Gannett Peak for Regular People
Gannett Peak is one of the classic alpine and glacier climbs in the United States, but one need not be a mountaineering expert to climb it. The mountain is truly a challenge that requires preparation, but getting to the top is not deeply dangerous nor highly technical. The 50-mile hike to and from the mountain from the east through the Wind River range is strenuous, but rewardingly spectacular.
To commemorate my trip to the 13,804 foot summit of Gannett Peak 10 years ago in mid-August 1997, I am posting this report and photos to encourage other regular people with demanding jobs and schedules who nevertheless want to experience alpine climbing - to set their compass for Gannett Peak.
In my view, the necessary preparation is about the same - in terms of both physical training and gear and supply management - as finishing an Olympic distance 1.5/40/10k triathlon.
My trip took a total of five days: two and a half days of hiking to reach the base of the mountain, a day to ascend and descend back to our base camp, and then one and a half days to hike out. I started from the east at Trail Lake Ranch, but there are several other approaches that have pros and cons that can be researched. Farther down in this post I'll list my daily mileage and the locations of where I camped, with latitude and longitude noted.
In addition to what every camping book will tell you, here are some thoughts from my experience climbing Gannett Peak.
Use Hiking Poles. The trails are occasionally used by horses and are in some places eroded. For much of the hiking approach, the soil of the trail is strewn with rocks too many to constantly step over or around. Hiking poles enable one to place a foot on an uneven rock and maintain balance with confidence. In trips since Gannett where I used a heavy pack, I have hiked in sneakers and used hiking poles for ankle support. I find this results in less stress on my knees and feet.
No Substitute for Actual Training: I was living at sea-level in New Orleans when I took the trip. There are no hills nearby, much less any opportunity to spend time at elevation. I walked miles in my boots up and down St. Charles Avenue several times a week the month before the trip. It did not help at all. My boots were not broken-in and the fact that they did not fit very well went unnoticed. Nor did I get much of a boost carrying my 90 pound pack up and down 25-stories of stairs in my office building for an hour on four separate occasions. My recommendation is that even someone who is reasonably fit and in shape should not consider themselves prepared unless they have used their boots and pack ten times on hilly terrain in the months before the trip. My useless attempts at preparation lead to painfully shredded feet just five miles in to a 50 mile hike.
Buy the Right Gear and Clothing: Don't take a shortcut on this. Rain, wind, snow - be prepared for it all, even in August.
Hire a Guide or Go with an Expert: Gannett Peak is a wonderful goal for a novice climber. It would be very hard for something terrible to happen on the mountain. On the perfect day with perfect conditions on the glacier, one could probably climb it in shorts and sneakers. It is not Everest. But that perfect day is unlikely to happen when you want it, and the safest and easiest way up still requires an understanding of glacier and rock climbing. I was not an expert, and so found a professional guide through a recommendation. He had climbed it at least 10 times before, and even skied down it in the winter.
I would not have wanted to climb this mountain without an expert with me. I especially would have had difficulty finding the precise route to the top - even with it on a map in front of me. It's easy to confuse one pile of snow and gray rock for another, and even a little bit of backtracking can spoil a day's summit attempt. Also, when I climbed the peak, the safest and easiest way up required 50-100 feet of climbing a wet, near-vertical rock face that had at its bottom a deep crevasse. The rock had plenty of hand and foot holds, but we did use rope and harnesses because a fall would have meant one of us carrying the other 25-miles back to the car. I would not have wanted to depend on my basic mountaineering skills to secure the rope on the way up or down that wet, near-freezing pitch of rock. Lastly, much of the summit day is spent on glacier. My guide and I stayed roped together just in case a crevasse might open beneath one of us. I would not want someone with my level of knowledge to be the other guy trying to pull me out.
Your Guide is Not Always Right: My guide happened to like to hike light and fast. He took charge of packing the food and dividing it among us. He left a lot of the food I brought on his living room floor - despite my requests to bring it along just to be safe. When he was not looking, I stuffed another 10 energy bars into my pack. The last 24 hours of the trip, those bars were all we had to eat. I wound up losing 10 pounds on the trip, and if not for my secret cache, both of us would have been in the energy red zone with 15 miles still left to hike. Had we encountered days of impassable rain or even snow during the trip, we might have wound up in serious trouble.
Be Ready for a Long Slog: The scenery is amazing, but a 50-mile round-trip hike with a load of tents, food and climbing gear on your back is not without its share of pain. Even with broken-blistered and heavily bandaged heels from ill-fitting boots, I'm very glad I hiked this trip. But it should be noted that there are several companies in Wyoming that can get you close to the base of the mountain on horseback, or rent you a llama to carry your stuff.
Trail Head - Trail Lake Ranch
We did not arrive at the trail head until 2 pm, which meant we descended from the Burro Flat saddle in the dark. We hiked about 7.75 miles from the trail head and camped at Phillips Lake. Coming from elevation zero just the day before in New Orleans, I was far from ready for the altitude even of this pass. My chest was burning on the way up. I felt much more adapted to the altitude on subsequent days.
Day One Campsite - Phillips Lake
After spending half an hour bandaging my many blisters, we left Phillips Lake and spent all day hiking 7.25 miles to just above Big Meadow. After factoring in stops for food and water and rest, I was progressing at just 1 MPH. That pace got faster as I got used to the altitude as the trip went on. But I doubt I ever went more than two miles in a hour. .
Day Two Campsite - Big Meadow
My guide wisely built in a short day of hiking so we could rest for half a day before waking early to try for the summit the next morning. We hiked just 5.5 miles from a little past Big Meadow to the top of Floyd Wilson Meadows. We camped almost right at the point where the grass ends and the bouldered moraine at the base of the mountain begins. The view back down the valley was worth the hike in itself.
Day Three Campsite - Top of Floyd Wilson Meadows
We awoke at 5:30 am to a starry pre-dawn sky, and left camp at 6:30. The sky was perfectly blue, though with the mountain blocking our view of oncoming weather, we had to be ready to be surprised should it change. As noted above, much of this day my guide and I were roped together to guard against accidents on the glacier. There was also one 50-100 foot pitch of rock climbing required. We reached the summit at 12:30. Clouds soon came in, and light snow began to swirl around us. So we began our descent after just half an hour on the summit.
Gannett Peak Summit
Descending from the summit was fast - half stepping and half sliding through a top layer of glacial slush. We had to rappel down one 50-foot section of vertical rock as the easiest way across the crevasse that ran across the Gooseneck glacier at the time. We were back at our base camp by about 3:30 pm. My best guess is that we hiked three miles and 3,500 vertical feet each way going from base camp to the summit and back.
Day Four Campsite - Top of Floyd Wilson Meadows
The day after our successful summit we hiked 11.75 miles to Double Lake, which put us nearly back to where we camped our first night. On the downhill hike out, we covered as much ground in one day as took one and a half days on the way in. Double Lake is a gem of dark blue water in a setting of steep barren rock. Our campsite 100 feet above it was one to be remembered. We slept without the tent, and I awoke that day in late August with a solid layer of ice encrusting my sleeping bag.
Day Five Campsite - Double Lake
The last day of hiking was 8.75 miles from Double Lake back to the car parked at the Trail Lake Ranch trailhead. Despite the grandeur of the mountains valleys and meadows of the past five days, when I finally spotted the parking lot at the trail head, I stopped to stare as if it were Oz. I could finally take off my 100 pound pack, bandage my blisters, and eat enough again.
Total trip mileage was about 47 miles.
Trail Lake Ranch to Gannett Peak: a tough physical challenge surrounded by some of the best scenery in America. I encourage others to prepare for it and give it a try.