It’s not real, it’s reality TV!

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa, March 28, 2004.

On a hot summer day in Farley, Iowa, the last thing on my mind was the treacherous slopes of Mt. Everest. Little did I know that is where I would be in less than a year’s time. It started at a family reunion, when my brother in-law told me about an adventure based reality TV show he had seen commercials about. They were looking for applicants to compete in a five month, around the world adventure racing oddessy that would culminate with five finalists climbing Mt. Everest. I was mildly interested, figuring if it was TV and there were a lot people involved I didn’t have any sort of chance of making the cut. In essence one of those things that has a slim chance of happening, like winning the lottery. I’d seen very few reality TV shows that appealed to me. I labored through the lengthy and detailed application process with only days to spare to meet the deadline. I felt there was very little chance of being selected, so after sending in the application, I promptly forgot about it.

A week later, my phone rang and sure enough, a producer from the show was on the line asking some preliminary questions and said they were considering me for the show. A week after that, my inbox, had an email from the Director inviting me to the first round of competition in Moab, Utah. I buzzed with excitement and the prospect of a winter traveling the world having all sorts of wild adventures. Even with that phone call, I didn’t think something like this could really happen to me. It couldn’t be real.

With much apprehension I boarded a plane a month later and headed to Moab, Utah, not really knowing what to expect. In all there were over 800 applicants, yet only 50 were selected for the first round. After that 24 would advance to a second round of events in Aspen. Then, 12 would travel the world, adventure racing across the globe. The 50 people going to Moab read like a who’s who of adventure racing. There were Eco-Challenge racers, marathoners, Iron men, and hardcore endurance/distance racers of all types. I began to question why I was here. I had very little experience in these types of races. My adventure resume was filled with cold weather expeditions of endurance and unconventional sports, like paragliding and ice climbing. There was very little racing in my background, except for a few backcountry races through the Alaskan bush, and the Turkey Trot in Dubuque, in 1979. Looking at the field of competition I made up my mind just to have fun and not even worry about “competing”. I didn’t feel there was any way I could compete with athletes of this caliber.

Moab is the mountain biking and rock climbing Mecca of the Southwest. This area offers world class venues for both sports. There were five “experts” that would serve as judges for the weekend and evaluate each person on a variety of attributes ranging from endurance, performance, attitude, determination, motivation, teamwork, and compatibility, just to name a few. We would be required to perform individually and in teams through a variety of activities throughout the weekend. In the end, only 24 would move on to the next round.

Under overcast skies we were split up into teams of five and ran an adventure course, several hours long, that required the teams to work together to get through the multisport course. Right off the starting line, we had to swim across the Colorado river. A chilly prospect in October! Interesting enough, not everyone could swim and teams were evaluated on how this was dealt with. Fortunately, everyone on my team was easy going and very strong. We flew through the course that took us across the river, four times, running for miles on end through the desert, and solving minor rock climbing problems. With that, day one was over. Day two found us displaying individual skills higher in the mountains. First off was rock climbing. With a range of climbs to choose from, a person could easily find something they could get up and show off some skills. However, what made this interesting was the temperatures were right at freezing and snow filled the air. With numb fingers and wet, cold rock, this was quite challenging for everyone. Afterwards, on mountain bikes we road through six inches of mud, mixed with snow on an epic downhill that took nearly five hours. In that much mud, hardly anyone was able to keep their bikes upright. By nightfall everyone was cold, wet, hungry, and covered from head to toe in mud. It started to become a bit more apparent who might be eliminated.

Each day got progressively harder, and by day four we were told there would be a biking and running race over a 10,000 foot mountain pass. It would start with a 15 mile bike ride, all uphill. Then a 12 mile run, four miles of that uphill. I had no illusions of making the cut with this crew, so I decided to just get in a steady pace throughout the race and see where I ended up. I was amazed how fast people started the race and were seemingly gone. I knew I couldn’t keep up that pace without burning out, so why even try? But, a few miles into the race, my steady pace started paying off as I began passing people that had left the start like jackrabbits. By the transition from bikes to running, I had passed quite a few people. As we climbed higher in elevation the snow became deeper, and when we reached the pass it was knee deep, fresh snow from a storm that had blown through the night before. I had made steady progress and passed a few more people on the way up. If I’m good at anything it is running down mountains. Years spent descending mountains in Alaska would work to my advantage in this race. I passed even more people and finished in a surprising eighth place!!

With much anticipation, that night, by bonfire, the expert judges expressed their difficulty in choosing only 24 athletes from such a talented group of individuals. When the names rolled, I was one of them!!! And so the journey started. In a months time I would travel to the Elk Mountains in Aspen, Colorado for round two. I returned to Alaska amazed at making the cut and began to wonder what I had gotten into? I knew very little about adventure racing and what was involved. I relied on a close friend that is an ex-navy seal, marathoner, and adventure racer. His advice was to just show up, be yourself, and have fun. He felt I was in good enough shape, but no matter what, there would always be someone in better shape and faster and more experienced. And conversely, there would always be someone slower and not in as good as shape. In the end, being average on many levels would serve me well.

Climbing High in Aspen

Aspen was more my speed. Winter conditions, mountaineering, and skiing were all things I excelled at. Again we raced. The first day we raced to the top of Highland Peak in heavy mountaineering boots. Again, I set a steady pace as I watched the field sprint out in front of me. By the top of the mountain I had passed many and finished in eighth place again. But, this time there were only 24 athletes. With sunny skies and warm temps we spent the day taking in the views of the Rocky Mountains, but more importantly, we were put through the paces to perform a variety of mountaineering tasks. Everything: zip lines, self arrest, belaying, ascending ropes, rappelling, the works. This was easy business for me, but I was amazed by how many people had no experience in any of the skills, yet they had the possibility of getting to Everest??

That night we were split into teams and faced with two nights of winter camping and a 20 mile high altitude, navigational ski traverse through the Elk Mountains. My team ended up being a mixed bag of great experience and no experience. The next morning dawned sunny as we set out and immediately began skiing up a mountain pass. Our team did well but the inexperienced members sure tried my patience with wild, and wrong ideas about navigating and finding our way to the next camp. Just before nightfall, we cruised into camp and hunkered down for a cold night. Our team had opted to save weight and only bring one tent, and fit all four of us in it. This provided good warmth, but lack of space. Several times during the night, I was awakened with questions on how to deal with the cold and altitude. In the end we all slept well, if not compactly in the small tent. Long before sunrise, and in very cold temperatures we broke camp and were on the trail. On the side of a desolate mountain we watched the sunrise paint the Rockies every shade of orange and pink imaginable. This day was filled with more navigation and several “surprise” scenarios testing our first aid, avalanche, and beacon searching skills. It was interesting to watch team dynamics unfold, not only in our team, but the other teams as well. And of course, the experts were watching and taking notes the entire time.

After eight hours of skiing we crossed the finish line, in third place. All that remained was the selection of the final 12 that would travel the world. That night, by bonfire again, each Expert spoke and made their selections of who would go on. Again, I was surprised my name was on the list. I had done it!! I made the cut. Even after hearing the announcement, the news took some time to sink in. It was unimaginable to me.

Back in Alaska I had three weeks to prepare for the possibility of being gone for five months!! Not only did I have yet to ask for the time off work, there were bills to pay(five months in advance), gear to sort, physical conditioning to tend to, travel shots to get, and packing to do. Boxes of sponsor’s gear seemed to show up regularly as there were TV, radio, and print interviews to do. The director even had a cameraman ride around work with me one day and film my life outside of Global Extremes, at work and home. The entire reason this show was even happening was because of some big name sponsors putting big money down. In the beginning it was a little unnerving to always have a camera film your every move and to have endless interviews. But eventually one grows immune to that aspect. You become friends with the film crew and don’t even notice the cameras anymore.

The most challenging part for me was the packing. We were to be prepared for three countries, Africa, Costa Rica, and Iceland. All different types of environments where we would be doing a wide variety of activities, most of them ranging on extreme. I had packed for some big expeditions before and tend to be quite organized and good at it. But, this was on a far greater magnitude than I had ever done. In the end three weeks went by very quickly and everything got done.

During this time I realized that this was a huge opportunity of high adventure all over the world, and someone else was flipping the bill. This sort of thing NEVER happens to me. I wasn’t sure what I owed for my good fortune but I knew, no matter what happened, it would be a year to remember. Not once did I have illusions of standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, or was that ever a big draw for me. My attraction was traveling and experiencing cultures and countries that I had never been to. With possible elimination in any country, only time would tell what my fate would be. I wasn’t sure it was real, but I was sure it was Reality TV.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2004 Troy Henkels