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The life-changing magic of re-purposing gear: The Alaskan art of frugality

Luc Mehl looks at a map of Alaska the way a carpenter looks at a stack of 2x4s, or the way Heather Mullins sees a pair of old skis. To Luc, the topo lines of his home state are filled with possibilities to see things in a new light. He looks at his gear in the same way. Yes, it’s a ski pole, but what else could it be used for? Luc re-purposes equipment to save weight because his excursions usually take the long way home -- like the time he and a few buddies completed a 200 mile self-propelled traverse of Denali, then packrafted home to Anchorage. Luc is also a wizard with repair, a necessity if you grow up 200 miles from the nearest gear shop. His experiences deep in the Alaskan wilderness go hand-in-hand with his love for re-purposing and repairing gear. Here's Luc in his own words.

What are your favorite pieces of homemade equipment?

I like finding ways to get multiple uses out of gear. Some of my proudest gear projects have been:

  • ice skates as snow pickets (nordic skates, remove the bindings, drill some extra holes for webbing)
  • shovel blade / axe handle / stove stand (blade with a few extra holes to accommodate a locking axe handle and snap-fit stove)
  • ski pole / packraft paddle (remove the handles and use hosing spacers to attach paddle blades)
  • tent pole / avy probe (replace the elastic cord with picture hanging wire and a locking mechanism)

And of course, Tyvek tape on all my clothing. I love that stuff.

According to Patagonia, repair is a radical act. If that’s true, you’ve been radical for quite a while. Is there a piece of gear that you’ve re-imagined, re-used, or repaired recently?

Repair seems pretty fundamentally human, and very Alaskan. I’m frugal, so I use equipment until it is thoroughly trashed. I had a Montbell puff jacket that was 90% Tyvek tape. I sent it to Montbell with a note expressing my gratitude for them making such a great product. They sent it back and said it wasn’t eligible for their return policy. I was so disappointed! I wasn’t trying to return it, I just wanted someone from the company to see how well loved it was.

You spend a lot of time in remote places, covering major distances. What's been the most haunting place you’ve explored in AK?

The first place that comes to mind is a high pass in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Brooks Range) that crosses the continental divide above the Hulahula drainage. We started toward the pass by walking up a creek bed, but were shut down by a waterfall. We were able to backtrack and access the drainage above the waterfall, following caribou tracks. We continued toward the obvious pass, but the tracks completely disappeared. The Brooks is riddled with game trails, so this was unsettling. The absence of tracks made me think we were going to find a cliff on the other side of the pass. There were some cliffs, but we were able to skirt them and descend to young moraine and a dying glacier. The moraine hiking was tough, and finally transitioned to rock and talus with several constrictions (waterfalls) that we had to climb up and around. We saw no sign of tracks on the talus slopes.

It was about 10 PM by then and we contoured a final talus slope and hit a grassy ridge that dropped to a broad valley floor. Finally we found tracks! I made a quick happy song about “Poo, and bones! Poo, poo, and bones!” You’ve probably heard it on the radio down there. But here’s the truly haunting part. Something about having been on edge for the past several hours, and arriving at this huge flat valley floor with three major (dry) tributaries, the shades of gray, a distinct lack of vegetation, and low light, it felt really eerie. Even though we were exhausted, we opted to continue downstream until there was more greenery just to feel a bit more comfortable. I was too fried to get good pictures, but this one is from near where we ended up camping. These dry valleys are pretty common in the Brooks Range. Water channels will appear and disappear along the course of the drainage.

Describe a time when you achieved something major.

The biggest trip accomplishment was Mt. Logan. We went up Denali the year before, our first multi-sport big mountain trip, and it went very smoothly. So smoothly that we got more ambitious, shooting for Logan the following summer. We decided to start in Yakutat and end in McCarthy, which made the trip very affordable. It ended up being 30 days, 370 miles, self-supported (no food drops), which pretty much crushed us. We made it up Logan in a whiteout, which shouldn’t feel like much of an accomplishment, but after working so hard and skirting a handful of disasters (an avalanche, snow blindness, frostbite, hypothermia), it was incredibly empowering.

Outside of the recreation world… my major accomplishment is probably having found an employer and community that allows me to thrive… to be my best Luc.

Your Stickers for Conservation project got some decent buzz, even down here in the lower 48. What have you learned from the project?

The big lesson from the Stickers for Conservation project has been that a small community of people, maybe 200 active participants, can be responsible for $25,000 in donations and hundreds of letters, and phone calls in support of conservation. I recognize that most of the motivation for those efforts is not for the stickers, but for a numbers guy (me), it is really valuable to get a sense for what people are willing to do for a cause they believe in. It has been a source of brightness in an otherwise depressing situation.

And finally, since it's Valentine’s Day, who or what was your first love?

First love...man, I had a lot of crushes all through high school that didn’t go anywhere. I was really shy. My first solid relationship was at the end of college and through grad school in Santa Barbara. That break up was brutal, and really drove me into mountains sports, as a way to climb out of a depression. But we are both in better places now, and still able to appreciate our friendship.

I spent a lot of time as a kid stuffing rocks in my pockets, and loved studying geology in school, so that probably counts as a first love.

And that's all from the Last Frontier. Learn a few tips for re-purposing your gear, and follow Luc and his latest adventures at: https://thingstolucat.com