Inside the most extreme man-vs.-elements challenge ever
Two participants from 'Ultimate Survival Alaska' tell MNN why they joined National Geographic's rugged new reality show.
Thu, May 09, 2013 at 02:40 PM
The cast of "Ultimate Survival Alaska" (Photo: Kyle Wheeler/National Geographic Channel)
In the spirit of the original National Geographic explorers, eight intrepid (crazy?) men braved the rigors of the Alaskan wilderness without tents, phones, watches or other modern conveniences on a 10-leg trek, each part more brutal than the next. It was filmed for the series “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” which premieres May 12 at 10 p.m. ET/PT with the aptly titled episode “Arctic Hell,” and airs on subsequent Sundays at 9 on National Geographic Channel. Two of the participants — Dallas Seavey, 26, the youngest person to ever to win the Iditarod dogsled race, and Marty Raney, 56, a veteran mountain guide — discussed the experience with MNN.
What was the lure of 'Ultimate Survival Alaska?'
Dallas Seavey: I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see more of this great state in a way that only the early gold miners were able to do in the past.
Marty Raney (pictured right): Alaskans live here for a reason. It’s wild and referred to as “The Last Frontier.” It has an extremely limited road system, 586,412 square miles of land, so large that if you cut Alaska in half, it would make Texas the third largest state. The offer was, ‘We’ll fly you to the wildest places in Alaska.’ No roads, no people, from locations far above the Arctic Circle to the Alaska Range (home of Mount McKinley), Prince William Sound, the Wrangell Mountains, the Juneau Ice Cap and Admiralty Island. The answer was obvious. The day that National Geographic came to my log home at Hatcher Pass, Alaska, I told them I could leave in two hours ... for 60 days.
Did you know any of the other men beforehand? Did you all get along?
Seavey: I knew two of the other explorers, my brother Tyrell and Brent Sass. The rest of the guys were complete unknowns going into this adventure, which definitely adds a unique layer in an expedition like this. Fortunately, everyone got along pretty well, considering all that we went through, with guys that had almost no history together.
Raney: Some are very well-known dog mushers and mountain climbers. Our paths had crossed over the past 20 years. But I’m kind of a loner, as some of them are, so we’re not the type of men that have a social group of good buddies. However, we got to know each other on this expedition. They are all solid men, each one bringing an Alaskan strength to the table, making the ensemble a formidable group. National Geographic are either geniuses or incredibly lucky to find eight independent Alaskans who worked together and pulled off an amazing Alaskan adventure without anybody getting killed.
What drives you to test yourself like this?
Seavey: I have spent my whole life pushing myself in one way or another. After a while, it no longer feels like a miserable “push,” but rather an exciting build up to a great accomplishment. I love to see what I (or anyone) can do if they just put the blinders on and do all they can. Forget all the excuses that are offered to you and truly take it to the limits. That’s what life is about.
Raney: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” but they don’t have to. The call of the wild is far from quiet, and it’s constant, incessant. Every Alaskan hears it on some level, some louder than others. I’m not sure that I drive myself, nor do I test myself, but that call resonates loudly in me, so in climbing a big peak, traversing a mountain range, being compelled to see what’s over the next ridge and so on, one will definitely find himself challenged by Alaska’s wilderness, terrain and weather. In a sense, my desire to explore, hunt, fish and subsist in Alaska is what drives me. And the remote, extreme backcountry of Alaska is what tests me.
I live in L.A. and feel cold when it’s below 60 degrees. Help me to understand why you think it’s fun to be cold, wet and hungry.
Seavey: (pictured below) No one “enjoys” being cold, wet and hungry, but I think many can appreciate the fact that accomplishments come at a price. One thing I do enjoy in these times of extreme discomfort is the opportunity to find the one good thing or one fun aspect of what you are doing, and focus on that. Nothing is ever so bad that it couldn’t be worse.
Raney: Alaskans are a unique people. Above the Arctic Circle, the sun never comes up for 80 days. Temperatures of 50 below are common. This is the land of extremes, as that same area obviously would have 80 days of midnight sun. We have 100,000 glaciers, some over one mile thick. At Thompson Pass, it snows 100 feet of snow per year. We are a people that love winter. We live in it, we work in it, we play in it. Adventure isn’t confined to one season. In Alaska, it’s year-round, from Ketchikan to Barrow, hunting, fishing, recreating. Obviously, some Alaskans are more extreme than others. Mountain climbers, trappers, dog mushers and the like would fit that mold. The eight of us come from that background. We’ve all spent decades exploring Alaska, summer and winter. It gets tough and it’s those cold, wet and hungry ones that are the most memorable. Again, it gets back to adventure and leaving the comforts behind. Most of my life has been working, climbing and skiing in Alaska’s mountains. I’m used to being cold, wet and hungry. However, you’ll be happy to know, many after 30, 40 or 50 years of being cold, wet and hungry in Alaska are moving to warmer climes such as Arizona and California. Today it is May 4 and it snowed three inches … do you know of any good realtors?
Dallas Seavy, 26, is the youngest person to ever win the Iditarod dogslde race.
What kind of physical preparation did you have to do beforehand?
Seavey: We didn’t have much time to prepare in any way, much less physically. Fortunately, I had done a fair bit of running during the summer to stay in shape for the Iditarod and had just finished a marathon when I got the call to go on this adventure.
Raney: I’m a log builder, stonemason, mountain climber and skier. I’m over 50, never been to a gym, never picked up a weight. I think some of the parts are wearing out, but I could still whoop a pack of wildcats (baby ones).
What were the biggest challenges? Was it hunger, being cold and wet and tired? No equipment and shelter?
Seavey: As a wrestler, I am used to being hungry; in the Iditarod, “tired” is the name of the game; to be “cold and wet” is to be Alaskan; and we got pretty dang good at building shelters. The hardest part for me was not seeing my wife and daughter for so long. It is really hard to explain to a 2-year-old why she won’t see you for two months.
Raney: National Geographic consulted nutritionists who came up with a minimal amount of rice and beans to sustain a person for a day, and keep them from starving. Nat Geo wanted us to subsist off the land as much as possible on our expeditions. On some legs of the expedition, subsisting was doable: fish, birds and so on; on other legs, incredibly difficult. Episode 1: Brooks Range, Arctic Hell: I definitely was hungry, headache-hungry. Many miles, flooded rivers, no fish, no birds, just berries and plants. Contrast that with Episode 2: The River of No Return, where the Yukon River was teeming with salmon and we restocked our carbs. During our expedition, Alaska broke records for precipitation: cold, hard rain like I’d never seen in over 40 years. Of course it snowed on us when we accessed higher elevations. Willingly going without stove or tent didn’t bother me. You may or may not believe this, but I can’t recall one person complaining once in the entire two-month long expedition. However, I can recall how many times maniacal, crazy Alaskan laughter broke out in these adverse times. But I know at times, they were miserable. Keep in mind, some Alaskans revel in harsh conditions. They love pushing the envelope. Being hungry, cold, wet and tired, you learn a lot about others, but perhaps you learn more about yourself.
How did you determine the groupings of three and two?
Seavey: Every section of the expedition was handled a little differently. In the beginning, we knew so little about each other that it was impossible to make good decisions about who should go with whom based on skill sets, so it was more often on personality then anything. Toward the end, it became a lot easier to split up for the right reasons.
Raney: It evolved. Obviously, I was with my son on virtually all of the expeditions. So we were usually changing out one, and sometimes two people, to complete our grouping. Overall, we had done at least one leg and sometimes two with each of the other team members. Do I have favorites? Can’t say. Were some difficult? Can’t say. Would I leave tonight and go with any of them for a month out in Alaska’s wild on another epic? I can say: absolutely.
Did anyone ever not make it to the extraction point?
Seavey: Yes, but they were able to catch up within a couple days.
Raney: It was extremely tight and yes, as we ventured across Alaska, people were left behind. In fact, some of the toughest did not make the landing zone on time, and the plane left without them. You’ll never guess who that was — and you’ll have to watch the show to find out.
What didn’t you have with you that you wish you had brought along?
Seavey: This was probably the most discussed point along the way. And it seemed like we had a different answer every day, too. Some days, as we hiked up the most imposing mountains, I wished I hadn’t brought about half the stuff in my pack; that same night, as I was soaking wet and freezing, I was kicking myself for not bringing more. All and all, I think we did pretty well.
Raney: My guitar. People may or may not know that I am an Alaskan singer/songwriter who climbs little mountains and big mountains like Mount McKinley with a guitar on my back to the top. Live video proof can be seen at www.martyraney.com. This has gained me considerable recognition though it was never my intention. I like mountains. I like music. The end.
Were the cameramen experienced mountaineers/outdoorsmen, too?
Seavey: Most the time, there was only one cameraman with each team. They were all really cool guys, but their lack of outdoors experience/physical ability was a problem for us at times.
Raney: This is the land of extremes. The average person can’t work here. The average cameraman can’t film here. I wondered if National Geographic’s production team knew what they were getting into. It’s a miracle that they could capture this show on film considering the weather, the logistics and the timeline. I recall what seemed like 20 big cameras lined up on a boat, every one inoperable due to moisture. I personally had three cameramen who were unbelievably competent: Scott Sandman, NaiChe Sol Chavira and Benjamin Logan. I never heard them complain. I held tarps over them as they worked on cameras in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain, and watched them rappel, kayak, packraft, ford, climb, trek, bushwhack, all with a camera on their shoulder, trying to capture this amazing Alaskan adventure to share with you.
What were the scariest close calls during the series?
Seavey: A couple really nasty falls that definitely could have ended your trip if not your life, and several hypothermia situations that were much worse than I am comfortable with, but the closest call was probably when we were packrafting in a flood. I really thought we were going to lose someone there.
Raney: I am a huge risk-taker when alone. But my son was with me on this expedition. The father thing kicked in and made me more cognizant. There were many times I looked twice and took things more serious for his sake, not mine. But there is one thing no one ever talks about: just flying around Alaska is dangerous. Landing in the middle of nowhere, no air strips, no runways, flying in marginal weather, flying through mountain ranges, flying IFR [by instruments only], putting pressure on pilots because of our filming schedule — and then getting picked up in the middle of nowhere — got my attention. Every Alaskan has lost friends and family in airplane accidents. I just lost two during this year’s Iditarod. But I guess it all just adds to the adventure.
How about animal encounters?
Seavey: Oh, yeah, I forgot about the bear. Maybe this should be the answer for the above question. Marty, Matt, Tyrell and I had a scary situation with a bear on Admiralty Island toward the end of the trip. At least we were well armed and on high alert.
Raney: We encountered wolves, black bears, brown bears, grizzly bears, caribou, moose, musk ox, Dall sheep and mountain goats. I think you will see unnerving brown bear close-ups. Most people have never seen a musk ox. Matt and I fished for salmon while a musk ox grazed nearby. Katmai has the world’s largest concentration of Alaska brown bears. Admiralty has a four-bear-per-person ratio. Traversing areas of Alaska where no one has set foot for 10 to 50 to however man years, you will have an Alaskan animal encounter.
What was the grossest thing you had to eat?
Seavey: It all starts to taste pretty good when you get hungry enough. By normal person standards, though, I guess the squirrel or the salmon eggs.
Raney: I would not say I ate anything overly gross. But I wasn’t used to eating raw salmon eggs. I also wasn’t used to eating fried salmon eggs. I must say, I can still taste the latter, and … it’s not bad. In fact, do you have a toothpick?
What was the toughest leg of the expedition and why?
Seavey: The last one, for sure. Physically, it was brutal. We were all worn really thin by this point and running on fumes, but the worst part was that we had a real fear that after all this we might not finish the last leg because of the extreme weather.
Raney: Episode 1, traversing the Brooks Range, we covered a lot of miles with little time for subsistence: hungry. Episode 4: Katmai: beautiful, surreal, but a volcanic blast zone leaving the landscape void of vegetation and water. The moonscape, Nova Erupta, lava flow, glaciated mountains and trek to the ocean eclipsed any negative thoughts induced by cold, wet or hunger. Add to this list the packrafting segment. I tipped over five times, borderline hypothermia. Tordrillo mountain segment: hypothermia due to traversing a mountain pass in a snowstorm. Prince William Sound: it took five hours to start a fire in the wet rainforest. Episode 10: Juneau Ice Cap: overnight bivouac, 80 mph winds. After seeing this question, I’m reminded how tough this whole thing was.
What’s the first thing you did when you got home?
Seavey: I ate chicken-fried steak, eggs and hash browns until I was sick — it was great!
Raney: Some of my family members were at Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood, Alaska. I made my way down there and located them at the Olympic-size swimming pool. I jumped in fully clothed, cowboy boots, cowboy hat… you get the picture. I guess I missed them. Would have been an entirely different scenario if I would have had a gold pan. (After you see Episode 1, that gold pan comment will make sense.
How did doing the Iditarod prepare you for this? Compare the degree of difficulty.
Seavey: When you live the Iditarod lifestyle, you face insane challenges under extreme conditions constantly. After enough times, you learn how to handle these situations calmly and rationally, regardless of the details. Whether the problem is with a dog team in a blizzard or hiking a mountain with National Geographic, it’s the mindset that matters.
With your experience, you’re a natural leader. Is it a role you embrace? Did you welcome the responsibility on this expedition?
Raney: I would never say audibly that I am a natural leader but if there’s a job to be done, let’s get it done as fast and as efficiently and as fun as humanly possible. Alaskans are an independent breed and the cast members are all natural-born leaders. In the mountains, I have never used the word leader or guide, nor do I refer to anybody on the expeditions as clients. My place doesn’t always have to be front and center. Everyone can help in the decision-making. Everyone can lead a rope.
What did you learn from the veterans Marty and Willi?
Seavey: Willi brought a very technical, organized aspect to the table along with a lot of knowledge, all of which I appreciate and admire. Marty has the right attitude toward the Alaskan wilderness, the right amount of respect without too much fear. You have to be a little happy-go-lucky, admire the good in every situation and can’t take yourself too seriously to do well in Alaska.
You’ve written a book. Details, please.
Seavey: I wrote “Born to Mush” last summer after having just become the youngest person ever to win the Iditarod. The year before, I became the youngest winner of the Yukon Quest (the only other 1,000-mile sled dog race) and am now one of only five people ever to hold a title in both thousand-mile races. The book covers my life to this point, the mindset and attitude necessary to compete in the Iditarod and some of the highlights and low points in stories from along the way. The book was written with a young adult audience in mind and is a fun read for all ages. (For more information, check out www.jjkeller.com/iditarod. “Born to Mush” is available on Amazon.com and many other online book retailers.)
Now that you’ve done 'Ultimate Survival Alaska,' what’s the next challenge? Is there one tougher than this?
Seavey: I have done the Iditarod seven times, the Yukon Quest once and hundreds of other adventures into the wilderness in my short life, and almost all of the highlights have been unexpected. True adventures aren’t really planned for, but if you put yourself in the right places enough times they will happen. I won the 2012 Iditarod and finished fourth in the 2013 Iditarod, finishing only three hours behind the champion, who just so happens to be my father. We are the first father/son back-to-back champions of the Iditarod. We are best friends and monster rivals. I’m not just coming back to run the Iditarod in 2014; I will be back with the sole mission of reclaiming the title.
Raney: The biggest expedition I’m involved with is Mount McKinley or Denali. Going up to 20,320 feet, 21-day excursions. The tougher it is, the more I like it. But one has to be careful because these mountains can be very unforgiving. The toughest guy in Alaska, Brian Young, a Bering Sea fisherman from Kodiak, climbed McKinley with me. He made the summit. He died on the way back down. This has deeply impacted me as to how dangerous Alaska can be. I’m not saying I’ve become more cautious, but I’m less inclined to invite and encourage everyone to climb the big mountains. A person could actually die on my watch. I played down these dangers for many years, but not anymore. The climbing season on Denali is primarily May/June, however, I am committed to a 90-day, arduous, extreme Alaskan adventure. I leave in three weeks.
What did you learn from the 'Ultimate Survival' experience? What do you hope audiences will take away?
Seavey: It is impossible to walk away from an adventure like this without learning tons about everything, from the relentless truths of Mother Nature to who you really are.
Raney: I learned a lot. I always learn something about myself on an expedition, but this one was big, long, extreme, memorable, and I did it with my son, who I also learned a few things about. This is a very important question to me. We are all Alaskans. We know the show is real. We know there are Alaskan shows that are not real. We discussed this at length with National Geographic. They were well aware and worked hard to keep this thing legit. I am confident that National Geographic has captured the Alaska that people dream about: the vastness, the wildness, the mystery, the adventure, the danger, the romance, the intrigue. It’s all here. We did it: 586,412 square miles condensed to 10 one-hour TV shows. A daunting task. They did it as well as anyone could.
What do you love about Alaska?
Seavey: In a lot of ways, Alaska is the modern-day “Wild West,” it still holds a huge element of the great unknown and endless possibilities. Where else can you travel days on end in the most beautiful landscape in the world and never worry about running out of mountains to peek over for the first time?
Raney: I could strap on my .44 magnum in holster, go to the local store and buy, let’s say, a National Geographic magazine. There’s an 80 percent chance that I will see at least one moose in that 14-mile round trip. Tomorrow, I will climb a mountain and ski off the top. Likely, I will not see one person. An entire, beautiful, huge mountain to myself. Monday, I will cleave rocks off the side of another mountain and build a stone fireplace. I’ll have Copper River smoked salmon for lunch all week long and on Saturday there will be guests arriving bringing fresh caribou for the get-together — the cast members are coming for the premiere of “Ultimate Survival Alaska” — and we’ll dip into the freezer and add Alaska king crab, halibut, moose and blueberries to the festivities. We’re going to be outside under a tarp, watching the premiere.
Does living there and doing a show like this give you a unique perspective and appreciation for Mother Nature?
Seavey: Alaska is honest and real; Alaska doesn’t care if you starve or freeze to death. Alaska doesn’t care if your shelter is set up when the sun goes down, the temperature drops and the rain pours; it just does it. And it does it the same way it has for thousands of years, not for you or because of you, or in spite of you. If you can accept this and learn the rules of the land, then Alaska will show you a whole different side, the beautiful side. There are blessed few who have truly seen the beautiful side of Alaska, and I am one of them.
Raney: The kinship of Mother Nature to Alaskans is close. I’m fond of the word “creation.” This show took us to the four corners of Alaska. I thought I knew something about Alaska’s vastness. I was humbled. In hiking, trekking, climbing, traversing and flying over this immense landscape, I became overwhelmed by my insignificance. Innately aware that our footprints may be the very first humans in an area, our leaving no trace behind became paramount. This place is huge; I am small. It truly is the last frontier. Three million lakes, some more than 1,000 square miles in size; 17 of the tallest mountains in North America; rivers thousands of miles long; 100,000 glaciers; innumerable icebergs … pick one and scratch the surface. That’s all we did.
Is there a conservation aspect to the show?
Seavey: I don’t really think of it as a conservation aspect or agenda; rather, just common sense. This is the land you live in, and if you take care of it, it will take care of you. If you mean does the show depict good wilderness husbandry, then the answer is a resounding “YES.”
Raney: Every true Alaskan is a conservationist. From our timber to our salmon, we recognize the value of renewable resource. You will not see any motorized vehicles used by the cast, [just] kayaks, packrafts, crampons, boots. In the personal lives of most of the cast, this is a running theme. I own two snow machines and have not put one mile on them in years. But I cannot count the number of miles I’ve skied, hiked, postholed and snowshoed, just this last winter. I hunt subsistence only, in non-motorized areas of Alaska; I use mules. I build log homes using only beetle-killed spruce, no green trees. National Geographic came here more than 100 years ago, before four-wheelers, snow machines, outboard motors and airplanes. In that last 100 years, the outdoor gear has changed exponentially, but Alaska’s wilderness has not changed. Nat Geo wanted us to experience Alaska’s wilderness old-school: no tent, no stove, no fuel, no latest gadgets from REI. We stepped back in time and simulated those early explorers under a tarp for over two months. I loved it and I’m going back.
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