By Ryan Smith, Guide
It all started as an iconic Alaska 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. Deciding it would be more practical to change destinations and hope for better weather than sit in a tent in inclement weather for a week on Mt. Bona, a crew of six clients and three guides selected Mt. Sanford as a worthy contender. Standing just 313 feet below Mt. Bona at 16,237, Mt. Sanford would offer similar challenges with large crevasse fields, rapidly changing weather, and high-altitude Wrangell Mountaineering.
The faces of the climbers lit up with nervous excitement when they received news of the additional challenges that they’d be faced with on Mt. Sanford. For instance, instead of being dropped off by a ski-plane on the glaciers below Mt. Bona at 9000ft, they would be dropped off in the tundra 3.5 miles away from the glacier at 4500ft. If that wasn’t hard enough, they would also have to travel almost 16 miles, double the distance of the Mt. Bona climb. But they were ready for the challenge!
After a scenic drive to Chistochina, the climbers loaded up into a tiny super cub bush plane and were whisked away one at a time into the looming shadow of the Sanford massif. Ahead of them was going to be a full day of shuttling duffle bags full of enough food and gear to sustain 9 people for 10 days across 3.5 miles of rolling tundra and rocky moraine to the toe of the glacier. Despite heavy loads and aching feet, all the gear reached the base of the glacier before midnight. Aching bodies from hauling rose early to take advantage of a beautiful morning, knowing that a building storm was on its way.
Having a fairly tight schedule after the delayed start, the crew had to take advantage of any good weather windows to make progress up the mountain. Over the next 5 days the climbers worked hard to slowly put miles behind and feet underneath them. Every step was a grinding fight, pulling heavy sleds on snowshoes through deep, fresh powder snow across the crevassed glaciers and seemingly never-ending storm cycles. In order to continue making progress during challenging weather conditions, they were even forced to climb through some nights when the days were too stormy to travel, ensuring a little progress every day.
After 5 days pushing their physical and mental limits with sleep becoming increasingly rare, at 10pm on the 6th day they arrived to 13,400ft – the highest of their camps. From here, the summit was in their sights and the weather was breaking. Before they could attempt for the summit however, they would have to spend 24 hours acclimating, hydrating, and resting while nervously awaiting the summit bid. With the time crunch becoming more apparent and knowing they soon had to start back down, it was up to Mother Nature as to whether or not all their hard work was going to pay off. A storm blew in at high camp around 7pm on the 7th day and they crawled back into their tents (having already packed their bags and fitted their crampons, ready to go for the summit). Their only opportunity to summit would be immediately after the storm cleared and they wanted to be ready.
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. A short while later in the silence you only get after a storm in the mountains the call rang through the camp ‘Gooooooood morning climbers!’. It was time. Leaving camp just before 1am, the thin air was cold and still. Trying to keep fingers and toes warm, they clipped familiarly into the rope and crawled out of camp to begin the final 3000ft ascent to the top. They 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. Exhausted, freezing, and full of emotion, 6 climbers from very different backgrounds united by a single goal crested the summit until they could climb no more and at 4:54am stood together in awe on the summit of the 6th tallest mountain in the U.S!
After high fives, hugs, and dare I say a few tears, the cold quickly crept into their now stationary bones and descent was in order. After a short rest at 13,400, the high camp was packed up and the descent back down to the moraine was swift, taking only 7 hours. 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.