Trip preparationSince hiking the Lizard Head Loop in the southern Wind River Range last August (and a few more encouraging words from Steve C!), our group couldn’t wait to get back to the Winds, this time to try to summit Gannett Peak in the spring and taste the northern section of the Winds. Since we all live many states away, this trip had to be planned and plane tickets bought far in advance. We chose late May for our attempt due to June schedule conflicts for some of us as well as to get an alternate experience to summer conditions. We knew the round trip mileage was around 40 and decided on a 5-day schedule, 2 days to high camp above Titcomb Lakes, 1 for summit day, and 2 to hike out. This didn’t leave much room for weather delays while in the high country but we were willing to take a chance. Plus most of us couldn’t afford more vacation days!
Steve C’s friend Jeb was planning on joining us for the adventure, but business conflicts arose last minute and was not able to make it. A 4-man team for the summit was finalized at that point. We called the Pinedale Ranger Station several times within a couple months of the trip to check snow fall and obtain advice. Anita at the Station wasn’t exactly the resource we were hoping for, but she was kind enough to refer us to the guys at the Great Outdoor Store in Pinedale. I called the store for both rental gear reservations and more advice. They were more than willing to share some personal advice on road conditions to Elkhart campground, terrain for XC ski use and other gear decisions.
We decided to fly into Jackson on Tuesday May 25th in the afternoon. Steve C, Steve G and I came from the Chicago area and Doug from Tampa. After a couple hour delay due to a late bag arrival (I love flying), we got the final food and gear items and headed to Pinedale to pick up our XC skis and snowshoes. We asked about conditions one last time as we were at the Store and Josh was very helpful with advice and answers. He informed us we’d be able to use the skiis for most of the miles up to Bonney Pass (about 17 one-way). All the lakes would be frozen over and the grades would be manageable up to that point on skis. Another guy at the Store (we refer to him as “Greybeard” or the more popular “Negative Nancy”) was delighted to tell us that we will never make it to the top and back in 5 days. “Been here 14 years, never been done from the west in 5 days with this much snow,” he confidently pointed out. Surprised faces, we joked around with the guys and shrugged it off, thanked them for the advice and headed to Elkhart Park Campground. The drive is short from Pinedale and we made our way through some final minor snow drifts and ruts the last 2 miles of the road and parked in an empty lot. The trail will be all ours for the week, we thought.
After checking the register at the trailhead, (only one entry that stated “Got to top and ran into rotten snow! Had to turn back!”) we decided to get a head start on the trail that evening, strapped on our skis and took off down the trail around 7 pm. We only hiked about a mile in or so after some getting used to managing the sled on the cross-sloped trail in skis. It wasn’t an easy task, especially for a couple of us that hasn’t spent much time on XC skis before. We could tell the snowpack was soft at that time of day and without the skis we would have been postholing right away. The snowshoes probably would have done a decent job as well that first mile. We were advised by the boys at the Great Outdoor Store to get an early start each day in order to stay on top of the snow pack as much as possible before the sun warmed up the crust and postholing to our thighs became overwhelming. We decided to follow their advice and after a hot dinner, we climbed into our sleeping bags around 10 and set our watch alarms for 2 AM.
Day 1 – Wednesday, May 25, 2010 – to upper Little Seneca Lake (9 miles)2:00 AM came WAY too early and climbing out of my cozy bag in the sub-20 degree night was not the happiest thought in my mind. Nevertheless, we got our packing done and got off to a bit of a late start around 3:45 AM. The snow was nice and crusty that morning and we were able to stay on top of the snow with our snowshoes pretty well. Steve C was the only one that didn’t bring snowshoes as he was excited to use his new AT skis for this trip. We wanted to get as far as possible in order to make the next day shorter and get some good rest before the big summit day. We carried one Earthwalk Press Map & Guide to the Northern Wind River Range (1:24,000), several USGS 7.5 minute maps and one GPS with uploaded trail waypoints for the route up to Titcomb Lakes Basin. Thank God we had that GPS! On the Earthwalk Press map, the trail seemed obvious, but finding the trail with that much snow cover proved to be a very difficult task. The GPS (operated skillfully by Steve G) was a blessing to have and kept us within 100’ of the trail for most of the way. The heavy cloud cover the last couple days of the hike seemed to affect the GPS’ accuracy a bit, but not to the point where it was troublesome.
With one sled in tow (thanks to the handy work construction from Steve C), we decided to load it with all the group gear (cooking equipment, tents, shovels, 60-meter rope, etc.) and food. I think it probably weighed in around 60-80 lbs at the start (yes we carry too much food). I think overall the sled was a help, but it was a hell of an effort to pull that thing up some of the slopes, making our pace around 1 mile/hour average. We took a short detour towards Miller Lake around mile 3 that day, but quickly got back on Pole Creek Trail and headed towards Barbara Lake. One nice aspect of spring hiking in the high country of the WRR is that the lakes are crossable and can shave off some distance. With a significant amount of snow and cold in April and May this year, we were told the lakes would be well frozen, possibly opening up a bit around the shorelines. That is exactly what we found the first day. After Barbara Lake, the trail heads northeast to Hobbs Lake. Josh advised us to cut down to Hobbs Lake once we see it, cross it and head uphill on the east side of the lake to take a direct line towards the south shore of Seneca Lake. We did exactly that and managed to get to the shoreline around noon or so. Here we unstrapped our shoes and donned the skis for the last stretch of the day. We stayed on top of the lake snow as the sun hadn’t melted the crust yet. Steve G got a nice surprise about halfway across Seneca when his ski cracked through the snow 2 feet, a pretty weird feeling when you’re in the middle of that monster!
We followed the drainage ditch after Seneca Lake to Little Seneca Lake and the XC skis managed fine on the gentle upslope. Steve’s C’s AT skis seemed like the way to go on a trip like this though as he stayed on top of the snow more and could handle steeper grades. Mind you, I realized this trip that I may very well be the most unbalanced person on skis when the downhill slope is anything more than 0.1% grade. Impossible to stop on those things I tell you! I suppose my pack wasn’t helping the matter. By the time we threw our packs off at camp we were all exhausted. The postholing became worse as the day went on, so we decided to set our alarms for 11 PM that night in order to get on the trail around 1.
Day 2 – Thursday, May 26, 2010 – upper Little Seneca Lake to upper Titcomb Lakes Basin (7 miles)Again it took a bit of effort to get out of our bags in the middle of the chilly night but we got moving out of camp by 1:45 AM. With lots of clear skies and sunlight it turned out to be a beautiful stretch of the wilderness. We made decent time this day, stopping for lunch along the way and arriving to high camp around 11 AM or so. Crossing the lakes with the skis helped a lot, but the postholing late morning slowed us up some. It wasn’t near as bad as the hike out however, after a couple of warm days made the snow as soft as a 7/11 slushy. To quote Greybeard, “You’ll slog your way along in 3 feet of crap snow – worst snow in the country”. This quote gave us many the laughs over our 5 days! We set up camp high in the basin around 11,300’, just below Bonney Pass but out of the risk areas of avalanche slides that flanked us to the east and west. After 3 more hours of melting snow we got to bed around 4 PM hoping to get some shuteye before our midnight wakeup.
Day 3 – Friday, May 28, 2010 – Summit DayAfter a hot breakfast we strapped on the crampons and harnesses and got on the move by 1:45 AM. The summit day from this camp is a long one as we had to go over Bonney Pass (12,800’), down onto Dinwoody Glacier to get around the first ridge (11,600’) and then up Gannett to top out at 13,808’. We were pleased with a full moon and mostly clear skies which allowed us to climb to Bonney Pass by moonlight. This was a lucky deal for me particularly since my headlamp gave me trouble throughout the trip. We got to the top of Bonney Pass just over 2 hours, taking turns leading the way up the slope and kicking in steps. Avalanche danger was minimal based on the conditions.
At the top of Bonney Pass we got our first glimpse of Gannett, what a sight! It loomed large and directly in front of us from the pass, holding a heavy snow covered peak and top ridge. We couldn’t wait to start making the climb to the top. Dinwoody Glacier showed no exposed crevasses and by the photos posted here you can tell the significant amount of snow that remained from the spring’s storms. There was a ton of snow on top of the glacier. After rounding Ridge I (no name on the map) south of Gooseneck Pinnacle ridge, we crossed over Gooseneck ridge at a lower elevation and made our way straight up Gooseneck Glacier. This eastern exposure of Gannett Peak’s glaciers receives a lot of morning sunlight and there wasn’t a single slide anywhere to be seen. The snow was consolidated well but nonetheless soft throughout and we were up to our knees and thighs in the white stuff for all of Gooseneck Glacier. It was very slow going.
By the time we got up to the ridge crest of Gannett that sweeps to the east towards the summit, the winds from the north picked up heavily. Gusts came over the ridge and were strong enough to wobble us on our feet so we roped with about 300’ of elevation to go. There were some perilous cornices along the summit ridge as well and I was thankful we brought the rope. This was the only time we used the rope on the trip (except for hauling the sled up some steep slopes on the last day). We topped out around 11:15 AM and wow, what a view! So many beautiful snow capped peaks and winter wonderland! We took a few photos and started our way back down after 20 minutes on top. We knew we had a long way to go still to get back to camp.
After a few short glissades and sloppy down-stepping down Gooseneck Glacier, gray clouds and storms rolled in as we started climbing back up to Bonney Pass. The hike back up to the pass was brutal by this point; relentless step-kicking and postholing. Doug was an animal though as he managed to lead the entire way up to the pass (you rock man)! Not ready for what was come, the wind and sleet at the top of the pass was downright insane. We were met with steady 70+ mph winds and sleet that stung the face. As Steve G put it when we got back to the campsite around 5 PM “Is my face bleeding!?” Wow, what a day. We melted more snow, changed our socks and ate dinner as quickly as possible, longing for a good sleep.
Day 4 – Saturday, May 29, 2010 – high camp to lower Seneca LakeWith the weather beginning to turn the day before, we weren’t surprised to awake at 2 AM to more wind and sleet. We got on the trail around 3:30 and stayed close to each other as visibility was poor. A bit warmer nighttime temps and cloud cover made for softer snow crust and a very long day. The wind and sleet sporadically came and went throughout the day. The short uphills of 250’ rise or so pulling the sled proved to be quite a workout. Crossing the lakes was a bit more “exciting” this time around as the past few warm days had softened and melted some of the snow cover on top of the ice. The first dozen or so “slushy” breakthroughs on this ice cover gave us a few uneasy smiles, but we silently reminded ourselves there was a solid icesheet underneath the 10” or so of slush. The “mostly waterproof” rental ski shoes proved to be just that – mostly. We also had to take a few minor detours to get on and off the lakes due to the melting ice at the shorelines. By the time we were across the Seneca Lakes, sopping wet socks and cold toes were the result. We were more than ready for “Thanksgiving Dinner” that night, a wonderful concoction of stuffing, cranberry, and chicken goodness that was nothing short of awesome. Steve G’s platypus of cabernet that he stashed at Camp 2 and picked up a few hours earlier made a perfect supplement to the goodness! Stove-Top? I’m staying!
Day 5 – Sunday, May 30, 2010 – lower Seneca Lake to Elkhart CampgroundMild nighttime temps and more cloud cover made our last day out of the Winds a frustrating one. Steve C stayed on top of the snow fairly well with his AT skis, but the rest of us on snowshoes postholed up to our thighs or more no less than several hundred times. Once we cracked through the top crust, the underneath snow pack was unconsolidated and crystallized. Very exhausting, but we made it back to the car by our goal of 10 AM. Cold cans of Newcastle under the SUV welcomed us at the parking lot. I don’t think beer has ever tasted so good. We sat outside the car, slurping our cold beers and smiling from ear to ear for a good hour. We got anxious to get back into town for greasy burgers though, as well as to return our gear and tell Greybeard of our success! Alas it was a disappointing rental return as he was not there to eat his words. Oh well, I guess we’ll have to email him a summit shot!
This was an adventure to say the least, a bit of a change from the trout fishing and campfires from last August. The snow conditions of the climb were very difficult but well worth it. The Winds showed to be as challenging for us as they were beautiful. Can’t wait to get back!