It all started as an iconic mountaineering trip to Mt. Bona. This may sound confusing given the title, but in a classic Wrangell’s twist, the weather always has the final say. It was my first time at the front of the pack as a guide on a true Alaskan mountain and I had done my homework! Everything there was to know about Mt. Bona – routes, camps, crevasses, previous trip reports, apps downloaded and maps uploaded – I was ready. Or at least that’s what I thought! Before we even left, however, a strong low-front that was hovering over the Pacific finally hit the coast and was threatening to spend the next week sitting over almost the entire Wrangell/St. Elias, including Mt. Bona. Spring storms like this are quite common in the Wrangell/St. Elias National Park, have you seen all the amazing glaciers?!?! Along with these storms come immense amounts of precipitation – The infamous Mt. St. Elias can receive up to 3 meters (10ft) of snow in a single day! As we all convened in the kitchen to discuss our options, our experienced pilot did not seem optimistic about getting into the University Range to drop us off, and conveyed even less optimism that we would spend more than a day or two outside our tents in the following 10 days. As intoxicated as we had all been about the prospect of Bona, we decided it would be more practical to change destinations and hope for better weather.
Located on the north end of the park and standing just 313 feet lower than Mt. Bona at 16,237, Mt. Sanford offered similar challenges and perhaps wouldn’t receive the brunt of the storm. With large crevasse fields, rapidly changing weather, and a multiple camp style assault to combat the high-altitude, Sanford presented all the challenges of a classic Wrangell mountaineering expedition. Perfect! Or at least that’s what I thought! Haha noticing a pattern? Not only had none of the guides been on the mountain before, but instead of being dropped off by a ski-plane on the glaciers below Mt. Bona at 9000ft, we would be dropped off in the tundra 3.5 miles away from the sheep glacier at 4500ft. If that wasn’t hard enough, we also had to travel almost 16 miles, double the distance of the Mt. Bona climb. Oh and we were behind two days after spending a day to consider the options and a day to travel. So to sum it up – roughly the same mountain, no experience or knowledge of terrain, landing in tundra 3.5 miles (5k) away from the glacier, double the distance to summit and back, two fewer days to do it. Game on!
After a scenic drive from McCarthy to Chistochina, or at least I think it was scenic? Not sure actually, I was too busy with my head buried in my phone, looking at maps, pictures, trip reports, just trying to get any beta I could on the route. How many camps should we make, where were the good spots, where were the cracked up sections of glacier, how many nights did we have, what was the weather doing now, are we really doing this! Eventually we arrived and after a short, restless night, were greeted by a beautiful morning. We took turns loading up into a tiny 2-person super cub bush plane and were whisked away one at a time into the looming shadow of the Sanford massif. I was the second to arrive at the landing site and shook my head along with the other guide who was waiting for my arrival. We had both been optimistic but now saw just how far away from the glacier we were….and it was tough not to just start crying! The reason this is so significant is because on an expedition like this, everyone carries a backpack as well as pulls a sled behind them that has all the food, group gear, tents, stoves, etc…there is a lot of stuff for a 10 day trip! On Bona, we could just load up the sleds and drag them behind us right off the plane. Now, instead of pulling the sleds on the snow behind us, we had to carry everything we brought across tundra and rocky moraine for 3.5 miles! No time to waste though – it was going to be a full day of shuttling duffle bags of food, tents, kitchens, wands, sleds, snowshoes, poles, and ice axes. This is when I quickly realized my first two mistakes. First, we brought too much shit! Second, I had decided to wear only ski boots.
I got to work right away. I would shuttle while the other guide waited for people to arrive and directed them to carry gear. Once I established the first shuttle stop, I went back and we switched. We very quickly decided that we weren’t making enough progress so we both carried and told the pilot to tell everyone to just wait until one of us got back. As people arrived one by one, the progress increased but it wasn’t until 20:30 when the bush plane took off for the last time. After making 12 trips in total it finally left us with that amazing, but equally eerie feeling of being totally alone in the mountains. A feeling that I have grown to love! Despite heavy loads, aching feet, and an exhausted group, an amazing push by each individual culminated in all the gear reaching the base of the glacier just before midnight, an immense success for the group. Lucky we were guided by the midnight sun, so we could work late into the night.
After 4 hours of zombie seep, our aching bodies rose early to take advantage of a beautiful morning. Having a fairly tight schedule after the delayed start, we felt a lot of pressure to take advantage of any good weather windows to make progress up the mountain. The traveling became much easier once we were on the glacier. Not only is pulling sleds behind much easier than carrying all that shit in your arms or on your back, but we could also see a lot more of our route, the mountain, and the scenery improved drastically the higher we climbed. We made steady progress over the next four days, carefully working our way up increasingly complex terrain but slowly falling behind our optimistic schedule. Every step was a grinding fight, pulling heavy sleds through deep, fresh snow across the crevassed glaciers and seemingly never-ending storm cycles. We pushed our physical and mental limits every day only sleeping roughly 5 hours a night and constantly breaking trail and route-finding through intermittent whiteouts. As we fell further and further behind our schedule despite our gravest efforts, the summit seemed to be slowly slipping through our fingers.
I think the turning point of the trip happened the evening of the fifth into the sixth day. We had had a delayed start in the morning on the forth day, leaving camp around 15:00 hoping for better weather which never came. Arriving to camp early in the morning after a particularly steep section, the group collapsed as another storm hit and raged all night into the following day. Having to get up several times that night to dig out the tents so they didn’t collapse kept anyone from having a sound sleep. The mountain seemed relentless. We all rested, ate, and hydrated during the fifth day and did what we always did when blessed with a moment of free time…we planned. It became apparent that if we didn’t continue making upward progress, we would most likely be giving up our summit bid, or at least our day to acclimate below the summit block at 14,300ft. But we had worked too hard to roll over that easily!
At 21:00, we gathered the troops. The mountain continued to bombard us and then immediately tease us with brief ‘sucker’ holes before the barrage persisted. In order to continue forward with the summit in our crosshairs, we would have to…well continue forward. The weight of the unrelenting snow slowly crushed our spirits as we packed up our cozy, warm tents. The decision to continue walking through the frigid night during a complete whiteout was quite an intimidating one for me in particular. Although I was followed by another capable guide, it was decided that I would lead the group up to 11,200ft. Now I have spent plenty of time walking blindly in circles in a whiteout with friends before, but never had I done so in a professional manor. There were eight people behind me, I had never seen this terrain before, and it was cold and stormy, and I couldn’t see a dam thing! Nonetheless, armed with a compass around my neck, Gaia in my pocket, and about 150 wands on my back we left the relative safety of camp and marched into the night.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, I counted my steps as my eyes were glued to the compass, following 120 degrees. Check Gaia to make sure my coordinate is right. Seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight, is that a crevasse. I had to strain my eyes to see through the whiteness and darkness for a shadow. Any depression in the snowpack casts a slight shadow on the surface indicating there may be an icy crevasse below. I probe out in front of me for the next five steps to be sure – just my eyes playing tricks again. One hundred forty-eight, one hundred forty-nine, one hundred fifty, I place a wand. One, two, three, four, five, the whole process starts over. Counting is the only thing helping focus my attention. Breaking trail is nice, it keeps my legs working and my heat rate up. I continue walking and staring at the compass, occasionally looking back at the three rope teams following me. The line that a rope makes is a good indication of how straight your walking in a whiteout. I can see my rope team and half of the second, the third is obscured in thick clouds. That’s why I’m putting wands every 150 steps – just in case any team loses the trail. The line looks straight enough which makes me happy but nobody is talking, all heads are looking at the ground. I hope this was the right decision. One hundred forty-nine, one hundred fifty, place wand, check Gaia, readjust to 135 degrees.
This continues for five hours through the night and into the morning. When the terrain begins to steepen, I know we have made it to the planned site. Five hours of intense mental concentration has finally ended and I’ve done my job! The mountain must feel my whole body relax as the storm finally begins to break and the morning sun pours through the clouds. Exhilarated by the success, but simultaneously totally overwhelmed, my co-guide gives me a huge hug and congratulates me on a job well done. His affirmation hit me right in the feels of my exhausted mental state and I almost cried from relief. It’s exactly what I needed and gave me the energy to start shoveling walls for the tents while I hear him start the stoves to melt water.
I say this was the pinnacle of the trip because our whole group decided to put their faith in the guides and march through the night in a total whiteout, bound only by a rope and our communal goal of reaching the summit of Mt. Sanford. The easy decision would have been to wait out the storm in our camp, possibly make up for the lost time later, but most likely give up our ultimate goal. I knew we had a determined group and we had established potentially the most essential bond when travelling through the mountains together, trust.
At 22:00 on the sixth day we arrived to 13,400ft – the highest of our camps. From here, the summit was in our sights. Before we could attempt the summit however, we would have to spend 24 hours acclimating, hydrating, and resting while anxiously awaiting. With the time crunch continually weighing down on us, and knowing we soon had to start back down, our fate lay in the same hands as those who initially denied us our opportunity on Mt. Bona, the weather. Watching the midnight sun set from 13,400ft as we set up our camp and tried to thaw out our stoves was a stunning treat! It was freakin cold though! Not sure what the temperature was but I’d say hovering around -20/-25C, only one of four stoves was functioning! The morning brought sun and the day brought warmth, rest, hydration, recuperation, and of course…more planning! We had poured everything we had into getting here and the next 24 hours would decide whether or not we saw our hard work pay off. Knowing that there was another storm blowing in overnight, and we had to start down by noon the following day, we would head to the summit once the overnight storm broke. Sure enough a storm blew in at high camp at 19:00 on the seventh day and we crawled back into our tents. Before falling asleep, we all packed our bags and fitted our crampons, and readied ourselves for the summit when the time was right.
I lay in my tent staring at the ceiling. I closed my eyes for a minute and all possible scenarios went rushing through my head. I opened them and continued to stare. Then looked over at Kelly, who was also staring at the ceiling. We were both exhausted but a cloud of anticipation and uncertainty stimulated our tired brains. We had set alternating alarms every half hour to check on the storm but it would appear neither of us were going to need them.
It was just about midnight as everyone was drifting off to sleep when the sounds of the wind eased and the pitter-patter of snowflakes hitting the tent wall quieted. Embracing the cold, we left our comfortable sleeping bags and went outside to check the weather. It looked like it was clearing and the storm had ended. We decided to wait 45 minutes just to be certain before we woke everyone up. 20 minutes later in the silence you only get after a storm in the mountains the call rang through the camp ‘Gooooooood morning climbers!’. Groggy but full of excitement the camp sprung to action with busy bodies putting on layers, more layers, well maybe one more layer, boots, over-boots, gloves, over-gloves, gaiters, face mask, another face mask…why not! Leaving camp just before 1am, the thin air was cold and still. Trying to keep fingers and toes warm, we clipped familiarly into our rope teams and crawled out of camp to begin climbing the final 2000ft headwall followed by ~1000ft ascent to the top. We climbed up higher and higher, paralleling the sun as it rose over the horizon to the east, casting hues of magnificent red and orange on a sea of clouds below. We were making amazing time, obliterating our previous average moving time. Whether it was from not having to haul heavy sleds which never seemed to get any lighter no matter how much we ate, or the fact that we couldn’t stop for longer than three seconds for fear of freezing solid, I don’t know. What I do know is exhausted, freezing, and unshakingly motivated, 6 climbers from very different backgrounds united by a single goal climbed until we could climb no more and crested the summit. At 4:54 we stood united and proud as the rising sun illuminated the summit of the 6th tallest mountain in the U.S!
After high fives, hugs, congratulations, and dare I say a few tears, the cold quickly crept into our stationary bones and descent was in order. After a couple pictures and one final merited look around, we marched back down the mountain. It’s at times like these it’s important to remember that mountaineering is only fifty percent uphill. Most accidents happen on the way down and you can see how that could easily be the case when you give everything you have just to get up. With this in mind we had a short rest at 13,400 on the way down. Just after our planned noon departure, the high camp was packed up and the descent all the way back down to the moraine was swift, taking only 7 hours. Everyone had made it up and down the mountain safely.
It didn’t take us very long to break out the 12-pack we buried at the bottom of the glacier on our way up, and after a celebratory couple of beers, we broke out the whiskey! Never has it tasted so good, or gone to our heads so fast! I think we all lost at least ten pounds on that trip and a little beer went a long way. We cooked up the accompanying pizzas we left and were soon full of food, beer, and fast asleep in our tents. Because we had descended the whole mountain ahead of schedule we did not even need an alarm to wake up! 15-hours later our camp rose, ate breakfast, packed up, and started the trek back to the airstrip. Lucky this time we carried almost everything in one trip. Before we knew it, we were flying back to Chistochina, civilization, and our lives. While the victory on the summit itself was short-lived, the memories and lessons learned during the climb will last a lifetime. Congrats to the Sanford climbers of 2019 – as you leave this adventure behind and continue your journey, no doubt your hearts will always remember 16,237ft!