Forum Index > Trip Reports > Mount Sanford, Alaska, 16237 feet - June 2021: Part 2
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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
PostSun Jun 27, 2021 12:04 am 
Continued from Part 1

Upon awaking the next morning to Jamie and Josh moving around camp, Laura and I rolled over and rested for another 30 minutes before emerging for the morning. It was 4:30am and the sun had already been above the horizon for well over an hour. Once we were all packed up, we continued up the mountain passing to the right of a large ridge bisecting the narrowest part of the Sheep Glacier as the route rises between two very large cliffy parts of the mountain. To the right (west), a 3000 foot cliff drops off and to the left, over the ridge we traversed along the base of there is a huge icefall on the Boulder Glacier that drops 4000 feet. Mellow 20-30 degree slopes between these two features allow easy passage to the upper part of the mountain however. Also, since the ridge was blocking the sun in the morning as we ascended from 8200 feet at camp 2 to about 9500 feet, we were in the shade, which allowed firm snow perfect for travelling up without post-holing.

We reached the top of the hill and the terrain mellowed out quite a bit at 9800 feet. The next 1000 feet of gain to camp 3 was on a very broad ridge as we worked our way towards the large flat bench at 10,800 feet. Despite the terrain getting flatter, hauling the sled was starting to get more tiring. Luckily the sun was still out, and the light puffy cloud variety occationally gave us a repreive from the intense sunshine. Laura and I continued until we found a suitable spot on the very wide flat area to make camp. This was an impressivly large flat region of the mountain about a half square mile in size, but looked much smaller than it really is since there was nothing but white on the ground with the occational large crevasse or serac in the distance. It was extremely hard to get a frame of reference. From this spot, the summit was directly in front of us, and looked pretty close by, but in reality it was still 5 miles away, and 5500 feet higher! We setup camp, digging nice platforms and enjoyed a nice nap in the tents before starting the process of melting snow once again.

Sunrise from camp 2
Sunrise from camp 2
View up our route to the right of ridge
View up our route to the right of ridge
Jamie's tent at camp 2
Jamie's tent at camp 2
Looking down Sheep Creek Valley
Looking down Sheep Creek Valley
Starting up towards camp 3
Starting up towards camp 3
On the broad ridge about 10,000 feet
On the broad ridge about 10,000 feet
Sheep Glacier far below
Sheep Glacier far below
Capital Mountain
Capital Mountain
A sea of ice
A sea of ice
Jamie, Josh and Emily
Jamie, Josh and Emily
Extra wands
Extra wands
Camp 3 with the summit above
Camp 3 with the summit above
View of the summit from camp 3
View of the summit from camp 3

We cached more gear, including the red sled at camp 3 and left a bunch of extra food and wands in the duffel bag with the sled. We only wanted to be at high camp at most two nights, and with the promising weather forecast, we were able to shave a lot of weight here. Again, at about 4am the next morning we emerged, ate breakfast and packed up camp to begin another 2400 feet of elevation gain to high camp. It didn't take long though for us to begin post-holing down about a foot on most steps as we began ascending the 20 degree north facing slope to the big saddle just NW of the summit. The north slopes are generally a leeward slope so excess snow gets deposited on these aspects which made our progress more difficult. Jamie, Laura and I rotated breaking trail for the team, while Josh again hauled the blue sled all the way from camp 3 to high camp. Thankfully the sled was fairly light at this point, with just Jamie's and Emily's tents, and 120 wands remaining in the sled. After about 6 hours, we reached high camp at 13,200 feet and I made sure to choose a spot where we could have sun in both the afternoon and early in the morning without being shaded by the lower peak to the west or from the main summit to the southeast.

We again broke out the shovels and started digging...at which point I again had this song stuck in my head all afternoon...along with every other day we made camp in the snow  embarassedlaugh.gif

With camp made, I went into the tent and only everged once for the rest of the day. Digging tent platforms with cooking pits at the foot of the tent makes it easy to do everything from the tent without the need to walk around. I mostly just laid in the sleeping bag the rest of the evening until it was time to wake up the following morning. We began our summit day under slightly cloudier skies, but our forecast called for light winds and partly cloudy skies all day. The route from high camp to the summit thankfully was on firmer snow for the most part. At 7am we started walking towards the final NW facing slope that rose 3000 feet to the summit. I broke trail for the first 1500 feet, which we made great time gaining. Mount Drum off to the west became visible once we were about 500 feet above high camp. At 14700 feet we took a good break knowing we were halfway up from high camp. The sky was still somewhat clear, but a dark band of clouds from the north was slowly getting closer. Mount Drum was already getting shrouded in at this point and I began to worry we may not see anything from the summit.

We pressed on, now with Josh breaking trail. He continued breaking trail the rest of the way to the summit, with the steepest part of the route from 15300 to 15800. The grade steepened slightly to about 35 degrees at 15300 and for the next 400 feet our pace slowed as we started to feel some elevation. Just before reaching the large flat plateau at 15850 feet, we came upon a huge crevasse that we were forced to job left to find a way across. This is the point it started to become a whiteout which made the navigation around this monsterous crack a little challenging. Without incident though, we emerged onto the flat summit plateau. All that remained was a 0.6 mile walk on very gently inclined snow to the highest point. Brief clearings would greet us with a short lived view but then quickly fog up again as we made a beeline for the summit. We were thankful to have been wanding the entire way up since it was looking like our descent was going to be in a whiteout as the thickness of the clouds got worse. When we reached what appeared to be the summit, we had to make a handful of GPS checks to confirm we were actually on the highest point. Oddly enough, likely due to the large amounts of snow accumulated on the summit plateau, all three of the GPS devices we had amongst ourselves were reading a current elevation over 50 feet higher than the published summit elevation of the mountain. We all had a short lived celebration standing on the summit, but weren't able to stay long as the weather was getting worse and starting to snow harder. So much for a perfect summit view!

Moving up to high camp
Moving up to high camp
Nearing high camp
Nearing high camp
Summit of Sanford ahead
Summit of Sanford ahead
Our high camp at 13200 feet
Our high camp at 13200 feet
Sunset from high camp
Sunset from high camp
Camp 4 with the summit behind
Camp 4 with the summit behind
Mount Drum as we ascend to the summit
Mount Drum as we ascend to the summit
Snow features from wind
Snow features from wind
The lower peak of Sanford
The lower peak of Sanford
Entering a whiteout
Entering a whiteout
On the summit
On the summit
Summit pose
Summit pose

As tired as we were, we all felt strong going the final 3000 feet to the summit, and kept a consistent pace without stopping much the whole way up. It took us a few minutes shy of 7 hours to get from high camp to the top, which is exactly what I estimated it would take us. Personally I was feeling some effects of the elevation, considering that due to the thinner northern latitude atmospere, we were more likely in an oxygen environment roughly equilivent to 17500 feet in the equitorial latitudes. This is the highest I have been since April of 2018 when I climbed Illimani. I did climb Puncak Jaya in August of 2019, and while it is only about 200 feet lower than Sanford, it being very close to the equator I did not really feel any effects of elevation there.

When we were all ready to begin the descent, I offered to lead us down following the wands back to camp. It was not too bad navigating back across the large summit plateau, but once we dropped over the edge, the fog thickened considerably to the point where I could not make out anything, and with the snow falling very hard at this point, and sideways due to the wind, it became very difficult to even tell what was up vs down. With no one else ahead of me to provide a frame of reference, I was literally leading blind, unable to see any features in the surface where my feet were stepping. I could have walked over an icefall and wouldn't have known it, however having the wands that we placed on the way up enabled us to pick our way through and slowly make progress back down. Occationally I would not be able to see the next wand, and would stand scanning my eyes as hard as I could, all while trying to keep my sense of direction and balance in the total whiteout. Soon enough we were below 15000 feet, then down to 14500 feet, however since I was leading the entire way down, it proved just as taxing as the ascent for me, since the effort required to be first down such a thick whiteout, constantly scouring for the wands and keeping myself from falling over was mentally extremely difficult.

I pressed on though, and we got below 14000 feet, at which point the fog thinned out a little, and spotting the wands became easier. The final 500 feet down and across the broad saddle area back to camp the clouds opened up quite a bit and the snow stopped. In just the few hours we were up there, a foot of snow fell on the mountain above 14000 feet, and since it covered the firm snow we hiked up on, we also were constantly sliding out as our snowshoes would turn into skis and I did end up falling over a few times because of this when I couldn't see the ground in the whiteout. Laura and I pressed ahead once the clouds lifted and continued on to camp. Once there, we had to dig out the tent a bit since about 6 inches of snow fell at camp. After digging out, I drank a little water and went right to bed without making dinner. For me, the descent ended up being more draining on my body than the ascent, solely because of the mental evergy required to navigate in the whiteout...not the physical component.

I slept quite well for the rest of the evening, despite a minor headache and not eating, and woke up refreshed around the time the sun was setting, and I peered out to clear skies once again. What a sight that was. I then went back to sleep. We didn't bother waking up super early the following morning considering we were just heading back down the mountain. We wanted to make it all the way back to camp 1 and be off the snow/ice and back on bare ground. We packed up camp and Laura and I went on ahead starting back downto camp 3. Unfortunately the fresh snow covered our trench from the way up so we had to re-break trail down to camp 3, but since it was downhill it was not too bad. On the way down, we got perhaps the clearest view of Denali, Foraker and Hunter in the Alaska Range off to the northwest. We could also see the Chugach range off to the west. Unfortunately due to the whiteout we had on summit day, we never saw the view towards the south, and therefore completely missed seeing the St. Elias Mountains. Laura and I got to camp 3 and waited for Josh, Jamie and Emily to work their way down. The sled was causing some headaches for them, but eventually Emily got into the sled to weight it down and make it slide down easier, and to keep it from constantly tipping over. While Laura and I waited, she patched up a hole that had formed in my sleeping bag, and we relaxed on the foam pad.

Once they arrived, we rounded up all the wands we had collected so far on the way down plus the 100 we had stashed at camp 3 earlier, and placed them into a hole dug into the snow and burned them, using some of the extra white gas to accelerate it. This saved us over 20 pounds of stuff to haul out. As we started to work further down the mountain, Laura and I wanted to use the red sled for its intended purpose; to actually sled! So once the terrain got slightly steeper, we took turns bombing down the mountain in the sled. It made the descent significantly more enjoyable, and allowed us to move very quickly. Josh and Jamie also took turns riding down in the blue sled, until we all reached camp 2. Here we collected our cache, which mainly consisted of my other pair of boots and we roped back up to get down the crevasse field just below camp 2.

Laura and I made it through the lower crevasses, but we did notice quite a few more crevasses starting to become visible in this area. To keep the red sled under control, she tied the front of the sled to her harness out in front, and I attached the back of the sled to the front of my harness to keep it from sliding down past her, and we more or less tag-teamed it, and it worked pretty well to keep it upright. Once below the final crevasse, Laura took the sled for another long ride down the rest of the hill to where the glacier nearly completely flattened. She easily made one continuous ride of at least a quarter mile, which was a surpirse to me considering how soft and wet the snow had become on the lower glacier. I was post-holing sometimes to my knees even with the snowsoes on making the final walk out pretty bad.

Jamie, JOsh and Emaily eventually caught up to us just as we reached the last half mile or so of the glacier, and at this point large areas ofbare ice was now exposed, that was still snow covered when we hiked in. In just 5 days at least a foot or two of snow had melted off the glacier! We came to a small flow of fresh icewater running down the surface of the ice which offered fantastic and clean drinking water for us all. By mid-afternoon we were back on the rocks at camp 1 and we put up the tents once more, feasted on the extra food we cached here earlier, and basked in the evening sunlight, and watched what was the most colorful sunset of the trip. Right through the gap where the sun was setting we noticed that Denali was visible, which we hadn't noticed on the way up.

Descending in a whiteout
Descending in a whiteout
Following the wands down
Following the wands down
A brief clearing
A brief clearing
Reaching the tents at high camp
Reaching the tents at high camp
Looking back at the summit the next morning
Looking back at the summit the next morning
View back at Sanford under fresh snow
View back at Sanford under fresh snow
Laura leading us down
Laura leading us down
Interesting snow formations
Interesting snow formations
Burning the wands
Burning the wands
Jamie sledding down above camp 2
Jamie sledding down above camp 2
Laura sledding down
Laura sledding down
Laura sledding with the lower glacier visible
Laura sledding with the lower glacier visible
Descending through the crevasse field
Descending through the crevasse field
Back at camp 1
Back at camp 1
Celebratory pose with the whole team
Celebratory pose with the whole team
Sunset from camp 1
Sunset from camp 1
Look carefully and you can see Denali
Look carefully and you can see Denali

The following morning, we finished the hike back down to the landing area down at 4400 feet. It only took us a few hours to get there despite the packs getting heavier once again. Laura decided to tie the red sled to her pack and we did not have anything in it, while Jamie again dragged his blue sled over all the rocks and tundra. We had high hopes of getting picked up that afternoon, but after a conversation over the Inreach with Copper Valley Air, their schedule didn't enable them to pick us up for another two days. We would have to wait in Sheep Creek for two nights until we could be picked up. Not a huge deal though as we were able to explore the area quite a bit. Josh and I made an attempt to climb Capital Mountain across the Boulder River Valley and off to the east, however when we reached the Boulder River, it would have been not too difficult to cross in the morning when we initially arrived, but later in the afternoon, it could easily have doubled in size, so we opted to abandon the attempt. We hiked up one of the higher hills on the ancient moraine below the terminus of the Boulder Glacier, which is the larger glacier that dumps due north off from Sanford, guarded by the 4000 foot seral headwall. We relaxed atop a nice hill just above a small hidden lake with a great view back up Sheep Creek to where our tents were by the landing zone. After an hour enjoying the views and taking in the majesty of the Alaskan wilderness, we returned back to the tents, and believe it or not, it started raining about 2:30pm. Good thing we didn't continue to Capital Mountain, as it rained most of the rest of the afternoon.

Finally, on Tuesday morning, we all got picked up, along with another group of three who had flown in for a few days after we had started up the mountain. They met us at the landing zone that morning and all 8 of us safely got back to Chistochina one by one, which took until after noon to finish. Katy was notified by both myself and the Boniak's the day before, so she was almost to Glenallen by the time we all arrived back. We had just enough time to get another hardware store pizza, and a ton of ice cream before she arrived. I happily tipped our pilot, and we re-organized all our gear, loaded it up and were on our way back towards Anchorage that afternoon.

Back on rocks!
Back on rocks!
Reflection pools on the moraine
Reflection pools on the moraine
Small ponds amongst the tussocks in Sheep Creek
Small ponds amongst the tussocks in Sheep Creek
Capital Mountain again in the distance
Capital Mountain again in the distance
Sheep Creek valley
Sheep Creek valley
Hiking on the Boulder Glacier moraines
Hiking on the Boulder Glacier moraines
A surprise hidden lake
A surprise hidden lake
The Boulder River we opted not to cross
The Boulder River we opted not to cross
Mount Sanford again!
Mount Sanford again!
Atop our little hill looking back up Sheep Creek
Atop our little hill looking back up Sheep Creek
Sanford
Sanford
Looking north down Boulder River
Looking north down Boulder River
Rainbow over Capital Mountain
Rainbow over Capital Mountain

We saw a few moose on the drive back to Anchorage, and spent the remaining few days we had left just exploring a bit, relaxing in town at my favorite cafe (Middle Way), shopping at the Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking store, going to breweries, biking the coast trail, visiting museums, getting pies, having a celebratory dinner at my friend Chirs and Lynne's home, and taking the infamous 26 glacier cruise out of Whittier. Katy was so nice and took us around to a handful of places during this time, including to Whittier and back! The glacier cruise is something I had a little personal connection to, because I had been sea kayaking for nearly a week in Blackstone Bay outside of Whittier back in 2015, and we hiked up a peak that we were later informed had never been climbed before. We rented the sea kayak in Whittier and I have incredibly fond memories of this place, and remember well enduring the difficult kayak back up Passage Canal on a windy, choppy day with large boats going by us. I was excited to return to Whittier, and to my surprise, the same guy was operating the Alaska Sea Kayak rental facility there in town, although he did not remember me.

We grabbed some ice cream before the cruise, and boarded the boat shortly after noon. The 5.5 hour ride was actually a great trip despite the things I say about touristy things. The catamaran style clipper got to speeds of 45 knots, making it a windy place to be standing on the bow! We were lucky with the weather and even had some sunbreaks. We rode right up to the end of College Fjord to within a quarter mile of the calving Harvard glacier, which juts vertically up about 400 feet out of the fjord. In the 15 minutes or so we were idling there, we saw two gigantic calving events where 200 foot long ice chunks just fell into the water. Amazingly, this is one of the few glaciers that is still advancing, and is overtaking trees and shrubs on the shores of the fjord. Mostly visible high above the glacier is Mount Marcus Baker, the highest peak in the Chugach Mountains. Its summit was clouded over though. We also saw hundreds of sea otters, sea lions, and even some killer whales swim up close to the boat.

Moose on the Glenn highway
Moose on the Glenn highway
The boat goes 45 knots!
The boat goes 45 knots!
College Flord reflections
College Flord reflections
Sea lions on the iceberg
Sea lions on the iceberg
Harvard Glacier
Harvard Glacier
Mount Marcus Baker is visible on the left
Mount Marcus Baker is visible on the left
Lots and lots if ice chunks
Lots and lots if ice chunks
Loads of people watching the glacier calving
Loads of people watching the glacier calving
Marcus Baker seen high above the Harvard glacier
Marcus Baker seen high above the Harvard glacier
Cascade Glacier
Cascade Glacier
Sometimes, people manage to snag a photo of me
Sometimes, people manage to snag a photo of me
One of my favorite shots from the cruise
One of my favorite shots from the cruise
Sea otters
Sea otters
Killer whale
Killer whale

Below is a video I took of the biggest calving event we saw from the boat. Fast forward to 1:45 if you want to skip the waiting...


The trip ironicallty ended exactly where it started...back at the Sockeye Inn for our final night before our flights back to Seattle. After staying two nights at the backpackers hostel in Anchorage, the only place we could find for a Friday night was the Sockeye Inn. Next door to the Sockeye is an axe throwing place which we decided to all try out...no one else was there and we all had a blast seeing who could throw axes and blades the best. There might have been some life size jenga involved as well...of which I lost! We all made it back to Seattle, and dispersed our own separate ways, but this is definitely a trip I will never forget, and am thankful to have enjoyed the trip with great company.


Map of the Sheep Glacier route we took to the summit

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

Nancyann, Pef, RichP, Dave Weyrick, reststep  seawallrunner
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reststep
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reststep
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PostSun Jun 27, 2021 8:06 am 
Well done. Thanks for sharing Matt.

Just out of curiosity, I was wondering how you control the sleds when riding them down the mountain.

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"The mountains are calling and I must go." - John Muir
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cascadetraverser
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PostSun Jun 27, 2021 10:44 am 
Matt: Great report and yet another TR from you from an unusual place.  You don`t see lots of visits to this part of Alaska, period.  Many years ago, I knew a ranger up there who suggested I check out Wrangler St. Elias NP, so I did and hiked the area due east of your Mt. Sanford trip around the Jacksina river for several weeks solo.  It was beautiful and lonely with good wildlife sightings and nice views of Mt. Sanford but the rivers were fierce. Nice to see your climbing report, as I looked at it afar and wondered what that would be like.....

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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
PostSun Jun 27, 2021 6:04 pm 
reststep wrote:
Well done. Thanks for sharing Matt.

Just out of curiosity, I was wondering how you control the sleds when riding them down the mountain.

Ice axe... just as if we were glissading smile.gif
It was also good to tether ourselves to the sled as we went down. We may have had to go chasing after one of them at some point...

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The Pacific coast to the Great Plains = my playground!!!
SummitPost Profile
See my website at:
http://www.lemkeclimbs.com
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Brian R
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Brian R
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PostTue Jun 29, 2021 10:50 pm 
Incredible! My only Wrangell trip was "Donohoe Peak" above the confluence of the Kennicott and Root Glaciers back in the 90s--with my 10 year old son. Mount Blackburn was glorious on our summit day. We earlier drove past Drum, Sanford, Wrangell on the way to McCarthy and I always wanted to climb one of them. Running out of years to do it.  Again, thanks for sharing such a rare trip!

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NWtrax
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PostMon Jul 12, 2021 1:26 pm 
Thanks for all the effort in putting the report together. What a great trip!

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