Tailgate Alaska days 2 and 3 - Welcome to Valdez

I woke up early on day two of my Tailgate Alaska adventure, but since Anchorage is a whole four hours behind Ottawa, it felt a hell of a lot later than it was. First on the agenda was to finish the paperwork that I needed to do to get my rental motorhome on the road. While I was at it, I met up with a few other tailgaters that were renting their own RVs and also making the drive to Valdez later that day. Paul, Rob, and George from New York in one RV, Justin from parts unknown in another. I hadn't even made it to Valdez yet and already I was making friends, and each one of those guys seemed just as stoked as I was to get out to the frontier land and do some snowboarding.

Road sign with bullet holes.
Apparently doing a right turn was a bad suggestion. This sign was used for target practice.

I got the RV all set up, bought all the food supplies I needed in Anchorage, then hit the road toward Valdez by about mid-day. The one thing that stood out on the drive was how much Alaska looks like northern Ontario in the winter with two exceptions: 1) big mountains, and 2) bullet holes in just about every road sign. I had heard stories about how people in Alaska use road signs for target practice, but I figured those were just crazy stories that they tell about the crazy people in AK. I soon realized that these crazy stories were in fact true as just about every other road sign on the Glenn Highway was riddled with bullet holes.

I arrived at mile post 31 of the Richardson Highway sometime around 6PM on Sunday. I found Mark Sullivan who gave me the quick tour of the area. The setup is a lot more elaborate this year than in the past. With two yurts setup where the hardcores without heated accomodations can go dry off their gear, a beer garden, and even a ping-pong tent, this year's Tailgate party was looking to be bananas.

After my tour, I went over to the Alaska Backcountry Adventures office to start my paperwork and safety briefing for the next day – there seems to be a lot of paperwork to do when you go to Alaska in spite of its reputation for not having any rules. On the safety briefing is where I learned about a technique called the Chugach Check. When riding in Valdez, you constantly want to be looking over your shoulder to see if the slope is sluffing out, or worse, breaking away behind you. This shoulder check is what is referred to as the “Chugach Check”, and I expect that I will have to become quite proficient at it before my trip is done.

Monday was my first heli day so I had to be at the camp at around 8AM, which shouldn't have been too much of a problem considering my motorhome was parked right across the street and I was still on eastern standard time. Getting up in the morning, however, was a lot more difficult than I had expected. I had turned the heat off in the RV to save propane, and although I was very comfortable in my down sleeping bag, it was difficult to convince myself to get out of it. I eventually did make it to the staging ground where a quick transceiver search practice was done and we went over the safety procedures for the helicopter. After which I was introduced to my group – John, Shawn, Ian, and our guide Jerry – then we were ready to fly.

Ian and Marc standing on a peak in Valdez
Ian and I getting stoked on AK in spite of the unstable conditions. This is shortly after the heli dropped us off, the landing spot is just behind us.

I was about to get my first introduction to snowboarding in Alaska and it wasn't going to be gentle. On our first drop of the day, my group triggered two avalanches. The first one was a big one but fortunately we triggered it from well above and were not in danger of being swepped away by it. Jerry had us stop as we came up to the first convex roll because he wanted to asses the snow pack when it suddenly settled and a slab approximately a meter deep, and about 150 feet wide broke away and about 50 feet below us. We rode the rest of that pitch on the avalanche bed surface mostly (probably the safest place), which made me realize that I was really in it now.

The second avalanche was potentially more disastrous. John triggered it after all of us had gone down the same face. Fortunately he managed to ski out of the avalanche path before it started breaking apart and the rest of us were at a safe enough distance from potential run-outs. Although unscathed John was certainly awake after that close encounter. In fact, the mood of the whole group changed slightly at that moment when we realized that any one of us could have triggered the slide; Alaska doesn't mess around, and I was being thrown into the fire from the get go.

Guys shooting a snowbank
These guys started shooting the snow bank as if it owed them money.

We managed to do another four runs before the clouds rolled in and our bluebird day became greybird. Since the visibility was only a notch above terrible, and the stability was so-so, we decided to call it a day. I went back to the RV to make some food where I had another one of those unikely Alaskan experiences. While I was sitting waiting for my pasta to finish cooking, people outside started shooting off firearms into the snowbank. This was started by a former ABA pilot who, I'm told, used to randomly shoot the snow while waiting for groups to arrive for a pickup. More people joined in with their own firearms and the Tailgate parking lot started looking like a shooting range. Apparently in Alaska, if you aren't packing, you're a pansy. Fortunately I'm from Canada.

The first few days so far of my Alaska experience have been interesting to say the least. I've made new friends from all over the place, I have seen more guns, and have been closer to more avalanches in one day than my entire life leading up to this point. I've been told that the snow stability is somewhat exceptional this week, however, as even Valdez veterans had similar experiences on Monday; things are more unstable than they've seen in a while. I've noticed that everyone here seems to be well aware of the danger though, and are doing a good job of managing the risk without compromising the fun. With the near freezing temperatures in the forecast, however, the snowpack should settle out a little bit so we may be in for even more fun in next few days with a lot less danger.

Winter Matters Bubble

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you stay safe marco! be careful out there but be sure to keep having fun.

Et surtout, prends garde aux cowboys de l'Alaska :)