SEEKING SANFORD part two
Day 5 (con't.)
We rope up and head out to tackle the icefall proper.
I take the lead, snowplowing back down icefall camp’s entry spine before taking a sharp left turn out to the ramp. Leaving the spine, I immediately have to navigate across three monster troughs that sport slumping snow bridges to gain the center of the low angled slope leading upwards. The moves are heady. I trust nothing. I'm ready to fall at any moment. There are cracks everywhere underneath me and there’s not much solid ground to progress on. I’m amped and tense as I move forward. probe ahead>step back>probe left>probe right>traverse sideways>probe forward>commit; walking an ever-twisting tightrope through the hidden fissures beneath my skis.
I can tell the team is impatient with me, but they also understand that the leader is the one who (literally and figuratively) bears the most weight right now. Being on the sharp end of a rope team, moving through complex, crevassed terrain is never fun. Although I’ve never been on an explosives sweep in the streets of Fallujah, I imagine this delicate, micro route finding is akin to carefully sniffing out and avoiding secretly hidden mines on the battlefield. I continue searching out these alpine IEDs. At one point, I inch my way forward across a 10-inch wide ribbon of snow- it sucks that my split skis are 12” across. This type of lead reminds me of my youth as an aid climber. Aid climbing is sure to keep you in the moment. When your aiding, you’re all good, until you’re not. Watch me!
It takes about an hour to dispatch the majority of the ramp. Probe, poke, penetrate, pause, step gingerly ahead, pause, breathe and repeat. I’m trying to get us off this evil piece of real estate and onto the steeper, lower headwall above us. If I can gain that slope, I can send a line straight through the steepest part of the icefall. Clouds build and the weather begins to turn. As I’m probing out in front of me, I punch through the snow, discovering a gaping crease. Suddenly, the probe drops from my hand. But I’m lucky and snag the very top of it before losing it to the glacier. Fuck me, I think to myself, that’s really fucking deep! The crack that just ate my probe wants to eat us. Every crack I find when probing leaves a hole in the snow that radiates back beautiful blue light, the kind of color you only experience in the bowels of a glacier. It’s all so awesome and scary. My team continues to be patient and they're careful to step only in the tracks I’ve laid down. Kurt diligently wands the path for our return trip. It seems like I’m traversing left forever. I'm so over this lead. Where’s my exit? Are we really going to ski this unroped?
When I make the final steps across the last bit of ramp, to the rapid rise of the lower headwall, I’m all fired up. I charge straight up the steep slope, attacking the mountain with each stride. I feel the pull of my team on the rope. Beast mode- a man possessed. I’m moving too fast. They're still behind me on the ramp. I need to be patient for them. Moving up the headwall, I play connect the crevasse dots in my head- Crack on the left ends-snow in the middle-crack on the right begins. Obviously, they all connect beneath me. But for now, the scabs of snow are holding and I’m moving higher. I keep climbing- I love the uphill. I gain momentum for the first time all day. The weather continues to shit out. I crest the lower headwall and am stopped dead in my tracks again. Another flat section of crevasse riddled terrain reaches out in front of me for approx. 400ft. After this plateau, the slope steepens again into the larger, 30-35-degree middle headwall. I can barely make out the nunatak in ever-thickening scud. I twist and turn my way to a spot just blow the next pitch and belay the team into me.
The difference in our energy is stark. Although it’s now starting to snow, I’m sweating and flush- my body is hot and tense from 90 minutes of hyper vigilance. The guys are lighthearted, joking and bundled up against cold. I try to loosen up and apologize for the long lead. “I’m just happy that was you out front” Jake says. My ego somewhat placated by this compliment, I hydrate and nutrate. We’re gathered together on a small patch of questionably solid ground and there’s a lot more mountain above us. You’re up next Kurt!
Coming out of the break, I assume the rear, anchorman position and carry a thick bundle of wands on the side of my pack. In limited visibility, KB angles up and right, slowly leading us up the side of the middle headwall. I can see some larger cracks in the middle of the slope, hiding under fresh snow from the recent storm. Those sneaky fuckers. The slope crests but rolls on moderately and never truly mellows out. Just when you think you might pull up onto a flat spot, the terrain angles ever so slightly upward. It feels like the mountain is fucking with us. The Alaska factor is in full effect. Are we ever going to reach the bottom of this nunatak?
This game of cat and mouse is amplified by the limited visibility we find ourselves in. We’re standing adjacent to a gigantic nunatak, a rock and ice island thrusting out of the glacier hundreds of feet high above us….but we can’t see it-where is it? Kurt keeps at it. The team moves slowly upward, and we begin to eke out small glimpses of the large geologic landmark to our left.
We take another break at the base of the nunatak. Middle headwall complete, we know there’s only one more 800ft+ slope between us and the ridge at 10k. This is the spot where Washburn and Moore launched their summit bid from, their high camp just above the nunatak. We know no 2019 team has made it above that point this season. We’re motivated to open new ground and visit the upper reaches of Sanford. I ponder how rad the skiing is on this final stretch. This pitch will make for some amazing turns on the way down. We just gotta make it up there first.
As quickly as the weather had shit out, it now starts to improve. Ah Alaska…from winter to summer conditions in less than ten minutes. Under clearing skies, I can now see the top of this final pitch, no more than 500 feet above us. This reality frustrates me to no end. The fresh snow is now melting and globing to the underside of my skis. I’ve got pregnant skins and our pace has ground to elderly speed. The cord in front of me has been slack forever. I’m on Jake’s heels and I'm not being a good ropemate. I hang out in back, feeling myself getting all twisted up inside and begin to hate everything and everyone. Why are we moving so slow? Why is the skin track so narrow? Why don’t we just kick it into high gear and charge this fucker? I’m hangry. I’m emotionally off balance. I’m fickle. I consider untying from the team and soloing past them. Get it together, Ackerman. Did you not count on moments of discomfort? Why are you being such a bitch right now?
I try to right my mindset. The only success I have is in keeping quiet. I don’t dare open my mouth- mindful of the negative and regrettable comments I am sure to make. I want to scream. I want to swear and yell theraputic obscenities. Kurt finally gets our team parallel to the upper terminus of the nunatak. Snuggled into a nook under the final serac is a large bundle of wands, left there by the soggy walls crew. (you can see them in the pic above)
Their abandonment of this trash is too much for my bad attitude. But it’s a welcome opportunity to spew all sorts of negative energy that’s welled up inside of me. Instead of freaking out on my team, I launch into a verbal tirade about the former group’s weak LNT efforts, their perceived lack of strength (too tired to take your wands down you pussies?) and a flurry of ego induced comments about their "weak ass high point." I am truly a wretched human being in this moment. I’m deeply (and irrationally) insulted by it all. Bagging on them doesn’t make me feel better. I need off this rope. I need to eat. I need to chill. I need a timeout.
We eventually hit the ridge and the weather has begun to turn yet again. We still have vis but we all can tell something is cooking. I yell up to Kurt- “That’s it!” and make the motion of a finger running across my throat. It’s time to kill this uphill effort and dig in. We sort out a suitable spot and probe out a camp. The ground all around us is weird. There’s a semi supportable wind crust with a strugi etched surface, overlaying 8 inches of fresh snow that lies atop what feels like hard glacial ice underneath. Weird. The snow makes a disconcerting, hollow sound. But here we are and here we shall camp. We don’t locate any cracks and quickly begin assembling our tents. The weather is turning quickly. The huge nunatak, now below us, is fading from sight as clouds begin filling in the sky below us. It’s like the tide is coming in. Everything is white as we now inhabit the inside a mayonnaise jar. With shelters up, food is prepared, and teammates retire to their tents. It’s been a very long day. I try to unwind my tightly wound insides. Food and a warm sleeping bag help improve my AVPU. There’s less hate in me as I try to fall asleep. But it's not meant to be. My busy mind plans and schemes deep into the evening. I finally doze off as the first wet flakes begin to splatter upon our rain fly.
I awake to wind, snow and a completely socked in camp. It is clear we’ll be going nowhere, quickly. Jake continues to sleep. I have to shit. I half-heartedly bundle up and crawl my way out into the weather. It’s worse than I originally assessed and I’m not adequately dressed. All outside surfaces are covered in rime. I struggle to move away from the tent, dig out a latrine and drop trough. The wind drives snow and ice pellets onto my bare ass, which immediately starts to freeze. Crouching there uncomfortably, I spy a song bird that’s been blown onto the mountain and it appears welded to the snow, struggling for life. I un-glove to run some TP. I try to finish with some wet wipes, but they instantly freeze when I take them out of my jacket. That’s concerning. As this fact takes hold, my hands start to sting as well. They go from cold, to really cold, to numb. Fuck, am I going to lose fingers taking a shit? I cover up my deposit, try to get my mitts back on and scurry back to the vestibule. I look over my shoulder one more time at the freezing bird. He continues to die. My hands are all woody, and I’ can’t seem to get my fingers working. Somehow, I manage to palm the zipper and get back inside the tent. I immediately attempt to rewarm my paws. I’m hit with one of the worse boughts of screaming barfies I’ve ever experienced. Suffering abounds for all this morning.
Well this is a great start to the day, I think to myself. There’s no way we are moving in this storm, so I fire up my phone to grab a forecast. The report is troubling. Looks like we’re in for almost 48 hrs. of shit weather. We’ve climbed ourselves up into this pickle and I question our decision to go for the smash and grab. Jake continues to snore. I boil water and load hot chocolate and a large chunk of Kerrygold into my mug. The fatty, warm concoction is tasty and warms me up. The storm intensifies. My hands continue to ache. I try to lose myself in a book.
I spend the better part of the morning finishing my first read of the trip and cracking into book number two. The first tome, Extreme Fear, The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise seems an apropos choice. Book two, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson is a cerebral dive into the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. A welcome and all-consuming exercise in questioning and meditation. I take copious notes and jot down reflections inspired from prompts and quotes within each chapter.
“It’s not the things that upset us. It’s our judgement about the things” Epictetus
Jake’s up for lunch. He laughs and appears excited by our predicament. He’s so damn positive. “This is the Alaska storm day I wanted!” he says. I’m envious of his wide-eyed, easy going openness to it all. All of this is new to him and I attempt to follow his lead in re-framing my dog shit attitude about our tent bound position. Stuck in a smelly 1 1/2 person tent, in the midst of a raging, artic tempest. I wonder if he’ll still feel this way if we’re still sitting here a week from now? How's he gonna feel when I resort to eating him?
Our marathon of patience and sloth continues into the afternoon. At one point, we’re startled by a flapping in the vestibule. It's the bird! The sparrow from this morning has revived itself enough to Beck Weathers its way into the doorway of our tent. I try to ignore Dr. Feathers. He’s sure to be dead soon. Then maybe we’ll eat him?
We play music and que up some podcasts. One really good episode of Enormocast, an interview with Mark Twight sparks some great conversation between Jake and me. At one point, he cracks the front door and our avian visitor flies inside. We find this hilarious and the sparrow hops and flits about our nylon refuge. He takes a shit on Jacob’s sleeping bag. We usher him back outside and I sprinkle some Cheese-it dust for him to eat. My indifference to this bird shifts as I begin to see his situation as analogous to our own. He has made it up here and now he waits. What fate awaits him? What fate awaits us?
I push on to dinnertime enjoying periods of reading, writing and napping. The storm continues to rage outside. Sitting still is always my crux. Day one of waiting has gone okay but with our limited stores of fuel and food, there will be no chance to set up a high camp at 13k. At least not before we descend for a resupply. The similarities to 1938 attempt are striking. We're in almost the same location and circumstance as the first ascent team; waiting out a storm at 10,000ft. And if we’re going to have any chance at the summit, we’re going to need to push up from here soon. This historical reenactment seems fitting and sickly pleasurable to me.
The storm continues. So does our sit. We settle in for another tent bound push. There’s no shitting for me this morning. But Jake, who does need to tackle a number two, experiences his own, epic, bowel movement adventure- He returns to the tent and reports falling waist deep into a crevasse while attending to his business. It seems shitting at 10k camp is risky.
We wait for lulls between wind gusts to shout between the two tents. Then we realize we can just text. A disturbingly convenient solution. The sparrow has somehow survived the night and is back in our vestibule. He makes frequent attempts to take off throughout the day- each time he is blasted back to the ground only seconds into his flight. We all continue to fly nowhere.
For brunch, we listen to Part Two of the Mark Twight interview. I’m not eating much now. I’ve got just enough TP for one more shit and only one more day of food. We’ve probably got two days left of fuel if we ration. Hopefully the weather breaks soon. More reading, writing and napping.
I awake in the late afternoon to Bruce’s voice. “Hey you guys, get out here- the sun’s coming out!” I’m groggy from sleep and don’t believe him until the tent brightens and warms. I look out upon a beautiful site. We’re above the clouds and stiff winds are blowing the system out. I’m outside just in time to see our feathered friend fly away. He makes it! I wonder if we will?
Bruce is already skinning up and away from the tents by the time the rest of the team assembles outside. Dude just can’t sit still. I assume the last two days have been torturous for him. It’s good he can now stretch his legs, but he is skinning up the mountain solo into heavily crevassed terrain with thick lenticulars still capping the summit plateau above us. Will ADHD and claustrophobia be his undoing?
Kurt, Jake and I circle up to discuss the next move. Our options are clear. Depart for the summit in the early AM or use this nice weather window to get back down to icefall camp, resupply, and push back up. As we talk, it’s clear that Kurt and I are driving the discussion. He’s rightly concerned about our dwindling rations and the brief window of high pressure forecast before the next storm is forecasted to roll into the area. I wonder if this window will be our only shot at success? I advocate a “go for it” strategy. I suggest that our fitness and speed trumps the need for an additional high camp and that we’ll have just enough nice weather (and food) to get up and back. And besides, tagging the summit from this camp is exactly how Washburn and Moore pulled off the FA in 1938. But Kurt is wise and experienced. I am talking out my ass. We control nothing up here. I sense him turning the mileage and elevation gain over and over again in his engineer's brain. Calculating risk and reward. “It’s a big gain and huge push from here” he says. “Getting caught in the open up there would not be good.”
I agree 100% but I really, really want to go for it. I'm the embodiment of a tragic case study in the making. Buck fever, powder fever, summit fever- I'm infected with a goal centric mindset. It's the human factor vs. the Alaska factor....this may end poorly.
It’s clear that we all think we can do it but the gravity of getting this decision wrong weighs heavily upon our collective consideration. If we push out and dash for the top and the weather does close in around us, it’s sure to be bad. To move quickly and efficiently, we’ll need to climb the majority of the upper mountain unroped and we know there’s some serious crevasse hazard at 15k. Additionally, this dash will also spread us out, setting up an every man for himself type scenario. The plan will only work if everything goes right. No physical or mechanical mishaps allowed- no injuries, broken gear or altitude related delays. It’ll be a risky and dangerous smash and grab. And after all the effort getting up this pig, we’re still committed to skiing down from the summit. That’s going to entail 6k plus of descent over variable surface conditions in what we expect to be worsening weather. Does that sound smart? And we’re sure to be smoked from our ascent. Do we roll the dice and go for it? Do we really want to hang it that far out? Is the juice really worth the squeeze on this one?
Bruce returns to us after laying a gorgeous set of fresh tracks down to our camp. His stoke shakes us from sober contemplation. He and Jake instantly want to go take another lap. I insist we come to a decision on the summit before anyone goes anywhere. In an attempt to sort it all out, I methodically call on each individual to share their thoughts, feelings,
concerns and questions with the group. It’s a powerful and defining moment for our team. We listen and reflect on what each man has to say.
In the end, we all agree. We’re going to go for it.