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Mountaineering on the Cheap

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Today we learn how to take an epic Alaskan journey on the cheap. Luc Mehl has lived in Alaska most of his life, and he does not waste an opportunity to be outdoors.

“I think I went three years straight where I was out of town every single weekend. Not just an overnighter but going somewhere Saturday and going somewhere Sunday,” Mehl says. 

He has taken on just about every kind of Alaskan adventure you could think of, from skiing down volcanoes to pack rafting through craters. Most recently he traversed and climbed the three largest peaks in North America. That’s more than 800 miles of hiking, biking, skiing and rafting.

Now you might be thinking at this point that Mehl has to be a dentist or a lawyer that can afford to blow money on big elaborate trips, and you wouldn’t be the first. He recalls a comment someone made after seeing a video of one of his trips.

A typical pack rafting set up.

A typical pack rafting set up.

“‘Boy you guys must be really wealthy to pull off these trips…’ And my jaw just dropped because he had no idea we are all just scraping by,” Mehl says. “You can actually save a lot of money when you’re doing all the work.”

In real life, Mehl is a teacher at Alaska Pacific University. He is by no means wealthy, but he doesn’t let that stop him from taking seemingly expensive trips.

Mehl’s determination to do these trips without breaking the bank has made him a bit of a budget hawk. For his Denali trip, he says the biggest way he and his friends saved money was by biking to the base of the mountain instead of flying, and by packing their food for the entire month instead of relying on food drops by helicopter.

“So by cutting that out of the loop we save a lot of money. And there just isn’t really a lot of expense beyond that. Basic food, fuel,” Mehl says. He says that if planned properly food can be very cheap; right around $5 a day. As for the fuel aspect, Mehl sticks to biking and rafting as much as he can to cut travel costs. And when he does have to fly in Alaska, he uses frequent flyer miles.

“Using the frequent flyer miles in state is brilliant, because it can be as low as 12,000 miles, as opposed to using those miles to go out of state it’s like 40,000 miles. So you can get three in-state trips out of the same miles that it would take to go out of state,” Mehl says.

Maybe you’re thinking OK what about gear? That’s not cheap.

Luc in his pack raft.

Luc in his pack raft.

“Initially when I couldn’t afford gear, I borrowed everything for years. And now that I’ve been able to afford a bunch of that equipment I’m in the role where I can lend it out to people that don’t have it,” Mehl says.

I decided to check out Mehl’s house to see this gear swaperation for myself.

“This is all other peoples gear. I usually have a pile of stuff that I say “oh, who’s house am I going to? Maybe I can return some of their things” because it all just sort of migrates between our households,” Mehl says. His living room, which he jokingly refers to as his garage, has just about every kind of outdoor toy you could think of. Some of it is borrowed, some of it Mehl has fixed up.

I asked him about a lone bike frame.

“This was on craigslist, and I e-mailed the guy and said ‘I’m interested in your frame.’ And then it turned out it was a friend, and he said ‘Hi Luc, I’ll give it to you for $50 instead of $100.’ That’s happened like three times,” Mehl says.  

Totes packed full of equipment line one of the walls. He will often use a piece of equipment as a multi-tasker to save money or weight, like a tent pole as an avalanche probe, or a pair of modified ski poles as a raft paddle.

Of course Mehl and his crew have to splurge at least once in a while. On one trip he noticed his friends raft had been packed awkwardly. Out of the goodness of his heart, Mehl decided to repack it.

“When I unrolled it all the way I discovered a little bottle of liquor in there, and that’s why it looked so sloppy. And he was hiding it because he knew I was the one that would probably say “man we can’t afford that extra weight!” Mehl says. For his next trip, Mehl plans on hiking Mount Fairweather. He’ll be using frequent flyer miles to get there.

To see video and pictures of Mehl’s travels, or to find out how to become a contributor, check out the Town square 49 blog on alaskapublic.org.

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