Triple Aught Design’s Destination : Dune (Part 1)
The lowest elevation in the continental US. The highest elevation in the continental US. A violent sandstorm in an arid, hot, sandy desert. Epic mountain snow drifts of 10+ feet. From one extreme to another. To another. Extremes suddenly aren’t two opposing points on a straight line…but several points on a polygon. And we’re riding the outermost perimeter of that figure, from vertex to vertex. Sidewinder rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bobcats, wild donkeys, scorpions, coyotes, tarantulas, and whatever else lurks unseen in the darkness. Collapsed abandoned mine shafts, technical off-road trails where a minor mistake means your brutal demise, fighter jets screaming low overhead. Everything is trying to kill you out there. Including your own instinctual human drive for exploration. At one point there was talk of using the emergency satellite phone to summon a helicopter medevac to prevent my potential death from dehydration. I was having the time of my life.
By now we’re sure you’re familiar with Triple Aught Design. They’ve been Carryology favorites for years now, as they continually crank out some of the highest quality products in the gear/carry world. They have earned themselves a permanent place amongst the Carry Gods, with several nominations in four out of the five years we’ve been running The Carry Awards.
Their attention to detail as a brand spans across all of their products, from packs/bags/pouches (of course), to technical outdoor/everyday apparel, to high-end knives, to gadgets/accessories that would make Q Branch jealous, and much more. But it doesn’t stop there.
Triple Aught Design’s CORE program is a way to interact with the brand on an intimate level. They offer training courses which are dedicated to making sure you are “mission capable” and “ready to perform any operation” within your scope. A few of their courses they’ve offered at their Dogpatch HQ in the past are Jiu Jitsu, Physical Defense, Practical Small Knife Skills, Covert Entry Concepts, and many more. And then came Destination : Granite, which they refer to as a “brand experience”. I sadly learned about Destination : Granite well after it had already happened, kicking myself for not having discovered it beforehand.
“Triple Aught Design’s CORE program is a way to interact with the brand on an intimate level. They offer training courses which are dedicated to making sure you are “mission capable” and “ready to perform any operation” within your scope.”
Granite took place in late 2016 and was a weekend-long adventure off-grid in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. Overlanding and exploring in kitted out 4×4 off-road vehicles supplied by the experts at Four Points Adventures. Sleeping in Tepui rooftop tents. Testing out new Triple Aught Design prototype products (each attendee received an Azimuth Pack to test and to keep, which hadn’t been released yet). Take a look at the photo-heavy wrap-up AAR page they created for Destination : Granite and be sure to watch the video (embedded below). Note that they intentionally keep the whole operation somewhat secretive (before/during/after), as the adventure is not an adventure if you know everything that will happen.
Looks like fun, right?
So when I saw the two enigmatic announcements (via Instagram, post #1 and post #2) for Destination : Dune, I nearly jumped into my iPhone screen with excitement, imagining myself in the photos and the future experience. With a lot of persistence, planning, and string pulling my trip was set. I was going to be on assignment, taking photos and writing about the epic adventure of Destination : Dune. I would be joining the 12 other lucky attendees, TAD crew, and Four Points Adventures crew.
For what it’s worth, the ticket price for this all inclusive event was $1250. While that might sound steep, remember that I did mention “all inclusive”. Once you’ve got yourself to Triple Aught Design’s Dogpatch HQ in San Francisco, you don’t need to worry about a thing. You only need to bring your own clothes, gear, sleeping bag, and pillow. The overlanding vehicles (Toyotas and Jeeps, of course) are extremely kitted out, all the fuel is covered, all meals are prepared by an onsite chef, all snacks and quality adult beverages are provided, and the Tepui rooftop tents with thick foam mattress are yours for comfortable sleeping after each day’s adventure. You just show up and then you’re in the very capable hands of TAD and FPA.
“I was going to be on assignment, taking photos and writing about the epic adventure of Destination: Dune. I would be joining the 12 other lucky attendees, TAD crew, and Four Points Adventures crew.”
Being an obsessive gear nerd, the next obvious step was carefully selecting my loadout for this excursion in the wilderness. It certainly wasn’t a breeze, as we were told to potentially expect 20 degree nights, 100 degree days in full sun, torrential rain, a few feet of snow, and extreme desert-style low humidity. Possibly even a sandstorm. Where exactly were we going? I had no idea. That just created more excitement. But, as mentioned, it didn’t make planning for my packing list very easy. I very carefully selected a few of my favorite bits of kit from my recent adventures through Iceland and Utah/Arizona. My Triple Aught Design FAST Pack Litespeed backpack (modified with 9 AustriAlpin Cobra Buckles) was an obvious choice. Other items included Danner Mountain Light II waterproof boots, ExOfficio quick-drying boxers/shirts, Muyshondt Flieger Mk. I Titanium electric torch, Chris Reeve Knives Sebenza 25 folding knife, Redux & Co. COURG Zero Hour automatic titanium watch, Magpul Bonnell Pants, Magpul Tejas “El Burro” Belt, Magpul Patrol Gloves, Darn Tough socks, a variety of Magpul DAKA Pouches, a ThermaRest Centari 5 Sleeping Bag (5 degrees) and ThermaRest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad, Platypus GravityWorks 4.0L water filter system, PackTowl “Personal towel”, SealLine Blocker Dry Sack (5L and 10L), SealLine Discovery Deck Bag (10L), and SealLine Waterproof E-Case (for my iPhone 7 Plus). Plenty more too, but these are the items that really stood out as all stars on this trek. For those outdoor gear gurus, you’ll notice that I left a few critical items off this list. I didn’t even pack them. That was on purpose. We’ll get to that shortly.
“…we were told to potentially expect 20 degree nights, 100 degree days in full sun, torrential rain, a few feet of snow, and extreme desert-style low humidity. Possibly even a sandstorm. Where exactly were we going? I had no idea.”
So with all my gear loaded up, very early Thursday morning I catch my flight from Austin out to San Fransisco. Seat 23A (always get a window seat).
Upon my arrival, I stopped by the TAD Dogpatch HQ for a brief hangout and to get a detailed run-through of their new products. But, tomorrow’s sunrise departure was coming quickly, so I went to bed early… strangely feeling a bit ill with cold sweats and body aches. I figured that whiskey, NyQuil, water, and 10 hours of sleep should do me right.
Feeling considerably better, I make it back to TAD HQ for the early morning rendezvous with 80% of the crew who would be coming along for Destination : Dune. The remaining 20% would meet us at the official starting point. There are three rigs parked inside; a heavily modified Toyota Land Cruiser and a heavily modified Toyota 4Runner from Four Points Adventures and a Toyota Tacoma rented from Pacific Overlander. Introductions were quickly made with smiling new friends.
Excitement was tangible. I’m certain I felt goosebumps as we stood around, waiting to get the tires to blacktop. Fortunately, we had one last distraction. Attendees of these Destination trips get to select approximately 3 (or 4) pieces of gear from Triple Aught Design’s collection to test out along the trip. If you like the gear, you can purchase it at the end of the trip for 25% off. If you’re not absolutely satisfied or just can’t part with the cash at time, hand it back to the folks at TAD with no charge whatsoever. Plus all attendees get a one-time-use 25% discount code for future use. Awesome. So I purposely left behind a few things in order to test out some TAD apparel.
Consulting with the employees at the shop, I chose a heavy base layer (Vortex Hoodie), a very warm jacket that stays warm even while it’s wet (Equilibrium Jacket), and finally a lightweight compressible waterproof hardshell made from Polartec Neoshell (Raptor Hoodie). I gave the triple layer system a quick test as it was a stereotypical drizzly, overcast, and chilly San Francisco morning. It worked. Very well. I mention this because I’m feeling confident as I check the weather for Mammoth Lakes, CA on my phone and see that it’s very cold and very, very snowy.
“Consulting with the employees at the shop, I chose a heavy base layer (Vortex Hoodie), a very warm jacket that stays warm even while it’s wet (Equilibrium Jacket), and finally a lightweight compressible waterproof hardshell made from Polartec Neoshell (Raptor Hoodie).”
So snowy in fact, that when I bring up our destination as I hop into the kitted out 4Runner, the Four Points Adventures guide says “We’re not going to Mammoth Lakes.”
“So then where are we going?” I ask.
He silently grins, hops into his Land Cruiser. “You’ll see.”
The door shuts with a thud.
Here we go.
Though I’m no navigational expert, from the rear passenger seat of the 4Runner, surrounded by packs and gear, it didn’t take long for me to figure out we were heading south. The miles left on the highway signs for Los Angeles kept shrinking in numbers. Were we going to be doing some urban overlanding through Echo Park?
After some hours pass, we make a quick obligatory stop at In-N-Out for some California sustenance, then begin heading inland towards the East. Meredith, one of the Four Points Adventures guides, pilots the 4Runner at the caboose of our four-vehicle convoy. Even she isn’t quite sure where exactly we’re headed. Or is she playing coy?
Communications for fuel, restroom, and snack stops are through on-board CB radios. We’ve been on the road now for the better part of a day. I start to hear radio chatter about Lone Pine and Alabama Hills. Both names are foreign to me, but I find them on my digital map while I still have remnants of cellular service. Possibly the last service I’ll have, I’m told.
“I start to hear radio chatter about Lone Pine and Alabama Hills. Both names are foreign to me, but I find them on my digital map while I still have remnants of cellular service. Possibly the last service I’ll have, I’m told.”
We roll the convoy into Lost Pine to meet the rest of the crew, some who have driven in from Colorado, some who have driven in from Northern California, and some who have come up from Southern California. We’re all here. Folks from California, Colorado, New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Fifteen of us in total. Two from Triple Aught Design, three from Four Points Adventures, nine attendees, and myself (on assignment for Carryology, partnering with TAD). A wide variety of professionals from different fields. Mountain rescuer, police officer, firefighter, designer, home builder, marketer, consultant, and more.
From the back room of the tiny mountain town restaurant, we’re together and sharing some damn fine humor. We’re clearly going to get along as a group. What it all comes down to is that we’re a collection of unique individuals from different backgrounds all in search of one thing; adventure. But more specifically, we’re currently here at this Lone Pine restaurant for some pizza and beer before we set up base camp for the night.
The convoy loads up and we make the 10-15 minute off-road journey out to Alabama Hills, a picturesque collection of hills and rocky formations in the eastern Sierra Nevadas, just at the base of the highest elevation in the continental US, Mount Whitney (14,505ft). This place is also famous for being a filming location for popular Westerns from the 1920s to present. Over 150 films in total. The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Generations, Iron Man, just to name a few. The blue moonlight glows down on this alien landscape with the kitted out Toyotas and Jeeps speckled throughout. The road was particularly long that day. Some beers are cracked and then the rain came. My Equilibrium Jacket keeps me dry, without the use of a softshell or hardshell.
“The convoy loads up and we make the 10-15 minute off-road journey out to Alabama Hills, a picturesque collection of hills and rocky formations in the eastern Sierra Nevadas, just at the base of the highest elevation in the continental US, Mount Whitney (14,505ft).”
I’m feeling a bit ill again and rapidly find myself an available Tepui Tent to crash in for the night, passing out almost instantly. I’m happy I had my Centari 5 sleeping bag that night, as the temperatures dropped fairly low.
In the middle of the night, I wake up with a violent pain in my stomach and frantically crawl down out of the rooftop tent to go find some rocks to vomit behind. I can’t keep down water. No big deal, I’ll handle it when I wake up. So I thought. I repeat this process 3 or 4 times. The last time it happens, I’m feeling delirious and confused. I walk a little too far from camp in only my wool base layers and my boots, stupidly leaving behind my seeing glasses and my Flieger Mk. 1 Titanium electric torch. Blind and shivering in the sub 30 degree weather, I find some rocks to quietly puke up some more water. And that’s the last thing I remember.
“In the middle of the night, I wake up with a violent pain in my stomach and frantically crawl down out of the rooftop tent to go find some rocks to vomit behind. I can’t keep down water.”
I wake up in full body shakes to my core, laying in between two rocks which are making a V shape for my body to squeeze horizontally between, assuming I was searching for warmth/shelter when I last had consciousness. Without any more dots to connect, I assume I’ve been there for 10-20 minutes, in nothing but thin base layers and boots. “This is how bodies are found,” I thought to myself. Blind, cold, weak, confused, stumbling, I try to find my way back to camp. I’m very lost and beginning to panic. I’m falling over repeatedly. Fortunately, I calmed myself, regained composure and slowly found my way back to base camp, about 200 yards away at this point. For some reason, I grab my sleeping bag out from the Tepui Tent and sleep outside in the rocks on the now-dry ground. I wake up to the curious and concerned looks of the team, assuring them now I’m alright and I just wanted some air, since it turned out to be a beautiful clear night with a star-filled sky.
“I wake up in full body shakes to my core, laying in between two rocks which are making a V shape for my body to squeeze horizontally between, assuming I was searching for warmth/shelter when I last had consciousness. Without any more dots to connect, I assume I’ve been there for 10-20 minutes, in nothing but thin base layers and boots.”
All of this has already happened and this morning officially marks the beginning of Day 1 of Destination : Dune. It has only just started.
A delicious breakfast is cooked by the Four Points Adventures chef. It looked delicious anyway. I was in no place to eat yet. We’re all seeing each other for the first time in the morning sunlight and the vibe is fantastic. Everyone is an instant old friend. Normally, I’m one of the most social guys in any room you put me in. But I’m progressively getting weaker and unable to retain food or liquid. I’m a walking zombie, but making the best of it. For what it is worth, if you ever find yourself in the desert, it’s best to tell your guide exactly how you’re feeling. I did the opposite because there was no way I’d turn back from this experience. Being stubborn and stupid, I refused the idea of having to go back for my health. What is life if you’re not out living it? I had to push on with the adventure, so I kept my symptoms a secret.
Once we load up and begin moving, I pass out in the back of one of the trucks, recalling moments of consciousness along our drive. I’d open my eyes and see a mountain range. Mount Whitney was one of these mighty peaks we drive by. And I checked the GPS in another moment of clarity…we were heading directly for Death Valley. I had never been, but have been wanting to go for years.
In and out of a strange dream state, it’s hard to tell what is real. The howling wakes me. I sit straight up. We’re in a sandstorm.
Meredith is visually fighting the gusts of wind pulling the steering wheel in opposing directions. Visibility is low.
“In and out of a strange dream state, it’s hard to tell what is real. The howling wakes me. I sit straight up. We’re in a sandstorm.”
Then it gets worse.
We can only see the Wrangler in front of us. The other vehicles have vanished from sight. There is so much airborne sand that we both pull up our Triple Aught Design Mean T-Skull Shemaghs inside of the vehicle to breathe a bit easier. In small breaks of the storm, we see a mountain of sand in the distance.
The Eureka Valley Sand Dunes of Death Valley, one of the tallest, if not the tallest, sand dunes in North America. They continue to grow taller and taller as we approach. I begin to channel my strength, as Todd, our Four Points Adventures guide, informs us on the CB that we’re going to stop and explore the sand dunes…in the middle of the violent sandstorm.
The wind aggressively tears the handle from my grip on the Toyota as I slowly open it, ripping it wide open. We later agree on the estimate that the wind was 65+mph. At 6’0″ and 230lbs, I can almost lean into it to support my frame from falling over via gravity’s pull. For some of the others, they’re laughing at a 20+ degree lean. The sand particles screaming through the air cut the skin, whatever parts are left exposed. I’m regretting not bringing the laboratory goggles that I had planned to bring, but my Randolph Engineering aviators are doing a fair job, squinting behind the large dark lenses. We all look like desert ninjas. Six or seven of the party take off towards the dunes as soon as they get out of their vehicles, in full-on sprint.
It’s like it wasn’t even their decision to go. The dunes called to them. They simply had to. I still regret not going up that dune in that sandstorm. But I honestly could barely stand in my state. Just getting out of the vehicle to stand was like climbing ten dunes for me. I was happy to be a spectator for once, at least in that moment.
“I still regret not going up that dune in that sandstorm. But I honestly could barely stand in my state. Just getting out of the vehicle to stand was like climbing ten dunes for me.”
I stayed back with the remaining crew and snapped photos of the bold team that didn’t stop until they summited the peak. From our perspective, it appeared as if they were getting absolutely ripped apart by the sand and wind up at the peak. Upon their eventual return, our assumptions were correct. Their smiles proved that it was worth it.
“Beware, O wanderer, the road is walking too.”
We gather up to discuss the trail that lies ahead of us. We’ve been off of paved roads for hours now. But we’re all warned that this next portion is going to be technical, rocky, slow, and potentially even dangerous. I lose consciousness for another few hours.
At some point, there is some discrepancy regarding the base camp location for the night. In the spirit of true adventure, someone pulls out a map and points to an unknown path, only listed on one of the maps. The trail is slow-going.
We make several stops in order for the most capable vehicle and driver (Todd from FPA in the Land Cruiser) to power ahead to ensure the path is passable for the entire convoy. We wait for 20 minutes or so each time. Anxiously awaiting a static-filled message from the CB. “Come on up ahead, this looks great!”, he enthusiastically announces.
A few turtle-paced miles and the road dead ends at the entrance to an abandoned mine shaft. Likely 100 years old or more. Once the rigs are parked on their own respective level surfaces, a small group gathers around the entrance of the cave. I go straight in first, footsteps behind me as I push forward down and into the cold darkness, using the Flieger’s powerful lumens to light the way. The further down I go, the darker and colder it gets.
“Likely 100 years old or more. Once the rigs are parked on their own respective level surfaces, a small group gathers around the entrance of the cave. I go straight in first, footsteps behind me as I push forward down and into the cold darkness, using the Flieger’s powerful lumens to light the way.”
From full sun to pitch black. I was very happy to be wearing the warm Equilibrium Jacket, that wasn’t really necessary in the sun. I cross over several small collapsed portions, until finally coming upon a seemingly impassible collapse of the shaft, maybe 250 yards from the surface.
Losing my strength and balance, I turn back and head back to the sunlight. However, several of the individuals who joined me were just using this as a preliminary recon mission.
They were going back to grab some rope, headlamps, and climbing gear. Further exploration commenced.
Due to my illness, I passed out in the back of the 4Runner for the night, just as the sun was setting over the laughs and smells of dinner being cooked at camp. I couldn’t eat anyway. Wearing every warm layer that I had wasn’t enough that night. The temperatures dropped well below 20 degrees that night (maybe below 10 degrees), so I ended up desperately needing my sleeping bag which was conveniently in my pack in the seat next to me.
However, in my weakened state, even inside the bag, I couldn’t provide enough extra joules of heat for my body. I reached for the prototype gift from TAD, one which was given to every member attending this excursion; an amazingly warm and velvety soft Shag Master Blanket.
This magical extra layer made from Polartec Thermal Pro High Loft fabric (the same used in the popular TAD Shag Master Hoodie) kept me toasty the remainder of the night until the morning sun called me.
A frigid morning. One of the guys shakes off the ice from his Shag Master Blanket that he accidentally left in the bed of a truck. Maybe I’m feeling better? It’s hard to tell. I still can’t eat yet. After (a great smelling) breakfast and plenty of hot coffee is gulped down, we pack up and pull out the maps for the next leg of the expedition. Just as we ready the vehicles, a flat tire is spotted on one of the two Toyota Tacomas. Rather than see this as a setback, we saw this as an opportunity for Todd (FPA lead guide) to give the group a lesson on the safe and proper methods of jacking up a truck on rocky ground with a Hi-Lift jack.
Having changed many tires in my life in various scenarios, I’ve never had to use a Hi-Lift on the loose rock desert floor. This particularly interested me. Todd even had a few tricks up his sleeve to share, like using cinch straps to gain a few extra inches of clearance. I’d go into detail, but you’ll just have to attend the next TAD Destination event. I go on record and promise that there will be at least one flat tire on your trip, or quadruple your money back (Phil will handle this, no problem…just email me for his cell phone number and his home address).
“Just as we ready the vehicles, a flat tire is spotted on one of the two Toyota Tacomas. Rather than see this as a setback, we saw this as an opportunity for Todd (FPA lead guide) to give the group a lesson on the safe and proper methods of jacking up a truck on rocky ground with a Hi-Lift jack.”
And we’re off, back down the same narrow trail we came from. I’m able to keep my eyes open this morning. I’m told we’re going to the sand dunes. The same dunes that I missed yesterday because of my health. Today I was determined. I was going to summit this dune. The taller they grew through the windshield, the more I convinced myself that I was going to conquer them. Firmly grabbing my stomach, like I’m holding a blade twisted in me. Today’s weather conditions were even more suitable for a climb up the dunes, with only a light breeze and no visible sand movement at the peak. We park at the bottom; I wait in the truck for an extra moment.
I lace my boots and chug some extra water. This pain and illness won’t hold me back today. I hop out, energized, and ready. And Todd has made the executive decision that we’ll have to skip the dune hike today. The road we would be taking is very long, very slow, and very technical. We were told that today’s trail will make yesterday’s trail look like freshly paved smooth asphalt. I did want to summit those dunes, standing at the base of them now twice. Mocking me. Now it just gives me an excuse to come back. And I will.
“I did want to summit those dunes, standing at the base of them now twice. Mocking me. Now it just gives me an excuse to come back. And I will.”
We air down the tires in preparation for the trail. Todd goes over the necessary hand signals for when we will soon be doing the technical rock crawling. Slowly approach. Give it some gas. Punch it. Less gas. Come a little bit to the right. Slower, slower, slower. And the most important hand signal; FULL STOP. Todd is a Mountain Rescuer (along with Meredith) and his experience in this world oozes from his pores. Highly confident and capable yet humble, fun, and friendly. If Todd shares a bit of knowledge with you, you know that is the absolute correct way to do it. Because he’s likely tried it every other single way. Though he would never communicate it that way. He’s generally pretty carefree…even if his mind is calculating the logistics of keeping 15 people alive in one of the harshest environments on planet earth. I mention this carefree attitude because today there is a very clear message of seriousness. He confirms the instructions with everyone, requiring a verbal response. And we’re off. To the mountain.