Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part story about a Soldotna mountaineer’s adventures in TV land. Part One can be found in the Jan. 28 Redoubt Reporter.
By Jenny Neyman
Of the “Ultimate Survival Alaska” TV show, Soldotna’s Tyler Johnson had the first two words licked. Ultimate survival is supposedly the hardest part of the National Geographic Channel show, in which teams of outdoorsmen navigate through the wilds of the Alaska backcountry, crossing glaciers, fording rivers, climbing mountains and conquering whatever other obstacles lie in their path with just the gear on their backs.
The 38-year-old has been “surviving” the backcountry of Alaska since he was a kid, starting out hiking in the Chugach Mountains of the Kenai Peninsula; graduating to rock climbing, mountain climbing and ski mountaineering; winning the Alaska Wilderness Classic; summiting Denali; climbing and skiing Iliamna, Redoubt and Spurr; and achieving many other exploits in far more “ultimate” circumstances than those on the TV show with a safety crew and sheaf of liability waivers at the ready.
That’s not to say the challenges on the reality TV show aren’t really challenging. In each leg of the 3,000-mile race, the teams are dropped in the middle of nowhere and must get 50 or so miles to the designated extraction point, over, around or through whatever terrain lies in their way. The participants do all their own stunts, they really do cover the distances and elevations claimed in the 3,000-mile race, and get by with just the limited gear they carry on their backs.
“We do all the stunts, all the climbing, all the skiing, all the whatever. We do all of it,” Johnson said.
The first season was filmed starting in August for 60 days, 55 of which were raining. The next two seasons were filmed in 90 days, in June, July and August. For the duration, the participants have no contact with their regular lives. There are no weekends off, no phone calls home, no trips back to civilization, and little in the way of civilized comforts, even when the cameras aren’t rolling.
“We don’t get to go inside, we don’t get to stay inside, we don’t get hotels,” Johnson said. “We don’t stay with the camera crew. You see the production people out there drinking beers, maybe sitting in the hot tub. We’re like dogs without indoor privileges is what it feels like sometimes. But it’s OK, I’m used to it.”
Each time the teams start a new leg of the expedition they’re given only beans and rice to eat, and must hunt, fish or gather any other food they consume. In the first season, that held true off camera in between legs of the expedition, as well.
“If anyone on production crew was caught giving us food they’d be fired on the spot. So we were beans and rice and that was it, and it sucked. It was bad. I mean, we just lost weight. You’re losing 5 pounds per week, it’s pretty rough. We were just wore out at the end of it,” Johnson said.
Producers loosened that rule finally, though, as it was affecting the quality of the show. It’s still beans and rice on the expeditions, but camp food — rehydrated ready-to-eat meals, sandwiches and the like — in between.
“They want you to be energetic for doing interviews and all this stuff. Well, dude, I haven’t eaten. I don’t want to interview on TV, I want to eat. That’s not good TV, people starving,” Johnson said.
It’s not that that stuff isn’t hard, it’s just that it’s already in Johnson’s wheelhouse. Camping in poor weather, hiking up mountains, ice climbing out of dead-end gullies, shooting rapids in a packraft, shredding down a snow slope. That’s what he already does for fun.
In Season Three, now airing Sundays on NatGeo, Johnson is back on the Alaskans team, rejoining longtime Alaska mountaineer Marty Raney, with newcomer to the show but veteran mountaineer Vern Tejas. The people can make or break the experience — any experience — Johnson said. Luckily, his teammates have made getting along easy. “The first season was about the adventure,” he said. That’s what first got him sucked into being on the show. “Teamwork and camaraderie and solving problems. Learning stuff, bouncing ideas across each other. It’s a lot of fun.”
And it’s fun because of the people, not the places.
“Trips are about the people. You can go to the most amazing place on planet Earth. You can go to Everest or wherever you think is cool. You can go to the moon. But you go with complete ****heads and it’ll ruin your trip. … For a committing trip, where you’re remote, you’ve got to sit around a fire with somebody all night and then get up the next day and work and do the same thing again, and again and again and again, it’s all about the people. Me and Marty get along great, we have a great time, so it’s not like I don’t want to go.”
So, the “ultimate,” “survival” or “Alaska” parts haven’t been the hard ones of the experience. It’s the TV show element that’s been the biggest challenge.
They’re recorded all day every day, by the camera crew or the GoPros strapped to all the participants. And even when they aren’t on camera, they’re still often hooked up to mics.
Everything they say and do is recorded. And even though only a fraction of it ends up on TV — about two or three minutes on each participant in each episode, after 90 days of nonstop filming — they never know what is actually going to make it on screen.
“It was tough at first, because the camera’s on you all the time. It’s always there. For 12, 14 hours a day. So that was weird. You don’t know how to act,” Johnson said.
He decided pretty quickly to just not act. Other people who have been on the show have tried to maintain an on-camera persona — they talk a little differently, or behave a little differently. It looked exhausting and ridiculous, Johnson said.
“I thought, ‘Oh, screw it. I’m just going to be myself. I’m just going to do it the way I want to do it.’ It’s easier if you get over that thing first,” he said.
There are no scripts, no plotlines, no invented interpersonal dynamics, Johnson said.
“They don’t tell us what to say or do. Never once has production stepped in and said, ‘Hey, we need more drama from you and Marty, can you guys, like, get in a fight?’ They never say that. We’ve spent nine months together in the last three years and we haven’t had one bad word between us in nine months,” he said.
In reality TV, there’s always the question of how real is real? In this case, nothing is scripted, Johnson said. They really are dropped in the middle of nowhere and must get 50 or whatever miles farther into that middle of nowhere under their own power.
But that’s not to say there’s no influence, of course. Producers design the challenges to require certain actions — like ice climbing, dog mushing, rafting a river or bushwhacking through bear country.
“They have to make TV, so they put each team in a situation where they have to get out of it in some way. So like, they put us in a glacier, it’s all cracked up, the only way to get out of it is to ice climb out of it, but they don’t say, ‘You have to climb that route and that and that,’” he said.
The teams can decide whether they’ll cross a lake of rotting ice or go around it, head to a summit via this route or another, bushwhack straight through the brush or take an easier route. Then they have to deal with the consequences, as in the first episode this season where Iditarod musher Dallas Seavey and several others who chose to cross a thawing lake ended up in the drink, or where Johnson’s team decided to ski down a steep slope and dang near had a pileup going over 40 mph.
“Man, I went ass over teakettle on that one,” Johnson said in the show, having narrowly missed a collision with Tejas. “But it’s a race, that’s why we’re going fast. Sometimes safety comes second, I guess.”
To a degree. Producers don’t let them do anything too banzai. There are safety techs behind the scenes certified with the American Mountain Guides Association checking gear and keeping an eye on things, and participants sign a stack of insurance paperwork as tall as the mountains they’ll climb.
“It’s like, ‘Well, I do things a certain way,’ and it’s not really safe a lot of the time. I mean, it’s safe for me, but apparently I have a much higher tolerance for risk than a lot of people. And they don’t allow us to do that,” Johnson said. “… But it’s good because it teaches people safe practices.”
And the race element isn’t, perhaps, as genuine as it appears on screen.
“If you do something amazingly cool, they want to film it again. Immediately. If you’re racing for something and you have to stop and film for five hours, it’s not really a race. But all the teams are doing it, so I guess it evens out at the end. But it’s great entertainment, that’s what it is,” he said.
Johnson said he’s proud of the show. In part because it’s big with kids, so his daughter, Evie, 11, gets to be a bit of a celebrity at school when dad’s on TV. But also because it shows off Alaska at its untamed best, giving a glimpse of what it’s like to pit yourself against it.
“This is kind of an original show, there’s not a lot like this out there. And I’m not just saying this because I’m on it. I don’t think there is,” he said.
Johnson said he doesn’t know if he’ll do future seasons of the show, especially since the three months of filming take him away from his daughter’s summer break from school.
“It’s fun to do but it’s a total time commitment. They seal you into the show and you can’t get out, you don’t have a car, you don’t have any access to anything, they definitely rule your life there for three months,” he said.
So fans will have to tune in to see if he and the Alaskans team go out of Season Three, and possibly the show, on top.
But his interest could persist as long as there’s the possibility for more adventure. The producers have hinted at taking the show to another continent, for instance.
“They’re like, ‘The Alaskans can handle Alaska, but can they handle the jungle?’ And no I can’t, actually,” Johnson said. “That would really freak me out. And Marty, especially, he’s afraid of anything small. … Freaking snakes coming out of trees and spiders and ants. We’d be running around like crazy.”
The jungle sounds terrible, on one hand, Johnson said. He wouldn’t have a clue what he was getting into — making it all the more likely he’d jump in after all.
“If they do that I’ll probably do it. The adventure. It’s still about the adventure. I still like doing the adventure racing thing and hanging out with the people.”