Mountaineering has led me to seek a great many mountain summits. Among the class of topographic waypoints in the journey of my life I have decided to seek are the highest points of elevation in each of the 50 states. 49, I should say more properly as Denali has been taken off that list by spousal fiat. Luckily though, Trina and I have been able to share wonderful memories of the many journeys to the state highpoints we have taken together, as many other couples have done over the years. A bivouac high on Granite Peak, Montana, combined with a climb on a perfect summer day in a cloudless sky, is and will probably always remain my favorite memory in mountaineering.
Back to the subject. While state highpointing is not an extraordinarily demanding pursuit when measured by the airy standards of the alpine royalty, the wandering about all corners of the finest and most diverse country on Earth is not the worst way to spend one’s time. Of course, anyone who has traveled to many of these places knows that the greatest challenge to reaching the zeniths of a great many states is to be able to read a road atlas and guidebook.
However, a few of the state highpoints do present noble and rewarding challenges to set foot on their summits. Many mountaineers regard the highpoint of Wyoming, Gannett Peak, as the most challenging and formidable of the 48 state highpoints. Not bad, when the company includes such lofty and challenging summits as Rainier, Hood, and Granite Peak.
Being one to finish what I start, reaching each of the state summits has been a goal of mine for years, although I have been distracted by other alpine challenges over the last few years, including such fine destinations as the Grand Teton, Mt. Olympus, the California Fourteeners, and various other High Sierra and Cascade volcano playground spots. As the 2004 season rolled around, the mountaineering destination I selected was Gannett Peak, my final highpoint in the western U.S – where the biggest mountain challenges lie.
I selected the July 4 week as the target, somewhat early in the season for a mountain draped with glacial ice, but the many trip reports I read, combined with observations of the character of glacial ice in summers generally, led me to the conclusion that the steep (45 to 60 degree) snow to be climbed would be in its best shape in the early season, after spring avalanche season but before the snow hardened and the bergschrund widened for consumption of unfortunate victims.
Because it was a snow climb on glacier ice, I was looking for a group of larger than two people for the climb. However, unavailability of climbing partners reduced the number back to two. Dave K., being the only person crazy enough to join one of my ill-fated adventures, was to be my partner for the long journey to Gannett’s summit.
On Saturday at 4AM, I dropped Trina and Alexa off at the airport for a week in Ohio with family. Shortly after, Dave and I began the 900 mile drive to Pinedale, Wyoming, passing through hundreds of miles of Nevada and Utah’s ’s not-so-finest terrain along the way, with brief interludes of mountain scenery in the Ruby and Wasatch Mountains. We eventually pulled into Pinedale, a rainy overcast sky being occasionally flashed by crimson-streak lightning bolts from the nearby Wind River Mountains – our target destination. First step, hotel, second step steakhouse to fuel up for the upcoming expedition. The baby back ribs at the Stockmen’s restaurant in Pinedale were some of the finest Dave or I have had.
The next morning, everyone in the town mentioned that the entire summer had been wet and cold, with much spring snow, a contrast to the relatively dry winter I had heard about in the Rockies. The prediction from all of the locals was a miserable slog through miles and miles of wet snow and accompanying bad weather. No reports of joyous summiteers. Dave and I wondered what we were getting ourselves into. Nonetheless, we had driven this far and were not about to leave without giving it the college try. We were encouraged by single ray of light, the Forest Service’s lady’s pronouncement of drier and warmer weather on the way.
There are two main ways to Gannett’s approach, the trailhead at Dubois (the Glacier Trail) coming from the north, and the Elkhart Park trailhead from the southwest. Although the guidebooks and outfitters recommend the northern approach for an easier summit day, we elected the shorter, less topographically and stream-flood challenged Elkhart Park trailhead, as all other Gannett parties seemed to be doing. The bitch of the Elhkart Park approach is the formidable barrier of Bonney Pass on summit day, a relative weakness in the otherwise staunchly defended continental divide that forces the Gannett summit seeker to labor up the steep snow/talus climb up above 12,800’ followed by a descent to 11,400-11,600’ along the way to Gannett’s snow and ice cloaked 13,804 zenith.
Getting the gear sorted in the parking lot, the realization of having to haul almost everything we owned on our backs over 20 rolling miles of mountain terrain, including several miles of post-holing through snow, was countered by our cautious sense of optimism, honed by several epics of the last two years in the Sierra. The sky was cloudy, but we had seen worse.
For a while, we trudged along the gently uphill sloping trail through the forest, getting used to the 70-75 pounds or so on our backs. This was the first backpack of the climbing season for me, quite the unpleasant introduction. Nearing the overlook at Photographer’s Point, about 4-5 miles from the Elkhart Park trailhead, the weather started to darken. Dave and I gloomily put on our rain parkas and it started to hail. This was the first of four or five hail events of the trip, which would be a whole summer’s worth in the High Sierra weekend warrior season.
Our optimism waning, we continued trudging on, up hill and over dale, encountering lovely mountain meadows and stealing away occasional views of the mighty Wind Rivers through the breaks in the sky. After about 10 miles, we reached Seneca Lake. We were happy not to have hiked the rest of the day in the rain, although the endless switchbacks before Seneca were more the tiresome with our monstrous packs. We enjoyed the rest of what was left in the afternoon soaking up the sun and expansive views, Fremont Peak prominent on the horizon. Sightings of the reclusive giant, Gannett, would not be for a few more days. A nice evening turned, of course, to wind and more rain. The axiom “It never rains in the Sierra at night” apparently does not apply to the northern Wind Rivers. Dave’s tent shelter held up great, boding well for the days to come.
The next day, however, gave rise to clear skies and warm temperatures – just like home. Still heavily laden with gear, we tracked onward and upward and downward, reaching several lovely lakes by mid-morning, Island Lake being the nicest, our alpine views improving with each mile. By early afternoon we had reached finally reached the stark, treeless, snow covered Titcomb Basin, to be the site of our base camp for the Gannett summit attempt the next day and beyond if required.
The reports in the sporting goods store, the ranger station, and retreating hikers presented a unified front informing Dave and I that we would be wallowing through thigh deep snow for mile after mile. The truth turned out to be more pleasant as there was lots of snow in the basin, but foot travel, although tedious at times was pretty much a piece of cake for those of us accustomed to monastic suffering in the high mountains.
We skirted the eastern edge of the ice choked Upper and Lower Titcomb Lakes, and headed up 500 more vertical feet to reach our Gannett base camp, at the foot of the base of the route over Bonney Pass. Our camp was located about 11,000 with a view of the Titcomb Lakes to the South and the airy heights of the Wind River high country to the north, west, and east, including the 1,500 west face of the elegant Mt. Helen, which our camp was tucked right beneath. It was definitely a fine place for a mountain retreat, now 20 miles or so from the Elkhart Park trailhead. The beautiful sunny weather did not hurt either.
The long day ahead of us dictated an early alpine start, about 3:00 or so. I was anxious and excited to get going, as I had planned. Weather conditions looked great, and there was not a cloud in the sky on a cold, beautiful starry night. Unfortunately, it was apparent early that morning it was not to be Dave’s day, a sleepless night followed by barfing up his oatmeal before leaving the trail. Usually nimble and agile in the hills, Dave started out the day in slow motion and just got sicker, and headed back before dawn’s early light. Today would not be the day for the summit.
We had planned for a few weather days, so making the best of it I decided to spend the morning enjoying the other mountains in the vicinity. I hiked up the 30 degree snow slopes of Bonney Pass, reaching its crest about 6:30 a.m, in a howling wind, which appears to be a chronic condition of this weakness in the otherwise impervious Continental Divide in the area. I made my way up to near the summit of Merriam Peak, but stopped about 50’ from the summit by a smooth Class 4 block.
The height of the area allowed me to speak with Trina via cell phone for a few seconds, but then the coverage fizzled out. Not taking defeat early and making it a day too shortly, I descended back to the pass and began climbing the Class 2-3 Dinwoody Peak on the other side. After much snow hiking and a little rock hopping, I reached Dinwoody’s easy but diminutive summit block.
From the top of the gentle Dinwoody I glanced upon the mighty Wind Rivers with awe, nothing but steep, seeming impassable terrain guarded viciously by unrelenting steep rock and icy and snowy glacial terrain. One pinnacle just to the south of the peak struck me as particularly sinister, a two-pronged turret guarded by impossibly steep rock on all sides, dropping off thousands of feet into deep icy recesses. I was shocked to then hear a voice calling out near the top of the pinnacle. Two climbers were approaching the nameless, eagle’s nest of a summit. It made me realize just how tough and dangerous mountaineering can be outside of the relatively gentle Sierra, for which relatively few summits demand an extraordinary effort to surmount and retreat.
A leisurely downclimb of Dinwoody Pass and I was back to our sun-kissed camp, where Dave was sleeping and lounging around like a marmot who raided a well-stocked backpack, but feeling better. We would try again tomorrow.
July 7 – Summit Day
Big mountain (relatively so, for a humble intermediate like myself) summit days are my favorite days on Earth, the nervousness and anticipation giving way to setting out with purpose for attainment a long awaited and considered goal, with the usual bonus of being in some of the world’s most beautiful places.
The starry, cloudless night was calm and warm, hardly resembling the first few days of mixed weather. We set out about 3:45 a.m. or so, ice ax and crampons at the ready as we would be on snow or glacier for the entire long day. The going was a bit slow at first given the warm night, which even at 11,000’ plus in Wyoming did not entirely freeze over, causing the occasional annoying posthole. Dave was moving at light speed though, compared to yesterday’s non-starter. Today would be the day.
About 11,700’ or so, the going got easier as we took full advantage of the deep steps made by the party of four or five that slogged their way over Bonney Pass yesterday afternoon, hard and thankless work in such structure-free snow. I was wondering whether they were planning to camp at the pass. My stomach was churning, a frequent but manageable condition that is frequently brought on by climbing steep snow 2-3 hours before dawn’s early light. Maybe it was because I ate my lucky Hostess summit pie, blackberry, during yesterday’s aborted attempt.
About 5:10 or so, as we neared to top of the 12,800’ pass, the sky began to lighten, along with a few wispy clouds unlikely to survive the heat of the morning light. I reached the pass almost right at the magical moment the sun’s rays turned the clouds above a pink-crimson hue, my favorite time of the entire day. The sunrise over Gannett was spectacular, with the faint rays of the morning sun accentuating the golden-brown granite towers and glacial ice of Gannett Peak and its well-fortified neighboring satellite peaks along the Continental Divide. It was worth the effort of the trip just to see nature’s marvelous spectacle on such a fair and pleasant day. However, we had much left to accomplish.
Despite the beauty of the mountain panorama in any direction the eye could see, Bonney Pass itself was not the picture of serenity, with the wind howling and swirling snow blowing about our feet. No one was camped at the pass; the crude stone shelters were socked in with snowdrifts, the only sign of human habitation were two bright tents camped down on the Dinwoody Glacier over 1,000 below us. Bonney Pass is not recommended for the early season Gannett mountaineer.
With the wind still howling, we descended quickly to the Dinwoody Glacier, a miles-long river of gently flowing ice. In the early season of this year, the lower reaches of the glacier had not opened up into a sea of crevasses, only the steeper lobes at the base of the peaks on the Divide had opened for our viewing pleasure. Once we reached the glacier, we roped up, have a brief conversation with the tent-guys between strong gusts of wind, then descended further onto the glacier, heading east towards Gannett’s mighty form.
Gannett itself is protected by extremely steep walls on all sides, its form broken only by the Gooseneck Ridge, which snakes up Gannett’s western flank to the summit ridge, which precipitously then drops off down to the heavily crevassed Gooseneck Glacier. Gooseneck Ridge’s signature feature is the Gooseneck Pinnacle, an airy tower of granite blocking easy access from the lower ridge. As the Gooseneck Glacier represents the greatest weakness to Gannett’s defenses, attaining the crest of the upper ridge is the key to climbing the standard route, the option of the vast majority of Gannett groupies.
We easily descended the Dinwoody Glacier, marveling at the glacial spectacle before us, fun viewing for California mountaineers. We then ascended the easternmost lobe of the Dinwoody to the wide Gooseneck Ridge, easily sidestepping our first crevasse obstacle. Hitting the ridge, we crossed over to its other side via a substantial snow ramp, then kicked steps up a 35 degree snow slope on the other side, all the while taking in the impressive Gooseneck Glacier icefall. Above the snow slope, we then ambled over to below the crux of the route, the steep gully leading to the top of the Gooseneck Gully.
Not knowing what to expect Dave and I hauled some rock pro more than 25 miles or so into the belly of the Wind River Range, not knowing what to expect at the crux gully. Having read other trip reports and seeing pictures of the route, I expected to run into snow or ice guarded by a gaping schrund, which would necessitate climbing steep, difficult rock to the side of the gully to achieve success, all the while worrying about falling into the bottomless hole in the river of ice.
Upon arriving at the crux, I smiled broadly as all we had to face was a few hundred feet of steep, soft snow, no crevasses, even some steps kicked by climbers from the previous few days. I led up the route, kicking steps, even placing a few of the snow pickets to be extra safe. After a short while, we reached the Gooseneck Ridge, having made it past the most difficult part of the route.
Even so, what the mountain gives the mountain takes away elsewhere. In the late season, after gaining the ridge, the rest of the climb is an amble up an easy rock ridge. In the early season, much snow climbing, above frighteningly steep slopes potentially hastening one’s early demise, is required. Our progress then slowed, as the in the interest of safety and our well being fixed belays were required for a while until we reached the final summit ridge. To compound our problem, the clouds were starting to accumulate and darken all around us, necessitating the need for speed.
In its early season conditions, ready and easy progress over the snow ridge is available, but at many places along the ridge a slip is extremely ill advised. Now pushing the pace in the thin altitude, setting a few well times snow pickets and slings around the occasional rock outcrop, we progress along Gannett’s incredible and high summit ridge, nearing success.
Around 1:30 p.m., in ever darkening skies, we reached the summit. It was very rewarding to have reached the most challenging of the highpoints of the lower 48 As expected, incredible views of the Wind Rivers, even the Teton crest far to the northwest despite the amassing clouds. We were somewhat comforted by the fact that we had not heard or seen lightning in many days, including today. Not wanting to test the meterological theory, we only spent about 5 minutes on the summit, snapping a few pictures and exchanging mutual congratulations. We would be the only people on the peak today, just the way I like it best.
We then headed back down the ridge, finally getting a rest near the Gooseneck Pinnacle, the weather starting to improve again. I gave Trina another call – love those summit top calls – and the weather started to worsen yet again. Dave and I could only laugh as it began to snow heavily on our descent of the crux gully, steep but easy in the wet snow conditions. At the bottom of the gully we took our crampons off, in the soft snow we would no longer need them for the day.
The major drawback to the Titcomb approach is all the elevation gain loss over Bonney Pass, including the need to hike back over the pass after the long summit day. After brief thought of a bivouac, we decided to hike back over the pass to our tent and warm down bags. The long, agonizing hike took forever, now it was Dave patiently waiting for me to drag my ass back up the hill. Eventually we made it over the pass into camp, facing ever blackening clouds, hail, and, rain on the way back to camp, which we reached around 9:30 P.M. A most rewarding day in the mountains.
The two day hike back out was sunny and uneventful, with the best part being a brief encounter with a kick-ass group headed up to Gannett, from Davis of all places. I enjoyed swapping war stories and imparting the remaining trip beta that I could remember from our wonderful journey. We later found out they made it to the summit, for which I was quite pleased. It was definitely not a bad way to spend a week’s vacation.