WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE between tailgating for a football match and tailgating on a ski area? Well, in the latter case, you probably don’t have to listen to an argument over NFL overtime rules.
Mountain tailgating is for rehashing a great day on the snow, sharing photos from a buddy’s yard sale of a fall, or just celebrating that the kids didn’t push each other off a chairlift. And in the Northwest, it’s only getting bigger.
Which doesn’t mean amateur. The term after ski– French for “apres ski” and mostly used as a verb – has been around since 1951, but it conjures up chic decadent cocktail parties in a mountain lodge, with women wearing Dr Zhivago-style fur hats. (After all, it’s French.) Ski tailgating, on the other hand, takes place in the parking lot, around fire pits or under tents, the back door of a CRV or Forester wide open.
“It’s just as important as snowboarding,” says Greg Bellinger from the back row of the Summit Central parking lot, taking in the view of the Commonwealth Basin on the other side of the pass as I-90 roars below. . He and two friends use an actual tailgate of a white Toyota Tacoma TRD, the remains of their bratwurst and peppers chill next to a propane stove.
“Community is important,” says Bellinger; they befriended another crew a few parking spots earlier that day and talked enthusiastically about the grilled cheese sandwiches their neighbor had pulled out. “It was his first time, he looked like a natural,” he says.
Earlier this year, Seattle writer Heather Hansman’s book Powder days claimed that the quintessential American ski bum is an endangered species, if it ever existed (“The ski bum myth is just that,” she wrote). Two of the three ski slopes closest to Seattle are now owned by Vail Resorts and the owners of Aspen Mountain Ski Resort. But parking is suspended – in the Indies like Mount Baker Ski Area and White Pass, but also at Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain – keep our grip firmly on the community aspect of the sport.
The scale of a hatchback can range from a few beers in folding chairs to elaborate setups: pop-up tents and shelters, propane campfires and wood-fired grills. Ranges that rival a restaurant kitchen for an entire neighborhood at once. It’s Thanksgiving dinners and birthday parties held in the parking lot, or a barrel in the bed of a truck.
Exhausted parents are collapsing after arguing over children in ski boots and dropping them in class – although a team of self-proclaimed ‘mountain mamas’ at White Pass make sure to do some shopping in them- same before making Philly cheesesteaks or popping in the parking lot. The practice long predates Covid, but closed ski lodges have only fueled outdoor fires.
Back at Summit Central, Bellinger’s circle wonders why ski tailgating might become more popular. “People are paying over $18 for a Bud Light” at resort bars, he muses. As ski areas experience stresses ranging from understaffed to overcrowded, the vibe around the white Tacoma is perfectly cold. From a folding chair, his friend Paul Williamsen notes that he didn’t even touch the snow that day: “I’m here pretty much for the tailgating.”