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Not Your Ordinary Lightweight Backpacker: An Interview with Bill Merchant

Not Your Ordinary Lightweight Backpacker: An Interview with Bill Merchant

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by Ellen Zaslaw | 2001-12-17 03:00:00-07

Introduction

The following conversation is a continuation of one begun face to face in Bill Merchant’s dining room this past July. My husband and I were embarking on an outdoor adventure in Alaska, and we’d landed at Earth Bed and Breakfast late in the day, after the long flights that had taken us to Anchorage. In this tidy split-level house reminiscent of a chalet, a gracious, multilingual woman named Margriet van Laake accommodates paying guests and organizes tours. I did not yet know early the next day, when a wiry, sandy-haired man of about fifty scurried around laying out breakfast, that this was Margriet’s husband Bill, and that he was a master of the Alaskan wilderness in ways that an ordinary backpacker from the lower forty-eight can barely grasp. Of course we did get talking, and as croissant followed croissant, so did one tale follow another, of Bill’s exploits and of his equipment. I was spellbound. Later, when my husband and I were taking off, our host eyed our backpacks, outfitted for summer mountain weather in regulation Backpacking-Light style, with what I would call mild approval. Certainly he had seen far worse. But you see, Bill himself carries little more than half as much - in the frigid winter weather he finds so bracing. Now with winter upon us, it has been a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with him and to picture him, as the days have shortened and the temperatures have plunged, coming into his full glory.

Interview

Ellen Zaslaw: Bill, mountains come right up to the edge of Anchorage, and mountains seem to be your natural habitat. Have they always been?

Bill Merchant: Really they have. I spent four years hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with my father when I was young, and I lived in Pinedale, Wyoming - that's in the Wind River Range - all my adult life until I moved to Alaska in December of 1989.

EZ: It's a lucky man who so enjoys his work it's also his hobby. You teach wilderness skills, guiding your students as they face the challenges of the backcountry. And then with your free time, off you go again to the outback. What do you do out there on your own, when you're suiting only yourself?

BM: Every trip I make is a training run of sorts. That's a major part of my lifestyle, taking these trips out, always building, always growing. I constantly try different techniques of traveling more efficiently uphill, downhill, on rock, on snow. I may work on going quickly but quietly, or on reading tracks in the trail. I play with my layers, my diet. But most of all I’m there for the simplicity of life the wilderness allows me. When my only responsibility is to provide for my basic needs (now there's a relative term!), I have an enormous amount of time just to appreciate my natural surroundings and enjoy being alive. The only time I experience fully each fraction of a second is when yesterday doesn't matter and tomorrow won't come if I don't pay attention NOW! Those moments in most adrenaline sports are short-lived. But when you travel as a minimalist at 50 and 60 below those moments are continuous.

EZ: What about racing? What sorts do you do?

BM: I've run hill climbs in Wyoming, and I've done long distance skijoring races in Alaska. I've done the Coldfoot Classic over the Brooks Range on foot, and last year I did it on bike. I've raced in the Iditasport Extreme the last four years, twice skijoring, once biking (over snow), and last year biking and running. It wasn’t supposed to be a combination of biking and running, but I broke my bike 100 miles in; then I carried it for five or six miles over the mountains, and after that I left the bike and did the last 250 miles on foot.

EZ: Trails must look different to you than to the rest of us. The Lonely Planet Guide describes the Resurrection Pass Trail on the Kenai Peninsula as a full four days’ hike. You do it as a training run, and how long does it take you?

BM: Twelve hours, including an hour’s rest at the top. That’s a superb trail, one of my favorites.

EZ: Do you have a particular style as a racer, in terms of your attitude, your gear, or your preparation?

BM: I have a very distinctive style in terms of attitude. The more adverse the conditions, the bigger my smile is. As far as gear goes, mine differs very little from that of other race-lite veterans.

EZ: I'll bet you used to carry heavier packs than you carry now, since just about every ultralighter did. Am I right? I know you're very parsimonious with weight: what sorts of weights do you carry?

BM: I did carry heavier packs in the past and the ultralight method has just been a natural progression as my experience has allowed me to be comfortable with less. For racing I carry 15 lbs (that includes one liter of water) and I am self-sufficient for three days. On a three-day climbing trip at the end of summer I also carried 15 lbs (I was free-climbing with no ropes or hardware), including food. Food and fuel are what change the weight of my pack most from trip to trip. I use only two sleeping bags. One is a 3 lb 9 oz down bag with a DryLoft shell and the other is a Feathered Friends 1 3/4 lb down bag liner. If I want to be really cozy at 50 below for several hours I use them together. I carry a pair of 400-weight polar fleece pants and a down parka when I’m on a pleasure trip in the winter, but these and the amount of fuel are the only things in my pack that change from summer to winter. The pants and parka make sitting out at 40 below a bit more pleasant.

EZ: Um, “cozy” isn’t a word that comes to mind at the thought of spending several hours motionless at 50 below, but I'll take your word for it. What prompted you to cut your weights down? How did you develop your ideas about how to do it, and how did you locate suitable gear?

BM: I developed my ideas mostly by trial and error, and suitable gear became that which passed the tests. I’m lucky enough to travel in circles now where I hear stories from people who are testing products for manufacturers, and I can avoid costly mistakes.

EZ: You're telling me that you carry a 15-lb pack into the Alaska backcountry in winter. And you're telling me temps might be 40 below, right? Maybe even 50 below.

BM: I've spent days traveling in temps of 50, 60 below and I love it. Just existing is an adrenaline sport. Very often I select a location for training just because it’s notoriously cold.

EZ: Now there's a concept. Can all people, properly equipped and trained, tolerate those conditions?

BM: NO! Not at all! Nor do they want to.

EZ: So you're setting out, thinking it might go down to 40, 50, 60 below. What do you carry in that pack?

BM: Well, besides the sleeping bags, pants and parka, there's a spare wool hat (actually summer and winter), spare wool gloves, sunglasses, MSR stove and fuel, a titanium 1.3 liter pot, titanium cup, and of course food and one liter of water. The 15 lbs includes the pack. I do NOT wear or recommend any waterproof parka shell for arctic winter travel, especially for those going light with no spare dry clothing. Garments dry on the body, and they can't when they’re covered with frozen Gore-Tex. I have a very nice Gore-Tex shell I use for rafting and I love it. But I leave it home in favor of a windproof shell in winter. I could carry a light plastic raincoat in addition if I thought I needed it.

EZ: Perhaps I should ask what you don't carry, that most other backpackers would carry under those conditions? And how do you manage without it? For instance, I didn't hear you say you carry a sleeping pad to use out on the snow. Do you really do without?

BM: I don't use a pad on snow when I’m racing or doing a fast-and-light trip. My pack and outer layers can double as a pad, and I can add natural materials too. Even a few dead sticks help under the bag: if I’m really sleepy I don't mind the bumps. Now I don’t always need to be so spartan. I do trips at varying levels of luxury. A sleeping pad is the first item I add to my fast-and-light kit as I "upgrade". There’s a big difference between catching a little shuteye for two or three hours in a race and sleeping well on the ground all night.

EZ: You also didn’t mention carrying a shelter, or an emergency kit.

BM: I use a tent only if someone else is with me. I take a bivy sack if I expect much rain. I mean a huge amount, because most of the time my body heat burns the water off my clothes and sleeping bag. If it does rain while I’m in the bivy, I cover my face. I don’t need a whole tarp or tent for that. I’ve used a tarp but not since I bought my first bivy sack. As for emergency supplies, I carry one #4 suture and lots of Ibuprofen.

EZ: I see. This is humbling. Still, would you be taking less risk if you were carrying more?

BM: I never feel as if I’m taking a risk. If I did I’d carry more. I profess to be a risk manager, not a risk taker. Stay within your own comfort zone in the wilderness and not that of your neighbor or your ego, and you'll stay out of trouble. I stay warm by knowing my body and how to use what I do take. The one thing I have noticed through the years is that many people don't know how to use their clothing or their sleeping bag efficiently. What works for me may or may not work for others, depending on their metabolism, their travel strategies, and what they require for comfort.

EZ: Have you ever been out in unusual conditions, where you wondered whether your gear was going to be adequate?

BM: Twice I wondered if I was going to freeze to death. Both times it was a series of small mistakes that caused the problem. It wasn't a matter of lower temperatures than I've managed on other occasions.

EZ: Did you ever feel you lacked something important that you needed?

BM: Not recently, unless you count the giant chocolate milkshake I was dreaming of during the Iditasport Extreme this year.

EZ: Is any of your gear homemade, or did you design or custom-order any of it? Or do you use as gear any items that aren't sold as gear?

BM: While my clothing is all purpose-made as gear, still it’s a combination of biking, skiing, boating and mushing items, no matter which discipline I'm involved in at the time. And then I do redesign some gear items, and I even build some.

EZ: What are some of the things you’ve improvised?

BM: My latest modification is one of my most successful, and I’m not afraid to recommend it. Last fall I modified the Vibram soles of my NEOS overshoes to accept SPD cleats. I inserted a pair of summer-weight mountain-biking shoes inside, and then I mounted the cleats with long screws, which I ran through the soles of the overshoes (trimmed to receive them) and screwed into the bike shoes. The thick sole and the dead air space (and some thick wool socks) in these light, waterproof boots kept my feet toasty.

In quite a different vein, I had incredible fun creating a pulka from scratch, for my long-distance skijoring team.

EZ: Skijoring? Pulka? I don’t think we in New York know about such things. What are they?

BM: Sorry! The pulka is a sled pulled behind a skier with dogs pulling in front, or sometimes the sled is rigged between the skier and the dogs, though I prefer the former. Skijoring is touring in this configuration or any other, even one using a vehicle, that pulls the skier along.

So, these pulkas I designed are built with the same materials as toboggan-type dog sleds, but without the driving bow (handlebars) mushers need, and much lighter. The runners are half as thick as a traditional dog sled’s and so is the bottom. The sled weighs 12 lbs, which is very light for what it was designed to do, yet it’s bombproof, much tougher than the light plastic children’s sleds many mountaineers drag along. It’s a good compromise between weight minimization and toughness, since for a week-long trip I have loads up to 60 lbs, including frozen meat for us all, fuel, cooker, etc., and of course the pulka itself. There was no such equipment available on the racing circuit before, so this greatly expanded the range of possibilities, both for equipment and technique.

One other thing I made falls somewhere between modification and invention. It’s a stove just right for me and three dogs, a small version of the stove a musher with a full team would use. I made it from two pots, one fitting inside the other with just a bit of clearance on the sides so it can heat on the sides as well as the bottom. The inner pot sits on rods inserted through the outer pot. The burner is a coffee can cut down and placed under the inner pot. An old dog bootie serves as a wick (one per cooking) and alcohol is the fuel.

EZ: Many of our readers have made stoves with cans: Pepsi cans, catfood cans, you name it. But I don’t know how many have used dog booties in the setup. Let’s go back for a moment to those plastic sleds you mentioned. Do you take one of those with you when you go mountaineering?

BM: I’ve tried it in the past but no, I prefer just to carry my load. It’s not worth the trouble of trying to maneuver it on the steep parts. And I’d be even less interested in dragging something as heavy as my pulka. But one man took my pulka on Denali and loved the way it gripped on the slopes. That wouldn’t be my style at all.

EZ: Tell us about your diet, on and off the trail, and some trail foods that work well for you. Are there any special challenges keeping hydrated and fed at those way-below-zero temps?

BM: The colder it is the more you have to eat. They should put workout rooms in freezers for people who need to lose weight. Also, the colder the air is, the drier, so the need for water goes up sharply as well. I drink six to eight liters of water a day when I’m racing; I have to work up to that gradually as part of my training. I consume around 5500-6500 calories a day when I’m traveling on my own, and it’s more like 9000-9500 when I’m racing. About 60% of my diet comes from animal fat, even in town: at the kinds of temps I deal with in winter, neither a lower-fat diet nor a vegetarian one would cut it. Some of my students who start out vegetarian become what I call “urban vegetarian.” They’re vegetarian back in the city, but not out on the trail.

You know what’s a great trail food for me? A stick of butter rolled in brown sugar. An essential trail food for multi-day racing, by the way - I travel 18-22 hours and often sleep only an hour and a half out of each 24 - is chocolate-covered espresso beans. I eat enough of them that I count them as part of my daily caloric intake. Also I really enjoy smoked salmon in the backcountry. Of course in winter the bears are asleep, but I pack it in summer, too, though some people wouldn’t.

EZ: Are you troubled by the diuretic and potentially dehydrating effects of all that coffee? Does the salty smoked fish make you thirsty, or bloated? Are you concerned about the effects of animal fats on your cholesterol level?

BM: No, no, and no. If certain foods make me thirsty, that’s fine: I need to drink. And since I do drink a lot, I don’t suffer any special discomforts. My cholesterol level gets checked regularly and it’s normal.

EZ: You push your body pretty hard. Do you do anything special, besides keeping well hydrated, to keep aches and pains at bay?

BM: On the trail I take three Ibuprofen, four times a day. The one time I neglected to do so, I wound up in bad shape. Some athletes alternate Tylenol and Ibuprofen so they can take a larger total. Of course keeping in condition is more than half the battle. I ravaged one of my knees years ago, tearing the meniscus and blowing out the anterior cruciate ligament, but it turns out not to matter at all; really it’s a question of keeping up the muscle tone.

EZ: I understand you teach people of every experience level, from beginners to experts. I can imagine it's quite a stimulating exchange between you and, say, a wilderness pro from the tropics. Have you encountered any experts lately who have yet to lighten up?

BM: Sure.

EZ: Are there any who know about ultralight methods but stick with heavier loads because they trust them more?

BM: Yes, a large number travel heavy by ultralight standards. Philosophies of wilderness travel are as varied among the experts as they are in the general population. How much protection a given person needs between the body and the elements is a crucial factor, though, and sometimes it's overlooked. Many who travel ultralight shouldn't. The evidence is in the news around here quite often. I think if rescue weren't an option, a large percentage of hikers would carry more gear.

EZ: People who venture into the outdoors meet new challenges regularly. In the beginning practically everything is a new challenge. You've said you yourself are still learning, sometimes even from the fresh perspective of a newcomer to the wilderness experience, or for that matter a child. But you've been honing these skills for many years, and you spend huge amounts of time out there, compared to the typical backpacker reading this magazine. So tell us, at least until something new catches your eye, have you got it all worked out? Do you feel the gear you've developed is ideal for your purposes, or are you still actively tinkering with any of it?

BM: My gear is always a work in progress. I can't imagine a life without tinkering with it. In particular, at the moment I'm rethinking my backpack. Backpacks have come a long way recently (in terms of weight) and I'm actively looking for something better.

EZ: Backpackers who've been indoors too long daydream about their last time or maybe their next time on the trail: sweet air, an uplifting view, and the rewards of physical exertion. We're animals, after all. We sense that we belong in the landscape. Or is it just that we dream of what we've left behind? Do you when you're in the wilderness ever long for a chance to be inactive and breathe stale air, surrounded by four walls?

BM: I have the feeling this is a rhetorical question! Truly, the only thing I’ve ever missed in the wilderness is the company of my loved ones.

EZ: Where will you venture next?

BM: I have a training partner who has a new-found interest in mountaineering, and I’ve been doing peaks in the Chugach with him in preparation for a January ascent of Gannett Peak in Wyoming. I attempted Gannett solo in 1989 but wound up marooned in a snow cave for two and a half days during a windstorm, and I ran out of time. I look forward to skiing the 25 miles in to the mountain, through some of the most beautiful country in the lower states (I’m from Wyoming so I may be biased) - really just as much as I look forward to the climb to the summit. The ascent to the summit is only an excuse to train more in these beautiful mountains here at home.

EZ: And then the training you’ve invested at home becomes an excuse to summit, and the summiting an excuse to ski in . . . . I think you’ve invented a form of perpetual motion, Bill! And that’s wonderfully fitting.

For more information about Bill Merchant’s signature winter races:

http://www.alaskaultrasport.com/


Citation

"Not Your Ordinary Lightweight Backpacker: An Interview with Bill Merchant," by Ellen Zaslaw. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00031.html, 2001-12-17 03:00:00-07.

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