Light & Fast

Fastpacking to the top of the fifth Mendenhall Tower

It wasn’t your average camping trip.


No, the trip Sean Rielly, Gabe Hayden and Bryce Iverson took one weekend this summer was about as far from normal as one can get. By most standards, their two-day, human-powered, fastpacking trip to the summit of the fifth Mendenhall Tower was exceptional and an example of a growing trend among outdoor extremists.

One sunny Saturday evening in July, they began running down the West Glacier Trail with backpacks no heavier than a toddler. Their packs contained only the essentials: when combined they held a single tent, a handful of Gu packets, electrolight tablets, ice axes, a length of cord, light climbing gear, one sleeping bag, running shoes and a few clothes.

They had departed at 8 p.m. By 2 a.m. that Sunday, they stopped at the corner of Mount Wrather.

Huddled in the single tent under a shared sleeping bag, the trio slept. At 8 a.m. on Sunday, they continued toward the Mendenhall Towers.

Formally, this type of camping is called fastpacking and its been gaining in popularity over the last decade. True fastpacking is carrying a pack that weighs less than 30 pounds with only the barest of essentials. The idea is that one can travel further and faster with less fatigue if they pack light. It’s not for everyone, however. (There are no cushy sleeping pads or gourmet meals.) The individuals that enjoy this type of travel focus on minimalism and often opt for running shoes instead of hiking boots, for instance.

The experience level of the Juneau group’s members varied. Rielly, a long-time Juneau resident, has spent many hours in the wilderness of Southeast trekking, skiing and exploring. Hayden, an experienced climber, is no stranger to the Juneau Icefield. Last year, he completed the first free ascent of the South Buttress Direct on the Main Tower of the Mendenhall Towers with fellow climber Ryan Johnson. Iverson is an accomplished runner and placed first in this year’s Frank Meier Marathon.

Rielly said it was a trip he’s wanted to do for a while.

“At the beginning of the year, I skied in there … it’s been a work in progress over the last few years.”

And the decision to head out that weekend was a bit fleeting, he said, but they decided to pack light and travel quick.

By 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, the group was at the bottom of the climb.

It was there, the trio switched gears. They donned helmets and harnesses and traded their running mentality for a mind focused on the climb before them. This, Rielly said, turned out to be a challenge far harder than the physical effort.

“(It’s the) mental exhaustion that is the hardest,” he said. “By the time (we) got there and sat down … we had to think ‘ok, we just did all that, and now we have to do all this.’ Definitely, by the time we were off the tower, we were all a little delirious.”

They summited the climb at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and were back down 3 ½ hours later.

Rest would not come, however, for long. After a few brief breaks, the crew was off again across the Juneau Icefield in their running shoes, down the West Glacier Trail and back to the parking lot. They arrived at 1 p.m. on Monday.

“Basically we walked until we couldn’t walk anymore. We’d sleep a couple of hours, then, walk some more,” Reilly said.

A few weekends later, Reilly was back at it. This fastpacking outing took him up and over Cairn Peak, out to climb Split Thumb and then back a day later.

Not your average camping trip, indeed.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at


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