To the Summit

Alaskan entrepreneur builds legacy business around the accomplishments of a local mountaineering legend

The unincorporated town of Talkeetna, Alaska sits at the confluence of three rivers, just south of Denali, 14 miles from the only highway that runs through the state. It’s the quintessential Alaskan town, from its Moose Dropping Festival, which ran for 37 years, to its former, unofficial mayor of 20 years, a cat named Stubbs.

It’s also where Joe McAneney opened his cannabis retail store, The High Expedition, and though he’s the driving force behind the store’s success, its identity is uniquely tied to the town and cabin where it resides.

Inside The High Expedition. Photos by Totem Ent.

Genuinely Alaskan

After first visiting the area, there was no question in McAneney’s mind — he wanted to live there.

“The culture, with the aviation, the mountain climbing, just the Alaskan heritage, it’s something that I’m really drawn to and something that’s reflected in my brand,” McAneney says. “It’s the closest town to the tallest mountain in North America, literally 100 yards from my shop.”

But the town of 800, located more than 100 miles north of Anchorage, didn’t have many career opportunities, so in order to move from upstate New York to such a remote part of the country, McAneney figured he would have to either be rich or become an entrepreneur. He chose the latter and moved to Talkeetna in 2012.

Eight years later, McAneney is the co-owner and licensee of Refine Alaska, an extraction company based in Talkeetna. He also has a growing CBD business that sells products in gas stations and supermarkets across the state and is promoted by athletes like Kirstie Ennis, a former Marine who lost her leg in Afghanistan, and four-time Iditarod winner Lance Mackey. But the foundation for his enterprise is The High Expedition, which has become a cannabis destination for thousands of tourists that arrive in Talkeetna every summer. It’s exactly the kind of authentic experience that tourists want.

Everything about The High Expedition screams Alaska, starting with its building, a man-made log cabin with bone-handle doors. It uses the same combination of wood, glass and metal that are prevalent at dispensaries in the Lower 48, but at The High Expedition, the building materials weren’t manufactured offsite; the massive logs were culled from the Alaskan wilderness and the cabin was built a half-century ago by local legend and famed mountaineer Ray Genet.

The High Expedition reduces store hours in February, but the company still sponsors Iditarod mushers like Anja Radano during the winter. Photo by Jake Graupmann.

McAneney licensed the rights to Genet’s name and likeness, and the retail store is equal parts cannabis dispensary and homage to the mountain climber’s legacy.

Genet is one of the most accomplished climbers ever to step foot on Denali, having reached the summit more than two dozen times, including as part of the first expedition to successfully reach the peak during winter. He was also the eighth American to summit Mount Everest, but died on that climb in 1979.

As much as The High Expedition is McAneney’s business, it’s definitely still Genet’s cabin. The shop displays his ice axes, climbing suit, photos of Genet at the summit of Denali and branded merchandise with his likeness.

“It’s a dispensary, but it’s also a museum,” McAneney says. “We’re out here in the middle of nowhere Alaska, but we have something really special.”

The store/museum works hard to educate visitors on Genet’s many accomplishments, because McAneney, like many, initially knew nothing about Genet.

“When I bought the building, the real estate agent told me that the cabin was built by Ray Genet,” McAneney says. “I was like, ‘who’s that?’”

 

Ray Genet

Ray Genet, the legendary Talkeetna mountaineer known as “Pirate.” Photo courtesy of The High Expedition.

McAneney wasn’t originally looking to build a shrine to Talkeetna’s most famous mountaineer. In fact, he was simply looking for any place in the isolated Alaskan town where he could establish a cannabis store. When he found the cabin, it was a defunct chocolate shop — and McAneney’s only option.

“It was the only piece of property in town that could have a marijuana business,” he says. “It ended up being like 10 feet within the accepted zone.”

It wasn’t until after McAneney bought the building that the real estate agent told him about its architect: a Swiss immigrant by the name of Ray Genet who pioneered commercial mountain climbing on Denali. The revelation piqued McAneney’s curiosity, and the more he learned about the local legend, the more his plans for the cannabis retail store changed.

“I got this vision of creating this lifestyle brand with his legacy at the forefront,” McAneney says.

In 1967, Genet was part of the first expedition to successfully summit Denali in the winter. At the time, Genet had no experience in mountaineering, but he talked his way into being included. During the climb, one member of the four-person expedition died in a crevasse, but Genet, along with Art Davidson and Dave Johnston, reached Denali’s 20,310-foot peak.

During their descent, they ended up stranded at 18,000 feet in a snow cave with an outside temperature of minus 148 degrees Fahrenheit. After six days in the cave, the three men made a harrowing escape down the mountain. The details of the expedition were documented in the book “Minus 148 Degrees” by Davidson. Genet became a legend overnight.

He started a mountaineering service that he ran out of Talkeetna for more than 10 years. His boisterous character and colorful bandanas earned him the nickname “Pirate.”

During that time, he summited the highest peaks on three continents, provided the U.S. military with training on high-altitude rescues, saved numerous stranded climbers from Denali’s summit and was awarded the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal by Army Major General James F. Hollingsworth, who wrote: “Mr. Genet’s example of dedication to mankind and courage in the face of extreme danger will serve always as an inspiration to members of the United States Army in Alaska.”

Alaskans were enrapt by his bravado. Genet was even featured in an ad in Vogue by the Alaska Division of Tourism, focusing on his irrepressible, masculine character.

In 1979, Genet successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest, but died during the descent. The first line of his obituary, which ran on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News, read: “The Pirate is dead.”

“His body is still up there,” McAneney says. “He summited and then died 800 feet below the summit.”

Moved by Genet’s story, McAneney named his cannabis store The High Expedition and dedicated a large portion of the cabin to preserving the mountaineer’s legacy. The company’s tagline, “To the Summit,” is featured prominently, another homage to Genet as it was how he signed documents and autographs.

“I’m a historian at heart,” McAneney says. “I work really hard to preserve the integrity and quality of the story and make sure that we don’t manipulate or misuse the name or the image at all.”

Inside The High Expedition, several displays of Ray Genet’s climbing gear and photos document his various achievements. Photos by Totem Ent.

Setbacks

But despite all the work he’s done in preserving the legacy of Talkeetna’s mountaineering legend and bringing roughly 12 full-time jobs to the area, some locals still see McAneney as the outsider who moved into town with big plans to change the historic area.

“We had the most controversial shop to open in Alaska,” McAneney says. “They fought to the death. I spent almost $30,000 on lawyers for cease-and-desists.”

During the licensing process, McAneney says people made all sorts of wild claims about him, that he’d vandalized the state airport, harassed old ladies and hacked people’s cellphones. They tried to get him in trouble with Homeland Security and the FBI, and they would call into the Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office meetings to protest his business when he had an item on the agenda.

“I ended up getting approved with a 3-2 vote from the board,” McAneney recalls.

But that was only half the battle, McAneney says, as he had become hellbent on making Genet the face of his cannabis store. In order to do that, he would first have to find and convince Genet’s living relatives.

McAneney recalls with a laugh at how intimidated he was during that first meeting: “I was just some fresh-out-of-college kid from New York. They live out in the bush; you have to take an airplane or snowmobile. They’re like the quintessential Alaskan bush people. When I connected with them, they were a little skeptical, as I would think any family would be, but once they got to know me and I laid my plans out, they were pretty excited about it.”

Genet’s family agreed, giving McAneney his climbing gear, memorabilia and approximately 3,000 of his personal photos. In exchange, the living relatives of Genet receive royalties for The High Expedition’s use of his name and likeness.

Although Talkeetna has a population of about 800, Joe McAneney says about 400,000 tourists visit the town annually on their way to Denali National Park. Photo by Totem Ent.

Location, Legacy and Landscape

Through his historic museum and retail cabin, The High Expedition gives thousands of tourists a taste of one of the state’s pioneers in mountaineering and, for many, their first cannabis experience.

“A lot of people come to Talkeetna to get views of the mountain and our shop is 150 yards away from that viewpoint,” McAneney says. “We get a lot of people who would have never gone into a dispensary if they had known what they are walking into. They think they’re walking into a bar because they get ID’d at the door. Most people don’t even know cannabis is legal in Alaska.”

McAneney is currently working on a video series about people’s first marijuana experiences, which he says has been pretty entertaining to document.

In addition to the video series, he plans to capitalize on the tourist market by opening a consumption lounge near the viewpoint. Onsite consumption was legalized in Alaska in December 2018, but McAneney says no one has opened a lounge thus far because of the standalone requirements from the state. Lounges have to be separate from the retail store but located on the same property. He plans for The High Expedition to have one of the first in the state.

“Building that lounge has really been the pinnacle point in my business plan, because I know that’s where we would really do well,” McAneney says. “We’re really hoping to be open by summer because that’s the time to shine.”

The company is currently building its two-story, Alaskan-themed smoking lounge with a small kitchen and a music stage for bands to play acoustic shows. He says it will have mountain views and windows built for viewing the Aurora Borealis.

“One of my main goals since day one was to provide a social experience for people to enjoy cannabis,” he says. “We’re certainly going to be among the first and the coolest.”

Today, after opening his own retail store, launching a CBD line, partnering to open an extraction facility and beginning construction of one of the first adult-use cannabis lounges, McAneney feels he’s finally made his transition into becoming an entrepreneur.

Through all the controversy of opening his shop, he’s now a fixture in the town, having served as president of the Chamber of Commerce for two years and currently serving as chairman of the local community council.

“I sort of had to become an entrepreneur to live here,” he says. “That’s how it all came together.”

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