WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE between tailgating for a football game and tailgating at a ski area? Well, in the latter 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 of a buddy's yard sale of a fall, or simply celebrating that the kids didn't shove each other off a chairlift. And in the Northwest, it's only getting bigger.
Which is not to say fancier. The term après-ski—French for "after ski" and mostly used as a verb—has been around since 1951, but that conjures chic decadent cocktails in a mountain lodge, with women in Dr. Zhivago-style fur hats. (After all, it's French.) Ski tailgating, on the other hand, takes place in the parking lot, around firepits or under tents, the rear gate of a CRV or Forester open wide.
"This is just as important as the snowboarding," says Greg Bellinger from the last row of the Summit Central parking lot, taking in views of Commonwealth Basin across the pass while I-90 roars below. He and two friends utilize an actual tailgate of a white Toyota Tacoma TRD, the remains of their bratwurst and peppers feast cooling next to a propane stove.
"Community is important," says Bellinger; they befriended another crew a few parking spaces down earlier in the day, and spoke glowingly of the grilled cheese sandwiches their neighbor had pulled off. "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 at all ("The ski bum myth is just that," she writes). Two of Seattle's three closest ski hills are now held by Vail Resorts and the folks who own Aspen Mountain Ski Resort. But the parking lot hangs—at 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 tailgate can range from a few beers in folding chairs to elaborate setups: tents and popup shelters, propane-fired campfires and wood-fired grills. Cooking ranges that rival a restaurant kitchen cook for a whole neighborhood at a time. It's Thanksgiving meals and birthday parties held in the parking lot, or a keg in the bed of a truck.
Exhausted parents collapse after wrangling kids into ski boots and dropping them at lessons—though one crew of self-proclaimed "mountain mamas" at White Pass make sure to get a few runs in themselves before they whip up Philly cheesesteaks or stir-fry in the parking lot. The practice long predates Covid, but closed ski lodges only fueled outdoor fires.
Back at Summit Central, Bellinger's circle considers why ski tailgating might be getting more popular. "People are over paying $18 for a Bud Light" in resort bars, he muses. While ski areas strain under stresses from understaffing to overcrowding, the vibe around the white Tacoma is perfectly chill. From a folding chair, his friend Paul Williamsen notes that he didn't even hit the snow that day: "I'm here pretty much for the tailgating."