Via Petzoldt couloir
The phone rang at around 8:30 AM. It was Jackson informing me that he would not be able to go to Gannett with us because of family issues and that meant that we now had a team of four, Jackson’s brother Jeremy, his friend Nate and Dustin would be joining me on an adventure in the Wind River Mountains. Everyone met at my place and we spent about an hour going through all of our gear and loading up my Jeep and after a quick stop at REI we were off on Interstate 80 heading for Wyoming.
Despite losing Jackson, our spirits were high and we all reminisced about days in the mountains, adventures and peaks that had been climbed and the excitement was building, as we all knew that the adventure that awaited us in the Winds would surely be epic. The four of us had all climbed Mount Hood in Oregon together the year before and everyone clicked and there were no competing personalities in our group, so I felt confident that the team dynamics would help to facilitate a successful trip.
We decided to get a hotel in Lander, so that we could get a good nights sleep prior to the climb and knowing that it would be at least five days before our next shower, we thought it would be a good idea to clean ourselves up somewhat, since we would be sharing tents with each other and one extra shower might help in the stink department. We settled on the Teton Motel and we soon discovered why the rate was so reasonable. With 70’s décor and the smallest full sized beds I have ever seen, the hotel sure had a lot of character. It was clean and that was really all that mattered, although the beds were pretty hard and lumpy, but I didn’t care and I slept like a rock. We went through all of our team and personal gear and loaded up the packs, so that upon hitting the trail we would be ready to go.
We decided to take the Ink Wells trail, which runs through the reservation and requires special permits and guides, because my back had been giving me problems for several months and this would be the shortest route to the peak. Upon my return from the climb I was diagnosed with a herniated disc in my back and cutting off those extra miles sure helped. We had to meet the outfitter, Monie Oneal at 8:00 AM in Crowheart, so that we could get the necessary permits for our trip through the reservation. It took us about an hour to meet Monie, get the permits and load the truck and finally we were off to the most beautiful playground in the lower 48 states.
The four of us and our packs were crammed into the back of Monie’s truck and we embarked on the most bumpy and uncomfortable ride of our lives. It was a short drive to the dirt road from Monie’s place and I wondered if it was still legal in Wyoming to ride in the back of a pickup truck, going at least 70 mph on the highway. Oh well, it is all part of the adventure and at least the highway was flat and within a few minutes we were turning off onto the dirt road. It took us about an hour to get to the trailhead and this had to be one of the worst roads still passable by a vehicle in all of Wyoming. We were jarred, tossed and flung in many different directions, as Monie did her best to navigate the rough road. I know she was trying to minimize the abuse, but at times we felt like we were steel balls bouncing around in a pinball machine.
Monie was very nice and I would recommend her service to anyone that is looking to shave a few miles off of the approach. She dropped us off at the Cold Springs trailhead and we said our goodbye’s and set our date for her to return and pick us up in five days. We figured that this would give us two summit days, knowing that we could do the return leg in one day if we had to.
The first part of the trail is somewhat difficult to find and it is very faint in places, but it did not take too much time to orient ourselves and get on the right path. After about twenty minutes we came to the meadow where the year before we had seen a bear cub bounding towards us. We were thankful that there were no such encounters this year and we eagerly headed up the trail towards Scenic Pass.
The trail up to the pass is fairly steep and I was certainly feeling it, with my lack of conditioning due to my back problems. The good news was that my back felt pretty good, so the extra huffing and puffing was not bothering me at all. I was excited that my back was responding the way it was and hey, if it did get any worse, I had plenty of drugs on hand to combat the pain.
When we finally reached the pass the awe inspiring scene that was laid out before us is still seared into my mind and we got our first view of Gannett. 13,000 ft. peaks, glaciers, rock ice and snow dominated the landscape and the whole intimidating scene was capped off by Gannett in the distance. There was still quite a lot of snow on the mountain and the signature snow capped summit looked intimidating to say the least with sheer cliffs on each side and guarded by the glaciers below. We wanted a rugged wilderness experience and here it was laid out before us, like a large feast waiting for us to partake.
We decided to take a break and it felt good to have the 65 pound pack off of my back. We found a nice rock outcropping to enjoy the view and snap a few pictures and I pulled a few snacks out of my pack to give me some much needed energy. We noticed that a storm was brewing to the west and we decided that we better get moving, because it looked like it was heading our way and we did not want to get caught over 11,000 ft in the elements, so we packed up and began out hasty descent. We could hear some thunder rumbling and that scared us somewhat, so we knew we wanted to get down quickly. There is a faint trail to follow that takes you down to a few lakes in the basin below and we knew we were going to set up our camp at one of these lakes, so we wanted to get there quickly before the storm rolled in. Unfortunately we did not make it in time and this was our introduction to the fickle weather that normally accompanies you in the Winds. It can literally be sunny and warm one minute and the next be snowing on you.
The temperature dropped and it started to rain and within a few minutes there were lightning strikes that seemed to be getting very close. Eventually, we made it into the trees and it was now raining quite hard, so we took a break under some trees to get out of the rain and put on some gear. It was much colder now and we really wanted to push to get to our camp, so we decided to keep hiking and pick up our pace, so that we could get our camp set up. Within about 10 minutes after we started hiking again the rain subsided and as quickly as the storm moved in, it rolled over the ridge and the sun came back out. It was just a short hike to our first camp at Echo Lake and the beauty of this place is just outstanding.
When we arrived at the lake it felt great to get my pack off and I found a rock to stretch out on, but it soon became apparent that my rest would not be as refreshing as I had planned, because within seconds of sitting down I was completely swarmed with mosquitoes. I had seen thick hordes in the Uintas many times, but this assemblage was clearly the most wicked I had ever seen. I immediately began applying repellant, but I still accumulated several bites and it was clear that the others were facing the same dilemma. After a few minutes we were completely covered in deet and that was the only thing that could keep them at bay. They still were quite annoying and I think I sucked a few in while setting up camp, but a little extra protein always helps when you are exerting a lot of energy, so it was no big deal.
After we set up camp we decided to filter some water, so we went down to the lake and could not believe how many trout we saw. The lake was absolutely boiling over and the fish were jumping like crazy. We all mentioned the fact that having a fly rod would be amazing, but nobody brought one, as we had other business to take care of, but it was still incredible to see and I thought about Finnis Mitchell, who was a pioneer in the Winds. He and his wife had stocked all of the lakes with fish many years ago and I had recently read his book “Wind River Trails” and thought that it was amazing.
After we set up camp and filtered some water, I started to feel slightly nauseated, which is quite common for me if I camp over 10,000 ft. I decided that I would cook something bland, so I made a “Cup O’ Noodles” which I shared with several mosquitoes that decided to intimately check out my fine cuisine. While we were cleaning up from dinner it started to rain again, so we all retired to our tents for some R&R. I was sharing a tent with Dustin and Jeremy and Nate were also tent mates. As soon as we were settled in the tent the rain really started coming down. It rained hard all night long and the frequent lighting strikes woke me up several times, but I was so tired that I actually slept very well.
At first light I could hear the other guys stirring, so we decided to get moving, although I quickly discovered that my nausea was still lingering and I wondered if it was going to slow me down. I knew I had to get some nourishment, so I choked down a cereal bar and some Gatorade, however, almost as soon as I got it all in my stomach responded with a quick DENIED! I found myself on all fours just outside of the tent clearing all of the contents of my stomach much to the horror of my buddies. As I looked up they had all stopped what they were doing and I must say they all looked very worried. They had seen this before and knew that I have issues when I sleep at altitude, so they knew today may be a struggle. I told them that I felt okay, but that I was just a little weak and I just needed to lie down for a few minutes.
After a good rest I felt much better, although I was still very weak. I decided I just needed to get through it, so we packed up our camp. I was still not able to eat anything and it started to rain again and it was cold. Once we started hiking, I actually felt much better and I nibbled on a few crackers as we hiked and I seemed to be doing a little better, although I started to develop a headache. The rain continued and our pace really picked up and we made good time, reaching the Glacier trail much faster than I had anticipated, based on our trip the year before. It was still raining and we decided to take a break and by this time my head was pounding, so I took 800 mg of Ibuprofen to knock it out. I was actually feeling better and my appetite came back, so I quickly downed some jerky, cheese and a Rice Crispy treat and I felt great except for my head, but I could deal with that.
The rain subsided and we were back on the trail making good time. From where the Glacier Trail meets the Ink Wells trail it is just a few minutes before you enter a large meadow and Gannett comes into view. The peak was enveloped in clouds, but it was still an incredible sight. We passed a cow moose and her calf and made sure we did not disturb them too much, but we did snap a few pictures. Eventually we came to a small stream that we had to cross on some logs and the water was raging over the logs, making it a slippery adventure and I was happy I had my trekking poles to help me keep my balance. This was the first of at least three major stream crossings that we had to make, the last of which was a little unnerving, because the water was just raging below and we had to cross on three very thin wobbly logs. A fall here would be very serious, because the river was ice cold and running fast and I did not even want to think about the consequences beyond just getting soaked. I can’t even imagine trying to navigate the icy rapids with a bulky pack strapped on my back and fortunately we all made it across safely. After we crossed the stream the sun actually came out for a while and warmed us up and dried out our gear somewhat.
The rest of the hike to our high camp was uneventful, although we did see a big bull moose and the scenery was incredible. We eventually came to the glacier moraine and knew we wanted to camp at the base of this immense boulder field. There were several small streams coming out of the glacier and we had to cross them, while we made our way over to the tarns area, just below the moraine. There was a small lake and some really nice camp spots, so while we were debating about where to place the tents, the skies opened up and the weather gods decided there were more challenges that awaited us. It began raining again quite hard and the sound of thunder bouncing off of the high peaks and ridges was an eerie reminder who was in control and that we were merely small specs in this massive theatre, just hoping that all of the elements would allow us passage to the higher terrain above.
While we set up the tents, the rain only increased in quantity and severity and we hastily set up the tent and threw our gear inside. Because of our precipitancy, we failed to completely secure the tent fly and we unknowingly retired to our tent with one of the corners unsecured. The winds began to howl and the rain and lighting increased in their intensity as well. We could not even hear Jeremy and Nate, even when shouting at the top of our lungs and their tent was a mere 15 ft. away. After about an hour of getting settled and having a snack, Jeremy ran over to our tent to let us know what they were thinking. The summit bid in the morning looked doubtful, but we would just wake up early and see how it looked and make our decision then. There was no way we were going to filter any water tonight, so we would just do it in the morning and we all had enough to make it through.
The rain and lighting continued and the winds were very strong and Dustin and I sorted our gear and got it ready for the summit bid just in case. We both fell asleep about 9:00 and I was very tired, so I had no problems sleeping, even though the storm continued to rage. At about 3:00 I was awakened by water dripping on my face and my first thought was “Oh shit, we are dead!” I noticed that the tent fly was no longer secured on top and the rain was just pouring in on us. I yelled at Dustin, but he didn’t seem all that concerned. I knew if our gear got wet we were screwed, so I immediately sprang out of my bag and wearing only my underwear I went out and fixed the fly that was being punished by the wind and to me appeared like it was about to snap off. I got it secured and quickly got back inside to check my gear. Luckily, it was not too wet and I knew we were lucky the fly was not ripped or ruined.
At 5:30 we all woke up and had a mini conference, that consisted of each of us yelling our points back and forth. It was still raining outside and a summit climb looked bleak at best, so we decided to go back to sleep. I woke up again at 6:30 and noticed immediately that it was quiet. No wind or rain and it was starting to get light, so I poked my head out of the tent and discovered there was not a cloud in the sky. I yelled out “Wahoooo let’s go boys!” and the others quickly peered out to check the conditions and we all decide to go for it. We knew we were getting a late start, so we all rushed quickly to get ready to go. I packed my harness, crampons, ice axe, rope, extra layers and food. Within twenty minutes we were ready and off. Almost immediately we were on the massive boulder field that seemed to extend forever. I hate boulder hopping and negotiating this mass of boulders was the worst part of the whole trip for me. It took about 45 minutes to hop over all of the boulders, carefully trying not to turn an ankle or fall and when we finally reached the edge of the glacier, we decided to take a break to filter some water and “gear up” as we would soon be traveling through a completely different terrain. The water coming off of the Dinwoody glacier was cold and tasted good and we all filled up, not knowing how long it would be before we would find more. The glacier was icy and dirty and there were several small crevasses that had opened up. There were a few we had to jump over and while they were not big, it did make us a little nervous, not knowing what awaited below if you were to fall in one of the icy chasms. The blue ice that appeared to stare back at us from the frozen dungeons was quite stunning.
We had been told by a NOLS group the day before that there was an obvious trail in the snow where we were to cross over from the Dinwoody to the Gooseneck glacier, but we never saw any tracks. This could have been because of the rain/snow from the night before, but regardless, we missed the “trail” and ended up heading up the Dinwoody glacier. I knew it was not that big of a deal, because there is an alternate route that I actually think is pretty good heading up the Dinwoody. There is a massive couloir that runs straight up to Petzoldt pinnacle ridge. The cute is long and steep and can be prone to avalanches, but on this day it would be our ascent route on Gannett. This is the chute that is very visible when looking at Gannett from Bonny Pass. As we approached the couloir, there was a small bergschrund at the base, but nothing that looked all that bad. We decided to rope up, so we spent a few minutes getting on out gear ant tying into the rope, with Jeremy at the lead and Nate taking up the rear.
The views were probably the best I have ever witnessed in my entire life and the scene that opened up to us as we began our ascent of the couloir was purely magical: Sheer glaciated pinnacles and peaks, snow and ice and it was absolutely stunning.
The couloir did not disappoint. It was steep and long and took us almost an hour to ascend to the top. Jeremy set an electric pace and my lungs and calves were burning, as I pushed myself to keep up.
My senses were almost overloaded. The sights and sounds, as well as the physical pain that were being experienced culminated into an almost overwhelming state of mental bliss. Here I was physically exerting myself to my limits in the most beautiful setting I have ever had the privilege to experience and it was complete and total joy. As the couloir became sheerer, I found myself in an almost hypnotic rhythm with the sound of my crampons and ice axe biting into the slope. I would take two steps up the frozen snow and then push my axe into the wall for a self belay, while taking a brief rest to catch my breath and then repeat the process again and again. To me this is like a Zen moment, where I become completely focused mentally and physically and as my body exerts and my mind focuses I become acutely aware of my thoughts and the mental ecstasy that ensues is better than any drug.
When we reached the top of the snow, it was a short scramble on some boulders to the ridge and the views just kept getting better and better. Gannett’s summit was visible to the west and we were much higher than I thought we would be. The final push looked much more intimidating than it actually was and it is clear that we would have to earn this summit. From here you follow the ridge until you come to a steep snow slope that allows you access to the summit ridge. This slope was relatively steep, but nothing compared to the couloir.
When we reached the summit ridge the views of the vast expanse were stunning. There are no words to describe how beautiful this place is. None. We could see the Tetons to the west and if we strained our eyes we could see our tents far below, as they looked like tiny pin heads. The summit ridge is rather easy to negotiate, although the drop offs on the right are sheer and exposed. It was a short hike to the top from here and I was elated upon stepping onto the apex of Wyoming. I had wanted to stand here for some time now and the joy I was feeling was soon overshadowed by worry, because I could see what appeared to be a huge storm moving our way from the west. We decided that we needed to bail, so we snapped a few summit shots and made a quick descent back to the steep snow slope.
We climbed down the slope and when we were almost to the bottom my left leg sank up to my crotch in the snow. It quickly froze solid and I had to chop it out with my axe. When we got back to the ridge we took off our crampons and decided to go down the “standard” route, by making our way to the Gooseneck pinnacle. Below the pinnacle is a steep chute that has an enormous bergschrund at the bottom. We decided to rope up and it turned out to be a good decision, because the conditions of the snow were terrible about the last 100 meters from the bottom. It was really icy and all of us were having some trouble “front-pointing” with our crampons. Jeremy was the only one making it look easy, because he had crampons that work well for ice climbing as well as alpine mountaineering. When we were about 30 meters from the “schrund,” Dustin was having some major problems with his footing and could not get a good crampon placement. He slipped a few times and finally fell about 10 ft. before the slack in the rope tightened and I was able to stop his fall, as I had a really good foot placement and my axe buried into the slope. He was clearly shaken up and we took our time negotiating the massive bergschrund that was wide open and ready to swallow any takers willing to slip. I was really happy to have the rope here and we took turns descending, as the person above made sure to have a good anchor in place.
Below the Bergschrund we quickly took off the crampons and put the rope away and assessed the situation, as the clouds grew darker and we could hear thunder in the distance. We headed for what we thought was the right route to get us back onto the Dinwoody glacier, but when we reached it, it did not look inviting, so we continued down searching for the easiest access possible. By this time my back was killing me and I was exhausted. The thought of reaching the summit buoyed me up somewhat and I was trying to focus on that and not the fact that my back was on fire.
We ended up getting ourselves onto another steep icy slope that did not look good and we finally decided to just boulder hop to our right and make our way to the Dinwoody glacier, because we did not want to put on our crampons again. The scramble down was slightly sketchy, but nothing too serious and we were soon back on the familiar slopes of the Dinwoody. It was getting cold and we had been out for about 12 hours now and all of us were ready to crash.
Upon reaching the boulder moraine, I was out of gas and my back was throbbing, so I had slowed down considerably. We filtered more water and I told Jeremy and Dustin to go ahead, while Nate and I proceeded at a slower pace. That last hour boulder hopping was by far the worst hour of the whole trip. I was sore and tired and I desperately wanted to get back to my sleeping back. This must be a cruel joke inflicted on the victims that dare to venture up this hill I told myself. Experiencing something as epic as we had is not easy and there is a price to pay, although it was well worth it.
When we got back to camp I was mentally and physically exhausted, so I went to the tent and crashed. Dustin and Jeremy had been boiling water and I graciously accepted some for a Mountain House dinner, although I did not have much of an appetite. Dustin ate his and promptly threw it back up, as we was experiencing some exhaustion and dehydration. I ate a few bites and that was it. I crashed in my bag after 14 long hours in some pretty harsh wilderness, satisfied by our efforts and the rewards.
I slept like a log for 12 hours and when I woke up I felt great, although my appetite was back with a vengeance. I boiled some water and made oatmeal and it tasted great. We leisurely packed up camp, knowing that we did not have to hike all the way back to the trailhead in one day. There was a fat marmot that entertained us for a while and the weather was just perfect. Gannett looked very impressive from this vantage point and we could see a couple of dots working their way up the chute below the Gooseneck pinnacle.
The hike back to Echo Lake was pretty uneventful, although the major stream crossing had all of us a little nervous, but we all passed without incident.
When we arrived back at Echo Lake, we set up camp again and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. That night we hung out and talked about our exploits and enjoyed the good friendships that we had established, all feeling good to have Gannett in the bag.
We were meeting Monie at the trailhead around 2:00, so we woke up early and packed up our camp; because we wanted to make sure we made it with plenty of time to spare. The packs seemed heavier for some reason and busting our humps up to Scenic pass was somewhat difficult on tired legs. The sun was out and it was rather warm when we started, but about 100 meters below the pass it changed on a dime. The wind picked up, the clouds rolled in and it was snowing on us when we reached the pass, as a stark reminder of the fickle weather that exists here in the Winds. We decided not to take a break at the pass and instead hoped for better weather below to accompany us while eating our lunch. We all stopped and took one last look at the impressive pile of rock and ice that is Gannett Peak. We all stared in silence for a few seconds, contemplating what we had accomplished and the great experience that it was and then we were back on the trail heading down the other side.
When we reached the bottom of the steep slope, there were plenty of trees to use for shade, because the sun had once again come out to heat us up somewhat. We found a nice log that we used for a chair and we all had some lunch. We had mostly finished up and were getting the packs back together and Jeremy said “hey a bear!” We all stood up and sure enough a bear cub was bounding down the hill right for us. It had just come out of some trees and I knew that mama would be close behind and sure enough, the mother was not far behind. We all stood up and Jeremy retrieved the bear spray from his pack. The cub made a slight detour passing the trail and us, about 30 ft. away. Mama was right behind and she stopped to check us out and gave us a look. We all stood still and I managed to snap a picture of her as she moseyed away behind her cub. It was truly a thrilling way to end out adventure.
We made it to the trailhead with an hour to spare after almost 40 miles in the Wind Rivers and we all decided to take a nap and wait for Monie. I awoke to the sound of a truck idling and it was good to see our transportation back to civilization had arrived. The ride out was just as bumpy, but for some reason it did not seem as bad and maybe that is because our successful trip was so satisfying. We got back to my Jeep and the first order of business was to get some real food to eat. There were no restaurants within several miles, so we headed back to Lander where we fittingly ate at the “Gannett Grill” and the burgers were worth the wait.