Man, it feels like I haven’t had a good trip for a couple months now. Work has been super busy in Alaska this summer, but fortunately, I was able to get some time off for a trip I’d been planning for a little more than a year. And what a trip it was. This might go down as the single best backpacking trip I’ve done. Ever. It really was that good.

It’s hard to spend much time in the Copper Valley of Eastern Alaska and not see the towering skyline of the Wrangell Mountains on the horizon. I’ve been wanderlusting over a trip out there every since the first time I saw them. Problem is, the country is pretty remote, and there is really no way to get out there, with the exception of a flight on a bush plane. So logistics are a little bit of headache, and the timing has to be uncanny. We had exactly 5 days to pull it off, Sunday morning to Thursday morning, before our responsibilities would beckon us back to reality. Fortunately, Dave over at Copper Valley Air did us a huge favor and penciled us in, perhaps a bit nervous because of our very small window that didn’t leave us much margin in case of inclement weather.

The plan was to fly into Sanford River on the first day, spend a few hours crossing the Sanford Glacier, and then climb up about 2000 vertical feet to a huge plateau between three of the most visible peaks in the range: Mt. Drum, Mt. Sanford, and Mt. Wrangell.

After spending a couple days on the plateau doing some day hikes, we would then descend down to the Dadina River, passing near some huge icefalls on the Dadina Glacier, to a pickup point about 5 miles downriver.

The route appealed to me for a lot of reasons. For one, it’s gotta be one of the most remote places I’ve ever wanted to go. Access is only by plane. Two, it’s the largest national park in the entire national park system. And perhaps one of the least visited. It has HUGE mountains; among the tallest I’ve ever stood at the base of. The southwest face of Sanford must rise something like 10 – 12,000 feet in one vertical wall. Straight up. It was mind blowing. This is Alaska. Real Alaska. Complete wilderness, trailless, and rugged. The chances of seeing another human being are almost zero.

But perhaps the best part of the trip is that (relatively speaking), it’s not that difficult. I’m all about maximizing the pay to play ratio, and this trip was unbelievable in that respect. The hiking isn’t all that difficult, and the views are simply unbelievable. The whole route just never stops delivering.

Flying into the Sanford on Sunday morning we were greeted with a steady rainfall and some nasty clouds hanging low in the valley. I’ll be honest, I was pretty disappointed. The weather forecast was calling for miserable days, full of rain and relatively cold. I couldn’t help but think it was going to be a 5 day disaster, and we’d never see the mountains actually come out.

Turns out, after about 36 hours of rain, we stayed dry the entire rest of the trip. Once up on the plateau, it was like each of the three mountains created a huge rain shadow, so while rain and snow was falling all around us, it was blue skies and beautiful up high. Couldn’t have dreamed it up any better.

Arriving at the Sanford Glacier, there are two options for getting across the river. The river has to be crossed, either by fording it, or by traveling across the moraine. We opted to try and stay dry (even though we were already soaked by this point) and headed up on to the moraine. Before we left the airport, we had read some trip reports from previous years, one of which had photos of a huge ice arch on the glacier. We were determined to find it if it still existed. As we climbed up one stretch of the mud covered ice, I spotted what I was sure was the location of the former arch, now collapsed and basically just a giant canyon. Such is the dynamic nature of such a place. We wandered a few hundred yards past, and casually glanced back behind us, only to find that there was a second arch, this one every bit as dramatic as the one we imagine had melted away over the last few months.

The glacial arch was mind-blowing. Imagining the forces that shape the ice into such bizarre shapes and contortions can keep the mind entertained for hours. While standing near the arch, we could hear the ice exploding, calving, melting, and splashing to the ground. One can only wonder how much longer this one will stand.

Crossing the moraine proved to be slow and methodical, but a pretty enjoyable way to “murder an afternoon,” as Lauren says. Picking your way around the glacier is not terribly difficult, but there were multiple times where the thin layer of gravel would give way to black, polished ice, and it was impossible to do anything but slide where ever gravity wanted to take you. Fortunately, the route finding was straight forward, and there wasn’t many places that gave much pause for concern.

Without a doubt, the least enjoyable portion of the trip is the bushwacking to get up (and down the other side) of the plateau. Again, the scale is decieving and what looks like it should take an hour ends up taking two or three. Nevertheless, after some choice swear words directed at the labyrinth of willows that constantly tried to swallow our ankles, we arrived on the plateau, in time to set up camp for the evening.

Once up top, the place is a wonderland for day hikes. Small satellite peaks and ridges drift off the plateau in every direction, and great campsites are virtually unlimited. We opted for a site right on the edge of the plateau, looking down over the Sanford Glacier. Ended up being a fortunate place to camp, as we were treated to another amazing sight; a rainbow appeared directly over the glacier during a brief pause from the storm making it’s way through the valley.

A couple of days worth of dayhiking, and it was time to head back down the far end, down a steep scree drainage, and join up with the Dadina river, which would lead us to our pickup point. I somewhat dreaded that last day, imagining the hike to be much less enjoyable than the views we had up on top, so I took my time packing up and getting going. I have no idea why I expected to be anything less than amazed, as we headed over the far ridge, and got our first glimpse of the icefall on the Dadina Glacier.

The sheer scale of the glacier is beyond description. I’d seen it multiple times from the air, but never stood next to it. I imagine it drops 500 vertical feet, as the ice folds and buckles and smashes into the rocky canyon below it. Waterfalls poured out from every little fold in the ice, and you could hear the power of unleashing as chunks of ice and rock exploded under the colossal pressures. Simply unbelievable.

We left the icefall after lunch, and continued down the lateral moraine to the river, where we had to make a few quick and easy river crossings. Very quickly, the dadina picked up a lot of momentum, and it was obvious that we were not going to be crossing it again, if the route necessitated it. Of course, a mile or so down, the braided river made a huge arroyo cut into the bank on the side of the river we were traveling. The options are simple. Ford the powerful river, or bushwack. We chose the latter.

No more than 5 minutes into the bushwack, we picked up on countless signs of bear. Tracks, scat, more tracks, more scat. After some nervous moments pounding through dense willows, we made it back to the streambed, where the river finally gave us some reasonable passage. Couple more miles downriver, and the party was all over.

6:45 a.m. came much too early, as we were rattled out of bed by a pilot who was 4 hours earlier than we anticipated. Not that we were complaining. The realities of returning to work later that afternoon had already crept into our heads, and we were happy to get back on the road as quickly as possible. It was an unforgettable trip in some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever passed through.

Special thanks to Pilot Dave for his help, and of course, the patience of Lauren for putting up with my nonstop nonsense.