Day 8: Gannett Peak

Our approach to Gannett Peak came from the south (via Bonney Pass) – we are on an eleven-day expedition where a Gannett summit attempt was only one objective. We are weaving a high route from Spider Lake (via Elkhart Park) to Baker Lake (exiting via Green River Lakes), so in addition to our attempts on a few big peaks (Fremont and Gannett, the two highest in the range) they are simply potential cherries on the Wind River Pie we are baking.

Gannett is the Wyoming high point at 13,804′ and is what Kelsey calls “…the most alpine peak in the northern Rockies.” Gannett is remote, generally requires at least a 3,000 foot summit day regardless of the approach, and by its easiest route, demands route finding skills, steep rock scrambling, and a stomach for exposure, with steep snow couloir climbing and a convex summit snowfield that plunges over the dramatic thousand-foot cliffs of its east face.

Add to this the fact that an approach from any direction requires at least 25 miles of backcountry travel and you have what may be the quintessential alpine mountaineering objective in the Continental United States. By any measure, it can be argued that Gannett Peak is the most difficult U.S. state high point climb outside of Alaska (debated with Montana’s Granite Peak and Washington’s Mount Rainier).

We arose at 3:45 AM to attempt a climb of Gannett Peak today from a camp in the beautiful and soft tundra meadows below Elk Lake on Dinwoody Creek’s eastern shore at about 10,800′ in elevation. Gannett’s summit looms 3,000 feet above.

After brewing a pot of coffee, seven members of our Crew set out to hike the Miserable Mile of the Dinwoody moraine once again, but this time with lighter packs, and by headlamp. We left camp at 4:40 AM.

The weather was on our side: a star-studded night sky revealed not a single cloud.

We reached the end of the moraine where Dinwoody Creek crashes down waterfalls from a deep, dark cave in the glacier’s maw. We put on crampons and withdrew our ice axes here, a thousand vertical feet above our camp, and began climbing the Gooseneck Glacier.

Our climb took us across hard glacial ice followed by a steep snow traverse up a seasonal snow finger that skirts the main glacier’s southeastern edge and provides a direct “sneak” option that saves a little ascent time over the standard route.

After completing the sneak ramp and scrambling up a bit of rubble on the lower end of Gooseneck Ridge, we descended down to the southern edge of the Gooseneck Glacier and began our climb to the bottom of the Gooseneck Couloir.

Upon reaching the couloir, we discovered a 10-foot-wide snow bridge over the bergschrund protecting the couloir’s entrance. After crossing the crevasse, we continued our ascent up the 40-degree couloir, on firm snow.

After exiting the couloir at about 13,000 feet, we continued on rock, climbing the remainder of Upper Gooseneck Ridge to its intersection with the steep snow ramp leading to the summit snowfield.

After traversing across the crest of the Gannett snow dome for the length of about three football fields, we stood atop Wyoming’s high point at 9:15 AM. Blue skies and calm winds made our summit hour a pleasant one. We snapped photos and welcomed a party of two young women from Colorado and Utah who were climbing behind us.

To stand on top of a peak like Gannett is a bit surreal. For many, it’s the summit. For others, it’s the bond forged with climbing partners while overcoming the challenge. And still for others, it’s simply the raw beauty of standing where few others have.

For me, it’s all that. But I’m entertained greatly by the technical challenge of the climbing itself, and the sensory load that comes with each moment during the climb.

There is something about enchaining a series of steps across a moraine field while wearing a pair of well-fitting mountain boots – it’s like dancing. Or the scraping of crampon steel on granite as the front points find a hold to stand on while the ice axe pick makes a solid “thwunk…” in soft, white alpine ice. Or the sound of the clicking of a carabiner gate.

Then, at the end of the day, you realize that all those thousands of tiny sensory moments have made up a vastly complex series of movements that has resulted in “the climb” – something that no one can comprehend without experiencing it themselves.

We left the summit a little after 10 AM, which we hypothesized was about the time the rest of our Crew would be waking up down in camp! We could see the tiny tents below and the morning sun had not yet bathed the camp, owing to its shady location in the steep-walled canyon.

Upon our arrival at the top of the Gooseneck Couloir, the sun had already turned the snow to a semi-rotten mush, making the descent down the steep couloir rather precarious.

We carried 75 meters of 5.5 mm Dyneema core static line with us for just such a scenario, so I inched my way down the couloir to a set of anchor slings wrapped around a large granite horn to set up a belay. Eric and I took turns belaying everyone down, including the two girls that were on the mountain with us. I suppose this is the high mountain equivalent of Boy Scouts helping the old lady across the street, except these were chicks with picks and we were a long ways from traffic.

At the bottom of the couloir, we took a northward turn to explore the icefall of the Gooseneck Glacier. We approached a large crevasse from below and crawled over to its lower lip to peer down the cold, blue hole. The crevasse may have been 100 feet deep and its depths struck a bit of terror in those who’d experienced looking down a big crevasse for the first time.

We proceeded to walk around the icefall back to the terminal moraine where we removed our crampons and stowed our axes. Another descent of the Miserable Mile brought us back to camp around 3 PM, just as the rain started falling and the clouds began to swallow Gannett and her sister peaks.

We spent the next few hours rehydrating, refueling, and napping. It was a big effort for everyone and to be down safe in base camp to recover was a welcome relief.

Tomorrow will be a critical day for us. We will attempt to cross the glaciers to our north, spending much of the day above 12,000 feet to reach a pass that will allow us to return to the west side of the Divide – so we can find a reasonable off-trail route to our exit point at Green River Lakes.

Weather will play Sha critical role tomorrow, and bad weather could shut us down and send us down moraine fields to the east to find rtt camping. If that happens, then we’ll have to come up with a Plan B – which does w yet exist, so pray for sun!t

In the meantime, we are planning a 5 AM wakeup tomorrow to get a head start on what may be our longest day yet.

Godspeed,
RJ

PS: No photo today as we are walled in a steep canyon and sat reception is poor.