Gannett Peak: Like Rainier, But Different

10559740_10152172939360872_2389254820175051529_nBy John Martersteck, HAMS Director

For years, the High Altitude Mountaineering School (HAMS) of the Colorado Mountain Club has headed up to the Cascade Range during the week of July 4th to climb one of the standard routes on Mt. Rainier, usually the Emmons Glacier, as a HAMS graduation test piece.  Although only a “14er,” Mt. Rainier is a massively glaciated volcano in the Pacific Northwest that much more closely resembles a big mountain in Alaska than do our local 14ers here in Colorado.  In recent years, we have also added an option of tackling the more technical Kautz Glacier route on Mt. Rainier.  We feel that if our students can competently, confidently, and safely climb almost 10,000’ from the trailhead to the summit of a heavily glaciated and crevassed peak such as Mt. Rainier, then they will be ready to take the next step and attempt bigger and higher mountains in Alaskan and South American ranges.

The Denver HAMS group typically chooses the week of July 4th to climb Mt. Rainier, not only to take advantage of the Independence Day holiday and thereby save a day of vacation, but primarily because the weather tends to be clear and stable, which has been a key factor in the long string of summit successes that our HAMS groups have enjoyed over the past years.  Apparently, that strategy has become increasingly popular, and unfortunately this year our streak ended — not because we were unable to reach the summit, but because our camping and climbing permit application was rejected!  To quote from the NPS website, “Requests received in March, April and May could take up to six weeks to process because of the large number of applications. During this initial two week period (March 15-31) the Park will receive around 1,400 or more reservation requests.”  Apparently this year, the NPS could not accommodate our relatively large group of climbers during the week leading up to the July 4th holiday.

With “Plan A” no longer an option, we had a few “Plan B” alternatives:  1) re-apply for a Rainier climbing permit later in the summer, 2) climb a different peak (or two) in the Cascades, such as Mts. Baker, Hood, Adams, and Shuksan, or 3) climb a different peak somewhere else. Several HAMS students opted to join a 4th ofJuly trip led by Sr. HAMS Instructor Dave Covill to head to the Cascades and climb Mts. Baker and Shuksan, while another group of six students decided to try something completely different and backpack in to the beautiful Wind River Range in Wyoming to tackle the state high point, Gannett Peak.  Although this high 13er — at 13,804’, it is 34’ higher than the famous Grand Teton – is not as glaciated or as crevassed as similar mountains in the Cascade Range, it nevertheless features several serious glaciers that adorn its slopes and guard the summit, and its renowned remoteness makes it a special wilderness experience that relatively few climbers experience.

Having settled on a new objective, the next major decision for the Gannett team was which approach to take:  from the west (via Pinedale) or the east (via Dubois).  The approach from the east (via Dubois) on the Glacier Trail requires a very long, strenuous hike to high camp – about 25 miles! –  with over 5,000’ of cumulative elevation gain each way; furthermore, there are many stream crossings and route finding challenges.  However, this route offers a relatively short summit day of about seven or eight hours and a very scenic approach and destination through the heart of the Wind River Range.

On the other hand, the approach from the west (via Pinedale) on the Pole Creek Trail to Titcomb Basin offers a bit shorter approach – about 20 miles each way, and a bit less elevation gain.  However, it requires a significantly longer summit day, thanks to the necessity of first climbing Bonney Pass and then descending over 1000’ to converge with the eastern approach on the Gooseneck Glacier.  Some climbers judge the western approach to be even more scenic than the one from the east (though Charlie and Diane Winger, who wrote the Highpointer’s Guidebook, disagree with that opinion).

Given that most of us would be carrying about 50 lbs on our backs, the shorter approach from the west was tempting; however, the prospect of a shorter summit day that would increase the chance for a successful summit bid with a relatively large group of climbers convinced the team to choose the longer approach from the east on the Glacier Trail.

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As in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the Wind River Range experienced a heavy snow year in the Spring of 2014, and our early-season approach featured some conditions different from what climbers later in the season will likely experience:

  • For starters, the Winds are renowned for horrendous swarms of voracious mosquitoes in July and August.  Although we were well-prepared with head nets and plenty of deet repellant, we were fortunate enough to hike in when the mosquitoes were just getting started, and we only occasionally needed to resort to such means of protection.
  • Stream crossings were a bit dicier than usual, thanks to the meltwater from the heavy snowpack and quickly-warming conditions.
  • Snow fields obscured some of the trail in the upper approach, and we lost time late on our second day (prior to reaching high camp) because we went off-route when crossing Gannett Creek.  We then lost a lot of valuable time and energy postholing about as we tried to re-locate the trail.  We finally gave up as dusk approached, and we set up our camp a couple of miles and about 800 vertical feet below high camp.  As it turned out, when we finally arrived at high camp the next day, we decided that we needed a rest day anyway prior to our summit attempt.
  • The weather was nearly ideal, with clear, bluebird days during our approach and summit push, with storms building only on the fourth day of the trip (after we had summitted and set up camp (on Dinwoody Creek just below its junction with Honeymoon Creek).  We awoke early on summit day to a dizzying array of stars (and no moon), punctuated frequently by meteors and highlighted by the luminescent river of stars that comprise the Milky Way.
  • As with the weather, snow conditions were near perfect!  Although there was evidence of some wet-slides on the couloirs after the previous storm, the snowpack had plenty of time to consolidate after a series of sunny days and clear, cool nights.  We started our summit bid at 2am to ensure that we were able to climb on firm snow and to summit prior to potential building of afternoon thunderstorms.As it turned out, the heavy snowpack and firm snow meant that we never felt the need to rope up.  The snow bridge across the bergschrund was sufficient to cross safely, and we found no sign of crevasses elsewhere on the glacier.  Step-kicking up the couloirs (we chose the steeper couloir on the right) was superb!  And for dessert, the glissades down the softening snow fields in early morning were sheer fun!

Mt. Rainier is certainly a more technical mountain, much more heavily crevassed and therefore more dangerous.  However, I judge Gannett Peak to be the more difficult summit overall, thanks to the long and difficult approach.  What I really appreciated about climbing Gannett Peak compared to Mt. Rainier:

  • A favorite reason for heading to the mountains is to enjoy the solitude, and one quickly leaves civilization behind upon entering the Wind River Range!  We saw only three other climbers during our summit day (two from Bozeman, only one of whom made the summit, and one climber from Tennessee who is currently hitchhiking around the country hiking and climbing to his heart’s content).  We had the mountain all to ourselves until we were half-way down.  On Mt. Rainier, however, it is difficult to avoid the crowds, and the routefinding is pretty much already done for you (just follow the cowpath to the summit!).
  • The beauty of Mt. Rainier derives from the intrinsic splendor of the mountain itself, thanks to the wondrous, sculpted rock, ice, and crevasse fields that adorn its flanks, with distant volcanoes visible on the horizon.  From the summit of Gannett Peak, by contrast, the striking beauty of the surrounding jagged Rocky Mountain spires deep in the heart of the Wind River Range is almost overwhelming.
  • Although the glacier travel on Gannett Peak is not as technical as on Mt. Rainier (and indeed we were somewhat disappointed to have hauled our harnesses and ropes for 50 miles and not need them — and we were therefore sure glad we opted to bring the light 30m 8mil alpine ropes!), the routefinding, couloir climbing, and steep, exposed sections that led to an airy summit ridge was reminiscent of Denali.  All in all, Gannett Peak offers a fantastic alpine climbing experience.

I am proud of the group of HAMS grads ( Josh Gertzen, Gerry Kim, Carter Coolidge, Chris Vincent, Tim Smith, and Josh Kirk) who accompanied me on this trip, both for the individual effort and for the team effort they demonstrated to make this first-ever HAMS trip to climb Gannett Peak such a success.  I must say, I was a bit worried about how the group would fare, given the long and difficult approach, but everyone gutted it out when the going got tough and helped each other overcome his or her personal difficulties.  Each had to reach deep to surpass the challenges of a 50+ mile round trip carrying a third of his or her body weight on difficult trails through mosquito-infested backcountry, with sometimes challenging route-finding, not to mention numerous stream crossings and constant elevation change. To be sure, we were lucky to be blessed with near-perfect weather, but we can certainly attribute most of our success to each climber’s focus on achieving the goal, which included their training and preparation, their willingness to suffer a bit, and their pulling together as a team.

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Although we didn’t need to apply directly all of the advanced skills taught in HAMS with regard to glacier travel, the team was certainly prepared to do so, and that greatly increased our chances for success on summit day.  I believe the hours we invested practicing the technical skills during HAMS field trips and the group couloir climb (Savage Couloir) boosted everyone’s confidence during the difficult, often exposed climbing that led to the summit of the elusive and majestic Gannett Peak.  What a special gift we all experienced at sunrise on top of a difficult peak amid the stunning splendor of the Wind River Range!

An attempt of a heavily-glaciated peak in the Cascade Range is quite a different experience from climbing a mountain in the Winds, and I encourage the students to maintain (and expand!) their technical skills, climbing experience, and level of fitness so that they can join one of the HAMS groups that will climb Rainier next year.  Rainier is pretty much a required check mark on the résumés of all aspiring high-altitude climbers in this country:  given its awesome beauty and technical challenges, it is a peak that simply should not be missed!  And I can state with confidence that completing one of the standard routes on Rainier will in fact be less difficult (though perhaps a bit more dangerous given the magnitude and ubiquity of the objective hazards on that massively glaciated mountain) than the climb to the summit of Gannett Peak.

I imagine that most of the HAMS students on the Gannett Peak trip just experienced the most strenuous backpacking trip of their lives by about an order of magnitude, and I am confident that they all learned quite a bit on this trip and are the better mountaineers for the experience.

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