| Peaking in Wyoming (part 1)
Dates climbed: June 28-July 3, 2012
Partner: Terry (TerryLiv)
Distance: 35+ miles
Peaks climbed: Gannett, UN10700
Note: this is a long report, for a long trip. Just a fair warning to the reader!
Lying deep in the heart of the Wind River Range of western Wyoming, Gannett Peak is a seldom-glimpsed and elusive goal for mountaineers. Nevertheless, the mountain holds a number of superlatives: ultra-prominent peak, highpoint of two counties and of Wyoming itself, Continental Divide peak, and even more importantly, the home of some of the most wild and spectacular scenery this side of Alaska. The barren high plateaus, exquisitely-carved glaciated horns of rock, sweeping meadows, teeming wildlife (mosquitos aside!) and massive glaciers enthrall and draw visitors back to this wonderful place. Gannett itself requires a long approach by any route, class 3 scrambling, and at-times roped glacier travel on moderate-to-steep snow; after Denali, it is considered the most difficult state highpoint to climb.
Pretty daunting stuff for a self-proclaimed weenie on snow such as myself! To mentally prepare for the steep snow conditions, I got in a few snow climbs the spring season before, finding the Conundrum Couloir in particular to be an excellent test piece for Gannett. While I was generally in good shape physically for the impending climb, a trip to the Wilsons immediately prior to Gannett, as well as a lingering cold, left me with some trepidation about the climb that would ultimately prove unfounded. My climbing partner was again Terry L, with whom I'd enjoyed a fantastic climb of Montana's highpoint the previous Labor Day. As the climb approached, both of us were heartened to see the weather forecast for the entire trip become nothing short of perfect--sunny skies and warm temperatures every day of the week. We were as ready as we ever would be...
Day 0 - Charred Forest: It's What's for Dinner
Terry met me in Fort Collins Wednesday afternoon, where I was hurriedly packing and getting some last-minute gear. We were soon on the way, passing through Laramie, the ugly oil town of Sinclair, and Rawlins en route to Lander. By and large, it was barren and unattractive country. As we approached Lander, we noticed a massive, thick cloud of smoke coming over the Wind Rivers and enveloping the town. Lander proved to be a surprisingly pleasant town, with well-kept houses, a large city park, and a sense of not entirely belonging in Wyoming. The pervasive brown smoke, from a forest fire somewhere on the other side of the range, gave it somewhat of a post-apocalyptic feel, however.
We grabbed an underwhelming dinner at Subway, picked up a cheap alarm clock, and settled in at our tentsite in the city park, which allows camping. There, we ran into a guy my age named Justin, who turned out to be from the same part of Ohio as where I grew up! He was roadtripping around the western US for the summer, and we chatted for a while before Terry and I finally crashed.
Day 1 - Lost and Found
Terry and I woke, packed up the tent, and were on our way to Crowheart by 6:30. The drive up was much like the drive before, though the smoke had lifted somewhat. There was some confusion as to what permits we needed, so we didn't actually meet with Ramona ("Monie") until 8:30 or so. There, we found out that she only accepted cash or check for the outfitter fees--neither of which we had on hand! Luckily, she allowed us to leave, with the promise that we'd mail her a check after we got back. Soon after, we were headed up the rough 4WD road. Our driver was Tonia, a friendly woman of about 40, who regaled us with stories of the area and wildlife as she masterfully navigated her way up the road. She mentioned that there had been more and more "peakers"--her term for highpointers--using the guide servive in recent years, and I found myself amused at the term. Along the way, we spotted several antelope, some of them tearing ass across the road ahead of us, spooked by the truck. An hour and a half later, we arrived at Cold Springs, an area at the edge of a half-decaying forest high above the valley floor. Tonia left, and at 10:41, we began our journey, packs heavily laden and onerous in the late-morning heat.
Shortly after starting, Terry hit his head on a low-hanging fallen tree. He was luckily okay, but had a nasty lump on his head that would last the rest of the trip. We soon arrived at the first trail junction at the edge of a large meadow, where our right turn was marked by cairns and an avenue of especially-yellow grass.
The meadow and trail junction 0.8 miles from the dropoff point
A few minutes later, we'd crossed into the Shoshone National Forest at a barbed-wire gate.
Crossing into the national forest, in true Wyoming style
Views opening up, but already obscured by smoke, en route to Scenic Pass
The ascent up to Scenic Pass was slow and tedious with heavy packs, and the trail was faint at times; at one large meadow, we completely lost the trail, having to travel straight uphill a hundred feet or so until we reached the trail again (for future visitors: there's a trail split shortly before the meadow that may be hard to see--go right, and follow the trail up a switchback in the forest). The trees and meadows and cows soon gave way to high, barren, gentle tundra, and the pass grew slowly nearer until we were finally standing at the top of the broad col.
This whole time, we'd noticed the skies growing hazier with thick wildfire smoke. Nevertheless, I decided to make the 10-minute side trip to the hill on our left to get what was supposed to be a sweeping view of Gannett and the Winds, asking Terry to wait at least until I got back before continuing. Upon reaching the crest, I got my first, decidedly-underwhelming view of the high peaks of the range. I could barely make out some distant glaciers and rock through the haze, and couldn't even be sure I saw Gannett...it was the appearance of a Polaroid that had been taken mere seconds beforehand. Disappointed, I turned to head back down--and was shocked to see Terry high-tailing it down the other side of the pass! Cursing, I flew down the hillside, but by the time I'd arrived, he was long since out of sight again.
This was potentially a big issue: a short ways down the pass, the Ink Wells trail splits in two, rejoining a few miles later. I'd offhandedly mentioned before that we wanted to take the upper (left) fork, as it avoided some extra elevation gain. What I had NOT mentioned was that the trail split was actually much closer to the pass than shown on the topo map, and I was worried Terry wouldn't be expecting it. I reached the split, exactly where I'd predicted it, and saw no sign of Terry in any direction. The left option was as I'd feared: not very obvious, and marked only by occasional hillside cairns. I headed down the upper fork as fast as I could, hoping to catch Terry or, if he'd taken the other route, to head him off at the rejoining spot further down the trail. In my rush, I had little time to enjoy the severely hazy views of the Dinwoody Creek valley toward which I was descending, or the couple of elk on the hillside. I didn't even give myself time to put on my headnet once I dropped below treeline again and was beset by bloodsuckers.
Descending into a smoke-choked Dinwoody Creek drainage
At last, I reached the trail junction, with no sign of Terry. I set down my pack, got out my headnet, and decided to wait an hour or so for him to come down the other trail, at which point I would leave a note under a rock and continue on to Echo Lake, where we'd discussed camping that night. Forty minutes later, he appeared--coming down the trail I'd followed! As it turned out, he'd indeed passed the correct turnoff, but then realized his mistake and cut up the hillside to the correct route. We agreed to stay much closer together the rest of the trip and, much relieved, made the last mile to Echo Lake in good time, arriving about 7 hours after we'd started.
Near the south end of the lake, just off the trail, we found a pleasant campsite among the pines. We set up camp and relaxed a while. Then, while Terry did a bit of fishing (catching some sizable mountain trout in the process), I scrambled up into the rocky knolls west of the lake. To my joy, I discovered that the heavy, murky smoke had mostly lifted, and beautiful Gannett peak, draped in pearlescent glaciers, was finally revealing herself in the distance.
A first clear view of stately Gannett from above Echo Lake
Looking back toward Scenic Pass from the rocky knolls above the lake
I also noticed a rocky dome a short distance to the south that looked to be an enticing climb, and made a mental note of it. Returning to camp, we both retired soon after.
Day 2 - The Road Goes Ever On and On
The next morning dawned bright, clear, and sunny--a complete 180 from the day before! We were soon hitting the trail, and caught fleeting glimpses of distant Gannett as we started our rocky descent into the valley. At an overlook just above the switchbacks, the views opened up, and we could at last see the lush miles-long Wilson Meadows far below, Dinwoody Creek meandering its way through the meadows, sheer granite cliffs ringing both, and Gannett rising far above all.
The true beauty of the Winds begins to show: Gannett looming above Wilson Meadows
Soon, we were down in the meadows, and after crossing a solid wooden bridge, we'd reached the Glacier Trail--nine miles in.
For several miles, the trail was easy going, skirting the vast meadows and the vividly blue creek, swollen with glacial runoff. There was ample evidence of both moose and pack horses, and the mosquitos remained ferocious, but beyond that it was a wonderful day.
Yours truly, down in the meadows
More subalpine beauty
A rock climber's paradise...
By early afternoon, we'd reached the multiple Gannett Creek crossings at the head of the valley. The trail proved easy enough to follow, with many of the tougher fords spanned by fallen logs. We took a long rest after the last major crossing, filtered some water, and began the last several hundred feet of ascent to our planned campsite. Here, we finally encountered snowy patches, which were easily navigated around or barebootable. More aggravating were the large, soggy sections of trail and surrounding grass as we popped above treeline, and I found myself with soggy shoes by the end of it.
Above treeline and nearing camp
We finally reached our campsite around 5 PM, a sloping grassy meadow at 10600' slightly sheltered by some stunted pines--the last trees en route to the summit.
Once the tent was set up, Terry and I discovered we'd independently both decided to continue on a ways to scout out the route for tomorrow's attempt. Intermittent trail, snowfields, and a semi-cairned route through a tedious sloped boulderfield occupied us for forty minutes or so.
Views opening up as we scout above camp. The Gooseneck Pinnacle is at far R
All the while, the dramatic glaciated spires surrounding the cirque were slowly revealing themselves as we approached, and once we reached a large, murky blue tarn on the left, the route up Gannett was right in front of us.
Massive spiderweb in the boulderfield
Large tarn at 10900'
It looked about as expected, though the bergschrund looked to have opened up on the rightmore of the two snow chutes up by the Gooseneck. For reasons I couldn't quite explain, I fortuitously decided to continue another 15 minutes or so toward the mountain, while Terry waited behind.
A late afternoon Gannett, and our summit route
After navigating some more rocky sections and skirting the fast-flowing river coming down from the upper basin, I saw a low, boulder-studded ridge leading toward the base of the climb, and decided to turn around on top of it. As I drew closer, I saw what appeared to be--a person! He was sitting on a rock, and appeared to be meditating. Not calling out yet, I drew closer, and saw two more people, then more still, until I found myself in the middle of an encampment of a dozen hardy souls! They turned out to be part of a NOLS group, and as luck would have it, they'd just climbed Gannett the day before. I stayed and chatted with them a while, getting some valuable information on the route ahead. At last I left, them wishing me good luck, and mentioning that we'd probably meet again in the next day or two. Heartened at the encouraging news, I returned to where Terry was waiting and shared what I'd found out.
Spires and smoke and snow
Given the information we now had, we decided on a slightly later start in the morning, and we were both asleep soon after dark.
Day 3 - On Top of Wyoming, All Covered With Snow
We arose just as first light was beginning to show on the horizon, down the valley. With our lighter summit daypacks, we made good time up the boulderfield and to where the NOLS group was camped. I was not altogether surprised that they were already awake at 5:30, and they again wished us luck as we made our way toward the bulky mass of Gannett.
Summit day, dawning beautifully
Gannett awash in alpenglow
From here, both by visual inspection and the beta we'd received, we knew most of the route, and would discover the rest. First following an obvious drainage up talus/dirt/scree, we'd ascend to the right of a rocky buttress just below 12000'. From there, a moderate snowfield a few hundred feet tall, up to 35-40 degrees, would allow us to gain a band of rock. From the rock, easy snow up to the base of the bergschrund, then a steep snow climb of 45 degrees or more for a few hundred feet to the ridge crest. We'd follow the dirt and rock a ways, then complete our journey to the summit along a dramatic snowy ridge on the Continental Divide. This final ridge had been described as no big deal by some (the NOLS group leaders didn't even think crampons were necessary), yet was considered to have terrifying exposure by others. What would the truth be? How scary and technical was the route? We were about to find out...
Starting up the scree apron below the snow, the going was pretty easy, albeit slow. The terrain wasn't all that loose, nor horribly steep, and we made it to 11900' before even having to set foot in snow.
Terry negotiating the last bit of rocky ground before the glacier
When we did cross onto the glacier, it was on sufficiently mild slopes that I saw no reason for crampons. Instead, I just walked up the snow with the aid of trekking poles, then doubled back on a mild snowy ridge to the left leading to the top of the rocky buttress. I found ample, safe, flat ground here, and decided to stash some unnecessary gear and supplies here, along with half a liter of water. Terry discovered that he'd smashed his sunglasses beyond repair--bad news on a sunny glacier climb!--but claimed he'd be okay. I drank, ate, and as Gerry Roach would put it, "considered my future".
The first snowfield from our cache
Mt. Warren rising above a snow slope
The first of three snow obstacles lay ahead. The complex slope looked free of crevasses, and from where I was sitting, the runout looked manageable (it would prove to indeed be so from higher vantage points as well). I took my time securing my crampons to my boots and my ice axe to my harness, and let Terry go ahead a ways, warning him that once I got on the snow, I'd want to be off it as soon as possible! Sure enough, I blew past him, though my pace slowed dramatically once I was on the steeper stuff. I found the NOLS group's tracks and began to follow them, making an ascending sidehill to the left. Plant your axe deep in the softening snow, kick to make a good step with one foot, repeat with the other foot. Plant, step, step. Repeat. As I ascended, I noticed two things: that I was unduly nervous on this stretch (probably in large part from worrying about the route ahead) and that I was sweating buckets. After negotiating some icy sections near snowmelt, I finally made my way to another good, safe, flat resting spot on the rocks, and waited for Terry.
Terry making his way up the moderate slopes to the rocky band
15 minutes later, he joined me, and we removed crampons and ascended through the rocky band. This was easy terrain, class 2+ at most, and allowed me a bit of a mental reprieve.
In the rocky band, the Gooseneck looming overhead
All too soon, we were at the upper end of the rocky band and looking at the snowfield leading to the 'schrund. It looked pretty mild, all told. Crampons on, and off we went. In no time at all, we'd rounded the corner and could see the technical crux of the route head-on.
Approaching the base of the bergschrund, Gannett's hanging snowfield and summit ahead
At the base of the snow chutes. Bergschrund is open at R
The 'schrund was pretty clearly open on the right chute, but at the right portion of the left chute, there was what looked to be a very solid snowbridge. In fact, it was wide enough that the 'schrund itself looked more like a big dimple in the slope. On the mild slopes just below, Terry and I roped up with his static twine not-really-climbing rope...better than nothing, I suppose. Terry leading, we cautiously began making our way up the steep snow.
The 'schrund proved only a minor obstacle, and the snow bridge thick enough I never noticed my axe punching all the way through. All the same, we treaded carefully.
Terry negotiates the 'schrund
The snowy ascent proved about as bad as the Conundrum Couloir in CO: that is to say, not utterly terrifying, though I was definitely on edge and pretty focused. Kick kick kick a good step, kick kick kick another good step, regain balance, pull the axe out, plunge it all the way to the hilt in the next higher bit of snow. It was tiring work, but ensured a decent level of safety. Though I could soon see a saddle at the top of the left part of the left gully, we followed the tracks and stayed right, continuing up a shootoff of the couloir that just kept revealing itself. At last, we reached a rock band, scritched our way over it in our crampons, traversed another 40' wide section of snow at the top of the right chute, and got ourselves onto some class 3 rock. We took some time removing crampons, eating, drinking, and refolding the rope. Already, it was growing uncomfortably late in the day, now late morning.
Views to a more arid East, from high on the mountain
The next section, once we'd gained about 50' of class 2+/3 rock to the ridge, was another mental reprieve. The ridge was generally wide, not really exposed, and had many options up dirt and rocks. While not yet on the Divide, we were getting our first glimpses over it, as well as a front-row seat to the massive hanging snowfield on Gannett's east face. To our left, numerous pinnacles and the gaping maw of the Southeast Couloir.
Back on rock, and our remaining route, following rock along the western skyline
Now as high as the surrounding dramatic spires...
It was on this section that I suddenly noticed the figure making his way up the rocks behind us! The figure turned out to be a solo climber from Idaho who'd come over Bonney Pass, and was climbing Gannett because "he couldn't find anyone to go with him". We got the impression he hadn't really used crampons for most of the climb. He was soon past us and rapidly making his way toward the summit...careful there, buddy.
The rocky ridge finally came to an end where it met the lower left corner of the hanging snowfield. Here, two snow crossings were necessary: the first one an easy, flat unexposed stretch, the second, a slightly-uphill, moderately exposed brief section that had me a bit nervous, but which was short enough not to necessitate crampons. I gained the rocky stretch going up the left side of the snowfield here, which entailed the hardest rock moves of the day--only class 3, with a bit of exposure, nothing too bad. Though we saw tracks cutting up and across the hanging snowfield, I wanted no part of that option; we simply continued up the rock band until we had reached the relatively flat part of the ridge, atop the crest of Gannett. The summit lay only 0.2 miles distant, and less than 200' above. Off to the left, we could finally see the Tetons rising, unmistakable, 70 miles to the northwest.
Views to the west, finally. The Tetons are visible just R of center...
Click here for part 2...
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):