Leader/Co-Leader – John Stevens/Pat Murphy
The Mt. Sanford 2014 expedition started as an idea when I flew the Alaskan Highway in 2006. I remember the final leg being dotted with puffy clouds at 12,000 feet, yet as I navigated towards Anchorage, I couldn’t help noticing a particularly large and smooth looking cloud towering over the rest. This cloud was Mt. Sanford’s summit cone, clad in perpetual snow and rising over three vertical miles into the thin Alaskan air. While I only had a few minutes to marvel at this relatively unknown peak, my thoughts would frequently drift back to its quiet immensity.
Fast forward seven years and I had the opportunity to lead my first expedition for Summit Sensations. I had a standard trip in my hip pocket, but wanted to aim for a more audacious destination… Mt. Sanford fit the profile nicely. The Sheep Glacier route is not technically difficult by mountaineering standards, but access is challenging. The club’s enthusiasm for this climb was very high but actual participants diluted down from five in January to eventually just Patrick Murphy and me. We worked hard in preparation for the climb and only summited through the narrowest gap in poor weather. I could very easily see a larger team failing to take advantage of the small windows we had in June of 2014.
- Patrick Murphy is now the oldest known person to have summited Mt. Sanford at 53 yrs, 64 days!
- Pure vertical climbed from the Sheep Creek – 11,337′
- Total miles round trip from landing spot – 34 miles
Day 1, June 18 – Fly to Dallas from Boston, five hour layover, then a seven hour flight to Anchorage. Had a beautiful view of Mt. Baker and Shuksan, as well as Mount St. Elias and Mount Fairweather on the flight…Patrick starts getting ideas. Got in around 7:30 PM and took the shuttle to the Millennium Hotel. Grabbed a late dinner and went to bed.
Day 2, June 19 – Picked up right on time at 9 AM by Brian from Shuttle Services of Alaska. Find out Brian is a mountain guide in Alaska and is about to open up a bar hopping tour in Anchorage called Big Swigs! Now I completely regret not bringing beer on this trip. Head over to do some food shopping and then pick up fuel at REI. Had a beautiful drive along the Chugach Mountains to Chistochina and our destination for the day, the Red Eagle Lodge.
Day 3, June 20– Had breakfast with one of the owners of the Red Eagle Lodge, Richard. He has quite a story to tell and has done some mountaineering in the past, including Mt. St. Helens before it erupted. Jake Combs, our Super Cub pilot from Forty Mile Air arrived promptly at 8 AM and flew John into the tundra about three miles from the toe of the Sheep Glacier. By 10:30, Patrick and the remainder of the gear was on the ground and we began our march towards Mt. Sanford. Jake could land a plane nearly anywhere, I’ve never met a better bush pilot.
At first we were hoping to drag the sled along the tundra all the way to the glacier nearly three miles away. After the first pumice stones start to reveal themselves we are forced to abandon this plan as well as the sled and a duffel bag. Pat and I descend Grizzly Pass to the Sheep Creek and drop our packs. We then climb back up 1,000′ to recover the remaining gear. During the next climb downhill, one of the bear spray canisters is punctured by my MSR snowshoe crampons. I notice a burning sensation on my lower back through the now saturated duffel bag. Pat and I endure Bear Spray in our eyes and skin the next 8 days….
Regardless, we do a carry up to the base of the glacier, drop our packs, and return to the Sheep Creek to grab the sled and remaining duffel bag. Finally, at 4:45pm, we don the snowshoes, attach the sled and start climbing. The toe of the glacier is too steep for skinning, it is short but steep. It starts to rain as we make Camp 1 at 5,700′.
Day 4, June 21– Began the day with heavy rain that changed to snow by wake up time. Poor weather aside, Pat and I are excited to be on the glacier and heading uphill. Spend three hours breaking down camp and we make slow progress in moderate snow. Glacier is too hard packed to take wands. Pass a section of pooling water on the surface of the glacier, ignore it..this will be a harbinger of conditions on the return through this area…
Hard to believe how large this mountain is, we climb for an hour and the terrain looks exactly the same. As the day progresses the weather slowly improves. We reach the primary crevasse field at 7,000′ feet and struggle mightily with the sled, I think i might have sworn more at this sled then at any other inanimate object, ever. Figure out that the prusik tied to the rear of the sled is what is turning it over, problem fixed and we navigate to 7,400′ with no other issues. Reach base of cascading icefall and build Cache #1. Leave some fuel, wands, boots, sled and snowshoes. We work uphill and perform two belays through an eerie crevasse zone and end our climbing at 8 PM with blazing sunshine after a mostly snowy day.
Day 5, June 22 – We have a beautiful sunny start to the morning at 7,660′, Camp 2. We manage to break camp in under two hours today and we are graced with some relatively consistent and fair weather. In fact, we start to hope for some clouds as we start to get baked by solar radiation being reflected off of the glacier and the ice wall, commonly known as the “Nunutak” off to our left. Pat checks his thermometer and tells me it reads over 90 degrees, I’m like, “yeah right”. Anyone who has been in these situations can relate to how strange this phenomenon is.
The heat is our biggest obstacle today, we miss our goal of 11,000 feet and settle in at just over 10,000 feet as the weather starts to move in.
Day 6, June 23– Woke up to high overcast but ok visibility at 10,130′, Camp 3. Pat and I are both starting to develop an intuitive appreciation for “weather windows” and realize we better get our asses in gear while we have this nice visibility. As was almost always the case, within a couple hours, the weather started to move in, usually cumulus clouds that would cling to the mountainside. We were able to hone in on the route and steer between two crevassed zones. As we continued uphill, the visibility dropped to nearly zero and we had to wait it out. Patrick and I were frequently disturbed to pass crevasses that had fat cornices on their uphill aspects, they’d be nearly invisible if approached from above.
By 2 PM, at 12,000 feet, we started to break out of the cumulus clouds and into the hot sun. After three more hour baking in it, we decide to make high camp at 13,000′.
Day 7, June 24– Woke up to bad weather at 13,020′. Clouds broke at 10 AM and we made decision to attempt the summit.
Without a very stubborn mindset and ability to navigate in 300 foot visibility, we would not have made the top on June 24th. Our summit day was emblematic of the masochistic side of mountaineering – the so called “death march”. Despite only having 3,200′ vertical to gain from Camp 4, it still took us 10 hours and 30 minutes to reach the top and 18 hours, round trip, from high camp. There was no single reason as to why we were this slow, but i’ll try to outline some of the challenges we faced heading to the top:
- Snow humps and ridges – On the relatively benign plateau at the 13,000 foot level, the wind had carved out many snow ridges, moguls, and “speed bumps”. The conditions consisted of a foot of loose powder over firm and carved wind slab, which was not ideal for skinning up hill. It took us over three hours to reach 13,900 feet.
- Snow scouring and ice– At around 14,000 feet, the gradient jumped from 10 degrees to perhaps 25. Whether it was gravity pulling loose snow downhill or more wind exposure, it seemed like a third of the snow was blown off of this section. It was not possible to skin directly up this area or to get an edge into the hard packed snow/ice. Patrick was forced to abandon his skis and he switched to crampon/post hole mode the rest of the way up. I found a narrow zigzag of wind slab to dig my skis into and continue.
- Visibility – Maintaining the route going uphill usually involved getting a compass heading every 60 paces. We had filtered sunlight through ice crystals and intermittent snow showers, which I’d go so far as to call “good” weather for Mt. Sanford. We were lucky to have some oblique lighting to show the terrain at times. Our progress from 14,000 to 15,800 took about five hours.
We started noticing the thinner air when we reached the plateau and instead of racing up the final stretch, we found ourselves still pacing as if we were on steeper ground. Nevertheless, at 9:15 PM we reached the summit. Visibility was a half mile in blowing snow and a thickening snow crystal cloud deck. We had over two hours until sunset and we knew that it would not get completely dark. That being said, it was not a beautiful panorama at the top, views were very limited and we felt the need to beat the incoming weather back down to Camp 4.
Notwithstanding my hopes for a quick dash down to Camp 4, we were in for a long descent. Progress was reasonable down to 15,500′ since we were still on our wanded route. However, within a five minute period, heavy snow moved in and we lost our trail. I was forced to reduce the pace to 30 steps at a time so I could stay on course. Without fail, I would veer off course at least 10-30 degrees within even these short intervals, there simply was no way to tell where we were in the murk. I also knew, based on our ascent, that there were well over a dozen crevasses crisscrossing the terrain. These features could be within 50 feet of us and we would not know it.
Patrick was also being pulled off of his feet as I snowplowed downhill while he chased me in crampons through deep snow. As I feared, we veered nearly a quarter mile off course into an unfamiliar crevasse field. I still had my waypointed ascent route, so I fired up my TopoMaps app and confirmed that I was a quarter mile too far West. In order to correct this error, I turned hard right and very shortly ended up “falling” down a ridge around 100 feet high in three feet of powder, I was lucky I did not lose any gear. I tore up my down jacket at this point and I spent 30 minutes getting re-oriented. By the time we reached 14,000 feet it was 3 AM.
The very long day and poor weather was starting to have an impact on us. Patrick was out of water and was very tired from having to posthole for the last 8 hours in crampons. His hands were so cold he could not remove his crampons to switch back to skis. He could not find his headlamp and his glasses were frozen over. This is what I would call “sub-optimal”. Finally, after some frustrating shouting back and forth, I had Pat climb down to me. I was able to help him switch out his foot gear, which was essential considering how much snow had fallen.
By this point it was 4 AM and I knew we were getting close to high camp. One last check of the TopoMaps app confirmed my location and I set off for what looked like the general shape of a tent. The closer I got, the more sure I was that the tent was straight in front of me…until it wasn’t. Still 100 feet away, I stared at the remains of the tent in the mouth of a huge crevasse.
For at least 5 minutes, Patrick and I were convinced that all the heavy snow had caused a new crevasse to open up in the precise location where we had placed our tent. Almost despairing at the thought of a belay into a crevasse to recover our gear, I decided to recheck our coordinates and saw that we were still 300 ft away. I looked in that general direction and could see nothing, but driven by an insane desire to be done with this day, I headed over. Within 100 feet I could start to see the dim outlines of a shape and determined that it was our North Face Mtn-25 covered in 15 inches of new snow. Immensely relieved, I began digging it out. As soon as the tent was dug out, I fired up the satellite phone and called home to let everyone know we had successfully made it to the top and back. 24 hours later, we began our descent.
Day 8, June 25 – Spent the day recovering in the tent. Did not melt snow, did not cook any meal. I had a power bar and ate a hot chocolate packet raw. Pat did not move the whole day. Snowed heavily.
Day 9, June 26 – Weather was very crummy again, but we proceeded downhill, taking time to navigate on a 320 heading. We ended up walking into an icefall area and had to backtrack down and to the right, this put us about 1/2 mile too far East on the downhill. We opted to make camp at 5:30pm in a whiteout at 10,100′, feeling confident we were nearly on route.
Day 10, June 27 – Weather dawned with high overcast but clear below 20,000′. Come to find out that the glacier we camped above was the INCORRECT one, it was the snake tongued no-name glacier that runs due North off of Sanford. Therefore, we had to traverse another 45 minutes along the contour to get back on course. Good day for progress downhill, although we fought progressively stacked cloud decks as we descended. Very frustrated to get socked in at Camp 2, right above the most dangerous area. Luckily, after roughly an hour and a passing heavy shower, we were able to regain visibility. Ended the day off of the glacier at around 5’000 ft.
Day 11, June 28 – Woke up at 6 AM to a beautiful blue bird day. We did one carry up to 5,900′ ft in preparation for pickup by Forty Mile Air. I tried calling our pilot Jake but he didn’t pick up the phone…tried calling their office and same result. I start to get worried at this point that maybe they weren’t working on Saturday and bad thoughts start going through my head. We climb a little bit longer and I decide to retry Jake. He picks up and I relay the weather, winds are 15-20 MPH out of the ENE, very similar to our first day. Jake agrees to come get us despite the fact that it his day off, thanks Jake!!!!!!!!!!!!
We hustle back downhill to collect our remaining gear, I’ve never walked faster in my life as I have suddenly developed an abandonment complex. All is well, however, as Jake lands expertly in a dying headwind and I am picked up at 11:45, Pat by 1:15. Rest and recovery for the rest of the day at the phenomenal Red Eagle Lodge.
Day 12, June 29 – Spent some time speaking with Richard at Red Eagle Lodge, he records our account of the climb for a local newsletter. Brian from Shuttle Services of Alaska picks us up and we were back in Anchorage by 6 PM. I can tell we are all tired since we stop talking after about 20 minutes. Celebration dinner at Club Paris, probably the best steakhouse I’ve ever been to.
Day 13, June 30 – Spent the day walking around downtown Anchorage. Spent most of it at the Bear Tooth Pub Theatre.
Day 14, July 1 – Last day in Anchorage, watched the Belgium vs. USA World Cup match. Spent some time at Central Bowl with Patrick.
~ John Stevens