SEEKING SANFORD part one
Sometimes a mission takes longer to pull off than you originally think. Such was the case with Mt. Sanford, a 16k+ peak in Alaska’s Wrangell St Elias National Park.
I had first learned about this mountain, while running backcountry snowboarding trips for Outward Bound in the late 2000s. A colleague of mine who calls AK home regaled me with visions of splitboarding off this massive peak. Ever since I first learned of Sanford, the dream of heading to the Wrangell Mountains and tackling one of the coolest ski mountaineering adventures in North America has simmered inside of me. That glowing ember of an idea finally combusted into a raging blaze in 2019.
At 16, 237 ft, Sanford is the third largest volcano and sixth highest peak in the United States. It is the thirteenth most prominent mountain in North America and its scale is truly massive. The mountain is completely surrounded by cliffs, precipitous ice falls and beefy glaciers. Sanford’s unclimbed south face falls thousands of feet in a sheer cliff that drops dramatically from the summit.
Sanford was first ascended in 1938 by mountaineering legend Brad Washburn and his partner, Terris Moore. They were drawn to the idea of skiing off the top of this Alaskan giant and ever since their successful ten thousand foot plus descent, the peak has been on the “Must Do” list of all serious ski mountaineers. You can read an account of their expedition here.
I’m awestruck at how similar Washburn and Moore’s climb and ski of Sanford was to our 2019 trip. Mt Sanford is not a particularly difficult ski line, but its remote location, objective hazards, challenging weather and mind-boggling logistics combine to make it extremely tough. It sees far more failing attempts and less than fifty climbers have ever stood atop the peak. Shredding the mountain was not going to be the crux. Executing the mission and adapting to everything an expedition like this throws at you surely would be.
I originally floated the idea of tackling Sanford out to a handful of folks last November. I was willing to take on the leadership and logistics for the trip, but this wasn’t an objective I could complete by myself. In the end, I was joined by three other amazing individuals who greatly contributed to the team’s synergy and success:
Kurt Blair- KB is an amazing climber, mountain guide and human being. He’s got a lot of big mountain experience with a rich resume of expeditions ranging from AK thru the Himalaya, from Yosemite to Everest and from Denali to the Weminuche. This cool cucumber of a man is as steady as they come. His demeanor is mellow and his ability to wait out storms is legend. Kurt is a third-generation mountain rock star and his dad is noted for some memorable firsts in the Wrangells, including the first complete traverse of Mt Blackburn. Kurt and I work together at San Juan Mountain Guides and not only is he a client favorite, he’s a very good friend.
Jacob Becker- I first met Jake when he was a student of mine at Fort Lewis College in the Adventure Education program. Considerably younger than his Sanford teammates, this was to be Jake’s first big expedition to a greater range. Jake and I spent many hours this winter training together and his ambition, humility, endurance and strong lower back continue to impress. He was willing to hump heavy loads and do whatever we asked of him in exchange for an accelerated alpine education. He’s also a very talented backcountry skier, fearless mountaineer and deep thinker. Ah, to be in my twenties again…..Jacob reminds me so much of myself as a young man. I’ve appreciated how our relationship has grown over the past years and I share a rich bond with him, both as a mentor and a close friend.
Bruce Weinberg- I only met Bruce for this expedition but we have traveled a very similar path. Bruce is a long-time mountain athlete, Outward Bound instructor and secondary educator from Bend, OR. These commonalities make for rich conversation. Bruce is very smart, and his ADHD rivals my own. He has a childlike love and energy for skiing both up and downhill. With decades of backcountry experience in Yosemite, Red Rocks, the Cascades and the Brooks Range, Bruce’s pedigree of adventure was a solid fit for the task before us. He and Kurt had shared a rope many times before on large peaks and I was excited to have his solid frame and positive vibe anchoring our rope team on the glacier.
It always amazes me how these trips shake out. You throw the invite out to an initial crew of qualified individuals and after many "I'm in, I'm out" convos, you eventually shake out a committed core of teammates who find their way to Anchorage. Undoubtedly, our merry band of mountain pranksters brought just the right mix of attitude and ability together to pull this all off. I will always look back fondly at how well this small group accomplished such great things.
Again, this seems to be one of the most significant cruxes of climbing Mt. Sanford.
I felt like online TRs, solid planning spreadsheets and prior big mountain expedition experience would ensure we’d hit the wilderness with the proper stores of food, fuel and equipment. But there were many logistical loose ends we’d need to tighten up just to make it to the mountain.
First, unlike the first ascent team, who dog sledded in from Chistochina, we’d have to fly in. This meant identifying and hiring a pilot and a super cub that could land on the tundra. Enter Jake Coombs and 40 Mile Air out of Tok, AK. I began a correspondence with Jake in early 2019 and we worked together to dial in landing and pick up sites. Jake focused on inserting us as close to the Sheep Glacier as possible, but this still would entail a fair bit of schlepping across the wilds of the lower mountain. Grizzlies, river crossings and challenging tundra travel were all part of this chapter of our adventure. All the makings of a true Alaska epic.
Additionally, flying in four climbers, each with 120 lbs. of gear and 18 days of provisions is some serious arithmetic to sort out. In summary, we’d end up flying in one at a time and utilize a fifth and final flight, transporting what we couldn’t fit in the first four bush shuttles. 40 Mile Air worked extremely well with us coordinating this critical aspect of our mission.
Next, flying out of a remote airstrip in the village of Chistochina, AK. necessitated the procurement of lodging for both pre and post trip stays. These reservations also needed to be flexible. Richard and Judy from the Red Eagle Lodge made the accommodations piece easy. These two amazing people took great care of us at the lodge and shared in our team’s success. But an even more critical piece to this pre-trip logistical puzzle was actually transporting the team and our glut of climbing and ski gear from Anchorage to our jumping off point in interior AK.
To accomplish this, we had considered everything from rental cars to private van shuttles to public bus transport- any (affordable) way to get us the five plus hours from Anchorage to Chistochina with a massive pile of stuff. Unhappy with how this aspect of our trip was coming together ($$$!), I threw out a Ride Needed post on Anchorage's Craigslist. I had no idea what type of responses I’d receive, but I know Alaskan’s are an opportunistic lot and surely someone with a large vehicle and some spare time would want a crack at driving us for the right price. I sorted through ample responses and eventually settled on two individuals, each promising their time and fair compensation for giving us a lift on both the front and back end of our trip. Securing both a primary and secondary option for transport was huge- although I didn’t realize just how big that’d be until shit literally went up in smoke only 48 hours after arriving in AK.
Finally, with plane tickets purchased, bush flights scheduled, accommodations booked, and overland transportation roughed out, the responsibility now fell on the individual. Fitness and training had to be attended to pre-trip. Both mental and physical reserves had to be in top form if we were going to pull off an objective of such size and scope. Mt Sanford and this mission consumed my thoughts in the months leading up to our departure. It was important to thrive, not just survive this trip! I wanted to be so physically and mentally prepared for this expedition that the hardship, toil and challenge felt like a comfortable vacation. After all, this mission would be the capstone to my 2018-19 backcountry season and I wanted it to be a celebration of a job well done. I had been seeking the dream of Sanford for over a decade and there was no way anything could be left to chance-. In such an unforgiving, remote and raw wilderness, it was imperative we control what we can control. Pre-trip training is a big part of that!
To say I was focused on this objective feels understated and I’m sure my friends and family were over the training shenanigans leading up to this trip. In the end, it was easy to pursue such a zealous regimen of preparation with the historic winter we experienced in the San Juans. Beginning at Thanksgiving, I spent 5 to 6 days a week climbing and skiing in the backcountry. I tacked on a shit ton of post-shift workouts after I’d finish guiding and instructing for the day. And I motivated (sometimes begrudgingly) to fill what few days off I had with objective-specific, training tours. Good weather, bad weather, all weather.
I am so grateful to all my friends and colleagues, who were not on this expedition, but helped me chase a mental and fitness base so essential to success. I couldn’t do it without all the motivation and inspiration from all you hard men and woman. Recovery days yes, but no rest days- HTFU & STFU, Ackerman!
I left in mid-May, driving my rig up to Denver, flying out to AK and assembling the full team in Anchorage. We rented a U-Haul van and burned an entire day rolling around the city, shopping for final gear, supplies and food. We were lucky enough to stay for a night at the home of some good friends and having a “home” base in Anchorage was key. Not only did it give us a place to flop, sort kit and repackage sundries, I was able to mail essential items via snail mail to this local address prior to our arrival. Less than 36 hours after arriving in AK, we settled into our final front country bivy before setting out for the big wild.
The morning of day two, we made our way to the rental place and upon returning our van, posted up like dirtbags in the U-Haul parking lot. At 8am our ride to Chistochina pulled into the lot- We stood in collective dismay as a large, black, old and haggard Chevy Suburban, who’s engine appeared to be on fire, coasted to a stop aside us. We could just barely see the driver’s panicked face through a cloud of thick, dark smoke. This wasn’t happening- no fucking way. Our overland shuttle, which was so essential to us staying on schedule for a departure the following day, was a broken ass jalopy that was now spewing fumes of clouds and smoke in the U-Haul parking lot. Thank you, Craigslist,….
I won’t besmirch the original driver and to his credit, (and in classic Alaskan form) he ran across the street to Auto Zone, purchased a new part and rebuilt his engine right there in the parking lot. But while he took the two hours in doing that, we had a team meeting and decided to tag in ride option number two. We couldn't take our chances on the burban. I desperately called Cara Cobb, owner of North of Normal ATV tours and explained our predicament. “No problem” she replied. “I’ll be there in 90 minutes.” Unbelievable….we were back on track. Cara sped down from Wasilla, picked us up and we spent the day riding with her northeast out the Glenn Highway to the Tok cut off. Crisis averted- Cara had saved our assess, big time!
We moved into the Red Eagle Lodge and sorted our expedition duffles and equipment on the large grassy lawn adjacent to the airstrip. Richard and Judy were incredible and let us take over their garage. The bugs were okay but getting worse by the minute. The weather was calm and clear, and we used the eternal daylight of the Alaskan early summer to pack our kit late into the evening. I hit bed and was asleep by 11pm.
Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
On the Mountain
"Distances are longer, the mountains are bigger and the commitment required to complete any goal just seems to be greater than anything your used to in the lower 48. This is the Alaska Factor"
We awake to rain and snow. Richard and Judy prepared us a basic breakfast and our bush flight arrives at 0730. We determine an order of insertion and Leif, our pilot takes off with Kurt to fly the 30 miles into the mountain. Fifteen minutes later, we hear the buzz of the super cub returning to the strip. The mountains were socked in and after a valiant attempt to land in storm and scud, the plane turned back to Chistochina. Now we wait…but Leif is confident he’ll get us into Sanford later that afternoon.
I drink mucho coffee and try to busy myself with refining my kit. It continues to rain and snow. By noon, the weather has begun to break, and our pilot decides he’ll make another go at it. We quickly load up Kurt and bid the two of them farewell. 45 minutes later, Leif is back and it’s time for Bruce to fly in- then Jake- then me. We land in succession on a soggy patch of tundra, just above the fork of the Boulder/Sheep Creek drainage. The ground is covered in wet snow and the conditions at the landing strip are properly hypothermic.
We busy ourselves with the establishment of a camp at the landing strip- “Strip Camp” Two tents and a mid will serve as one night’s lodging and a gearage respectively as we decide to make our first carry up the mountain that same afternoon. We have no idea where we are going to put our initial camp but are energized and inspired to work the lower mountain quickly. We shoulder heavy loads and push off into improving weather, albeit still shitty conditions. This place is wild. You feel so small and insignificant. The Alaska factor is in full effect here!
We climb tundra, across snow fields and up and over rocky moraines for 2 ½ miles, establishing our first real camp at the toe of the Sheep glacier- “Toe Camp” We set up a mid in bullshit weather, stash our first loads and turn back towards the airstrip. Half way through our descent, the weather clears, and we catch our first peek of the route mid-mountain. It fires us up. We hit the landing strip, destroy some Mountain House and fall into a deep sleep. Not a bad Day One.
The hustle is on. Back in Durango, Kurt and I ran the math and we figured if all went well with weather and body, we could pull this trip off in 10 days. I need to stress- “if all goes well” which is unheard of in Alaska. Remember, the factor! But until such time when the defecation was actively hitting the oscillation, we were going to give er’ all we had. So today we needed to hump big loads, rinse and repeat.
Lucky for us it’s sunny and only moderately windy. We strike out early with burly packs and make the trip back up to the megamid we dug in at toe camp. Somehow, Jake has managed to bring everything up in his first load of the day. Bruce, Kurt and I aren’t so fortunate. We’ve gotta head down for a second lap. Bruce and Kurt set out for the strip while I linger and make some food. I get sucked into lounging around in the sun on the rocky moraine surrounding camp. Eventually, I make my peace with the task in front of me and set off for the descent back to the strip.
As I’m traversing a particularly nasty patch of moraine, an off camber, steeply sloping, loose spine of kitty litter, I look down and see Bruce and Kurt on the way back up. Instead of utilizing the path I’m on, they’ve instead chosen a lower climb up to toe camp that has them out in the terminal flats and braided streams of the receding glacier. On our initial trip up and down the previous day, we felt like that terrain, although flat, would bog us down and be slow going. But watching them from above, I can see they’re traveling efficiently, and they’ve obviously completed the five miles round trip in good time. They shout up to me and it’s difficult to hear what they’re saying. We try the radios, but they malfunction too. From what I gather, they are encouraging me to take the lower route. Okay, but for now, I’m stuck in this bullshit up high. I continue slogging down.
With about half way still to go to the strip, an interesting set of tracks catches my eye on a snowfield below me. I scramble over to the neve and identify the freshly laid footfalls of an Alaskan brown bear. He’s headed uphill, from whence I just came. But I hadn’t run into him….yet?! Best to keep moving. I follow the tracks diagonally downslope until I see where his tracks cut our team's tracks from the prior trip up. Shit, that means that sometime between everyone's climb back to toe camp and my current descent to the strip, ursus arctos horribilis had strolled up in our direction. My senses perk and a strong whack of adrenaline puts me on high alert. We had timed our trip to hopefully correspond with nicer weather and good skiing late spring. But our May expedition also correlated to the waking up of inland grizzlies. We had chosen to bring a 12-gauge, bear spray and travel together for these early trips back and forth across the tundra. Standing there solo, with neither spray, gun nor teammates, I felt extremely foolhardy for not sticking with our plan. No sense perseverating on that now- what’s done is done. I would press on, make noise and try not to become some groggy, malnourished bruin’s springtime, carbo load.
I made it down to the lower valley, crossed Sheep Creek and pulled up at the duffel we’d left cached at the landing strip. I wanted to take a moment to chill, snack, hydrate and rest up before making carry number three back up to toe camp. Alas, a heightened awareness of bears and now a steady rain made any want for chilling futile. I grabbed a final load of food, fuel, bamboo wands and my shotgun and turned it all back up hill. I stayed lower in the valley on my way back to camp. Partly because of the boy’s beta and mostly because I was worried about running into a bear on the way back up.
This new route back to toe camp avoided the steeper moraine climbs of the ex-glaciated terrain but necessitated a longer and more exposed walk out in the flats of the headwaters of Sheep Creek. At least I could see for miles. The rain stopped and turning back towards the strip, a rainbow formed in front of the backdrop of the jagged Capital Peak massif. It was stunning, and I felt myself finally settling into this adventure.
Further along, I discovered two abandoned La Sportiva mountaineering boots. Were these Sanford’s take on Green Boots? I turned the boots over looking for ankle and shin bones still trapped inside of them. There’s at least one dead climber I know of out here, but it did not appear these boots belonged to him.
When I finally hit toe camp, I was smoked from such a robust push. The boys were making some fun looking turns on the snow field above camp. I re-hydrated, demolished a House and felt the call of sleep that only a hard worked day can summon. It was good to finally be off the tundra. That night I dreamt of brown bears.
I awake sore and slightly cold. I was tired last night, and I didn’t fully undress or get into my sleeping bag. I might be getting sick? The morning dawns drizzly and the prospect of heading up the glacier in low vis, temps in the 40s and rain makes me want to hide in my bag. Harden up, buttercup- this is what you came here for!
We make our way up the snowfield above camp and push on to the lower reaches of the Sheep glacier. With no way to see and an unfamiliar way forward, I suggest we rope up. I can sense a reluctance from the team to cord up so early on but putting a rope on isn’t just about crevasses at this point. In shitty visability, the rope will help us stay together in the white room.
Additionally, we’ve never been roped up as a team so it’s a good excuse to feel out how we’ll all travel together. We opt to tie into one, 70-meter RAD line vs. two teams on shorter cords. Kurt and I swing leads using GPS and limited views up the lower Sheep glacier for navigation. We know that somewhere down low, there should be a camp that was established by a team earlier in the season. After about 2 miles of ascent, we find an old camp materializing out of the mist. The place is a shit hole- literally, with abandoned wands, piles of excrement and cached white gas all framed by a once proud wind break. But the spectacular construction of this camp has now given way to inwardly slouching and melting walls- we dub the place “Soggy Walls” camp and after a brief discussion, decide to press on. No need to pull up this short and this low on the glacier to camp. We climb higher and as the clouds begin to lift, so do our spirits.
We know the crux of our route is going to be an icefall somewhere between 7-8k. After another mile & ½ of ascent, that portion of the route comes into view. We begin splitting large crevasses. We move through the middle of this lower field until a ramp and cracks climber's left block our progress. Okay, here’s the first bit of spice for us. The team forges past this lower jumble and slowly makes our way above, on to a plateau covered with more cracks. There’s lots of snow covering what we know are fissures underfoot, but the bridges are solid and there’s no sign of sagging or collapsing. We work a spine through more crevassed terrain until we reach a landing pad at approx. 7,100 ft. Although we’ve made our way through some introductory cracks, it’s clear that the icefall proper is now squarely above us. Huge crevasses block forward progress and the only way up looks like an adjacent ramp heading out and up to our right. Eventually, we see this ramp run into a lower headwall with large blocks framing the way up on either side. We can’t see what’s above that first wall, but we do gaze in awe of the colossal nunatak that stands sentry at the (presumed) top of the icefall. There’s a long way to go between here and there. Another 2k- that’s not going to be put in today.
After a brief discussion, we reach consensus that this landing pad should serve as our next camp. But I’m itching to move higher, so I toss out the name- UTI camp…luckily, I’m vetoed by the rest of the team because there’s a way more appropriate moniker for this camp at the bottom of the icefall- “Icefall Camp”
We probe the landing pad and discover we are surrounded by deep cracks on all sides- somehow, we’ve found the only solid platform within a twenty-foot diameter. We marked the circumference of camp with wands and set about assembling another mid. We dump the small loads we’ve carried up on this push. And low an behold, we find we have reception- at least those of us with Verizon… Can you hear me now bitches?!
We point it downhill and stayed roped for the initial ski out of icefall camp. As much as skiing down a narrow spine and through the lower crevasse field while roped up sucks, (and it really does suck) we’ll utilize the cord until our confidence and the track through these hazards improves. Regardless, we make short work of it and untie from each other back at soggy walls. We make great time schussing down the lower glacier and shred the final headwall down to toe camp. Gotta fucking love ski mountaineering. Walking down shit sucks!
Today, we’ll do two more carries up to icefall camp from toe camp. Physically, I’m not sore, still feeling strong but a sinus infection, apparently picked up from air travel, has begun to take hold. I try to ignore it and focus on the big day in front of us. We make short work of carry one, forgoing the rope on the lower glacier and only tying into each other for the final spine up to icefall camp through the lower crevasses. After a quick lunch break, we leave the rope behind and ski unencumbered all the way to toe camp. Although there’s two mega flat sections on the lower glacier, I easily dispatch the 3k plus descent on my board. Fuck yeah! We are all super stoked by the uninterrupted shred back to camp one- our longest run of the trip to date.
It remains sunny and gorgeous all day and before making our second carry back to icefall camp, we build a large cairn that we’ll leave covering a cache at the foot of the glacier. It’s an impressive pile of rocks protecting spare fuel, food and clothing that we’ll have to revisit if we must make a second push up onto the upper mountain in week three. But for now, everything is still on track for 10 days-so we only carry enough grub and supplies to round out approx. one more week on the mountain. It’s a gamble for sure but cutting our resource weight in half allows us to continue to move higher up this beast as quick as possible.
It’s an uneventful second trip back up to icefall camp and we relish the nice weather, warm meals, phone reception and early bedtime that greats us.
It has snowed and rained overnight. Although it’s crisp, clear and cold, the overnight storm has resulted in avalanches and rockfall that are now pouring down the walls that surround the icefall and our camp. It’s impressive and humbling. A trace to 2 inches of heavy, wet snow now covers everything. From tents to snow bridges, it all lies under a sloppy white blanket. I didn’t sleep well- there’s much on my mind…today’s climb through the icefall first and foremost.
We make hot drinks and it’s time to talk strategy with the team. The benefit of reception provides us a weather forecast and although it means nothing in regard to Mt Sanford, it does allow us to infer a regional window of high pressure two to three days out. If we push up to our next camp heavy, carrying only essentials and four days’ worth of food and fuel, we can utilize that anticipated weather window to make a dash for a high camp and then go for the summit. Smash and grab as we like to call it.
It’s a gamble for sure and as I lead the team through this discussion, I sense different energy from the group. We’ve been moving steadily but cautiously in what I’d call traditional capsule style- that is moving camps and a chunk of our resources up the mountain as we go. Each time we push to a higher camp, we return to our lower camp for one night before pushing the entire capsule higher the next day. But now we were considering more of an alpine style push. Not true fast and light- but a strategy we were calling, Alaska light. You’re still going to put in higher camps as you go, but you’re not going to come back down and doing double carries back and forth to stock camps/ put in the route, etc... Instead, we’d be casting off the moorings of our expedition style assault and maintain upward momentum until we were either successful or got shut down. In climber’s parlance, we’d be further off our gear...so the consequences of a fall ( a mishap, injury, storm, unknown delay, etc…) would amplify consequences. Worse case scenario, we could get trapped up high without proper resources or enough food. But if we were going to get er' done in ten days, this was the big boy bite we now needed to swallow.
After a frank and honest review of our options, we all agree- it’s time to set sail into the unknown. Ships are safe in harbor but that’s not what ships are built for.