| Gannett Peak - Glacier Trail
In late June I was entertaining myself with one of my favorite time-wasters, scanning the forum on 14ers.com. I stumbled on a post by RobertKay, looking for a partner to climb Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highpoint(about 30 ft. higher than Grand Teton) from July 10-14. Many climbers rate Gannett as the most difficult of the lower-48 highpoints (Granite, MT is rated equally or more difficult by a few). I’d been interested in Gannett for a couple of years, and had casually discussed the possibility of a climb with Mohan, another Missouri climber, but we never got our schedules coordinated for a trip. After reading Robert’s post I checked out his 14ers.com profile and was immediately intimidated. He’d climbed six of the seven continent summits, falling short only on Everest, where he’d been near 28,000 ft. twice, on both the northern and southern routes. He’d also skied Mt. Elbrus and Manaslu (an 8,000 meter peak). He was clearly out of my league, but I responded anyway.
Robert emailed back immediately and said he’d be happy to have company, and not to worry about speed, as long as I could go the distance. As a safety measure, he’d scheduled summit day to coincide with a guided trip by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, so we wouldn’t be alone on the mountain. He was taking the longer northern route, the Glacier Trail, beginning near DuBois, WY because it had an easier summit day and higher success rate in trip reports. The round trip distance was 50 miles and the total elevation gain, including the ups and downs over passes, was 10,800 feet. When we first talked Robert focused on pack weight, he wanted to travel light, we’d share his stove (3 ounces) and tent (3-person Big Agnes at 3 pounds). He then quizzed me about the weight of my gear. 'What harness do you have?'
'Black Diamond Couloir.'
'Great, that only weighs 8 ounces, one of the lightest. That’s the same harness I use. But I may order an Alp 95, which only weighs 3 ounces. (He later realized that the leg openings on the Alp 95 were too small for him). I’ll have two sleeping bags in my van, and will decide at the trailhead whether the weather is warm enough to bring the lighter one. Do you have aluminum crampons?'
'No, mine are steel.'
'I’d recommend getting some aluminum ones. Most steel crampons weigh about 2 pounds, aluminum only one pound, so you’d save about a pound. What about your pack?'
'It’s a Mountain Hardware Col 70, I’m not sure how much it weighs.'
'I use the same pack, it weighs 3 pounds 12 ounces and has one of the highest volume-to-weight ratios.'
I was initially very impressed by Robert’s encyclopedic knowledge of the weight of different pieces of gear. I later became less impressed, when I realized that all the weight saved was taken up by peanut butter sandwiches. He must have taken about a dozen, as he was still eating them at each break on the fourth day of the trip.
I met Robert at the Harvard-Columbia trailhead near Buena Vista, CO on Saturday evening July 6. He was going to hike the combo the next day, and I would join him to Harvard, to make sure I wouldn’t slow him down too much. I managed to keep up with him when the slope was low, but my heart rate climbed to 140 bps as the slope steepened. This is into the anaerobic range, which meant my muscles were short of oxygen and would soon suffer fatigue, so I eased back until my heart rate slowed to around 120 bps. Robert was fine with the slower pace. We made it to Harvard and he continued on the ridge to Columbia.
Robert on Harvard
John on Harvard
Goat on Harvard
Will you please pee on the rock so I can lick the salt?
We met up again at the trailhead for Gannett on Tuesday evening July 9, car-camping to get an early start the next morning (with my aluminum crampons). One decision we’d postponed was whether to bring a rope. The ranger I talked to said she hadn’t talked to anyone who’d been on the mountain, but that climbers get to the summit most years without rope, and that 2013 was a typical year (she strongly recommended we both carry bear spray, so I bought a can at a local store). Robert made the executive decision and we carried rope and harnesses for insurance. We headed up the trail about 7:00 am Wednesday morning.
Getting ready at the Glacier Trail trailhead
The route to Gannett is mostly easy for the first 22 miles, the main challenges are endurance, mosquitos, and stream crossings. The Glacier trail begins at an elevation of 7600 ft. and climbs through an endless series of switchbacks into a pine forest that gets thicker as the elevation increases. The trail enters an open plateau near 10,400 ft. and then rises through an open meadow for the next two miles to Arrow Pass at 10,900 ft., about 8 miles from the trailhead. This is the highpoint of the trail, and is approximately the same elevation as basecamp at the foot of the glacier 14 miles away. Nevertheless, trail continues to rise and fall, by as much as 1600 ft. on the way to basecamp. Descending from Arrow Pass we hike through a dead forest that looks like it could be from Lord of the Rings.
After descending further we pass several lakes, Phillips Lake about 10 miles in, Double Lake about 11 miles in, and Star Lake about 12 miles in. Robert notes that the trail guide says that a camp at Double Lake or Star Lake would make a full day for most people but that 'we are not most people.' I counter: 'You’re not most people, but I’m probably most people.' But we continue. By hiking more than half way on Wednesday, we can shorten Thursday’s hike, allowing us to rest up before Friday’s summit attempt. We eventually camp near Downs Fork Meadows, about 15.5 miles in., elevation 9300 ft. The best place to set up a tent seems to be on a flat rock. Unfortunately the tent is slippery and prone to sliding off the rock, so we move it into the forest.
Our camp is near the junction of Downs Fork Creek and Dinwoody Creek. With ample water nearby mosquitos are pervasive at low elevations. Robert applies repellent, noting that technology is important in the battle against bugs. I agree we have the technology, but they have the numbers. I’m afraid that the 40% DEET I’m carrying would dissolve my synthetic 14ers.com t-shirt, and since Middlebrook is getting out of the clothing business my long-sleeve shirt is irreplaceable. So I wear mosquito-hood netting to fend off the bugs. After eating we crawl into our sleeping bags early. As we drift off to sleep, we watch the mosquitos buzzing about furiously between the tent’s net ceiling and the rainfly. From the carbon dioxide in our breath, they can tell that there are tasty warm-blooded creatures nearby. But they are frustrated that they can’t find a passageway to the type-O gourmet delicacy below. We both sleep soundly.
After breakfast the next morning we break camp and head further up the trail. We leave the mosquitos behind as we climb, but face several creek crossings. The first challenge is Klondike Creek. We take off our boots and put on flip-flops. The creek is less than a foot deep but the rapids are so swift we can’t see the creek bed below, so have to feel our way along the rocks. At one point the rapids almost tear a flip-flop off my foot, but we both cross safely. Gannett Creek is the next major crossing. It’s spread out over a large area, half-a-dozen parallel branches of the creek have created islands, which are connected by fallen logs. Balancing on the logs requires focus, especially when some of them move when stepped on, but with hiking poles for support we cross the multiple branches of Gannett Creek safely. Soon we are above tree-line and can see the ridgeline of the Continental Divide, whose prominent point is Gannett. We reach the end of the Glacier Trail in early afternoon, and set up camp at the edge of the boulder field below the Dinwoody Glacier. Later in the afternoon clouds settle into the surrounding peaks and we are forced inside the tent to take shelter from the occasional rain shower.
Approaching the Continental Divide
We crawl into our sleeping bags early and Robert sets the alarm for 3:45 am so we can get an early start. Rain through most of the night interferes with our sleep, along with concern about our summit attempt. Fortunately, we have carried enough food for an extra day to wait out the weather if necessary. When the alarm goes off at 3:45 am the rain is still steady, so we go back to sleep. Feels like our summit attempt will have to wait a day. But by 7:00 am the rain is slowing and the sky is clearing, giving us hope. By 8:00 am the rain has stopped and we’re out of the tent, eating breakfast and packing up for a climb. We start at 9:00 am, about 4 hours later than planned.
Campsite in the shadow of the Divide
The first obstacle is the boulder field to the west, but the scrambling only slows us down a little. We pass through the boulders and enter a group campsite for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), who summited yesterday. We ask about the crux of the route, the bergschrund (crevasse perpendicular to the glacier flow). One of the NOLS climbers says that the bergschrund widened significantly yesterday while they were on the mountain, but it could still be bypassed by staying left while ascending the Gooseneck Glacier. He points at the mountain and describes their route, recommending that we follow their footsteps while crossing the glaciers.
Ascending the glacier
Robert enjoying the view while waiting for the slacker
We return to our climb, continuing on rocks and dirt for a while, and then reach the lower section of the Dinwoody Glacier. The slope of the glacier is shallow, but we put on our harnesses and crampons, take out our ice axes, and stash our hiking poles. As we climb I struggle to maintain Robert’s pace, so he takes the rope from my pack to lighten my load. After crossing the glacier we reach a rock rib, so take off our crampons. On the other side of the rib we enter the Gooseneck Glacier, which will take us to the summit ridge. Robert sees two other climbers ahead of us on the mountain, but notes that they are moving slowly so we’ll probably catch them. We see no signs of the Jackson Hole Guides group, they must have held back because of the weather.
As we proceed up the glacier, Robert widens the distance between us. As he approaches the steepest part of the climb, above the Bergschrund, he notices that the two climbers above us appear to have a problem, so he goes to assist them. They are a father and son team, Joe and Jerrod. Although they are roped up, they are unfamiliar with glacier travel and seem unnerved by the steep slope. This is not a glacier for rookies. He notices that their harnesses are not properly fastened, so would not hold up under a load. When he asks about their self-arrest skills, they are confused by the question. So he does his best to provide guidance and emotional support, coaxing them up the steep slope. This gives me a chance to scamper ahead, and rest up for the final summit push. I later ask Robert if he had tied into Joe and Jerrod’s rope. He replies, 'Are you kidding, do you think I have a death wish?'
After a delay of about 45 minutes, we are all on the ridge that leads to the summit. The route along the ridge is less steep, but frequently switches between snow and rocks, requiring frequent removal and reattachment of crampons. Along a section where a fall would almost certainly be fatal, Robert sets up a fixed line using two ropes. His adept handling of the rope reveals his extensive experience. He says 'Use your ice axe and crampons. The rope is only a last resort.' A few hundred yards later we are on the summit.
Joe and Jerrod on summit
Robert and John on summit
We take photos, congratulate each other, marvel at the views, and sign the summit register. It looks like the weather will hold a while, so we linger and relish the moment.
Summit view of Wind River Range to the south
Summit view east toward campsite beyond last lake
The trip back is uneventful. On the steep section of the glacier above the bergschrund, Robert sets up a fixed rope to rappel the descent. I rappel the first section, but am impatient. Robert says, 'Go on ahead if you are comfortable.' So I continue unassisted, keeping to the right to avoid the bergschrund while descending. After passing the bergschrund, the rest of the Gooseneck Glacier is an easy downhill stroll. I wait for the others at the glacier’s edge, boots off, feet recovering in the dry mountain air.
The remainder of the descent is relatively easy, and we mostly stick together. I seem to move a little more slowly than the others in the rocky sections, but take solace in being the only person on the mountain who didn’t leave any blood behind. Both Robert and Joe banged up their shins when they slipped on boulders. And Jerrod drew blood when he stabbed himself with a crampon while slipping into the bergschrund.
Robert, Joe, and Jerrod descending summit ridge
Back on Dinwoody Glacier
We still have a long trip back, but even when tired, the exhilaration from the summit persists.
We spend another night at our base camp and hike about halfway back the next day to Double Lake. Our pace is a little faster downhill, so we have more downtime in camp. Robert takes advantage of the downtime to show me an awesome iPhone photo-show of all his 7-summit attempts, including the two failed attempts on Everest. When he shows me a picture of a gaunt emaciated man post-Everest, I don’t even recognize him. He says: 'Neither did my mother.' He also shows me a photo of his extended Nepali family. Robert loves Nepal, he has two adopted daughters that were born in there, and is supporting an extended family of eight children in Nepal. He initially went to Nepal for the mountains but fell in love with the people, their culture, and their art.
Heading back below treeline
Campsite at Double Lake
The final day we hike out quickly, taking fewer breaks, knowing we’ll soon be able to eat real food for the first time in 5 days. Joe insists on buying us lunch at the Cowboy Café in DuBois, thankful for Robert’s assistance on the mountain. The weather was perfect, life always feels better after a successful summit. The aches and pains of the trip fade, the breeze feels more refreshing, the colors seem brighter, and the pine forest is more fragrant.
Double Lake at dawn
Another dawn view of Double Lake
Back at the trailhead, still feeling the summit buzz
Epilogue for potential climbers - Some websites rank Gannett as the most difficult highpoint in the lower-48, but such ratings are always subjective. The steepest part of the Gooseneck Glacier is probably steeper than the steepest slope on Mt. Hood's standard route, but because the snow was soft enough to easily kick steps and drive in the shaft of my ice axe, I felt more comfortable on Gannett than on Mt. Hood. Mt. Rainier could be more challenging, but with the heavy guiding operations setting up lots of fixed ropes and carving traverses across the glaciers, I never felt uncomfortable on Mt. Rainier. One factor on Gannett, of course, is that on the toughest part of the climb you are 20 to 24 miles from civilization, depending on your route. This distance, plus the energy expended hiking to the mountain are certainly relevant. Also, Gannett would be tougher later in the year when the bergschrund opened further. All said, I wouldn’t dispute Tom Martin’s ranking for the lower-48 (though I still haven’t climbed Granite): 1. Gannett, WY, 2. Granite, MT, 3. Rainier, WA, 4. Mt. Hood, OR, 5. Borah Peak, ID, 6. King’s Peak, UT.
Finally, my apologies for the absence of photos on the steepest part of the Gooseneck Glacier, but we were too focused on the climb to take pictures.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):