Among state highpointers Gannett Peak is widely regarded as the toughest
in the contiguous 48 states. I feel very fortunate to have completed this
one on my first try. Many capable highpointers have been foiled multiple
times by weather or rotten ice on this mountain. And when I consider the
inflexible schedule we were faced with, all I can say is the Mountain Gods
were in a forgiving mood on summit day. On the other hand, our success was
not just dumb luck. In our favor we had a small group, the right gear, and
a purposeful attitude. But our real ace-in-the-hole was a trip leader who
had climbed the mountain fourteen times before.
Our access was via the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Crowheart store
is roughly midway between Lander and Dubois, Wyoming. We had to check in
there and pay for a permit for each of the two days we would cross the
reservation -- $25 for the day in, $20 for the day out, per person. We
left our vehicles at Crowheart and were shuttled to the Cold Springs
Trailhead by the tribal authorized outfitter. The fee was $175 each way
for the group -- not unreasonable when you consider it is a 3-hour round
trip for the outfitter over a rugged, truck-busting road. The advantage
of this access is that Cold Springs is the closest trailhead to the
mountain. Disadvantages are the fees and the fact that you are committed
to a fixed return date.
1.5 miles, start 9,600', end 10,200', gain 600', loss 0'
We set out from Cold Springs on the Ink Wells Trail. After .8 miles the
Dry Springs Trail turns left. We continued on the Ink Wells Trail
in the direction of Scenic Pass.
On Friday, July 24 I had flown into Salt Lake City from the lowlands
of the Midwest where I was on a work assignment. Now, only 24 hours later,
I was toting a heavy pack at an altitude of 9,600 feet, and headed higher.
This trip followed about the same pattern I've noticed on previous climbing
trips. Around 11,000 feet I began to get that tell-tale nauseous feeling
-- but so slight it didn't curb my appetite. And at about that same
altitude I really started to notice how much faster I got winded than
We got started a little later than planned, a problem that was exacerbated
by rain which caused us to set camp after 1.5 miles instead of the planned
6.0. Even if we had been on schedule we would
probably not have arrived at the trailhead sooner than 2:00 p.m. Six miles
may have been a bit optimistic for this short first day at altitude,
regardless of the weather. In any case, because of threatening skies
we could not risk venturing onto the exposed area around
Scenic Pass so we set up camp below tree line.
We had plenty of mosquitoes for company. They were with us all day every
day except on Gannett Peak. Although not too much of a nuisance while hiking,
the bloodletting began in earnest when we stopped. I like to avoid using DEET
if I can, but it was almost essential around camp, and it did keep the pesky
critters at bay. I found a headnet to be helpful too but it was useless at
mealtime, of course.
4.2 miles, start 10,200', end 10,520', gain 1,250', loss 930'
By Sunday morning the rain had cleared out. We finished the remaining miles
to our original destination by crossing Scenic Pass, (11,450'), and taking
the left fork where the Ink Wells Trail briefly splits. We made camp where the
two forks rejoin, back below tree line again. One special treat
on this section of trail was my first-ever view of a flock of mountain sheep,
on Scenic Pass.
Because we had taken two days
to hike the six miles originally planned to be done in one, we had lost our
one extra day that was to have been our alternate summit day in case of bad
weather. Only time would tell whether we would regret that.
The terrain was mostly treeless on the drive to Cold Spring. There were some
spectacular views along the way. At the trailhead we headed into the woods
and popped in and out of
small meadows until we emerged above tree line near Scenic Pass. The ordinary
scenery prior to Scenic Pass was replaced by some real jaw-dropping vistas
once the continental divide peaks came into view.
Our Sunday night camp had a terrific lookout point at one end. There was
a great scene of Gannett Peak framed by trees to our north. To the west the
sun set over barren, rocky peaks. The ever-changing patterns created by the
sun and clouds kept us checking back from time to time to see what Mother
Nature was up to.
7.8 miles, start 10,520', end 11,050', gain 1,450', loss 920'
Monday the group split up. James Hollandsworth Sr. and Jr., "Pop" and Jim,
had not planned to do the climb. Instead they would do some day-hiking and
meet us back at Cold Springs on Thursday. Pop was the primary organizer of
the trip. He is an amazing "ageless wonder" who at 83 years of age carries
a full pack and holds his own on the trail.
The summit group consisted of myself and husband-wife team Vince and Nancy
Lee. Vince and Nancy are Wyoming residents. I'd like to think the fact that
they live at 6,000+ feet gave them an altitude conditioning advantage over
me. Probably it did but
these people are in incredible shape and I would have had to work hard to
keep up with Vince under any circumstances.
Before leaving camp we cached some gear and food. Then we set out for high
camp on what I thought would be a fairly easy eight-mile hike.
The Ink Wells
Trail heads past Echo Lake then steeply down to Dinwoody Creek and a
junction with the Glacier Trail. From there it looked on the topo map like
a nice level hike for several miles before climbing to near the foot of the
In fact, the terrain is fairly level as you parallel Dinwoody Creek and Upper
and Lower Floyd Wilson Meadows. The problem is that horse traffic has turned
the Glacier Trail into a mess of roots, rocks and mucky bogs. We were also
slowed by two crossings of major Dinwoody Creek tributaries, the first on a
makeshift log bridge and the second a ford of Gannett Creek at the site of a
washed out log bridge.
The scenery is post-card perfect as you descend on the Ink Wells Trail and
catch some gorgeous composite views of Floyd Wilson Meadows and Dinwoody Creek
beneath Gannett Peak. At one point along the meadow
Vince spooked a moose out of the trees. It bolted a short distance into
the meadow and then went nonchalantly on with its browsing. The weather was
warm and sunny all day except for threatening clouds near camp at the
Dinwoody Creek headwaters, but they didn't end up dumping any moisture.
We arrived at camp at 4:30 p.m. I'd hoped for an easy hike with lots of
time to relax and acclimatize before summit day. While this was certainly no
"death march", it proved to be a hard days work nonetheless. But since we had
to meet the outfitter on Thursday there was no decision to be made and no time
to kick back. We would climb Gannett on Tuesday, or not at all.
5.0 miles, start 11,050', end 11,050', gain 2,754', loss 2,754'
We got a fairly early start on Tuesday. I saw perhaps five other groups
on the mountain that day. We were the second or third to start up from the
lower part of the glaciers but we gradually lost ground to the others.
The distance to the summit from our camp was roughly 2.5 miles.
One of the groups ahead of us was camped maybe a half mile
closer to the mountain, directly at the base of the glacier. The others were
camped further away, some coming over passes to the Dinwoody Glacier. Four
other groups summited before us. One group behind was the only one I saw
that did not summit.
Our slow progress was due in a large part to my unfamiliarity with walking
on glaciers. I didn't expect this was the sort of thing that would take
getting used to. Apparently I was wrong. It sure seemed to sap my energy a
lot faster when we were walking on snow than on rock. Nevertheless, the
weather could hardly have cooperated more beautifully. The skies were
overcast, making for pleasant climbing conditions until we were within about
a half-hour of the summit. Then the sun burst through and we had the most
glorious conditions imaginable for the next hour.
Our summit route was north across the base of the Dinwoody Glacier to a rocky
climb up and across lower Gooseneck Pinnacle Ridge. We traversed north across the
exposed rock to a bivouac site, then we headed up the Gooseneck Glacier.
Above the Gooseneck Pinnacle we crossed a bergschrund and did a belayed climb
up a rock face, back onto the Gooseneck Pinnacle Ridge. From there we angled
across steep snow to the top of the ridge. We roped up for this traverse. It
was very steep at the beginning and icy at the end.
About this time is when the sun finally came out. From this point up, the
Gooseneck Pinnacle ridge line was free of snow and we followed the exposed rock
fields up to the point where an easy climb lead to a moderately steep snow slope
and up to the Gannett summit ridge.
On top, there was some exposed rock but
primarily the summit ridge was a gently ascending pile of snow, wind-blown to
a sharp up-side-down "V". Following the top of this peak we arrived at a jumble
of large boulders, the summit of Gannett Peak.
We did not reach the summit until 2:30 p.m. Instead of being chased off by
lightning bolts we basked in the best weather of the day. Thanks in part to
the bright, sunny skies and puffy clouds, the view was incredible in every
direction. The register is little more than a wad of used paper scraps stuffed
in a metal canister. After shooting a few pictures I signed in and we headed
We roped up again at the steep snow on the side of
the Gooseneck Pinnacle Ridge.
Taking a more direct route to the exposed rock, we did a belayed
climb down to the steepest part. From there we rappelled down till we were
past the bergschrund. After we'd completed all the rope work the weather
could restrain itself no longer and it began to sleet. By then we could not
have cared less.
That night the weather kept us from cooking supper. I was too tired to eat
anyway. All I needed was rest. Our summit climb had consumed 12 hours. That
seemed so incredibly slow I wondered if I should be embarrassed to mention
Normally on the day prior to summit day I try to plan a very short hike
or a layover day at high camp, partly to be completely
rested and partly to spend time acclimating to the
altitude. If we'd had that luxury we probably would have trimmed at least
two hours or more off our climb.
7.5 miles, start 11,050', end 10,450', gain 800', loss 1,400'
Wednesday we retraced our steps back to the same camp where we'd cached our
gear and food.
6.0 miles, start 10,450', end 9,600', gain 1,000', loss 1,850'
Thursday we headed back to Cold Springs. At Scenic Pass Mother Nature cut
loose with a bit of rain and thunder just to show us who's in charge and
remind us that our summit day weather was an extraordinary gift for
which we should be thankful.
Back at Crowheart it was a different world -- warm, balmy, and no mosquitoes.
I've been involved in related activities for years, like caving and
backpacking, but this was my first real mountaineering experience. Vince was
a super trip leader, patient and instructive when he could be and insistent
when he had to be. There's no doubt his experience
and expertise had much to do with our success. Thanks again, Vince.