One challenging state highpoint.Gannett Peak - A Climb by Older Geezers
High point – Wyoming – 13,804’
Brent W. & Michael T.
August 18th through August 23, 2008
I’m going to break this narrative into several pieces. By so doing I hope that the reader will have an opportunity to quickly gloss over portions which may prove of little interest and quickly find other portions deemed more important.
Brent had been to the summit of Gannett Peak two times prior to our trip, the latest sixteen years ago. He was familiar with the intricacies of the hike into the Wind River Range as well as the possible difficulties in attaining the summit. I was going to be the student, he the mentor.
We live in Salt Lake City; the Elkhart trailhead east of Pinedale, Wyoming, is about a four and one half hour drive away. We decided to leave our homes Monday afternoon, drive to the trailhead, camp in the official campgrounds there and begin our hike into the “Winds” the following morning. Above Fremont Lake on the drive to the campgrounds we got our first view of the Wind Rivers and a small, tiny peek of Gannett.
The campsite fee is $12/day, but we were able to stay for six dollars. More on that later. We set up camp and were happy to have water and a toilet facility nearby. We were somewhat surprised at the ubiquitous mosquito population, alive and active, and hoped that things in the mountains would be different. It was not to be – the mosquitoes were thriving in the mountains and they apparently welcomed all dinner guests.
Day Two – Hike To Camp
Knowing that we had a full day ahead of us we arose early, fixed our breakfast, ate, broke up camp and drove the car down to the trailhead parking lot. It was nearly full, cars displaying licenses from many neighboring states. By all indications the Wind River Range was a very popular destination, and it would turn out that we would meet at least a hundred campers, adventurers and backpackers before our 4-day stay in the wilderness was over.
Brent figured that it would take us “about nine hours” to reach our pre-determined camping spot at the north end of Upper Titcomb Lake. The distance to this point, depending upon the map one used, was a minimum of sixteen miles. I did not stop to think about just what it might feel like to carry a 55-pound pack up and down and over and around for a distance of sixteen miles; had I done so, I might have put a halt to the attempt right then and there. But Brent was the mentor, I the student. So let’s get the show on the road!
I will chronicle segment times, elevation gain totals and other miscellaneous details in another section. In round numbers we gained 1,000’ in just over two hours when we reached the famous “Photographer’s Point.” This viewing point is roughly four miles from the trailhead and is a popular turn-around spot for casual day-hikers who seek a good, stimulating hike and a rewarding view of the Winds. Other hikers were there and we chatted briefly with them before descending toward lakes and narrower dusty trails.
That very little rain had fallen in the area was evident by the powdery consistency of the trail dirt. It was impossible to step without causing a sizeable puff of dust. At intervals wooden trail signs were a helpful supplement to either maps or faulty memory banks. The Winds are studded with literally dozens of lakes, small and large. We passed Hobbs Lake, Seneca Lake and eventually ascended a rounded ridge at the top of which we had a wonderful view of Island Lake, a storied camping site for hundreds of backcountry thrill seekers. Brent was quick to point out a distinct white sandy beach at the south end. He remembered it very well from his two earlier trips. Once at Island Lake Brent assured me that we were about 4 miles from our destination.
We had decided before leaving the trailhead that we would take a break every hour. We began with 5-minute breaks but as the day wore on and our packs mysteriously began gaining weight, our breaks lengthened to first ten and then fifteen minutes. Had it not been for these planned breaks, I may not have made it. A confirmed welterweight all of my adult life, my wispy frame was not used to toting around a burden which weighed more than a third of my body weight. As it was, at each break I looked for a place to set down my pack so that I would not have to heft it off the ground when the break was over. A boulder, a fallen tree, a bulky clump of grass – it didn’t matter so long as I could have the pack above ground level. We had a mild south breeze the entire day, and we could literally count the few clouds which occasionally floated across the blue heavens. As the day wore on the winds continually picked up.
We encountered several groups of climbers who had been to Gannett. They were in unanimous agreement that it had been hard and that ropes were almost a necessity. Brent and I looked at each other following each of the several “eye witness” reports and discussed our interpretation of the groups’ assessments. How reliable were they? How experienced were they? How young were they? Their accounts of how long the round trip climb had taken were also unnerving. Most had camped at Bonney Pass; round trip times from that point varied from ten to more than twelve hours. We had no plans to camp at Bonney Pass; there was no way on earth we were considering taking heavy packs up the ascent to that saddle. So the time factor left us wondering, too.
Once we attained the Titcomb Basin it was, for me, a matter of grinding it out, one miserable step at a time. I was tired, I was hot, I was sweaty, and I was beginning to wonder what on earth had prompted me to embark upon this insane adventure. First the lower lake, then the seemingly endless upper lake. We labored along the east sides, focusing on keeping our balance on the rocky, sometimes boggy, trail. At five thirty Brent finally stopped and said, “Here is where I camped sixteen years ago.” We had been hiking over 9 ½ hours. I wanted to cry, but there were more important things to do.
And who had invited all of the mosquitoes? I mean, talk about crashing a party. Heck, they didn’t even wait for us to set up camp before they began launching a series of kamikaze missions on every available exposed portion of our bodies. Using repellant helped to quell the uproar, but it didn’t deter all of them. Only the now strong southerly wind helped us by providing nature’s own mosquito abatement program.
Setting up Brent’s three-man tent in the strong winds was an exercise in patience and tenacity. Cooking our Mountain House freeze dried dinners was fun because we were both near the point of starvation. But we were there; we could see the steep, boulder-strewn slopes and the narrow ribbon of snow leading to Bonney Pass. Fremont Peak was directly to our east and looked, much like the entire set of peaks, formidable and foreboding. We had pitched our tent in the center of a small area of grass; immediately to our east were dozens of huge granite boulders. Ten paces to our west was the brown scar of the hiking trail. A few yards further west the lapping waters of the upper lake played a song mostly drowned out by the loud whistling of the wind. The wide Titcomb Basin sits like a gigantic half pipe and was funneling the southerly winds up to us like a freight train. How long would they last? It reminded me of so many times I had had to endure wind when climbing high peaks: Aconcagua, Ixta, Mt. Rainier, and Humphreys Peak.
We filtered enough water to set us up for the next morning: water for cooking and water to take with us on our first possible summit day. Our original game plan was to hike in on day one, climb either Gannett or Fremont Peak on day two, climb whatever was left on day three and hike out on day four. We were beginning to earnestly think that we had grossly underestimated how tiring the one-day hike in would be.
As all good planners do, we reverted to the “revision” mode of thinking. Given our depleted energy stores we would leave camp tomorrow with the intention of making a summit bid. But we would re-assess our readiness at Bonney Pass and return to camp if we both determined we were not physically ready. Having hiked together for over two years, we are both willing to change plans when necessary, especially in the interest of safety or personal readiness.
With the south wind wreaking havoc outside, we both laughed about the idea of sleeping. I suppose we drifted in and out of various states of sleep, but REM periods were rare. The noise of winds which alternately shriek and howl, die down and suddenly gust to a crashing crescendo, is unsettling to say the least. Later in the evening the bright bulging remains of a three-day old full moon lit up the basin and made things seem eerily luminescent. It was no problem waking up at six o’clock since neither one of us was asleep!
Day Three – Go or No-Go
Sleep is supposed to bring refreshment to tired muscles and joints. It’s supposed to re-fuel cells and give the body a tune-up. Actual sleep does all of those things. But in our case the trouble was we got very little of the stuff. So as we sluggishly dressed, put our smaller summit packs together and ate our cereal, we both admitted that the chances of going all the way to Gannett’s summit today were slim to none. But occasionally the adrenalin kicks in once you begin hiking, and we would follow our plan to assess things at Bonney Pass.
We left camp shortly before eight o’clock and made our way along a trail to the base of the steep scree/boulder mix defining the south side of the ridge making up Bonney Pass. The beauty of the abundant wild flowers made the first hour of the hike quite pleasant. We enjoyed the cool shade of the jutting peaks to our east and felt positive about the whole thing. However, the ascent up the long, steep sections leading directly to the gentle swayback of Bonney Pass grew increasingly aggravating and seemed never-ending. Intrepid hikers coming down once again reiterated their “grueling” experiences attaining the peak, words we didn’t need to hear.
At 10:20 I could at least say that I was at Bonney Pass and enjoying (?) a magnificent view to the north of the Dinwoody Glacier below and the gently rounded summit ridge of Gannett Peak. So it had taken us nearly 2 ½ hours to reach this point, and we knew from Brent’s prior experiences that the work which lay ahead was nothing to be taken lightly. At 12,843’ Bonney Pass was less than 1,000’ below Gannett’s summit. Unfortunately, one must descend to a low point on the Dinwoody Glacier which rests lazily at about 11,580’. The summit climb quickly re-adjusts itself to be made up of 2,200’ of elevation gain on snow, ice and rocky ridges.
We were honest with each other about our physical readiness: we were both languishing somewhere between “pooped” and “tuckered out.” Forty minutes later, after hunkering down behind a rock wind break to snack, we began the descent back to camp, our intentions now firmly in place to make our summit bid the next day. On our way back to camp we scouted out several different routes and decided on one which might save us a few precious minutes from what we had done today. The wind continued to whip and lash. The noise was deafening and made normal conversation impossible.
For the remainder of the day we did our best to rest and prepare for the morrow. As long as the wind was blowing the mosquitoes sought shelter and didn’t bother us. Unfortunately, brief periods without wind came far too often, and we found relief from the little critters only in the tent. So we “napped,” relaxed, talked about the summit day and didn’t worry about how the goal of climbing Fremont Peak had slipped so quietly from our fingers. After all, Gannett was the focal point and Fremont had been merely an appendage, icing on the cake if it was available. Now it wasn’t; we were going to bag Gannett and be very happy about that.
The wind picked up noticeably at dusk, as if on cue from a gale-obsessed conductor, and we spent our second night trying mightily to feign sleep. I believe that Brent was mildly more successful than I was, but the next morning I remembered dreaming, so I must have slept some, right? However, I had been horizontal, weight was off the legs and we were “resting” in the broad sense of the word.
Day Four – Summit Day
Except for the omnipresent tempest the weather was cooperating. Puffy cumulus clouds were racing from west to east and seemed to be growing darker and thicker, but they didn’t have that certain look one associates with thunderstorms or precipitation. Temperatures continued mild. It was summit day – again. Only this time we were more rested and we knew exactly what to expect for the first couple of hours of our journey.
We managed to get away earlier and that proved to be wise. We shortened our time to Bonney Pass by nearly twenty minutes, and once there we were convinced that the rest of the prior afternoon had provided us with the energy we needed to complete our goal. The wind was still pounding us at the pass, just like it had the previous day, but during the descent down the other side toward the Dinwoody Glacier, we were out of the gale-force blast. The meandering steep trail was a nasty mix of scree and precariously balanced boulders, a carbon copy of the south side up which we had just come.
After twenty minutes of picking our way down we stopped to strap on our crampons and unsheathe our ice axes. The glacial snow was firm, for the most part, and marching toward the low point of the glacier took us over countless rivulets of swiftly running glacial melt and spots where the glacier was hard ice rather than snow. Once down on the glacier we again felt the fury of the south wind and resigned ourselves to being in its teeth forever.
At what looked like the glacier’s low point, a spot along the top of a 50’ snow wall or chasm to our left, we stopped briefly to take a GPS reading: 11,580’. What a shame to have to lose all that elevation from Bonney Pass, but that’s the nature of this route. We began a slow walk upward, reaching a stark rocky ridge after being on the glacier for fifty minutes.
We took off the crampons, grabbed a quick bite and scrambled up and over the ridge. More snow, another portion of a glacier, more crampons. I led up the steep slope, carving steps in switchback patterns as best I could. At the top of this section we once again had to remove our crampons to scramble over yet one more long rocky ridge. Then we once again put on the crampons for the final and steepest climb, discovering that the bergschrund was only beginning to form. There was a narrow but visible jagged crack in the snow, like a wobbly charcoal line a young child might have drawn on a sheet of newsprint, perpendicular to our path upward. But that was it. Forty yards further we reached the summit ridge and took off our crampons for the trek to the top.
During the one-hour ascent to the summit we were able to occasionally walk on the top of the snow fields rather than picking our way along the hit-and-miss trail. Boulder hopping and class 2/3 scrambling is noticeably more tiring above 13,000’ than it is at lower elevations. At last we reached what had to be the highest point along the rounded top of the peak, and we looked at each other with smiles of satisfaction breaking out. We high-fived, I let out a sigh of relief, and we said to each other, “We made it. This is it!”
It had taken us a total of 6+34 from our camp, 4+24 from Bonney Pass. We were alone not only on the summit but on the entire trail. We looked in vain for others who might be coming our way; we had seen no one else during any portion of our ascent. We took appropriate pictures, signed one of the summit logs from the extraordinary summit canister, chowed down quickly and set off for the return trip after only 20 minutes on top. Although some ferocious winds had buffeted us as we came up the summit ridge, on the very top they were only blowing about ten miles per hour. The clouds had become mostly overcast, but when we looked in other directions, blue sky ruled. Our visibility on top was excellent; we could even see the Grand Tetons to the west.
At exactly three minutes after two we began the return. It only took us forty-five minutes to reach the really steep snow where the bergschrund was forming. We had no need for ropes but extreme care was necessary. Our winter experiences in the Wasatch Mountains had prepared us for this kind of descent, and we felt comfortable with the snow conditions and our abilities to prevent and avert the disaster of sliding down the glacier out of control. After two hours and twenty minutes we reached the north side of the Dinwoody Glacier and began our one-hour slog across. Once again we were hammered without mercy by the never-ending south winds, and that made for a tiring climb across the wet icy south slope of the glacier. Several times strong gusts nearly blew us over. We just kept going as Brent set a slow, steady, grinding pace.
The glacier now behind us, our boots quite wet, we began the arduous climb up to Bonney Pass, a climb which took forty minutes and a great deal of positive self talk. It took us a little less than four hours to return to Bonney Pass from the summit of Gannett. Alas, there was no welcoming committee to toast our feat with champagne, no party hats, no noise makers, and no confetti. What we had was the infernal wind and about an hour of careful down-climbing which would have to be done by our tired bodies, bodies anxious to find that little nylon dome we were calling home.
After a 10-minute break at the windy pass we began a cautious descent into the Titcomb Basin, knowing that with weary legs the chances of an accident were greatly enhanced. None the less, we arrived back in camp in less than two hours, Our round trip jaunt had taken four minutes less than a total of thirteen hours. Clouds were clearing away; the sun had long since descended below the jutting peaks to our west.
We ate in the tent since the wind continued to blow. It had been a long but satisfying day, and once again – except for the huffing and puffing of the boisterous breezes – we had been blessed with cooperative weather. After dinner we ventured out to filter just enough water to get us going the next day. We did not want to be carrying any more weight out of there than was absolutely necessary, and we knew that we could obtain water easily from any of the half dozen lakes we would encounter on the hike to the TH.
Sometime after midnight Mother Nature took pity on us and caused the winds to first die down and then shift 180º. The northerly winds were only pesky, not ferocious, and it was obvious to us that a dry cool front had passed. For a few wonderful hours we were both able to sleep soundly, the din of the flapping tent only a distant memory.
Day Five – The Hike Out
We awoke at 6 a.m. and quickly downed our cereal and hot chocolate, anxious to finish our packing and break camp for the departure. Clear skies prevailed but the morning was very cool. We welcomed the absence of our old friends, the marauding mosquito bands. We figured that it was too cold for them. We were shouldering our packs by 8 o’clock, both noting with muted elation that the weight was definitely less than that which we had lugged in. In addition, we now had a mild tailwind and the promise of a cooler day but one with pleasant weather. It wasn’t long before we saw several small puddles along the shore which were covered with a sparkling layer of thin ice. Yup, the colder temperatures had nipped the mosquitoes!
We planned to take 10-minute breaks every hour during the exit hike, and we stuck to our intentions religiously. We took an extra ten minutes at Hobbs Lake in order to filter more water, but otherwise we kept to our schedule. So after our eighth break we were giddy with the excitement welling up inside us about seeing the TH, reaching the car, partaking of the cool beverages which we had left behind in an ice chest and finishing our adventure. Indeed, we reached the TH after nine hours’ worth of hiking, and we were at last finished.
Hot showers in The Lodge at Pinedale were a perfect antidote for four long days of hiking. Swiss cheese mushroom burgers and greasy French fries at the Wrangler Café were as tasty as elegant European cuisine, and the beds were like a gift from heaven. A fine ending to a successful Wyoming adventure.
A note of interest may be appropriate: Brent is 67-years old, I am 3 years his junior. Our National Parks Golden Age card entitled us to a 50% discount at the TH campgrounds. Age does have its privileges!
Total hours spent hiking (including entrance and exit): 36.5
Miles hiked (distances may vary according to sources): 55.0
Elevations and lat/long for various points (my GPS numbers):
Elkhart TH: 9,380’ N 43º 00.233 W109º 45.119
Camp: 10,660’ N43º 07.924 W109º 38.297
Bonney Pass: 12,843’ N43º 09.895 W109º 38.316
Dinwoody Glacier: 11,580’ (low point on route taken)
Gannett Peak: 13,834’ N43º 11.052 W109º 39.255
Photographers Point: 10,337’
Hike into to camp: 2,480’
Camp to Bonney Pass: 2,180’
Camp to Gannett & back: 5,770’
Hike out to TH: 1,000’
Total elevation gain for trek: @11,500’ *
* undulations for climbs out of lake basins, etc. taken into account.