Tailgate Alaska Founder On The World’s Largest Backcountry Event

Mark Sullivan at the King of the Hill awards. Photo: Stafford

Mark Sullivan at the King of the Hill awards. Photo: Stafford

Photos by Eric Eckles, Mark Oliver, Greg Stafford, and Agatha Wasilewska

Alaska is a magical place, those who have been lucky enough to experience its spell can attest to its extraordinary ability to make the rest of the world just melt away. The massive mountains, the epic snow, and the utterly wonderful silence that comes with the AK experience are ones that can change a person forever. It is the Mecca of big mountain riding, and there is no more perfect place to engineer a festival of shred that celebrates the pure unadulterated thrill of snowboarding, and honors the riders that can prove worthy of the title of King & Queen of the Hill. Mark Sullivan's brainchild, Tailgate Alaska does just this and much more, it embodies the free spirit of snowboarding both in its mission and the unfolding of the festival itself.

Tailgate’s definition from its website sums it up best:

The native people of the Chugach (or Chugachmiut) call themselves Yupik or Sugpiaq.  It means literally, “the real people.” This exemplifies Tailgate Alaska. Real people are those who become family here. Family, or ‘Ilanka,’ is the most important thing to a Sugpiaq person. Like the Hawaiian term for family, "Ohana," the belief is that no one is left behind or forgotten…

When Tailgate was all said and done, I had a chance to sit down with Founder Mark Sullivan and get his perspective of the unfolding of this year's event and what we should expect for the years to come.

In your eyes, how did Tailgate go this year?
Tailgate went amazingly well. We have grown 1000% in the past three years and this year we had 456 people sign in, making it the biggest backcountry event anywhere in wintersports. This year some of the biggest challenges were making it all official. We had all of the permits that we needed to run the event. Ten government and municipal agencies also inspected us—I didn’t even know there were that many before this year.

How was the process of dealing with so many agencies in a small town like Valdez?
We passed pretty much every inspection, which was cool. We worked really hard to make sure we were compliant with the rules. In addition, this is the busiest season the Chugach has every seen in its 20 year history, despite the 30 year low in snow.

What was the largest challenge this year compared to years past?
The huge challenge this year was handling the growth of the event – which has changed the demand for infrastructure, organization, and planning. There are plenty of minor challenges that have arisen as well—communications over such a big area, getting the WiFi to be more consistent, et cetera. But overall it was a huge success—we built a town 30 miles from the closest town in rural Alaska. We brought out riders from 16 countries, and for most all, [it was] the best riding of their lives.

Looking forward, what are the big plans for next year's event?
The objective for next year is to refine the event and get it working like a well-oiled machine. I think we will limit the admittance to 500 again next year, just so we can have all of the basic services 100% dialed in. We want our snow safety classes, Man Games, food, WiFi, power, et cetera, to be working everywhere so we will focus on getting everything dialed in before we grow again. Also, this will allow sponsorship to catch up with the size of the event. Unlike virtually every other event, Tailgate Alaska is driven by participants, as much as sponsors, who pay their own way.

What are your overarching thoughts about hosting an event of this size and spirit in such a small, remote and amazing place?

-Even at its worst, AK is still the best.
-Localism – the politics are crazy. Imagine trying to throw a surf comp/festival in a remote NorCal surf break and you get the idea—keeping everyone happy is a challenge [as is] keeping the local feuds out of the event itself.

2011 King of the Hill — Final Results: Women

Rank Name Score
1 Holly Enderle 410
2 Iris Lazzareschi 398
3 Rachel Sheidow 395
4 Casey Lucas 389
5 Sunny Prather 382
6 Hana Beaman 371
7 Vera Janssen 359
8 Anna Konicek 358
9 Callan Chythlook-Sifsof 350
10 Mary Fenton 332
11 Mish Hightner 107

2011 King of the Hill — Final Results: Men

Rank Name Score
1 Will Brommelsiek 482
2 Ross Baker 469
3 Scott Sheer 468
4 Brandon Reid 467
5 Jeremy Thompson 465
6 Rob Kingwill 459
7 Mike Basich 448
8 Nakagawa Shinya 447
9 Josh Warnick 447
10 Tim Gallagher 443
11 Kenny Jones 438
12 A-Rob 437
13 Tyler Dewitt 435
14 Jacob Focht 427
15 Greg Sperry 422