Prelude to an AdventureThings were going really well. It was September 2009 and I had just summited Mauna Kea and Mount Whitney inside of nine days to bump my state highpoint total to 45. The concept of failure was largely foreign to me and it didn't seem that much of anything was going to stand in my way of reaching the zenith of each of the 50 States.
And then reality hit. In late 2009 and early 2010, I spent months planning an attempt of Gannett Peak with Holsti 97 and several others. The trip ultimately proved successful but I watched from the sidelines as a family emergency occurred at the last possible second. Fast forward now to March 2011 when a planned guided attempt of Mount Hood fell apart due to weather and avalanche conditions. I still had a good ski trip, but as far as highpointing was concerned, Stella had clearly lost her groove.
Instead of crying in my beer, I started to think big. I was quickly growing frustrated of planning week-long trips and having them come apart at the seams. I reassessed and realized that four of my five remaining highpoints were in the same geographical region and therefore doable in one grand trip. Train for them once, acclimatize for them once and hopefully bag them all in one fell swoop.
So it was decided. Hood. Rainier. Gannett. Granite. July 2012. Go big or go home.
Mount Hood: Off to a Slow StartMy plane landed in Salt Lake City on July 8, 2012 and on several levels, I think I had already lost my battle with Mount Hood. In the lead-up to my trip, there had been two bad falls on the same South Side route that I intended to attempt. One of the falls was fatal; the other resulted in a broken leg. Of the four summits I planned to attempt, Mount Hood would be my only unguided peak and I would be trying it solo. The accidents by fellow soloists had gotten in my head and I couldn't shake the thought that an injury on my first peak was going to ruin my entire trip.
When I arrived in Government Camp, Oregon, my concerns were only magnified as I examined the route. The Old Chute appeared both longer and steeper than it had during my visit in March 2011, undoubtedly a result of the snow melt much later in the season. Instead of the 40-45 degree slope that I remembered, I found myself studying a 60 degree angle. Also, the weather had been warm, making the route more prone to objective hazards. When I arrived on July 9, I had doubts. And by the time I completed a scouting hike to the top of the Palmer ski lifts on July 10, I decided that the mountain was best left for another day.
Disappointed but not defeated, I scored a climber's permit for Mount Saint Helen's for the following day and hiked about two-thirds of the way to the summit in what turned out to be a great training hike for Mount Rainier.
By this point in the trip, although I had not summited anything, I was beginning to get in a good outdoors rhythm. I'd had two fun hikes on Mount Hood and Mount St. Helen's respectively and had also spent three nights sleeping in my tent in nearby campgrounds. I felt as though I was starting to "get my zen on" and felt very much in the right state of mind for the mountain challenges that lied ahead.
Mount Rainier: July 13 - 16, 2012I rolled into Ashford, Washington on July 13 and was ready to climb something. My energy soared while I obsessed over the Disappointment Cleaver route to the summit of Mount Rainier. I resisted the urge to go hiking on one of the many trails in Mount Rainier National Park and spent the early part of the day lingering around the Paradise Visitor's Center at the base of the mountain before heading for an orientation meeting at International Mountain Guides headquarters. The gear check went well as did the initial meeting with my fellow clients on my first-ever guided mountain trip. But man, I was a bundle of nerves on the inside and couldn't wait to get on the mountain. After the meeting, I settled in for the night at Whittaker's bunkhouse and assorted my backpack just right for the following morning.
Once on the lower slopes of Rainier by mid-morning on the 14th, I settled easily into the forced rhythm of my first-ever group climb. It felt slow, for sure, but I knew the guide service had this down to a science and it was kind of nice to not be the rabbit on the trail for once. The Muir snowfield was steep enough but not exhausting by any stretch and some cloud cover kept the temperatures very comfortable for uphill hiking.
By mid-afternoon, we had put 4,500 feet of vertical gain under our feet and arrived at Camp Muir, where we would be staying in one of the huts for the night. For someone used to pitching a tent and cooking freeze-dried meals during backcountry outings, I have to admit it was pretty nice to have all the basics taken care of for you. Once in camp, it was time to kick back, relax and recoup. I soon began to understand why they call this guided thing "going deluxe."
It was also here that I really fell in love with IMG's three-day program. While we occupied half of the hut, an RMI group was just arriving as well but they would enjoy only a short break before starting a summit bid around midnight. For us, it would be a relaxing evening followed by a light agenda on Day 2. After breakfast on the 15th, we had an enjoyable snow school before moving up another 1,000 feet to our high camp at Ingraham Flats. Again, by the time the day was over, I still felt strong and knew I had a lot in my tank for our summit bid, which would be beginning in the wee hours of the morning.
After crawling into my tent around 7 PM and trying to get a few winks, the first signs that something was off came around midnight when I overheard a guide talking to a climber reporting back from a sunset summit. The report was not good ... the mountain was socked in by clouds with high winds all the way from our high camp to the summit. I crawled out of my tent minutes later for a nature call and told my tentmate that I didn't think we'd be going anywhere anytime soon. But just a couple of hours later, we got the wake-up call that we were "going to give it the old college try." The skies had cleared significantly and it seemed we might have the window we needed to make a run at the summit.
At 3 AM, we departed camp and started making our way up Disappointment Cleaver. I was excited at the possibility of summiting Rainier but also very cautious of my footing in working my way up the rocky cleaver in crampons. We were making good time. I was second in line behind the lead guide and it was cool to watch the Chinese Dragon of headlamps behind us in the dark as the rest of my group as well as an RMI group and some unguided climbers followed in our footsteps.
At the top of the cleaver, the conversation about the weather began. The guides were wary of the skies but for now, it was still all systems go. Between 12,000 and 13,000 feet, we had clouds both above and below us and before long, we were socked in. Our breaks were very short and our pace picked up as did the winds with increasing elevation. We took an abbreviated rest at 13,500 feet and most of the climbers continued to add layers until we all decided to leave on our heavy puffys for the push to the crater rim. The guides were all business now and kept us on the move until we finally crested the southeast crater rim just after 8 AM on July 16 in a full white-out and 50 MPH winds. Of all the peaks I've climbed in the last 20 years, I don't think I've ever seen as much excitement as when we emerged onto the roof of Washington. It was war whoops and high fives all around. I even hugged the lead guide and told her I loved her.
But the top of Rainier was no place to linger on this day. We stayed for just a few minutes, took some summit photos and then high-tailed it out of there before conditions had the chance to deteriorate even more. But as the descent began, we were now face first into the wind and within minutes, my glacier glasses completely iced over. No time to complain. I glanced over the top of my glasses and closed my left eye to protect it. For the remainder of the next 2,000 vertical feet of descent to the top of Disappointment Cleaver, the only visibility I had was through my half-open right eye. At the point we finally stopped for a break, my entire team was thoroughly covered in rime ice. This probably would have made a great picture, but I was so tired by this point that digging the camera out was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I ate and drank and just watched the ice fall off of me in clumps.
The rest of the descent to Paradise was largely uneventful. As we continued down the Muir snowfields in the middle of the afternoon, the skies suddenly cleared, revealing Mount Rainier in all of its majesty as if the weather we endured that morning had never even happened. What a mountain! What a day!
Gannett Peak: July 20 - 24, 2012For the next three days, I would bask in the glow of a successful climb as I moved my way east towards Wyoming and my next objective. I didn't want to spend too much time in the car and stopped at nearly every rest area to stretch my legs. Immediately after leaving Rainier, I worked my way towards I-90 and stopped in Fife, Washington on my first night off the mountain. The next two nights would be spent in Missoula, Montana and Idaho Falls, Idaho respectively before rolling into Jackson, Wyoming on July 19 for my gear check with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.
One of the first things I noticed upon walking into the JHMG offices in Jackson was how much of a more laid back operation it seemed to be. It's not that IMG gave off a bad aura nor that JHMG didn't have its act together. It's just that the energy was entirely different. IMG was a by the numbers outfit whereas JHMG seemed to have a lot of built-in flexibility. I shouldn't have been surprised since JHMG had allowed me some leeway in creative financing for my Gannett-Granite agenda.
The following morning, I met my guide and team at the Crowheart General Store on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Whereas my eight-man team on Rainier had four guides, my Gannett attempt would just have one guide and three clients. We would all succeed or all fail as a team. I wasn't quite sure I was thrilled with this arrangement but tried to focus instead on the experiential nature of this five-day trip rather than a Type-A focus on the summit or nothing. There were additionally two porters hired by my fellow climbers to assist with carrying their gear. We were all excited and ready to go.
The trip started with a 90-minute ride across the rutted dirt roads of the Indian Reservation to the Cold Springs trailhead at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet. While this "taxi ride" costs more than $300, it also cuts off a significant amount of time and distance in the approach to the most remote highpoint in the lower 48 ... the 13,804 foot Gannett Peak can scarcely be seen from anywhere in the front country. After the taxi drop-off in the late morning hours, we settled into a nice groove, both gaining about 1,500 feet in elevation to the top of Scenic Pass and then giving back several hundred feet to our first night's campsite at Echo Lake.
I don't mean to drive the Rainier comparisons into the ground, but what a different mountain. Though our low camp on Gannett was at a similar elevation as Rainier's Camp Muir, we basked in grasslands and an idyllic lake setting at more than 10,000 feet on Gannett. On Rainier, we had already been solidly on the ice and snow long before reaching this height.
Day two brought more cross-country travel on the approach to Dinwoody Glacier, where the real assault on Gannett's summit would begin. In many respects, during the first two days of the Gannett trip, I felt like I was on a trip with the Boy Scouts even though we were evenly split between three men and three women. The camaraderie was good, the stress was non-existent and we were pretty much just walking through some incredible backcountry scenery with not a care in the world.
The reality of mountain climbing re-entered the picture at the end of the second day with a not-so-easy 1,000 foot scramble (with full packs) up the boulder field leading to the base of Dinwoody Glacier. Although most summit parties camp at the bottom of the boulder field, JHMG elects for a somewhat easier summit day, eliminating not just 1,000 feet of vertical but also an awkward boulder-hopping in the dark session to begin the assault on the summit. All things considered, I felt this increased our odds of summiting Gannett.
The wake-up call the next morning came around 3 AM and we were on the way up the glacier right around 4 AM. Not a lot of climbing in the dark, but an early start nonetheless. The challenge of the day lay in the many changes in an out of crampons. It had been a low snow year on Gannett and the warmth of summer had melted away much of the snow pack, leaving the route in a state of constant transitions between climbing on rock and climbing on snow. All things considered, we spent far more time out of crampons than we did in them, but had several switches on our way up the route.
Things continued to go smoothly on summit day as we worked our way up towards the crux of the route ... the snowbridge at the bergschrund at the base of Gooseneck Couloir and the climb up the couloir itself. Much to our satisfaction, the snowbridge was still "in" despite the low snow and warm temperatures, but to our chagrin, the bridge was no more than four or five inches thick. We hoped the 10-foot long bridge over the 20-foot deep bergschrund would hold our weight and with the aid of a few Hail Mary's, we all made it across the gap. Once across, the snow heading up the 50-degree couloir was very soft and provided solid footing. Just like that, we were at the top of the Gooseneck, feeling very good about our chances of summiting.
And on this day, the weather Gods would stay on our side as we worked up the fairly mellow although highly exposed summit ridge. Right around 9 AM on July 22, we climbed onto the summit rock, with all of Wyoming under our feet. State Highpoint #47 for me and quite a great feeling.
The descent went slowly, but we all gradually worked our way down the slopes of Gannett until rolling into high camp a little after 2 PM. Although we had enjoyed fine weather for most of the day, we arrived at our tents just in time to avoid getting caught in an afternoon thunderstorm. Once the weather passed, I spent as much time as I could outside of my tent, just soaking in the majesty of the Wind River Range.
The next two days would give me plenty of more opportunities to soak in the Winds as we hiked back to our starting point at the Cold Springs trailhead. All things considered, I would have to say I expected more of a battle from the mighty Gannett Peak. Almost everyone I know rates Gannett as a harder climb than Rainier. But for me, Rainier had been a slugfest whereas success on Gannett had come without any major hurdles.
Granite Peak: July 28 - 31, 2012Once off the mountain and out of the Winds, I returned to Dubois, Wyoming for a night of rest and relaxation before traveling to Cody, Wyoming the next day. I spent the next two nights at a tent site at the Ponderosa Campground, keeping with the theme of my trip of spending as much time as possible in the great outdoors. Yellowstone National Park was tantalizingly close and I felt almost obligated to visit, but in the end, I decided to spend my time in Cody in a secluded corner of the campground reading David Roberts' "Finding Everett Ruess." This would also put me where I needed to be on July 27 for a half-day pre-Granite Peak rock climbing course that would take place just outside of Cody.
By this point in the trip, I felt incredibly strong and confident in my chances of completing my own personal three-peat. While I've had many great mountain trips over the last 20 years, I knew that bagging Rainier, Gannett and Granite in a span of just over two weeks would be a feat I would likely never top. Even so, I kept reminding myself that the experience on the mountain was far more important than the summit itself. Granite Peak is a magnificent mountain within the spectacular Beartooth Range and I didn't want to reduce this peak to nothing more than a summit rock.
Friday's half-day rock climbing course was fun and pretty easy ... mostly an exercise in confidence building and client evaluation for the Class 5 moves we would be doing on summit day. The following morning, our team of five clients, two guides and one porter met for breakfast in Red Lodge, Montana and then drove caravan-style to the West Rosebud trailhead to begin our four-day climb.
As we set out on the trail, I couldn't have felt any more at ease. Over the last few weeks, the trail had started to become my home and the lead guide seemed more than happy to let me jump out in front of the group on the initial well-trodden portion of trail. I tried to keep my pace in check and stopped periodically to let my fellow clients catch up. Of the three big highpoints I had been on during my guided trips, I enjoyed the early portion of this hike the most. It was austere from the very beginning and it wasn't long before we reached a viewpoint of Mystic Lake. I couldn't believe I was here. For years, I had been reading about and looking at pictures of Mystic Lake and Froze-to-Death plateau and now the lake lay right before my eyes. No longer did it dwell in my dreams or imagination, but it would be part of my life experience from this point forward.
What a trip it had been. And yet Granite held more magic in store. We moved past the lake and up the switchbacks towards FTD plateau, rapidly putting a couple of thousand feet of elevation under our feet. Again, the group dynamic was fantastic. Not only did the clients tolerate each other, but we all seemed to like one another. As morning turned to afternoon, the skies began to threaten and we stopped for a short while before stepping onto the highly exposed Froze-to-Death plateau.
Once the dark clouds passed without anything more than a few rumbles of thunder, we left the trail and started up Heartbreak Hill. The guides told the one porter that he could go ahead and start to set up our low camp. Viewing this as a challenge, I tried to keep pace with the young, sturdy porter until realizing that I was just a bit too old to stay with him. My new goal became just to keep him in sight. Since we were now off-trail and I didn't know the way, I knew that once I lost sight of him I would have to stop and wait for the group. Just as I was about to give up, I saw the porter arrive at our tents. Not that it was a competition, but I was more than happy to be the first client to get into camp.
Now anyone who has ever camped on Froze-to-Death plateau is probably already aware, but the friendliness of the mountain goats in the area came as quite a shock to me. It seems that they are quite salt-deprived and every time the goats saw you move to an area where you might be contributing salty fluids to the rocks, they were sure to follow. It almost goes without saying that it was quite interesting to be answering nature's call with a few mountain goats lapping up every drop as it hit the ground.
Day two brought a fairly mellow agenda as we moved from the lower part of Froze-to-Death plateau to its upper reaches at nearly 12,000 feet ... just 800 vertical feet below the summit of Granite. If only we didn't have to give up 700 feet first thing the following morning, it would have been so much easier. What an impressive peak. As we reached high camp, it wasn't hard to be awed by the mountain and even intimidated by what we would be attempting in just 12 hours.
The wake-up call couldn't have come soon enough. I had caught a few winks here and there but it was hard to contain my excitement. During my sleepless periods, I easily discerned that it was a warm and windless night. The weather couldn't have been better and I knew all the odds were in our favor for a successful ascent. A quick cup of coffee and a couple of bites to eat and we were on our way through the dark by 4:30 AM.
Once out of camp, I must say that the descent through the scree to the notch proved a little trickier than I expected. Not anything too difficult but there wasn't any sort of reliable path to follow. It was mostly an exercise in precarious boulder-hopping in more clothes than were necessary until we reached the notch around daybreak and shed a couple of layers. From here, we worked our way up some class 2 and 3 terrain that in many ways reminded me of the upper reaches of Kings Peak, Utah. I mentioned my assessment to another highpointing client, who readily agreed.
Before long, we reached the snowbridge (actually more of a snow-crossing of a couloir) and the start of the technical terrain. We all roped up and were separated into two teams. My rope team and I watched as one of the clients initially balked at the technical terrain. For several minutes, we all wondered whether we would be losing both a guide and a client who was clearly having issues with exposure. We rooted for our fellow client and were pleased as the JHMG guide skillfully coached her through the start of the roped maneuvers. To everyone's delight, the situation soon took care of itself and once on the move, the client had no further issues.
As for me, I was loving every second of it. I anchored my rope team and had the duty of cleaning the gear as we moved through the Class 4 and 5 rock. The holds were great and I felt at many times as if the rope was unnecessary. Had I been unroped, however, I'm quite sure I would have had much less confidence. I was climbing with another client from New York State who seemed to be relishing every moment as much as I and at one point I mentioned to him that this climb rated as one of the coolest things I'd ever done.
We moved well through the chimneys and catwalks thanks to the expertise of the guides and right around 10 AM on July 30, I stepped onto the roof of Montana with a big old grin on my face. State highpoint #48 had perhaps been the most fun of all and I got to enjoy it under bluebird sunny skies with not a care in the world. For me, at this moment, the mountain was the center of the universe.
We enjoyed a long stay on the summit - perhaps a half of an hour or more - before working our way down. On this day, the downclimb was just as much fun as the ascent had been. We were lowered through some of the steeper sections while other easier areas called for belayed downclimbing. It was pure fun and morning soon turned to afternoon. By the time we finally arrived back at high camp, the spirit of the day was captured in the final few tenths of a mile back to the tent. My 71-year-old tentmate and summit day rope team member is an impressive man. Not only has he ascended all of Colorado's 14,000 foot peaks but has also completed a marathon in each of the 50 states. As we approached camp, both he and one of the guides broke into a sprint towards our tents with me in hot pursuit. My tentmate stuck out a hiking pole to block me from passing and we arrived back at camp laughing like kids. I can't think of any moment that better sums up the spirit of the day and the climb.
Parting ShotJust over a day after our successful Granite climb, we all found ourselves enjoying a celebration lunch at the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe, Montana. For me, it had been an epic climb to cap an epic trip and I was more than ready to go home. On every level, this had been my dream trip and it played out to near perfection. Even if I never climb another mountain, I will feel my highpointing journey has been a success and well worth all the time and effort I've put into it. For the last 11 years, I have had the opportunity to see America from atop its most majestic mountains as well as its puniest hills. I have had the company of my father on 17 highpoints and created countless memories that will live in my mind forever.
But having said all that, I still have a rematch with Mount Hood looming on the the not-so-distant horizon and Denali dreams that need to be addressed. So for now, I will not say "The End." But instead ... to be continued ...