Forum Index > Trip Reports > Mount Sanford, Alaska, 16237 feet - June 2021: Part 1
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Matt Lemke
High on the Outdoors



Joined: 15 Jul 2010
Posts: 2010 | TRs | Pics
Location: My van
Matt Lemke
High on the Outdoors
PostSat Jun 26, 2021 2:20 pm 
One might ask, why Mount Sanford? Most people, even Alaska locals and accomplished Alaskan alpanists have probably never heard of Sanford, or where it is. After all most mountaineers who make their way to Alaska go for objectives like Denali, Hunter, or routes above Ruth Gorge. Sometimes, more ardourous parties will venture over to Mount Logan to attempt Canada's highest peak but rarely do people look into the many other Alaskan giants in other ranges like the Wrangell, St. Elais, Chugach, and Revelation Mountains. These vast unexplored mountain ranges are where I thrive, with much less interest in the flocked mountains, and more "at home" in the obscure and unknown areas.

The idea to climb Mount Sanford originally came about during discussions I have with my friend Jamie in Colorado. Initially, Jamie discussed the idea of indeed going for Denali back in February and I expressed a mild interest, but was also trying to find potential partners for a possible trip to the Ruth Gorge, or better yet, Little Switzerland (rugged lower elevation group of granite alpine spires just south of the core Alaska range). I also had some email coorespondence with a couple others about possibly attempting Denali from the north via the Muldrow Glacier, but once I realized air drops of food/gear is prohibited on the north side of the park, I was out, having no interest in carrying 100 pounds of mostly food for 30 miles up the Muldrow Glacier from the Eielson Visitor Center. This trip would have been doomed for failure immediately this year anyways due to the Muldorw Glacier Surge event that started in about January this past winter, and likely continues now. It is unlikely the northern route up Denali will be feasible for at least the next 3 years due to this event.

Come late March, Jamie reached back out to me to see if I would be interested in going for Mount Sanford. He was already pretty set on the idea, and already had invited our friend Emily to join, who was also quite interested. Given the overall gentle nature of this Alaskan giant, I expressed interest in skiing the mountain, but did not want to be the only one skiing it. Not wanting to be roped with just one other person on snowshoes, they were happy for my recommendation to invite my longtime friend Josh from back in WA, and a new friend of mine Laura in Denver. We were all happy with the group of 5, and Laura also expressed an interest in skiing the mountain as well. Naturally, Laura and I would rope together as a team of two, while the other three went as a second rope team. The main issue still at large though was whether I would be able to wear my AT ski boots for 10 days without excruciating pain. As it is, my feet hurt a lot just skiing in them for one day, because they are too small. Problem is, ski boot manufacturers still do not make a ski boot big enough for my feet. The ones I have (Scarpa Maestrale) are a size Mondo 32...the biggest size anyone makes. Still, they are at least a size and a half too small. In an attempt to imrpove the situation, I took the boots to a local ski shop to have the plastic shell punched out to hopefully make them bigger. After it was all done, and he punched them as much as possible without damaging them, I tried them on, and pretty quickly realized that 10 days in them was still out of the question. I broke the news to the team, and we would all be going in on snowshoes...not the end of the world, but I was pissed nonetheless. I still cannot believe ski boot manufacturers do not make any AT ski boots in anything bigger than a US size 14! Just despicable...

Not being able to ski may have been a blessing in disguise though since our gear weight was already enormous. We started conducting planning meetings once every couple weeks throughout the spring, discussing how much fuel, which gear to bring, how we would divide up group gear etc. We agreed we would take two mountaineering sleds for the group, which Jamie had. A 50 inch wide duffel bag was purchased to be able to fly up to Alaska with them however, as well as to carry 400 bamboo wands that we decided to bring up the mountain with us to mark the route every 60 meters or so from the start of the glacier all the way to the summit. Despite my efforts to convince the group that 400 wands was incredibly overkill, I made 300 of them for the team, while Laura made the other 100.

Once we decided on the dates for the trip to be June 5-19th, I was able to get everyone in the team $80 round trip tickets from Seattle to Anchorage. Laura and Jamie then got their own airfare from Denver to Seattle, and Emily made it up to Anchorage from San Francisco on a separate flight. Last minute gear purchases, food planning and logistics were done the first week of June and I made plans to meet everyone at the Seattle airport at 8pm the evening of our flight on June 4th. Jamie and Josh met me by the Delta check in counters, Jamie having the large duffel bag with the sleds, and me walking in with a bundle of 300 wands, each about 3 feet long in addition to the rest of my gear. These wands needed to fit in the duffel bag, and all our metal items like pickets, ice axes, snowshoes, shovels etc needed to fit into the checked bags without going over weight. After 45 minutes of shuffling gear around with roughly 16 foreign families looking at is with utter confusion, we managed to get everything packed up in such a way that we would not be charged extra for oversize bags. The rest of the trip to Anchorage after that went smooth, which we landed shortly after midnight, got a taxi to the Sockeye Inn and managed to get a few hours of sleep in a cramped room without blinds covering the window...remember, it is never dark up here in June!

Pile of our gear at Sockeye Inn
Pile of our gear at Sockeye Inn

I did extensive pre-planning work regarding how we would get transportation to Glenallen from Anchorage, while Jamie took care of the planning for our bush plane flights onto the mountain from Glenallen with Copper Valley Air Service. I also coordinated with Chris Tomer to send us weather forecasts for Mount Sanford to my Inreach. He has successfully sent accurate weather forecasts for mountain climbing expeditions all over the world. My friend Chris (different Chris) who lives in Anchorage got me in touch with Katy, who works as an Uber driver in Anchorage and she was more than happy to take us the 3.5-4 hours from Anchorage to Glenallen, and even come back to pick us up after our climb was over. Essentially what we did was call for an Uber ride to Glenallen once she was already at our location, and the app would immediately pair us together. This was much cheaper than any of the alternatives such as flying, and much more flexible than the restrictive Interior Alaska Bus Line that only runs on specific days. Plus, we ended up having rides around town when needed and a personal connection made which was awesome to have.

The next morning, the four of us made a couple stops around the hotel which included a stop at the Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking store to buy all the fuel we will need (fantastic store highly recommend), and a grocery store for last minute food items. We purchased two gallons of white gas and six 8oz canisters of fuel, since we would hgave bothg stove types with us on the climb. Emily landed in Anchorage from San Francisco, our last team member to arrive and Katy picked her up at the airport on her way to the Sockeye Inn to grab the rest of us. Katy had organized with a friend of hers to ride behind us in a separate vehicle where all of our gear would ride, allowing us to sit more comfortably in her large SUV. By 11am we started the drive north and east to Glenallen along the Glenn Highway. This beautiful drive takes you around the north side of the incredible Chugach Range. With a perfectly clear day, we saw some of the highest peaks in the interior of the range such as Marcus Baker, the highest mountain in the Chugach. Pioneer Peak rose high above the Mat-Su valley and countless other high peaks were visible from the drive, and after the 10th time asking Katy to stop for photos, I'm sure she thought we were weird, as she claimed most people would rather stop to get a closer look at the trees, wildlife, or waterfalls, but our group couldn't stop talking about the mountains! At a large pullout across from the Matanuska Glacier we stopped to take a bunch of photos.

Matanuska River
Matanuska River
Chugach Range
Chugach Range
Jamie taking a photo
Jamie taking a photo
Matanuska Glacier
Matanuska Glacier
Matanuska Glacier
Matanuska Glacier
Our team still clean and spiffy looking
Our team still clean and spiffy looking

We continued the drive, as some clouds slowly blocked the clear skies we had enjoyed earlier and stopped for an excellent lunch at the Eureka Lodge. The pies at this place were literally to die for, but I remembered I still had a mountain to climb and a team to not let down, so I managed to stay alive eating two pieces of pie, ice cream and a burger. It was about an hour more drive to Glenallen from Eureka, which we soon started to see Mount Sanford up ahead for the first time. Situated on the far eastern edge of the Wrangell Mountains, Sanford rises to 16,237 feet and has 7,638 feet of prominence, with its parent peak being Mount Blackburn located to the east. Our excitement exponentially grew once we were able to see Sanford and the requests for photo stops tripled. From the highway, Sanford was the big mountain on the left, with Mount Drum on the right.

Glenn Highway
Glenn Highway
Mount Sanford on the left
Mount Sanford on the left
Sanford and Drum
Sanford and Drum
Wrangell Mountain sign
Wrangell Mountain sign

Upon arriving in Glenallen, Jamie called the Boniek's (owners of Copper Valley Air Service) to inform them we had arrived, and when she asked exactly how we said Uber. Shocked, she wondered how such a thing was possible, and directed us a few miles north of town to the small airport where we would be able to stay the night in their hanger and have a place to organize gear. We unloaded everything from the second vehicle and thanked Katy. I sent her a test message over my Inreach and informed her I will let her know when we are ready to be picked up. We immediately started organizing all the gear to prepare to fly to the mountain the following morning. Group gear was divvied out, food was triple checked to ensure we had enough for a maximum of 12 days, tent inspections, clothing choices etc. After a few hours of organization and packing up the packs and two sleds, I weighed by pack at 64 pounds, which was about how much all our packs weighed. We determined an order we would each fly in, and agreed Jamie would go first from Glenallen, while the rest of us would take one of their vans up the highway to Chistochina, where a second grassy landing strip would allow for shorter flights shuttling us onto the mountain one at a time. With just a Cessna 140 plane with large rubbery tires, only one person was able to fly in at a time. Unfortunately, we Jamie was in the air with the pilot flying him in first, and the rest of us driving to Chistochina, we were informed the pilot was forced to turn back as soon as he turned into the Boulder Valley on the NW side of Sanford due to strong winds, preventing a safe landing. He landed with Jamie at Chistochina just as we all arrived in the van and we waited there for about an hour to see if the winds would subside but they didnt, so we would have to wait to fly in until the next morning.

We returned to the hanger at the Copper Valley airport and relaxed in the pilots lounge for awhile, chatting about mountains, taking photos, painting, and resting. We were able to grab a nice pizza dinner in Glenallen at the hardware store (yes, pizza at the hardware store haha). As the afternoon turned to evening and the evening to twilight, I took some sunset photos at 11:30pm. It's incredible the sunset lighting and red glow lasts over an hour this far north making for ample time to take pictures. I roamed around the airport to get the best angles of Mount Sanford at sunset for awhile before finally going to sleep.

Mount Drum
Mount Drum
Mount Drum
Mount Drum
Sanford still holding some clouds
Sanford still holding some clouds
Sanford in the morning
Sanford in the morning
Sanford and Drum
Sanford and Drum
Sanford we are coming for you!
Sanford we are coming for you!

The next morning we started a little earlier in the morning to take advantage of the early morning calmness, and Jamie took off in the plane at 7:30am while the rest of us drove back to Chistochina. We knew Jamie had been dropped off successfully at Sheep Creek when we beat the pilot there. Ten minutes after we arrived, and were chatting with the owners of the Red Eagle Lodge, Kevin (pilot) landed and was ready to pick up Emily, who would fly in second. Once she was dropped off, she joined Jamie as they started walking up the valley with the first sled, blue in color that Jamie named Oscar and had about 35 pounds in it. Josh went in third, by this point it was about 45 minutes from the time Kevin took off from Chistochina to fly into Sheep Creek, drop the person off, then fly back to Chistochina to load up and take off again. I was the 4th to fly in, and I brought the second sled, red in color that remained unnamed until after we summitted but would eventually be dubbed red rover. I had about 60 pounds in it, plus the 64 pounds on my pack making this the most weight I had ever hauled on a mountain in my life.

The flight in was gorgeous, as we quickly flow over the Copper River, which is the only main serious obstacle preventing someone from walking in from Chistochina once it's thawed out. I flew over an expansive area of scraggly forest, which changed into brushy slopes, then to tundra as I got closer to the mountain. Views of Sanford were incredible, and the full route was visible right in front of us as we flew closer, which headed up the continuous slope of snow to the left of the large cliffs on the NW side of the mountain. Rugged looking Capital Mountain which looked like a steep pyramid or arrowead was also impressive to look at, despite being dwarfed by Sanford. As soon as I was dropped off, I started right away up the valley knowing that Laura, who flew in last and Josh, who waited at the landing site with the red wind tape for the pilot would be faster than me not needing to pull a sled. Laura arrived, and all 5 of us were in...the climb officially began. See the short summary version below for an overview of our days spent on the mountain and where our camps were. A map of the route and our camps is also included at the end of the report.

Day 1 - June 7th: Dropoff at 4400 feet in Sheep Creek. Move up valley about 3 miles to start of Sheep Glacier and make camp 1 at 5750 feet on a rocky flat merely 100 feet from the start of the glacier. Cache extra fuel and food.

Day 2 - June 8th: Hike up the lower glacier and through the lower headwall and crevasse field a distance of about 3.5 miles and make camp 2 at 8200 feet. I cached my leather hiking boots here to climb the rest of the mountain in my mountaineering boots, and some extra food.

Day 3 - June 9th: Continue up the glacier another 2.75 miles to the right of the large ice/serac covered rocky rib and make camp 3 at large flat area at 10,800 feet. Cached the red sled, extra food and fuel, and 100 unneeded wands here, confirming my beliefs we had more wands than we needed.

Day 4 - June 10th: Continue to the 13,200 foot high camp (camp 4) at the large broad saddle area between the summit, and the small hill just NW of the summit. Distance travelled 2.6 miles. This was the only day with bad post-holing and trailbreaking which slowed us down despite lighter packs. Camped and prepared for summit the next day.

Day 5 - June 11th: Left our tents and overnight gear, continuing with day packs and ascended to the summit. Total whiteout and snowstorm began just as we reached the top, making the descent much more tiring and slow with whiteout conditions. Camped at 13,200 foot high camp a second night.

Day 6 - June 12th: Packed up camp and descended back to camp 1. Took turns literally sledding down the mountain on the sleds where crevasse danger was very low...had tons of fun! Picked up our gear caches on the way down. Reused our tent platforms at camp 1.

Day 7 - June 13th: Returned to 4400 feet in Sheep Creek and informed pilot we were ready for pickup. Scheduling did not allow for us to be picked up that afternoon. Camped next to the landing spot on pleasant grass and relaxed.

Day 8 - June 14th: Hoped to be flown out this morning, but pilots were busy all day. Went for a hike around the valleys and explored around. Josh and I attempted 7700 foot Capital Mountain to the NE but could not safely cross the Boulder River. Camped another night next to the landing spot.

Day 9 - June 15th: All flown out in the morning, celebrations commenced back in Glenallen.

It was a very good thing I was fresh that first day, because hauling the sled over bare ground and rocks was total misery. Large grassy tussocks with mud and water between them kept threatening to tip the sled over and soak the stuff on it which really slowed me down. Dragging it over the tundra was not too bad overall, but once we made it up the first couple miles we reached the terminal moraine of the Sheep Glacier. Rather than drag the sled through large boulders and over the rocky terrain like Jamie was having fun doing with Oscar, Josh and Laura helped me carry the sled over the rocky sections. 60 pounds was just too heavy to try and drag it over glacial moraine without breaking it,and since the red sled was borrowed from one of Jamie's friends we limited the amount of time it was dragged over rocks. Jamie was fully content to destroy his blue sled though! The worst part was moving up through where the creek cut through the end of the terminal moraine. It was raging and the little snow that remained was dangerous since our feet would punch through. Additionally the rock was very loose so carrying the sled through this narrow spot with a raging creek just next to us was slow going. Just above this crux section there was a long flat sandy area that allowed for easier passage and I was able to resume dragging the sled. We spotted what looked like would be a great rocky flat area just up the first hill directly across the sandy flats and we agreed we would camp there. We finally got onto a more continuous snowfield and continued a few hundred feet up to the top of the rocky rib, where we indeed found excellent spots to make three tent platforms and build our first camp off the snow.

Our plane along the Chistochina landing strip
Our plane along the Chistochina landing strip
Flying over the Copper River
Flying over the Copper River
Mount Sanford from the plane
Mount Sanford from the plane
Capitol Mountain to the east
Capitol Mountain to the east
Capitol Mountain catching my eye more than Sanford!
Capitol Mountain catching my eye more than Sanford!
Mount Sanford
Mount Sanford
Flying over the tundra enroute to Sheep Creek
Flying over the tundra enroute to Sheep Creek
Laura landing on the tundra
Laura landing on the tundra
Hiking up the Sheep Creek valley
Hiking up the Sheep Creek valley
My sled I dragged
My sled I dragged
Working through the terminal moraine
Working through the terminal moraine
First views of the lower glacier
First views of the lower glacier
Walking across the flat sandy area
Walking across the flat sandy area
Carrying the sled through this rocky terrain sucked
Carrying the sled through this rocky terrain sucked
Arriving at camp 1
Arriving at camp 1

Between the 5 of us, Emily had her own tent, while Josh and Jamie shared a tent and Laura and I shared my Nemo Tenshi tent. Each tent group ended up mainly responsible for setting up their own camp each day. It didn't take long for us to get the tents up, rock chairs made and dinner started, but Jamie and Josh proceeded to create pavement for their tent pad, removing every single rock, regardless as to how microscopic it was  clown.gif so it took them longer to get their tent up. We all relaxed over dinner, excited to be done with the heaviest day and looking forward to what lie ahead. The weather forecasts from Chris looked great for the next week, so we felt comfortable caching quite a bit of extra items at this first camp. We enjoyed a beautiful senset and got some good rest.

Three is a crowd!
Three is a crowd!
Laura enjoying the warm sun
Laura enjoying the warm sun
Emily's tent
Emily's tent
Our camp with the Sheep Glacier behind
Our camp with the Sheep Glacier behind
Everyone excited!
Everyone excited!
Icy ridge above camp 2 in the sun
Icy ridge above camp 2 in the sun
Sunset over Sanford
Sunset over Sanford

We would make it a habit of setting the alarm for around 4am, which gave us a few hours each morning to get situated, eat breakfast, pack up camp and rope up so we could be moving each day sometime between 6:30 and 7am. I never needed to use the stove in the mornings because I just would eat cereal and powdered milk for breakfast, and would ensure my bottles were all full the afternoon before. Because of this, I would set my alarm for 30-45 minutes later than the rest of the team. By about 7 we were roped up, and ready to go. Laura and I started up first, and the lower glacier was easily navigated and rose only 1200 feet or so of elevation for the first 2.5 miles. As we approached the crevasse field and headwall of the lower glacier, we located a safe route through the crevasses in the middle of the glacier where the angle steepened. Laura and I traded off hauling the red sled up the glacier throughout the day, while Josh took the blue sled the whole second day, since Jamie had it all of day 1.

We made it through the crevasse field without incident, where only two crevasses with defined snow bridges required crossing. All other crevasses were very well buried under copius amounts of snow. Along the entire way, we placed wands every 60-80 meters. Above the crevasses, we reached an area of deeper snow and had to take turns breaking trail the remaining bit to camp 2, which we reached by cutting right above the crevasses to a nice flat bench at the south end of the rocky ridge extending on the west side of the lower Sheep glacier. Here, this ridge dives under the glacier and creates a flat spot at 8200 feet, and a safe spot to camp. We dug tent platforms, a bathroom area and made camp pretty quick under an intense warm sunshine. Both Josh and I were in shorts and tshirt most of the day hiking to camp 2, but due to the lower angle of the sun and the use of SPF 70 sunscreen we didn't get sunburned. Once camp was made, I had my signature Little Annies mac and cheese for dinner, and we got all the stoves going to melt water for everyone. Sleep came pretty easy for me that night.

Making our way up the lower glacier
Making our way up the lower glacier
Route ahead clear
Route ahead clear
Large crevasse off to our left
Large crevasse off to our left
View of the crevasse field
View of the crevasse field
Finally making some vertical headway
Finally making some vertical headway
A crevasse we crossed
A crevasse we crossed
Arriving at camp 2
Arriving at camp 2
The icy rib above camp 2
The icy rib above camp 2
View from tent
View from tent
Capital Mountain now below us
Capital Mountain now below us

Part 2 of this trip report will be finished by the end of this weekend! Stay tuned...

--------------
The Pacific coast to the Great Plains = my playground!!!
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http://www.lemkeclimbs.com

Nancyann, Pef, Dave Weyrick, RAW-dad, reststep
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zephyr
aka friendly hiker



Joined: 21 Jun 2009
Posts: 2684 | TRs | Pics
Location: West Seattle
zephyr
aka friendly hiker
PostSat Jun 26, 2021 7:17 pm 
Matt Lemke wrote:
Matanuska Glacier
Matanuska Glacier

Beautiful glacier shot.  Such a strong team.  Great planning and logistics.  Thanks for filling in those important details in the story.  Well done!   ~z

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Jonny V
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Joined: 20 Jul 2009
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Location: Lake Stevens
Jonny V
Member
PostSat Jun 26, 2021 8:43 pm 
Outstanding piece of writing and photos. Your ability to document the efforts in planning and execution of such an undertaking and yet make it a great story at the same time deserves kudos. Nice work on the mountain and in your report.

--------------
There's time to conceive in
and time to expire
though the time twixt the two
tells the tale that transpires - "Time Waits For No One", Ambrosia
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seawallrunner
dilettante



Joined: 27 Apr 2005
Posts: 3252 | TRs | Pics
Location: Lotusland
seawallrunner
dilettante
PostSun Jun 27, 2021 6:34 am 
Superb trip report, Matt!!

Question for you - would it be possible to have ski boots made for your feet, bespoke?

I remember reading about mountaineers who were getting their hiking boots made to measure, why not ski boots then? Sure it would be expensive, and take time, but far better than suffering in boots that are 1.5 sizes too small.

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Mike Collins
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Joined: 18 Dec 2001
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Mike Collins
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PostSun Jun 27, 2021 7:22 am 
Good on you to organize and complete an ambitious endeavor. Plus you saved a lot of money by arranging it on your own. https://www.steliasguides.com/trips/mt-sanford-expedition/

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ChrisInAKMtns
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Joined: 23 Jun 2008
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ChrisInAKMtns
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PostThu Jul 01, 2021 11:42 am 
Love seeing a trip report from Wrangle-St Elias. One of my favorite places in the world. I think Sanford is more popular with Alaskans than folks that come there to climb. One of our good family friends climbed Sanford almost annually when we were growing up. It was his favorite mountain in the state. Glad you all had a succeessful trip!

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