Borgstede wanted us to ask you if you remember that time at King of the Hill when you and Mark Frank Montoya tagged his door with pizza and duct tape?
I don’t remember that, but it’s entirely possible that I took part in it. There was a lot of shenanigans. So, Borgstede, I’m calling you out: you should show up next year because I want to hang out with you. That’s what’s up.
Interview questions written by Cody Liska and conducted by Dustin Huebner. Stacey Alonzo and Dustin were behind the camera lens.