Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story about a Soldotna mountaineer’s adventures in TV land.
By Jenny Neyman
When Tyler Johnson agreed to be a competitor on the first season of “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” he had no real idea what he was getting himself into, and even less idea when he was getting into it.
It was Friday, Aug. 19, 2012, when Johnson, originally from Soldotna, a civil engineer and 1995 graduate of Skyview High School, was called to a casting meeting Monday in Anchorage. He had just stepped off a plane after spending two months working in Bethel, and thought at first the call from a Los Angeles number was a telemarketer.
“He’s like, ‘You want to be on TV?’ I’m like, ‘All right, I’m about ready to hang up.’ ‘No, you interviewed for the show, you know, the thing in the spring?’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, we want you to be on the show.’”
Oh, right — that interview. Catalina Productions had been seeking candidates for a new reality show for the National Geographic Channel, where experienced outdoorsmen would navigate through extreme backcountry environments in Alaska. A buddy recommended Johnson, so he did a seven-minute interview to LA over Skype.
“For the show, Season One they wanted people who know how to operate in the wilds of Alaska. … And it was really broad questions. They ask these really grandiose questions, like, ‘What’s the hell-raising, scariest thing you’ve ever …?’ I was like, ‘Well, uh… .’ I thought there was no chance of getting this.”
The interview quickly slipped his attention, subsumed by work — at the time he was co-owner of a busy engineering company — being dad to his daughter, Evie, now 11, and fitting in his own outdoor adventures.
But then, the call. He went to the meeting, curiosity piqued, and found the rest of the eight-member cast of Season One, including dog mushers Dallas and Tyrell Seavey and Brent Sass, and veteran mountain guides Marty Raney and Willi Prittie.
“Yeah, it was legit,” Johnson said. “They interviewed 500 people and picked eight.”
At first he thought the show was a race with a substantial cash prize at the end. He was less interested when he realized it was more of a wilderness survival expedition. And even less so when he realized the time frame.
“I was like, ‘Hey, did anybody ask when we’re leaving?’ ‘Uh, we’re leaving Friday’ — and this is Monday — for two months. And we can’t have cellphones, we can’t call home for two months, and they gave me a five-day notice,” he said.
But producers also said the magic word — adventure.
“They said they were going to take us to all these places,” Johnson said.
Arrigetch Peaks, the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Places on an Alaska adventurer’s dream list, just not often within their budget.
It was a random. It was an unknown. It was adventure. He was in.
Far from being a deterrent, the fact that Johnson didn’t fully know what he was getting into was part of the appeal. That’s the kickoff for most his endeavors. This winter he’s been wrapping up work on a two-story log home he built south of Soldotna. He tried out a log scribe, thought it was fun, and was off and building.
“I was like, ‘That was pretty cool.’ It just kind of took off from there. It was supposed to be pretty small, but then I thought, ‘Well, I’ll add that on, and that on,’ and then I was going to put the roof on but thought, ‘Ah, I’ll go up another story,’” he said.
The project has doubled as recuperation time, after injuring his shoulder, back and knees in a car wreck outside Homer in August. He was convicted of driving while intoxicated in the incident.
“I was in a bad situation and the incorrect choice made the situation worse. I almost paid for it with my life,” he said.
At the house, with the structure done, he’s been embellishing the interior, in seemingly haphazard fashion but with charismatic results — an entertainment center with speakers carved into birch rounds and burls cut into slices for shelves. Scrapped snowmachine cylinders turned into lights. Salvaged wood doors to a restroom from an elementary school serve as kitchen counters (still with the plaque denoting “Gentlemen”). A steel feed tub is the shower stall, with cedar planks in the bottom and a showerhead suspended by an ice axe. A gas can holds toilet paper. Hockey sticks serve as hooks and hangers. A pair of old skis are the forms to the rock platform on which the barrel wood stove sits.
“I can’t toss gear, that’s my problem, so I’ve got to use it somehow. It just kills me because you’ve got memories with it, you know?” he said. “So I try to reuse it in some fashion. … It’s trial and error. More error than trial, for sure.”
That pretty well sums up his entry to mountaineering, as well. Having grown up in Soldotna, he’d hiked everywhere there was to hike in the surrounding Chugach Mountains by the time he was in high school.
“Boredom. Trying to find something new to do. It’s like anything, right? You start out with hiking out here and that gets old, so, well, I’ll try something a little bit bigger, and bigger and bigger,” he said. “If you don’t have any ability to stop, like me, you just keep going up and up and up. That’s what happens. I started traveling, doing climbs in South America and Asia. It’s addictive, you know?”
When he was 23, Johnson and a friend from Skyview High School set out to climb Denali.
“We didn’t know anything about climbing. I didn’t know anything. I mean, the most I did was, like, weekend trips in the Chugach, you know. And we’re climbing Denali. We-should-have-died type thing,” he said.
Johnson climbed in his regular ski boots, not wanting to plunk down any serious cash for mountaineering gear. His friend also went cheap, taking one sleeping bag rated to zero degrees and another rated to 10 degrees.
“So he figured if he put them together he’d get like a 5-degree bag — you add and divide by two and you’ve got the temperature. It doesn’t work like that. So he’s got this huge backpack. It’s like two legs and a backpack walking around camp,” Johnson said.
Plus, his friend was filming the endeavor with an old-school camcorder, the bulky kind held on a shoulder, with extra tapes and batteries also onboard.
“It was a disaster. But we summited. It was incredible weather. We got to the top in eight days. I’m not making that up — eight days to the top. We came back down from the summit to (17,000 feet) and it was about 2 o’clock by the time we got down, and it was so hot at 17 we had our T-shirts on and were sitting in the sunshine. That’s really rare. Usually it’s blistering cold and everybody’s wind-burned.”
In his return trips to Denali in the 15 years since, he’s never lucked into that good of weather.
“But that’s what gets you going. And then you kind of have your setbacks where you get beat up and you’re like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Johnson said.
He’s never been seriously hurt — at least not by the metric of extreme climbing and skiing, compared to friends who have shattered leg bones, busted hips, broken faces and died on expeditions.
His most serious injury came while rock climbing outside Flagstaff, Arizona. His gear pulled out of the rock face, he fell and woke up in a hospital after five days in a coma.
“It’s pretty wild losing time like that. I woke up and I was like, ‘I’m hungry, I want something to eat, what the hell happened?’ But I was OK. Well, according to some,” he joked.
It was injury that aborted a planned Mount Everest climb, though not to him.
“Three or four years ago I was gonna. Well, there’s a lot of, ‘I was gonnas.’ But we had our money actually wired to Katmandu, $20,000 apiece for just the permit,” he said.
His buddy Rory Stark, from Homer, got caught in an avalanche skiing Silvertip in the Turnagain Pass area two years before.
“He rode that thing down 2,100 feet to the valley floor and he didn’t get buried, luckily. I mean, he should have died. He should have been lost somewhere on the mountain. He was spit out the other end but his leg was totally hamburger. His femur broke and was fractured and compounded. There was blood everywhere, it was pretty gross,” he said.
After surgery and rehab for a year, they were skiing at Alyeska about a month and a half before the Everest trip when Stark snapped the leg again. Soon after, the third of their team, Chad Kellogg, was injured in a fall down a cliff face. Kellogg set speed records on Mount Rainier and Denali, and died in February 2014 on a climb in Patagonia.
Being the only able-bodied one left, Johnson bailed rather than attempt Everest alone. But he’s had many more hits than misses. He, Rory Stark and Will Stark climbed the 26,906-foot Cho Oyu on the Tibet-Nepal boarder in the mid-2000s.
“We (he and Rory) skied off the top of that, and that’s the sixth-highest peak in the world,” he said.
Johnson found his sweet spot in ski mountaineering.
“It kind of morphed into, I was just climbing and I skied a little bit, but then I was like, ‘Why not just combine the both?’ Ski mountaineering, that’s where the juice is at. It’s like, if I can’t ski down it, I don’t climb it,” he said.
He’s been on the winning team in three Alaska Wilderness Classic races, setting the all-time speed record in 2005, and is a heli-ski guide in the Tordrillo Mountains across Cook Inlet in the Alaska Range. In spring 2006, he, Rory Stark and Craig Barnard, of Cooper Landing, climbed and skied down Mount Iliamna in three days, hopping in a 16-foot Achilles inflatable to motor across Cook Inlet, bringing no maps, GPS or mountaineering gear, just backpacks, skis and McDonald’s and Taco Bell for food.
A year later they went back to notch a summit and ski down Mount Redoubt, this time budgeting four days and taking avalanche emergency gear, a map and personal packrafts. They still used the 16-foot Achilles to cross the inlet, and relied on Taco Bell burritos for sustenance.
A month later they attempted Mount Spurr, this time chartering a plane from Anchorage and using mountain bikes to chew up the distance to snowline. Despite better preparations they were turned back 3,000 feet from the summit by a cornice of 4-foot-deep mush snow, ready to rip down the mountain and take them with it.
Of all the climbs he’s done in all the places in the world, Alaska still tops his list of favorites.
“You know, the most memorable ones are the ones around here. Those volcanoes, man, those things are so cool. Everest you get, like, 20,000 to 29 (thousand). You get a nine-thousand-foot rise. Here, Redoubt’s 10 (thousand feet) from sea level. So you get more vertical rise, vertical gain out of these than you would even the highest mountains on the planet. And they’re way aesthetically cool. Over there it’s like, things are rounded off and old. I mean, they’re really stunning, they’re cool, but you just can’t beat, (Alaska). It’s just so cool, the terrain and the wild weather. I mean, Alaska’s where it’s at,” he said.
And Alaska is where Johnson’s been at, for months at a time in the three seasons of “Ultimate Survival Alaska.”