4 Guys, 24 Days…Zero Blisters
Tough Tale by: Taylor Woodward
Mission: A departure by water via sailboat from Bellingham, WA and an attempt of a complete ski descent of the Southwest Ridge of Mt. Saint Elias un-assisted by extraneous support. Our voyage took us through the entire Inside Passage, slipping past the Coast Range, Fairweather Range andthrough the Gulf of Alaska, stopping in Yakutat and onto Icy Bay, spending a month in the Saint Elias Range. Ultimately we would end our trip sailing the last leg into Valdez, AK where an overland journey would see us complete the Alaskan Highway and down to the lower 48.
Team: Our team consisted of four members starting with Steve Hyatt, residing out of Seattle and also the owner of our sailing vessel. Steve’s job was captain for the duration of the trip while his planning and decisions gave us safe journey through the North Pacific Ocean. Tauru Chaw, our food and logistical expert from Phoenix, Arizona, flew in from his travels to be a quintessential teammate. Tauru and Steve have climbed together throughout Asia and North America and trust each other, both on and off rope. David Ghan has been living in Bellingham for the past seven years. David spent his winters snowboarding and climbing in the North Cascades backcountry and was a strong asset to everyone. Taylor Woodward, myself, made the trip over from Bozeman, Montana where I have spent the last four years patrolling in Big Sky, MT. My passion for ski mountaineering and snow science sparked interest in planning the on-mountain segment of the trip.
The Trip: The idea of Mt. Saint Elias from the water was introduced four years ago during a climb on Denali’s Upper West Rib. Steve and I had thrown the idea out that “if we had a boat,” we could begin to contemplate such an endeavor. That fall, Steve’s purchase of the Resolute got the wheels turning and the rest was relative history.
Leaving from Bellingham on April 5th marked the beginning of a 2-month journey that would take us northwards to Alaska, covering over 4,000 miles by land and water after returning home. The trip was divided into three parts; our first phase taking us by water up to Icy Bay via the Inside Passage, a protected waterway that extends from Seattle, WA to the Gulf of Alaska.
The S.V. Resolute, a 1958 Newporter motor sailer weighing in at 16 tons with a full keel was well equipped for the voyage being fully blue water capable. Our speed was maintained at 5 knots, varying with wind direction and speed.
Southeast Alaska provided favorable winds, giving 3 days traveling exclusively by sail, catching southeast winds. Most of British Columbia provided excellent crabbing but drizzle and glassy conditions made for strict planning when dealing with tidal currents. Planning nightly anchorages and maintaining our schedule gave way to constant daily plotting and the consultation of Charlie’s Charts, our maritime bible.
The Gulf of Alaska provided most of the true sailing adventure of the trip. Being on open ocean, the seas were anywhere from 4 to 10 feet and winds out of every direction. The autopilot stopped working during this leg and we took two-hour shifts at the helm throughout the night, keeping a strict bearing towards Cape Yakutat as the Fairweather Range slipped by off the starboard side.
Repeatedly we spotted pods of whales in the Gulf, seeing Mienke, Orca and Humpback. After 19 days and 1200 miles behind us, we pulled into the aptly named Icy Bay at the foot of St. Elias.
There was much mystery involving the base camp approach from the water.
During a recon run up the Taan Fjord, we found out that the Tyndall Glacier had retreated 4 miles from our last topo map update and we were officially off the GPS charts. Not dissuaded, we chose an alternative route through the Chaix Hills incurring a 7-day approach to base camp with all gear totaling 650 pounds. Double and triple carries with sleds were involved to facilitate weight.
From Base Camp we rationed food and prepared for moving up the mountain. The Shale Ridge provided our first objective demonstrating how poor rock can be. Moving to the Bench camp took patience along with double carries and gave us our first skiing opportunities. From the Bench camp we ran into a major obstacle encountering a highly unstable snow pack at 12,000 feet. Our only option was to wait for the slope to stabilize, but repeated additional loading crushed our hopes up high.
After spending 5 days in an igloo waiting for improvement, we decided to head down, still concerned about a reasonable retreat.
After a ski descent from 10,500 feet, Dave and I regrouped at Base Camp bagged first descents all around the lower mountain. Our retreat back to the water was further complicated by the receding snow line and pack ice jamming up Icy Bay, making pick-up impossible. With food and patience running thin, we walked the beach to Kageet Point, 21 miles from the mountain. Our persistence paid off and we were picked up 24 days after starting by George Davis, our Alaskan friend and solitary inhabitant of Icy Bay.
Sailing from Icy Bay to Valdez involved about 220 nautical miles. Traveling by boat again was surreal after slaving on the mountain for nearly a month.
Once again rotating watches, we plotted course around Kayak Island, Hitchinbrook Island, past the Copper River and through Prince William Sound to Valdez, Alaska, the end of our adventure in this spectacular country.
Darn Tough Tested: Before this trip started, I ran into Chris Moon who introduced me to a company that lived up to its name, Darn Tough Socks. I was initially skeptical of any kind of warranty on socks, especially with my track record. Being grateful of our sponsorship, we were all outfitted quite sufficiently with an assortment of socks for the trip.
My personal test came when 5 pairs of socks were to get me through a month in ski boots on a big mountain. Taking care of my feet became first and foremost and after no time I was extremely happy with my socks. Merino Wool is the perfect compliment in wicking and keeping feet dry and the virtually custom fit gave not one blister or even hot spot for the entire team. In the end, the socks stood perfectly stiff from starchiness but still didn’t smell badly like they should have.
I am sold on Darn Tough and firmly believe that the socks might outlast me.