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Routes in Sir Sanford Group

East Ridge T 5.7+ 5a 15 V+ 13 MVS 4b R
North Buttress Direct T 5.8+ 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c AI3 X
Northwest Ridge/Standard Route T Easy 5th 1+ 3 I 5 M 1c AI2
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Type: Trad, Ice, Alpine, 3500 ft, Grade III
FA: William Putnam, L R Wallace, 1967
Page Views: 976 total, 11/month
Shared By: Ken Trout on Dec 14, 2010
Admins: Kate Lynn

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The Northwest Ridge didn't catch on until the 1980s, after several near misses with serac avalanches crashing down the 1946 Hourglass route. Why did climbers keep choosing the obviously dangerous lower Hourglass Route? Probably because of the easier approach from the Great Cairn Hut (approx 6,250'). The Northwest Ridge is a safe way to reach the 50 degree ice pitch of the actual hourglass feature above most of the big ice cliffs.

From the hut, traverse to the Sandford Glacier and climb to the junction with the Minaret Col fork of the glacier. Decide how you want to dodge the crevasses and icefall based on current conditions. Aim for the Ravelin-Sanford col on the Northwest Ridge, via easy snow. The col is a possible high bivouac for parties based out of the Great Cairn Hut (approx 8,550').

After the col, stay on the crest of the ridge until difficult gendarmes begin blocking the way (approx 9,000'). Avoid the difficult part of the ridge by moving right of the crest (west). Connect ledges for another 500 feet, then traverse left below the next difficult step (approx 9,700'). Staying on the ridge is reported to be as hard as 5.7 on loose marble with sharp crystals (approx 9,000'-9,700').

Back on the ridge, below the final difficult rock step, there is a choice of routes to gain the summit slopes & ridge. Either dodge the rock by a short traverse left to the 50 degree ice of the Hourglass or attack the rock ridge more directly, rotten 5.7 (approx 9,700'-9.900').

On the way down, two rappels have been used to descend the 5.7 step, or buttress, on the ridge (approx 9,700'-9,900'). It is also possible to rappel the hourglass, if conditions are solid.

The Hourglass ice pitch is the best way, if one can stay close to the rock. The 'schrund may block access to the Hourglass, forcing a too-long traverse left. In that case avalanche exposure becomes a bummer. After the Hourglass pitch, look for a gully to regain the ridge (appox 9,900').

Climb a relatively easy slope to the summit ridge (approx 11,200'). The final ridge is described in some reports as exposed and fun. Others have found a serious double-cornice challenge to reach the summit (exactly 11,555').


Robert Hall
North Conway, NH
  Easy 5th AI2 Steep Snow
Robert Hall   North Conway, NH  
  Easy 5th AI2 Steep Snow
Further comment - the black dots on the photo show the route attempted by the first ascent party two or three times. This is Palmer's "long slope" leading to the 'hourglass'.

However, for historical accuracy, the actual route of first ascent went left of the black lines, starting about 1/2 way up the black dots and moving over to the top of the "small" rock buttress in the "middle" of the face, then up a bit and back right to the ridge. Mar 18, 2016
Robert Hall
North Conway, NH
  Easy 5th AI2 Steep Snow
Robert Hall   North Conway, NH  
  Easy 5th AI2 Steep Snow
A contributory answer to the question: " Why did climbers keep choosing the obviously dangerous lower Hourglass Route? " is probably "The Sir Sandford Glacier Icefall". This chaotic, 700ft-drop, icefall was mentioned more than once in Palmer's 1914 book, which describes the early attempts, and final ascent of, Sir Sanford and many of the other peaks in the area: Adamant, Austerity, Pioneer etc.

At least up to the late 1960's, and I would think even into the 1970's and 80's, this icefall was a significant deterrent to reaching the upper Sir Sandford glacier and the lower portions of the west ridge. The usual route at time was to climb to the Ravelin-Sir Sandford col, then move up the west ridge a bit, then go out right onto the south / south-west face [photo], then climb back onto the ridge below the "Hourglass". I would imagine that glacial recession (which was going on at about 50-100 ft/year even in Palmer's day (1910-1912), has now made the approach to the lower West Ridge safer, if not easier.

In the days before Chouniard's invention of the drooped-pick-ice-axe the Hourglass was a serious slope. If ice, it was generally considered as difficult as any, requiring chopping many steps on very steep ice. (again, "steep" for the day) If snow, it was considered much "easier", but was still serious business as the avalanche potential was always high, and the ice was always just below the surface. Today, of course, one would want the slope to be ice and it would be dispatched easily on front points and two axes. Mar 18, 2016