Mount Sanford: May, 2013
Mount Sanford, at 16,237 feet, is the sixth highest mountain in the United States. It is located in the Copper River Valley, at the northwestern end of the Wrangell Mountains, in Alaska. Owing to its size and location, it is a magnet for weather from the Gulf of Alaska, and, as with many other such sentinel mountains, frequently forms its own weather and is enveloped in clouds.
Despite its size, the route to the summit up the Sheep Glacier is technically easy, an Alaska Grade I. The only hazards are the crevasses and the weather, as we discovered.
Many years ago, Robin spent time in the Copper River Valley as an engineer in charge of resurfacing Mentasta Road. During this stint, the prominent sight of Mount Sanford beckoned. After we moved to Alaska, she broached the topic of climbing the peak once the Spring Semester ended. I, of course, thought it was a fantastic idea: climb a picturesque peak and get experience climbing big mountains.
As first the Fall and then the Spring Semesters wore on, we trained and planned. We spent time in camping in the snow and practicing our crevasse rescue techniques. We logged hours in the gym, getting the baseline fitness needed for long days with heavy loads. We called around to find a bush pilot to drop us off and pick us up at the base, saving many days of bushwhacking through thick spruce forest and swamp and the uncertain crossing of the Copper River during spring break up. We gathered and trained with all the gear we would need to get us safely up and down.
We decided on the capsule style of ascent to maximize our safety margin in the event of bad weather. We would begin by shuttling a load up during the day, and then descend to the previous camp for the night. The following day, we would break camp and move us and that gear up to the cache above. The next day we would repeat the process. The tentative plan was to have three camps: a low camp at the bottom of the glacier, a camp above the nunatak at 10,000 feet, and a high camp at the 13'000 foot level. Allowing for several days of bad weather, we took fourteen days' worth of supplies total. Click here to see our packing list.
Note: for more photos and larger-sized versions of those below, go to the photo gallery.
After a few days of furious packing and purchasing last minute items, we drove to Tok, the home of 40 Mile Air, to drop off a duffel bag of supplies and equipment and our sled and to meet our pilot, Jake. We had dinner at the legendary Fast Eddy's Restaurant. I enjoyed my last oversized hunks of greasy pizza and Robin her last greens for some time. As usual, the portions were large enough to feed several people, but we were able convince ourselves we were "carbo-loading".
After that, we drove back to Chistochina to spend the night at Red Eagle Lodge. They're located conveniently at the end of the runway at Chistochina Airport and have a very nice and cozy lodge. Robin and I splurged on a cabin and slept well to the crackling of the woodstove despite our pre-mountain jitters.
We took our last shower for some time, drank as many cups of coffee as we could, availed ourselves of the just-baked muffins, and chatted with our hosts, Richard and Judy. As the appointed time arrived, Robin and I took our leave and headed for Posty's, where we would meet our pilot.
We had planned to fly out of the small airstrip behind the store since Jake was on straight skis and the Chistochina runway had been plowed recently. As it turned out, recent snow had made the Chistochina runway usable for skis, and Robin flew out of there after dropping our car off at Red Eagle Lodge.
Before coming to get us, Jake had already scoped out a landing site just above Grizzly Pass for us and dropped off our supplies and sled. Once we met the plane, all I had to do was help load up my pack and skis and hop in for the short ride (and by "help", I mean watch while Jake did all the work).
The flight up was short and uneventful. Jake landed neatly in his previous tracks and shut the plane down. We unloaded my gear next to our sled and duffel, and Jake hopped back in and headed out to get Robin.
In the meantime, Robin drove the car back to the lodge and dropped it off. Jake flew back to Chistochina and picked her up there and flew her up. With both of us and all our gear present, it was time to start moving.
After Jake flew away, we skied up without our gear to the ridge that overlooks Boulder Creek to try to find an easy way down. As it turns out, Grizzly Pass is probably the easiest, so we skied back to our gear to load up and head out.
While getting everything in order, we discovered that our two gallon cans of fuel were missing. When we dropped them off in Tok, we hadn't put them inside our bag, but rather next to it. Unfortunately it seemed that Jake hadn't realized those were ours and didn't bring them. Robin put the satellite phone to good use by first calling 40 Mile Air to ask about getting that dropped off. The person on the phone said to call back in a little while and she'd try to get a hold of Jake. We waited an hour or so and then tried back. No joy there, so Robin called Jake's cell phone. She got him and he told us just to start moving - he'd find us later that day and air drop it.
With that settled, we finally began to move. We had been dropped off about a mile above the pass, so we began our relatively short trudge and reached it in good time. Once there, we realized that it was actually a fairly steep drop off getting down into the creek. We traversed back and forth a bit, trying to find the best way, and eventually decided on a sort of ridge to the south. Getting the sled down with the gear looked to be far too exciting, so we booted it down with our packs, booted it back up, then booted back down with our gear.
As we were coming down, we saw, strangely enough, another party of two skiing up the creek below. We waved, they waved, and then we both continued on our ways.
Robin and I decided to make our first camp not too far up the creek from our descent. We found a nice flat site and proceeded to dig.
As we were wrapping up the digging, we started hearing the sound of an airplane - Jake was looking for us. Unfortunately, where we had camped had just gone into the shade and the other party was above us a mile or so, had the same color sled, and was still in the sun. So, Jake circled and dropped the fuel near them. He circled for a while, waiting for an OK signal from them, but they weren't expecting a package and so didn't signal. After a while, Jake gave up and flew away. No big deal, we figured - we'd just pick up the fuel in the morning.
As were were making dinner, we saw a person skiing our way from above. It was one of the two people we saw, bringing us our fuel! He skied up and introduced himself as Galen. He and his partner, Peter, had skied in from the road three days previously. They planned to head up to 10,000 feet the next day, then summit the day after. They had been wondering why the plane was circling, but, once they checked out the package that was dropped, realized it was for us and figured that we probably needed the fuel and so he skied it down.
Once he departed, we settled in for the night and planned the following day's activity: moving a load of gear up onto the glacier.
We woke up relatively late, had breakfast, and got our loads ready to carry. The toe of the glacier had looked fairly steep when we scoped it out from below, but a lateral moraine on climbers' left looked like it might provide a reasonable approach. As a bonus, since we could see rocks sticking out of the snow, it seemed it would provide for quick passage on foot. That wasn't correct, as it turns out.
We skied up to the base of the moraine, loaded our skis on our packs and booted up. After the climb up to where the ridge leveled off, it quickly became apparent that the snow was quite deep, and that postholing was slow and very hard. And it was equally apparent that the both the steepness of parts of the ridge and the rocks sticking out made skiing impractical. So we trudged on.
As the day wore on and the deep snow continued, we made terrible progress along the ridge. We could eventually see the ski tracks of the other party in the valley below that lead to their campsite and beyond up onto the glacier. The angle of the tracks showed that the bottom of the glacier wasn't nearly as steep as it had appeared earlier.
Seeing more steep and unpleasant terrain ahead of us, we elected to bail down to the valley and ski on the easier terrain. By the time we did this and got to the toe of the glacier, it was late enough in the day that gearing up and heading onto the glacier wasn't worth the time it would take for the distance we'd travel. We cached our gear and headed back to camp, tired and sunburnt.
To get a good start on what promised to be a big day, we set an alarm and woke up fairly early. We packed up camp and skied up to our cache, leaving about two thirds of a gallon of fuel, one book, and a little bit of food under the sled for us to use on the final leg of the trip down to Windy Ridge. As it turned out, the skiing up to the toe of the glacier went very quickly, and we were at the cache above in less than an hour.
The other party had left us a note at their previous campsite. They didn't like the look of the weather and, since they didn't have enough supplies to last a long weather delay, they had decided to bail around the 9,000 foot mark. However, they had left their wands in place through the one major crevasse field on the glacier for us and wished us success.
Knowing we had a fast path through the ice fall, we decided to forgo making a shuttle and carry seven days of supplies with us in one load. That would be enough to summit with two days extra for weather delays. We cached all the rest of the gear in the duffle bag at the toe of the glacier.
We roped up, loaded up, and headed up onto the glacier, following the ski tracks. We made good progress on the glacier, stopping for lunch about midway to the icefall, which by that time had become visible and loomed over us. After eating, we continued following the tracks and crossed our first (visible) snow bridge.
At the icefall, the center of the slope was covered entirely in snow. To the left and right were massive blocks of ice, frozen in their slow fall toward the lower glacier. Above this slope, we followed tracks and wands as they crossed snow bridges over giant, yawning crevasses. The blue light from below in the crevasses underscored their size and depth.
We tensely made our way across and over until we had passed the last of many crevasses. and were on the far side. The tracks continued steadily uphill as did we. As the day wore on and the sun bore down, the snow began turning mushy and would ball up on the underside of our skis. Trying to kick it off did no good, so we just shuffled ever upward, dragging several extra pounds of weight on each foot.
After cresting a rise, we came across a smaller, but still open crevasse. The tracks paralled this to a bridge that had been wanded and continued up. We followed and eventually came to the boys' high point, and continued past. Fog (clouds, actually) was beginning to roll in, making visibility worse than it could be. With the several thousand foot climb in the hot sun wearing on us and what looked like a crevasse not far above, we called a halt to the day. Robin set up the tent and I cooked dinner and we crawled into our sleeping bags for some well-deserved rest, looking forward to the following day.
Clouds were obscuring the mountain above us, so we decided to take a rest day and hope that things would clear up by the morning. We spent the day in the tent, reading. During the night, the wind had blown enough that our ski tracks were mostly filled in. At least we had the wands to guide us on our descent.
Instead of the hoped-for clear weather, we woke up to a complete white-out. The nunatak across from us was completely obscured. It was impossible to tell where the snow ended and the sky began in any direction. Those conditions precluded moving up, so we spent another day in the tent.
It was another day of white-out. Snow was dumping and wind was blowing. We had already used up our our food and fuel allocated to weather days and this third day of bad weather took up a planned travel day. Without enough supplies to make the summit as planned and no idea when the weather would clear up, we decided to bail.
Rather than sit in the tent at our current elevation and hope for a clearing, we decided to try to move down in case the cloud bottoms weren't too far below. We packed up and headed down. Robin led and I guided us using the GPS: "Head a little to the left! To the right now!"
The going was very slow in a couple of feet of soft powder, and the weather showed no sign of improving. After an hour or so of travelling, we spotted the top-most wand just to our left and below. Since this was marking a known crevasse, we approached cautiously and from above.
As Robin got closer, it became apparent that the visibility was so bad, it was impossible to tell at all where the crevasse was. While the snow bridge was marked, we knew we had to make a right turn shortly after and parallel it for a little ways. Without being able to see any farther, how could we determine how to parallel it without accidentally skiing onto it? With this in mind, we decided to make a camp and hope for better light later.
We probed and dug out a platform to set up the tent and settled in for the night, disappointed.
During the night, the snow had continued. When we stepped outside in the morning, we realized that the wand had almost completely been buried and only and inch or so was now sticking out of the snow, where it had once been almost three feet above the snow. We set up two of our own wands in a line to point to it so that we could maybe find it once the weather abated.
Robin called 40 Mile Air to get a weather update. The person on the phone said that their planes were currently grounded due to weather, but that it was supposed to clear up later in the week. That gave us some hope, but also meant another few days tentbound.
In the meantime, the storm continued. I finished all the books and began to read them over again. We had seen a few birds around, all of whom looked miserable. All but one had disappeared. That one flew into our vestibule and proceeded to freeze to death. Somewhat later, the snow seemed to stop falling, but the wind picked up and blowing snow kept the visibility to a minimum.
As we poked our heads out of the tent in the morning, we got quite the shock - the sun was just barely poking through the clouds and there was enough light to see the shape of the ground. We hurredly packed up camp and headed out, but not before burying the little songbird in an snowy tomb.
Robin had her avalanche probe out and probed her way across the crevasse below. We were entirely unable to find the wand, even though we knew almost exactly where it was. As we made our way down toward the icefall, we spotted a crevasse a short ways above it that we would have to cross. By the time we got to it, though, the light had flattened so much that, even though we thought we knew where it was, there was no way to tell for sure. With the icefall a short ways away and both of us unwilling to make our way into it in flat light, we decided to make camp and wait for better conditions.
This day again brought snow and flat light. Since we had nothing better to do and since it wasn't white-out conditions, we decided to carefully probe our way down to the icefall and see if we could either see the wands still or otherwise start picking our way through the massive crevasses.
We left the bulk of our gear at the tent, and began with me belaying Robin while she probed her way across the nearby crevasse. Once she was definitely across and on solid ice, I followed, placing wands to mark each side. We skied our way down toward the icefall, a short way below.
The first crevasse was easy to see. I again set up a belay while Robin probed her way across. She then belayed me across. We then pitched out the ski toward where we knew the next snow bridge was, with me belaying her, and her belaying me.
Before we had to cross the next crevasse (which we had been paralleling), we actually were able to see one of the wands which had been there. Knowing where the snow bridge was with respect to that made travel much easier. We reached the wand quickly and made a left turn to get around the next crevasse.
Once over the next crevasse and one parallel that followed immediately after, we decided to return to camp for dinner since it was getting late and we hadn't had a lunch, not having expected to get as far as we had. We'd push through to the bottom of the icefall the following morning.
The wind blew strongly all night and morning and into the afternoon. While no new snow fell, enough was blowing that visibility was very poor and our tracks from the previous day were entirely covered.
I had been hopeful that the weather would hold out - or at least not enough snow would fall to cover our tracks - and so hadn't wanded our path the previous day. I also hadn't carried the GPS and so didn't have a track. This unfortunately meant that we had to reprobe our way through the upper icefall. Visibility was again marginal which made for slow work.
Undaunted, we probed, and this time I set a wand and marked a waypoint every time we changed direction. In a few hours, we had made our way through to what we were sure was the slope below (the flat made made it difficult to see).
As we returned to camp, the clouds started thinning; we could actually see snow texture! We decided then to break down camp and leave immediately. While taking down the tent and packing, we prepared dinner (it was, by this point 9 PM). We hastily ate and got underway.
The going through the icefall was fast this time. We stopped only so I could pick up the wands. Past the icefall, we skied down the slope to the flat part of the glacier below, and started our long slog out.
I took over the lead to finally give Robin a break once we were sure we were past the crevasses; she had been breaking trail and on point for the entirety of our time on the glacier until now. We skied slowly down as we watched the sun set and begin to rise (the sky in the east began to lighten as the sky in the west darkened - Alaska in the summertime!) After several tiring hours, we skied down the final slope on the toe of the glacier, set up the tent at its base, and went to bed, right around two in the morning.
Our first mission for the day was to recover our gear from the cache. That should have been very simple since it was wanded and marked with a GPS waypoint and was near some obvious landmarks. Unfortunately, we woke to yet another complete white-out. While we were obviously relieved not to have been stuck high on the glacier (as it turns out, that short window of time when we descended was the only time for another couple of days that had remotely visible conditions), the lack of visibility meant we were reliant entirely on the GPS to find our cache. The accuracy of our position was within 15 feet, as was the accuracy of the waypoint. While sufficient for visible conditions, or if the wands had been showing (which, of course, they weren't), this meant that our search area was somewhere around 2800 square feet.
We spent the morning in our search area, probing and digging. After three hours, my avalanche probe finally struck something that had some "give". I immediately started digging and found our cache under about three feet of snow. We dragged it back to the tent, packed up, and headed to the lower cache at our first camp.
The white-out conditions continued and the wind picked up as we skied. Since we could see little to nothing, we just kept the skis pointed downhill; anything uphill was definitely in the wrong direction. At this point we were carrying on our backs two loads worth of gear - very, very heavy. We moved slowly toward the waypoint for the camp and finally made it. Again, the wands we had left were nowhere to be seen. Very fortunately, the outlines of the cooking-area walls were just faintly visible. Using this as a baseline, we probed and dug until we found the sled and its contents. We loaded everything up and got moving toward Grizzly Pass.
With the heaviness of the gear on the sled and the steepness of the slope in front of us, we decided to pull together, Robin on one sled lead, and I on the other. This worked surprisingly well. We skied our way to the hill leading to the pass until we could ski no further (our skis would slide backward). At that point, we loaded the skis on the sled and began postholing up.
The weather meanwhile had deteriorated. The white-out continued, but the temperature dropped noticeably and the wind kicked up. The pull up the very steep hill required maximum effort from both of us. We would gain 10 or 20 feet of elevation and then have to rest. This went on for a few hours. I was covered in show, my gloves were frozen stiff, ice had formed in the stubble on my face.
The wind continued unabated and the temperature continued to plummet. Exhausted, we set up camp at the first spot we could find that was reasonably level, still short of the pass, but at least above the steepest part. I was so drained from the shortage of food and the pulling of the sled and the days of effort that all I could do after I got the tent up was put on all of my down clothes and shiver while Robin made dinner. That was probably the coldest I've ever felt. We learned later that this same storm dumped snow all over South-Central Alaska, even down in Anchorage.
By morning, the storm had mostly blown itself out. It was still cloudy, but visibility was reasonable. Inches of rime ice covered everything that had been outside. We packed up camp, chipped off the ice, and got underway.
We double-pulled the sled up and over the pass, and then I took over the pulling while Robin broke trail. The light was still fairly flat which made navigation down from the pass a little more difficult. It wasn't hard to go in the right direction, but it was hard to avoid the many ups and downs. As the day progressed, though, the clouds began to clear. Robin took over pulling the sled for a while and I took advantage of the freedom of movement to crash several times.
For the final push to the Windy Ridge landing strip, which by now we could see, I took sled duties again and trudged on. By the time we got to the cabin there, the sky had mostly cleared, and we could see almost all of Mount Sanford.
At the cabin, we dropped our gear and took up residence. Robin called Jake on the sat-phone to arrange a pickup. Jake told us that he was operating on wheels only, since Tok and all lower-elevation airports were completely melted out. This meant we would have to dig out the strip, or as much as we could. With the prospects of heavy labor in our future, we settled in for a cold night.
The few clouds of the previous day had vanished, leaving a brilliantly clear day - weather that would have been nice to have when we were on the mountain. We breakfasted and began our shoveling.
Jake needed a minimum of 500 feet to safely get us out, so we proceeded to shovel. We marked off a 500 by 10 foot strip and dug in 100 foot blocks. The snow averaged a foot deep and was very hard and very heavy. Twelve backbreaking hours later, we had enough uncovered that we thought Jake could get in and out, and Robin called him to let him know. Exhausted again, we ate the last of our dinners and turned in for the night.
We got up early the next morning, had the last of our breakfasts, and packed. I walked the length of the strip to be sure all was OK, and we both proceeded to knock down any berms along the side that I though might get in the way. The snow had hardened significantly the previous night.
We finally began to hear the droning of a small engine. Jake arrived, made a low pass, then another pass, dragging his wheels, and then finally came in for a landing. He had a look at the strip and said it still needed a bit of work, mainly with straightening at one end and knocking down a few more berms.
With the strip declared marginal but doable, he packed up Robin and her gear and took off, using every inch of the strip. I ran back and forth on the upper portion, digging and stomping wheel marks to give him more room. When he came back for me, he said he'd rather only take me and essential gear and leave the bulk of the remainder behind until the snow melted. That was fine with me - no need for him to risk an additional landing and take off there, and I was just glad he could get us out.
Since I had so much less gear than Robin, our take off was noticeably shorter. The flight was, of course, scenic, and landing back in Chistochina was fantastic. I stepped out of the plane and felt solid ground for the first time in weeks.
Jake flew off, and Robin and I chatted with Richard and then loaded the car. Jake said that he'd call around Chistochina to see if anyone could pick up our gear for us. We also went up to Posty's to talk to them about it since the owner flew around that area quite a bit. After that, we drove off toward home. Our first stop was at the grocery store in Glennallen were we bought armfuls of high calorie food and chowed down.
The drive back to Anchorage was uneventful. As soon as we arrived, we headed to the Moose's Tooth for takeout pizza and a six pack of beer. We ate and drank ourselves silly and fell into bed, our own very comfortable bed, finally finishing our alpine adventure.