THOMPSON PASS – Hundreds of snowboarders and skiers descended on Thompson Pass outside Valdez for the world’s largest backcountry festival.
Tailgate Alaska is like a family gathering for outdoor extremists. Steep days on the slopes are followed by rowdy nights of beer drinking and ”man games,” like axe throwing.
“People work their whole lives toward getting into mountains like this and this is the pinnacle and this is where you come if you’ve dedicated your life to mountains and winter sports,” said Mark Sullivan who founded the event five years ago.
Of course you can’t have a tailgate party without food. Pam Robinson whipped up some eggs and bacon for breakfast. She traveled from Whitefish, Montana to be the head chef.
It’s hard to miss her boisterous laughter, and every person who walks by the base camp kitchen instantly has a place in her heart. “Hey Loverboy!” she shouts as she doles out hugs freely.
As happy as she is to welcome tailgaters into her family, she can’t help but think about the one person who’s not here.
“He said, ‘I’ve got to do it. Something’s telling me I’ve got to do this. I’ll be fine, it’s just one run.’ And that one run was his last,” Pam recalls.
In the summer of 2011, Pam’s 24-year old son, Aaron – known in the snowboarding world as A-Rob – was filming a movie in the backcountry of Chile. July 19, Pam got the news no parent ever wants to hear.
“I got a Facebook message from a friend that said, ‘Aaron just fell on the mountain, he’s being taken away in a helicopter.’ I checked my answering machine and there was a message from a woman from the embassy in Chile. When I called her back she asked, ‘Are you with someone?’ And right then I knew he was gone.”
Being in Alaska, surrounded by people who knew and loved her son, helped ease her pain for a short time. Behind her sunglasses are the eyes of a mother who doesn’t go a day without crying.
“I just miss touching him. I know he’s here, everywhere. I miss the physical warmth of my kid,” said Robinson.
Aaron was at the first Tailgate Alaska. “He always used to say, ‘Life is good in AK.’ And now I know why,” said Pam as she looked across the mountains.
Now five years later, almost everyone has a story about him.
“Man, A-Rob, everywhere I went in the world, you were already ahead of me and that was priceless. I’ll never be able to replace the time we got to spend together,” said Brandon, a good friend of Aaron’s.
He made his home in mountains around the world so it seemed only fitting the peaks of Alaska become one of his final resting places.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, not being able to see my son again. That’s the hardest thing, and for most of you that is as well,” said Pam as she fought back tears.
Deep in the Chugach Range, Pam and dozens of Aaron’s friends said goodbye. Pam reached into a Mason jar and tossed handfuls of his ashes high into the air as his friends cheered.
“This is so amazing. Thank you all so much,” said Pam.
While the snowboarding family may have lost a brother, A-Rob is gone but not forgotten.
“Oh yeah, every day. Backside slashes and methods for A-Rob,” said his childhood friend Chase Madison.
Another friend added, “One of my favorite quotes I heard was A-Rob saying, ‘If you know what’s good for you, drop everything and come out to Tailgate Alaska.’ Here I am. We shred for you A-Rob.”
And they know he’s right beside them shredding in spirit, tearing up the backcountry in a world beyond ours, all the time knowing life is good in AK.
Pam started the A-Rob Plant a Seed Foundation, which helps underprivileged kids learn to snowboard. Her oldest son, Jason, will start a chapter in Chile where Aaron died. She hopes the project will be a way for her son’s legacy to live on forever.