That was a pretty tight timeline, considering that McCleskey was in the middle of closing on a house at the time. McCleskey, 36, is a world-class kayaker who has been an Olympic team alternate three times, but when he’s not running rapids he works as a carpenter in Sylva.
“I called in all the troops and we dried in the house for him within two weeks, and off to Alaska I went,” he said while enjoying some Huddle House hash browns and coffee back home in Western North Carolina.
To some, it probably seemed like a crazy cliff to jump off of. “Ultimate Survival” entails three months spent in the Alaskan wilderness, with four teams of three outdoorsman each completing a series of 13 challenges in which they must complete a dangerous backcountry trek within 60 hours, armed with nothing but some cursory outdoors gear and a map.
But to McCleskey, it wasn’t crazy at all.
“There’s very few of us that get absolutely awesome experiences that they can go do, and then the second part of that is having the guts to say yes to those experiences,” he said. “It’s one thing to be given one. It’s another thing not to take it.”
In the years leading up to the Alaska trip, McCleskey had been haunted by one of those unexploited opportunities. Four years in a row, his paddling buddy Jeff West had asked him to come along to run the Stikine River in Canada. Each time, he’d say no — it was just a “really scary, dangerous situation,” that river.
McCleskey ran into West shortly before he took his last trek to the Stikine. He never made it back from that trip.
“That knocked me down for year, a year or two,” McCleskey said. It took some time to summon the will to paddle again. “I was driving out toward the Grand Canyon last year and [thought], ‘I can’t explain what I want to do but I know there’s some epic adventure that I want to do, that I got to do. I don’t know what it is, but I know other people don’t want to do whatever that epic adventure is I want to do.”
It wasn’t long after he got back that the phone rang with National Geographic on the other end.
In Alaska, McCleskey quickly discovered he wasn’t alone in having lost a comrade in adventure, or in having spent months laid up on the couch, recovering from an attempt gone wrong.
“I’d say that’s one thing all of us held in common,” McCleskey said of the show’s contestants. “We’d lost a friend doing what we do.”
But it was no sad group of grief-ridden ex-adventurers that greeted him in Alaska. These were people who had moved on from loss to resume lives filled with ski jumps off of 50-foot cliffs, record runs of Class V rapids and weeks spent battling backcountry elements.
A good thing, because the competition left no room for fear. The contestants were dropped out of helicopters and floatplanes, abandoned in the middle of nowhere, left with no buffer between themselves and the beautiful but sometimes destructive forces of nature.
“It was an experience of a lifetime of self-test,” McCleskey said.
For starters, the maps were based on 60-year-old data. Since 1950, glaciers have receded, exposing unmapped terrain underneath, and the magnetic declination — the difference between magnetic north and true north — has shifted to something wildly different from that noted on the maps.
Then, of course, there was just the fact that the wilderness of Alaska was new and unfamiliar territory for a Southerner like McCleskey. A north Georgia native and longtime resident of Western North Carolina, he wasn’t used to the way the summer sun rose at 4 a.m. and stayed up till midnight, and he didn’t have much experience climbing glaciers and anticipating avalanches.
“So far of what’s been on TV, the first two expeditions were exceptionally hard on me because my skill level in the snow was barely strong enough to survive,” he said.
One of the most heart-stopping moments, McCleskey said, was a scene that “barely glanced” on TV but could have been the end — an avalanche. He and his teammates, both much more experienced in snowy backcountry than he, were roped together for safety, McCleskey fully reliant on them to walk him through the escape, they fully reliant on him not to fall and drag them down into the icy chaos.
It’s definitely not a show that’s fabricated or scripted for the cameras, McCleskey said. The life-or-death situations shown on TV most definitely happened, but a lot else happened, too, sometimes in places so remote the camera crews couldn’t even make it in. National Geographic has asked its contestants not to talk about those moments when cameras were absent and the story is dependent on who says what. Suffice it to say, McCleskey reflected, “what didn’t happen really still emotionally sits with me.”
But would he do it again?
The answer came quickly: “Absolutely.”
Serenity through adrenaline
McCleskey is careful to say that he doesn’t have a death wish — he’s got a home and a wife with whom he plans to have many more adventures — but there’s something about those moments when death is possible, when the situation facing you is the only real thing in the world, that brings everything else into focus.
“Everybody that I’m around is just super high-energy, and everything seems chaotic until you’re at that point of fight or flight and everything just finally slows down and becomes peaceful,” he said. “It really takes that moment of being right on the edge to find a moment of serenity in the whole world.”
He remembers in particular the time he was in his boat on the Green River (a very technical Class V river south of Asheville), running a high rapid, and capsized. McCleskey was sucked around and around a hole in the water, unable to escape until he learned an important lesson about survival: It was only when he traded panic for relaxation and focus on the task at hand that escape was possible.
“Whenever you’re really facing a life-threatening situation and looking at yourself from the outside point of view and thinking clearly, it’s a really epic experience to have,” he said.
So says the guy who’s paddled every mile of the Tuck, hiked pretty near every piece of trail in Western North Carolina and tried out for the Olympics time after time. In Alaska — that wide, clear sky, those tall, glacier-ridden mountains, the days that never end — he got to take all that to a whole new level, learning skills he didn’t even know he was missing.
“To have a whole world open up for me was just really neat,” he said. “I was like a kid in a candy store.”
He’s glad to be home in WNC, where it’s possible to snowboard, mountain bike and kayak all in the same day. He’ll keep doing all that, and he’ll also probably continue to push the envelope of adventure.
“You never can explain that,” he said of the bug for self-test. “As a young man you’re fearless, and you don’t look at the danger. As an older man, you try to make all the logical decisions and hope it doesn’t happen to you.”
Watch the show
Despite having been on “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” McCleskey says he’s just as much a fan as anyone else seeing it for the first time. While he was out there, he knew quite well what his team went through but never got a chance to find out what adventures the others encountered on their treks.
“A lot of times I’m like, ‘We had it so rough,’ and then I watch it and I’m like, ‘They had it real bad,’” McCleskey said.
“Ultimate Survival Alaska” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern time on the National Geographic Channel through the season finale March 22.