(As I neglected my blogging responsibilities for too long I broke this post into two segments. If you are only catching up on the latest blog don’t miss out on the previous one. This is still going to be a long one!)
So Fairbanks Jerry, the guy we met at Liard Hot Springs, told us Tailgate Alaska was the place to be for aspiring backcountry enthusiasts so we headed for Thompson Pass near Valdez, AK. We arrived on Thursday late afternoon and found our camping spot in the parking lot. Then it was just a matter of wandering around and chatting with people to understand what was going on.
Tailgate describes themselves as “a community of backcountry enthusiasts who gather for a 10 day event to ride the world’s most famous mountains” and I’d say that’s about right. I’m quite sure most of my friends, many of the loyal readers of this blog, might see the rv-filled parking lot as a bunch of dirtbag snowboarders, but you would be wrong. Among the many people there we met business owners, IT professionals, teachers, nurses, professional snowmobilers, and a pharmaceutical engineer. Allegedly there was also a former prosecutor and teacher who
quit on embraced life there. Earlier in the week there was at least one pro snowboarder as well. There was a couple from Australia, three guys from Austria, and a couple of guys from France. There were people from at least AK, BC, QC, VT, MA, NJ, PA, CA, AB, OR, WY, MI and MN.
And while the participants are cool, the mountains are epic. Thompson Pass lies at 2800′ in the Chugach Mountains and is surrounded by glaciers and peaks rising to over 6000′ so it is “easy” to get runs of 3000 vertical feet if you want to hike for it. The terrain is essentially all alpine and you can climb/ski nearly anything in sight. For us that was somewhat of a problem because although I had hoped to have splitboards for touring this winter, our late start made us abandon that plan and focus solely on resort riding. We have snowshoes, but hiking much in snowshoes is miserable. And all of this is wrapped up by the fact that I’m not in any reasonable shape to hike thousands of vertical feet in the snow.
This brings me to the next aspect of Tailgate, which I was not completely anticipating. Snowmobiles a/k/a snow machines a/k/a sleds are a staple of backcountry riding here. Whether it is for access deeper/higher in the mountains from which to tour or to use as a much faster and more fun chairlift, snowmobiles are a huge part of the backcountry experience here. I suppose I have mixed feelings about this as there is a purity to human-powered touring, but the reason I am interested in touring is to get to epic lines or deep snow. My current goal is not to get out in the wilderness without any trace of another human – I still want to make as many awesome turns as possible. Snowmobiles are fast, effective, and fun as hell.
I also don’t have one or know how to ride one in the mountains. The sleds here were nothing like their trail-oriented relatives I’ve ridden before. The folks here aren’t doing trail rides from the gas stations to the diners to the ice fishing shack on a groomed trail. They are climbing super steep faces, gullies, and chutes along cliffs and glaciers. It is amazing to watch. (Occasionally they are also getting a bit carried away.)
Fortunately, for the right price (sometimes beer, but usually just some money), a kindly snowmobile owner will give you a “bump.” It can be more than a little terrifying to hold on tight to the steering column while the driver stands over you gunning it up some steep face. The skis are not on the ground half the time on the steep pitches and I was convinced we were going to wheelie over backwards at any moment. You can also get a bump from local bush pilot with his Super Cub on skis. As long as the light is right he can land on most of the tiny snow fields or glaciers in the bowls and you can hike to the ridge tops or just ride down.
So enough background. On Friday I signed up with the Skidoo demo guys, who brought their 2019 sleds for show/demo, for an intro to mountain riding course. I never went more than about 50 feet up the mountain, but we practiced various riding positions, how to control the sled on a sidehill, and how to ride on one ski. It was a rather humbling experience and made me appreciate why they call this type of snowmobiling a sport.
In the afternoon, Sara and I took our snowshoes and hiked up the face next to the parking lot and on up the ridge above. It was the first time I really appreciated the size of the mountains. We picked a spot we thought would be a reasonable hike, but there were about three unexpected ridges before we even got close. Finally we ended up at the base of an icy face we didn’t want to climb so we rode down from there.
Friday evening was more of the dance club and “man games,” which this day consisted of jumping a snow skate over a flaming log. The only guy to really send it was the guy who helps build the snow skates!
On Saturday the sun came out and I decided to get a bump up Gully 2 across the road with Martin, the pharmaceutical engineer/snowboard instructor there with his son Oliver. Fairbanks Jerry had showed up to the party and he gave us the exciting/terrifying ride up Gully 2. When we got to the top there were the three Austrian guys looking up at the Berlin Wall – the chutes at the top of the bowl where they had just come down the most prominent chute.
[In a German accent.] “It’s not as steep as it looks.” Good, because it looks vertical.
“The snow is good for steep riding. The top was very icy so we down-climbed the top third before we started riding.” Hell, if they can do it I can do it, right?
Well, sort of. Their ascent was greatly facilitated by crampons and an ice axe, of which I had neither. I did have my touring poles with me so I shortened them down to use as leverage on the steep face. I had hoped to follow their steps, but they weren’t very deep and the wind had already filled them back in with snow in most places. As I went up I was really kicking hard with my soft snowboard boots to get steps in the crust under the one to six inches of soft snow on top. The climb was easily the most terrifying part, but I figured it was relatively low consequence as I would likely have just slid embarrassingly down the chute and out the bottom if I slipped badly. When I got to the point where I planned to stop, I realized I had no good way to get my board off my back and onto my feet. I thought there would be a slightly more level area along the rocks, but they were as steep as the chute. Fortunately down below me slightly there was a small windlip at the base of one rock so I down-climbed about 10 feet (more terrifying that climbing up) and kicked out a small shelf. I very carefully moved my pack around, got my board off, had a drink, and got my pack back on without dropping anything. The view was gorgeous.
After the adrenaline of the climb, the run itself was almost anti-climactic as I’m sure I’ve ridden technically more difficult lines, but nothing compares to the overall feeling of being in Alaska, getting the bump to the glacier, hiking a steep chute, and laying down some awesome turns. I rode out to Martin below and said, “That’s why I quit my job!”
The ride back down Gully 2 to the base was almost as good. The scale out there is crazy so what looks from the other side like a normal ski run becomes 3000′ of a wide open, go-anywhere run. The reports from prior days were that the snow had really iced up in the gully, but with the later afternoon sun the crust had softened and it was really fun conditions bombing down.
On Sunday morning Sara took the same intro to mountain snowmobiling class while I slept in.
Sunday afternoon we took cross-country skis and skied over to Worthington Glacier, which is only about a mile up the way. It was amazing to see the thick, solid ice up close. I have to admit that despite knowing what a glacier was, I didn’t actually appreciate that it was solid, clear ice. I always think of the snowy side of a glacier that you see, but up close and looking into the cracks and crevasses it really makes you appreciate overwhelming mass of the frozen river of ice.
So there it is. Tailgate Alaska was a party, a learning experience, and a chance for me to climb and ride the kind of amazing line I’ve dreamed about. Now we just need to find a way to get our hands on a couple snowmobiles so we can head deeper into the mountains with the rest of the crew.
Monday we drove into Valdez for a look around and a shower. Then we turned right back around and drove all the way to Anchorage and beyond along Turnagain Arm toward Alyeska. It was raining when we woke up and we are both tired from the last few days so we are taking a down day to relax and catch up.