SEEKING SANFORD part three
The alarm goes off at 1:30 and I lay there wondering if I really slept at all. It’s summit day and the suck of the now will all be forgotten if I can just rally and get this shit done. Although it’s the middle of the night, the Alaskan summer provides me with enough light to prep in the tent without a headlamp.
Our goal is to be moving by 2am and our team spent a good deal of time prepping the prior evening so that dressing ourselves and brewing up would be the only tasks to tackle in the early morning hours. Jake is up too and after 15 minutes of bumping elbows and shimming on outerwear, we both slither outside our tent and fire up the stove. I never eat breakfast but I’m definitely coffee dependent. We put on harnesses, lay out our skis and place final items into our rucks as the we wait for water to boil.
After slugging down my morning caffeine, it’s time to strap in and push out. The four of us are distracted with final prep. The air is still. No one speaks a word. The sky reflects the fire of tension and anticipation that’s burning inside of us. We slide away from camp at 2:15
I carry the rope; the rest of the team humps wands. We slowly begin the upward trudge from camp. We make short work of the skin track that Bruce and Jake put in yesterday above 10k and quickly find ourselves in new terrain. A vast, rolling plateau unfurls above us with the first real climb at 12,000ft. It’s not really a climb, just another 25 degree slope that seems to define this mountain.
I start out with the team but then intentionally drop back in the procession to take some photos. We’ve already dropped Bruce. I know he’s worried about today’s pace and I think he secretly thinks I want to shake him. Jake, Kurt and I all train and live at altitude. Bruce trains at sea level. He’s voiced questions over the big push we’re making today, and his concerns are merited. I’ve paid little mind to his internal doubt? As I climb, I wonder if that was the right approach. I don’t think we ever really confronted what would happen if someone would need to turn around. I've come to believe that style of discussion manifests doubt and opens one up to quitting and retreat as an option. For me, that’s not something I’m open to talking about before a big day. Should it happen, we'll deal with it then. In the end, we all climb the mountain ourselves.
Later that morning, I roll up on another, depressingly flat tableau at 13,200ft. Crossing this endless, gently rolling topography will lead us to the upper headwall and the steep and heavily crevassed slopes guarding the start of the summit dome. I wait patiently for the team to rejoin me and we have a conversation about roping up. I encourage Kurt to take the lead as we move across the flats. Having someone else out in front will force me to slow down and be a better teammate. I really want to keep us together and we tentatively plan on tying in at the bottom of the headwall.
When we arrive at its base, I tell Kurt to keep moving. I selfishly don’t want to be slowed by other’s pace. The terrain above us is obviously cracked. The mountain’s surface is a combo platter of boiler plate neve and soft, sculpted strugi. It’s definitely not a pitch you want to fall on as it’s steep and covered in cracks. This is the spot that surprised the first ascent party with its hazardous (steep) angle and (avy) snow conditions. No surprises here, it actually looks like real (fun) climbing and skiing! The wind has picked up significantly. The weather still looks good. Kurt presses on.
I pass him as we near the top of the first 300ft. push. Skinning up on my splitboard necessitates me finding supportable stances on the wind hardened and icy flanks of the mountain. Often times the skiers will use their edges to traverse while I’ll choose a more straight the fuck up route, opting for better purchase over burning calves.
I make it to 15k and find a small, off camber bench to wait for Kurt and then Jake to join me. Kurt pulls up and we have a brief exchange about how good the weather is holding. Fucking locker I say. But the wind is chucking and it’s really, really cold. Jacob arrives and he’s clearly emotional. Are you okay? I ask. He is…he’s just overwhelmed by what we’re doing and his current circumstance. Over 7 billion people on this spinning chunk of geology and look where we are….we are some blessed mofos. Jake’s emotion infects us all and after a quick “I love you guys” moment, I’m itching to blast upward again. I stand and shiver, waiting for Bruce to eventually arrive. When he does, I slinky out. Summit bent and hell bound.
“With the truth so dull and depressing, the only working alternative is wild bursts of madness and filigree.” Hunter S Thompson
They’ll be no more re-grouping for me before the summit. I’m feeling amazing and I love how each step higher makes me feel stronger. I make short work of the final thousand feet leading to the summit dome. I contemplate climbing even faster but I’m limited by altitude. I can only go so fast before I find it hard to breathe. I adjust my pace so that I’m just under my aerobic threshold. Dam it feels good to be a gangster.
As I pull over the final crest and onto the vast and strange football field that is Sanford’s summit plateau, I note the considerable distance I’ve but between myself and the rest of the team. I had moved like a man possessed. But sometimes I just feel it up there. My training has paid off. Clearly, we are all exposed up here and if anything went wrong, we’re in for an Everest 96’ moment. But it’s not to be. Although the first clouds begin assembling on the horizon, this shit is in the bag.
I wind my way through visually stunning waist high ridges and deep trenches of sastrugi. There’re some weird, volcanic rock outcrops off to my left. Dormant furmoles maybe? This is a truly bizarre looking patch of alpine. I’m puzzled and struck by the lunar nature of it all. I pull out my gps, catch and elevation and protect my hands inside my down parka while trying to pull up fatmap on my phone. I realize the summit proper is still 200 ft. above me- a nearly indistinguishable bump above and to my right. I’m done rushing as I make a casual stroll up to Sanford’s true highpoint.
Arriving on top, I’m spellbound by the view. To the east is the massive hulk of Mt Blackburn and the wild looking peaks of the St Elias Range behind that- Bona, University, and Logan and MSE way off in the distance. Off to the southwest is the Alaska range- Denali and Foraker anchoring the left of a viewscape that runs unbroken with massive white peaks ending with Mt Deborah and Huntington on the right. I gaze below at Sanford’s massive glaciers, gently twisting down the valleys through which we’ve come. The Capital Peak massif, which looms over the airstrip and lower parts of our climb, looks so tiny from up here.
My focus widens as I contemplate the headwaters of the Copper River. I think about this iconic river which gets its start from the snow now under my feet and runs to the ocean at Cordova. I’m struck by the scale and the amazing color changes the upper watershed makes. White glaciers give way to black and gray moraines which in turn morph into brown rolling tundra, ever greening muskeg and finally thick vegetated strips of forest that surround the river proper. The trees extend over the Copper to Chistochina and points beyond. The natural world-It’s all so fucking rad. The wind continues to rage. I embrace my time alone on the summit.
Ten minutes later, Kurt arrives. I pull out my camera and film his final steps. We hug and share a great moment. Jake is not far behind him and I record his victorious arrival too. We all hug and congratulate each other. KB makes his way over to the highest bump he can find which is precariously close to the massive south face of the mountain. He encourages Jake and I too check out this perch and the power of that stance is impressive. Below us, Sanford drops almost 10,000 vertical feet. You can feel its pull.
Finally, Bruce arrives and the entire team is now assembled on top. My hands have paid dearly for all the pictures I’ve been taking and they are now too cold to film Bruce’s final steps to the summit. For only the second time all day, I throw my huge down mitts on, hoping my skin thaws and blood returns to my digits. The ambient temp isn't that bad but it’s got to be close to -40 with this wind chill. Don’t be stupid up here, Michael. Digital media is not worth losing your hands over.
A wise man once said, “the summit is only the most obvious place to turn around.” It’s clear we must now 180 and descend. I remind myself that this is supposed to be the fun part. Snowboarding off the top of Sanford was what this expedition was supposed to be about, right champ? But those feelings of giddy stoke and childlike joy that snowboarding always provides escape me at the moment. I just want to get this done and feel only a workman like zest for the task at hand. Hands working again, I transition my board and strap in as the rest of the team strips skins, loads packs and bundles up for the descent. I push my way forward and absorb the hard bumps and crusty undulations of the summit plateau. I try to spot softer patches of strug in which to edge in. The shredding off the top is a mixture of challenge and suck. These aren’t the tasty turns of my dreams. I’m checking a box.
We hit the top of the upper headwall and the slope steepens significantly. We’ve got 1,000 ft of legit ski mountaineering below us. It’s never pretty watching skiers negotiate survival turns. It’s often the time when I most appreciate being a crud-busting snowboard. Bruce takes a couple nasty falls on the way down the hill. He's clearly very tired. Kurt stops to help him out as Jake and I work on pulling wands. More falls and even a lawn dart.
Eventually, we assemble together on the final lip above the most heavily crevassed stretch of the upper face. I send Kurt out on point to lead us through this consequential icefall. We ski in 200ft. chunks and patiently scrape our way down. I ride sweep until my desire to release my burning legs to a longer set of turns kicks in. I swoop past the team and drop the final thousand feet to the flats at 13k. I pull out my camera and get footage of the skiers dropping the impressive face. The wind continues to nuke.
There’s a notable change in energy and temperature down on the flats. Spirits are high and all tension seems to have lifted. It's still breezy but we now feel the sun's warmth. Kurt and Bruce ski out left as Jake an I retrace the ski track and pull wands as we go. 3,000ft of wet pow and killer corn spills down to our high camp. It just doesn't end. But then it does. We all pull up short of camp and just smile. More hugs, more looks back up the mountain and the tracks we've left above us. We fucking did it. We just skied off the top of Sanford!
We spend the afternoon enjoying sunny skies, drunk on our success. Jake sits outside while I melt snow and crush multiple water bottles to rehydrate. Kurt and Bruce retreat to their tent and crash. The total summit push took us 13hrs, we’d been moving for just over eleven hrs. of that time, traveled close to 16 miles and gained over six thousand feet of elevation on the day. We had followed in the footsteps (skin track) of Washburn and Moore and tagged the top from this historic camp at 10k.
After food and liquid, I feel like I can ski and descend more but the rest of the team is smoked. I have this little voice in my head that keeps saying- rally these guys, get down now while it’s nice out. You know how good that nunatak is going to ski right now? You know bad weather is on the way! But I ignored the chatter in my skull. Let the boys enjoy their success, I think. Don’t be such a hardass. We’ve already done enough today. We’ll catch some sleep and then head down like conquering heroes in the early morning.
Six hours later, I’d come to regret my lack of listening.
Although we’d squeezed out the smash, our dash down the mountain was about to come to an abrupt halt. We’d pay for our hubris and lounging about. Instead of packing up and pushing downward, we’d chose to prematurely celebrate an incomplete victory. The mountain would sense this lack of perseverance and frame it as disrespect. We all make choices and we’d pay for ours.
Sanford wasn’t done with us yet.