Monday, July 18, 2011

Road/Climbing Trip 2011: Gannett Peak

On Monday, July 11, I set out from Pinedale, Wyoming on a 4-day trek to Gannett Peak, the highest mountain in the state, which peaks at 13,809 feet above sea level, and is part of the Wind River range. Due mainly to the slog of a 16-mile approach just to get into place for summit day, I think it was physically the hardest thing I've ever done, and I'm quite pleased to be able to say that I was successful, even more so that I did it solo, with no support other than following other parties the whole way. I don't think that summit day was that much harder than Rainier was, but including having to cross Bonney Pass both ways, and sections at are steeper than Rainier, it was at least a little harder. However, thanks to better physical conditioning and better altitude acclimatization (I don't think I was below 5,000 feet elevation in the week before this climb), I felt better than I did when I climbed Rainier two years ago. [Note: day 1 and 2 reports were written those evenings, days 3 and 4 were written after returning home]

Day 1
After only getting about 4 hours of sleep, the alarm woke me at 5 am. The motel I stayed in had a decent breakfast. Nothing fresh, but at least a decent selection, and available before 6. I had an omelet and some French toast for some carbs and protein. I checked out about 6 and drove to the trailhead in Elkhart Park. At first I went to the trail's end area, and was suspicious that there was only one car and an RV there. I checked my map and realized I had gone past where I wanted to go, the Pole Creek trailhead. There were several cars there, and the last person I saw for many hours wished me better luck than he had had. The Pole Creek Trail was kind of a slog, being muddy in many spots and covered by snow banks in most others. The trail is fairly flat and has seen a good bit of traffic, so I was still able to make decent time, about 2 mph. The mosquitoes that the Winds are apparently well known for didn't bother me until I stopped at a trail intersection around 8:30 to consult my map and have a snack. I only got a couple of bites, as I kept walking around to get them away from me. The next time I stopped, around 10 just after turning onto Seneca Lake Trail, I put some DEET on my arms to keep the skeets away. The main reason I stopped was because I wasn't entirely sure I was on the right trail. The Seneca Lake trail has much more snow on it than the main trail, and has seen less use this season, making it indistinct from the rest of the woods. After looking a little closer, I noticed some tracks in the snow, and pretty much just hoped that that person knew where they were going. If Pole Creek was a slog, Seneca Lake was doubly so. There was more snow, but still mixed with dry sections of the actual trail, so it didn't seem to make sense to put my snowshoes on to be able to travel more easily on the snow. The snow also went over melt streams in many places, making it even more unstable and leading to more postholing. The travel was slower, but I was still doing fine against my target time to get to Seneca Lake, my intended camp site for the evening. That is until I crossed the outlet of Hobbs Lake, when I jumped on a log that turned out to be unstable and dumped me into the river. I got to the far bank and took off my boots and socks, hoping a little sun might dry them quickly. That might have taken all day, so after some snacks I put on new socks and the still wet boots. It wasn't long before those socks were wet as well, but I figured it was worth a try. Slogging through unstable snow in wet, cold socks and boots is pretty miserable, so I was really hoping to get to Seneca Lake soon. However, I first had to cross the torrent of a river flowing out of it. Doing so required hiking upstream to find a crossing. I got to a point that looked crossable, got to the crux of it, threw my trekking poles across, and then chickened out. I could have made it except for my wet boots and heavy pack. I found a more suitable crossing just a little further upstream, collected my poles, and went down to rejoin the trail. I was so ready to get to camp, but it seemed like forever before I finally got to the lake. When I did finally get to the lake, I saw people for the first time in 7 hours. A man and two women were on their way out from a multi-day backpacking trip. They gave me some info on what lay ahead for me, I told them about what I had just been through, since it had apparently changed quite a bit in the few days since they hiked in. We parted ways, and I went in search of a camp site, which turned out to not be an easy task. I made my way around the lake, when the trail went under water. It looked as though a snow bridge had been there previously, but I was looking at three feet of water. From the water's edge, it looked as though my options were to either wade through, or climb over a big rock. I gave the rock a go, but it was too difficult with the pack. I don't know why I didn't explore other options before wading in, but I figured as long as my feet were already wet, it couldn't be too bad. Once the water was past my ankles, it became obvious how stupid of an idea it was. The water was extremely cold (there is still a lot of snow on the lake itself) and made my feet that much wetter and colder. I kept going, hoping to find something of a camp site. At the end of the lake, I finally saw a small patch of level, dry ground and dropped my pack and ripped off my boots and socks. My feet were blue, but the warm sun brought them back to life quickly. A closer look at the site showed that it was far from ideal: the area I spied for my tent was rocky; and it was way too close to the trail, lake shore, and streams to meet Forest Service guidelines. Once my feet were a little warmer, I put on my sandals to hop across the rocks in search of a more suitable location. I didn't find anything even half as suitable as what I already had, so I went back. Still not satisfied, once my boots had a chance to dry slightly, I put them on to scout further along the trail. I only went a short ways (seeing nothing) before it looked like some nasty weather was headed my way. I rushed back to set up in the imperfect site before it hit. It wound up turning and not even getting one drop of rain near me. I had pretty much nothing to do except look at maps I've almost memorized at this point, so I took a nap. I just kind of sat around after I woke up, until 6 when I decided it was time to make dinner (aka boiling water and pouring it into a bag). It cooled off rapidly when the sun went behind the mound overlooking the site. I got my stuff in order and laid down in my tent around 7:30, and wrote this. Now I have nothing to do but try to sleep.

Day 2
Contrary to my expectations, today was another soggy slog. Since there isn't a lot of elevation difference between Seneca Lake and Titcomb Lake, I thought it would be relatively easy. I obviously didn't look at the contour lines of my topographic map closely enough to realize that the trail had to cross several passes, climbing up and then back down the other side. The snow was again sloppy and inconsistent, except today it covered 90+% of the trail. Even with snowshoes, which definitely reduced the amount of postholing, it was slow going. Another big problem was that I lost the trail of the other people who have been up toward Gannett and got off course, wasting valuable time and energy.

I slept fairly well, probably better than I have in ages, from about 9 to about 5. Everything was dewey when I woke up, most noticeably the inside of my rain fly. Worse than that, though, my boots weren't even close to being dry. I had breakfast and then pretty much just stalled, waiting for the sun to crest the hill and hopefully dry things a little more before I had to set off. However, once the sun did shone on my camp, it was soon tempered by light clouds. For most of the day, the sun would be mostly obscured by clouds. As I was starting to pack up at 8, the first of a group of four ("The 4," as I referred to them in my head as I kept running into them) came along the trail. We exchanged basic pleasantries, and once the fourth caught up, they were on their way. At 8:30, I was packed and ready to go. I, as usual, started at too fast a pace and had to take a pause every 5 minutes. At that pace, I quickly caught up with "Sloey," my nickname for the one of The 4 consistently the slowest. I soon passed the rest taking a break. They suggested the shorter way around Little Seneca Lake, and since there were tracks, I went that way. It was soon after a stream crossing I contemplated but didn't take and subsequent map check that I somehow lost the track and was blazing my own. I was on top of another hill when I finally stopped to consult my GPS, since I wasn't sure where I was on my map. Sure enough, I was well off course and had to backtrack. The 4 had followed my tracks somewhat, but realized they were off track much sooner. It was actually a relief to see them again, and I followed their track around the small lake. I passed Sloey on the uphill, and the rest were taking a break at the crest, where there was another group of 6 or so, on their way out. The 4 passed me when I took a break, I passed them again a little later, and they passed me again when my bear barrel dropped off the outside of my pack. At noon, I came to the large Christian group I had heard about from the three people I met on day 1. We chatted a bit, then I went on to find a crossing of the raging stream they were camped next to. There was a large snow bridge a little ways up. After I crossed, I set my pack down to filter some water, since I was almost out due to the effort I was putting out. At long last, I was on the Titcomb Basin Trail, but still 3 miles from where I wanted to set up my high camp. About halfway, I came upon two guys "hanging out" on a section of rock, waiting to see what the dark clouds to the west would do. We chatted a little while I had a snack, then I pushed on up the basin. I was tired, my feet were wet and freezing, when I saw what might make a half decent campsite. When I got to it, though, I saw people in the distance, and knew it was the "promised land" of a good camp. When I got to that patch of rock and dropped my pack, I was basically told that it was theirs (a guided group of 4 guys) and I should go a little further to a good site of my own. I was finally done for the day at 3. I started by taking off my snowshoes, boots, and socks before actually setting up camp. It sprinkled a little at 4, so I got everything secure, then laid down for a little nap. It started raining for real at 5, and didn't let up until 6:30, when I filtered some water for drinking and dinner, ate, and laid down to write this. Now, to get some rest for a 3:30 start for the summit.

Day 3
I woke up a little before 3 am, as two parties passed right by my tent within a short period of time. I prepared and ate some oatmeal, got my gear set, and left camp at 3:30. I left wearing crampons (actually borrowed from my uncle), and the snow was nice and firm. I followed the tracks of the others, grateful that at least one of them was wearing snowshoes, which left more of an impression on the snow and was easier to follow. As usual, I was going a little too quickly, and was breathing hard. Only about 15 minutes in, before I even got to the steep sections, my quads were feeling weak. I thought maybe I had overdone it on day 2 and not had enough rest, and I might not be able to make it. It was still so early, I figured I had to go at least until it got light. I set myself a goal of getting to the top of Bonney Pass (12,800 elevation) by dawn. I figured that would be the make or break line. I was still making progress at 4:30, when I stopped for a break on a big rock. I had an energy gel with a double shot of caffeine, and just sat for a few minutes. When I started back up the now fairly steep slope, I got into a good pace that kept me from burning myself up. I would take two or three steps, then move my ice axe up. Between finding a pace, the gel, and being able to look back and see that I had already made some good progress, I was feeling pretty good, and I thought I was probably going to make it. I could see the headlamps of the people in the parties ahead of me up the mountain, and I was gaining on them. Around 5:15, I caught up to the tail end of the JHMG group, and the guide asked the three clients to step aside to let me past. I made something of a protest, because it was a lot easier following in their footsteps, and I thought we were really close the top of the pass, where I was planning on taking another break. The guide said they were following the tracks of another party, and it turned out it was still a good 10 minutes to the top, so I went on past them. I went across the rocks at the top of the pass and sat down for a break just before the snow started again, and headed downhill. I tried to eat one of my granola bars, but it was too cold to bite a chunk off of, so I found something a little easier to eat. When my 10-minute break was almost up, the JHMG team came over, all roped together, and sat down. I talked briefly with the guide, but his main focus was his clients. I didn't speak to any of the clients, but they looked to be about middle aged (or so), and word from other people I had spoken to was that they were "flatlanders" from Rhode Island. Considering they were almost certainly one of the teams that passed my camp half an hour before I left, I was making much better time than they were. Dropping the roughly 1,000 vertical feet from Bonney Pass to Dinwoody Glacier was quick and easy work, but it sucked to have to essentially waste the energy of climbing that much. I could see three climbers ahead of me, and I figured it was probably "The 4," and I was guessing they were minus "Sloey" (I later learned his name is Trent). They had stopped before the "trail" started uphill again for 2 of them to take off their snowshoes, and I just barely caught up to the one who was at the back (they were not roped) on the Gooseneck Pinnacle before I took a break. I asked him about their fourth, and he said he "wasn't feeling it" and didn't join them for the summit push. I kept nearly catching up to them on the way up to the summit, and eventually started talking to the one who had been leading most of the way, Steve. He does a lot of climbing and did Denali two years ago with one of the other guys, Scott, just the two of them. The third, I learned once we got to the top, was Dane. I mixed in with them for the final summit push: Dane was first to summit, then me, then Steve, with Scott a little behind. There was a brief moment of semi-panic on the summit ridge, looking to my right down a steep snow ridge leading to a major drop off, and to my left rocks leading to another multi-hundred foot drop. We all kind of hung out at the summit for about half an hour, refueling, taking each others pictures, and chatting a little. We started down around 9, more or less together. I was ahead briefly, but fell behind after the straps on my crampons wouldn't stay tied and risked tripping me up. The easy part was getting back to the Dinwoody Glacier. The hard part was climbing back up to Bonney Pass. It was hard enough before it got really steep (which I had kind of forgotten about, I thought I was almost done), it was brutal climbing the last 100+ feet. Making it even harder, I passed Steve when he took a break and for the first time had to kick my own steps. He caught up to me before long, and from there we took turns kicking steps up the last stretch, with Scott and Dane following us. Back at the top of the pass at 11, it was windy and a burst of rain and sleet hit. Looking back, the JHMG group was still on the summit ridge (we had passed them at 9:30 at 13,100 ft). Hopefully they made it back without getting slammed by weather. Once on the other side of the pass, though, came the fun part: the glissade. We each took turns sliding down a few hundred feet of now-soft, fairly steep, snow on our butts. It took seconds to descend what had taken nearly an hour to climb earlier in the morning. The snow back to camp was still pretty good, so moving wasn't a big problem. They were camped further down the valley, so we parted ways when we got to my tent at 12:30.

I got my gear off and laid down for some rest. I couldn't sleep, though, and started preparing my gear to move down out of the Titcomb Basin for the evening. When a drizzle came through at 1 (just after a big group came past and set up camp in the snow above my camp), I got the gear I had left out to dry under cover and got that nap. When I woke up at 2:30, the sun was out and I resumed packing up. By the time the tent was down and I was almost ready to go, black clouds had moved in over head again. I decided to move on any way, and left wearing my rain gear at 4. The weather continued to toy with me, and instead of raining, the clouds started to break up a short time later, and I started to overheat. I shoved the rain gear back in the pack, just to have the clouds come back with a vengeance around 6. I was exposed on the trail, so I ducked behind a rock to get a modicum of shelter and put my rain gear back on and covered my pack. I hunkered down the best I could as it started to hail, pea sized. Once it lightened up, but before it stopped completely, I decided I may as well continue on. At 7 I finally made it to where I planned to camp for the evening, next to a stream and frozen lake at the end of the Titcomb Basin Trail. I was in low spirits from exhaustion and the rain, and they only picked up a little once I was in my sleeping bag at 8. The site wasn't ideal, being too close to the water, but it was the best I could find in the area. I was almost too tired to bother with dinner, but I knew it was for the best.

Day 4
I woke up at 5:30, but after breakfast and getting everything repacked, it was almost 7:30 before I headed out for the 12-mile slog back to my car. After 8, most of the snow that wasn't still in shadows had lost its crust of overnight freeze and was soft, making for slow travel even with snowshoes. Once I got around Island Lake and over the pass back toward Seneca Lake, it was quite evident how much snow had melted in just the couple days since I packed in. I started down the dirt trail on other side with my shoes still on, but it soon became apparent that the trail would be more dirt than snow from there. I stopped for a while at 9 to take the snowshoes off and strap them to my pack. While I did, a group of 13 passed by lower down the valley. The trail to Little Seneca was mixed with snow, but I didn't regret taking the shoes off. While following the trail around Little Seneca (the other way than I had gone originally), I came to a section where the trail was under water. I had to rock scramble up a pretty good ways (the actual trail was against a cliff) in order to get past without making the dumb mistake of wading through again. I took a brief rest at my camp 1, before another scramble (not as high) around the submerged section on Seneca's shore. From there, the trail had melted enough that the going was much easier than the first time through, but still not enough to really make good time. I found that after three hard days, my legs were working fine on the flats and downhill sections, but as seems to happen to me, were shot for uphills. Pretty much the last climb was to get back to Pole Creek Trail, and it took me ages, stopping every few feet for breath and water. Finally back to the Pole Creek Trail at 2, I stopped for a long break, taking off my wet boots and soggy socks. I put on some socks that were dry- for about 15 seconds until I laced my boots up. The trail back to the parking lot was almost completely clear of snow, but it was pretty muddy. It still made for travel at a reasonable pace, and with a burning passion to get back to my car, I was moving at about 2 mph. I thought I was moving faster than I was, however, and when I still wasn't back to my car at 4:20, I started getting annoyed. After crossing out of the designated wilderness boundary, I thought I must be really close. Every time I came to a stretch where I could see a hundred yards, and I couldn't see any man-made structures, I let out a large sigh. My feet were hurting, I was mad at all the horses that had been through and "left their mark" on the trail. Finally at 4:45 I saw a something man-made: a sign board along the road between trailheads. I let out a "Hallelujah" and rushed over to my car. I dropped my pack, got out my key, and sat down to take my shoes off. I had a hard time walking for a while, but didn't have a problem driving back into Pinedale.

I ate an ice cream bar and drank a soda at a gas station and tried to decide what to do from there. I thought about going back to Jackson, or in the direction of Utah's highpoint, which I had originally intended to climb after Gannett. I decided to stay another night in town, and checked into a motel. After a shower I went to dinner, where I had a really good prime rib. I'm pretty sure it was actually good, and didn't just seem that way after four days in the wilderness eating highly engineered, never-spoil food products. Oddly, I had trouble falling asleep, and also woke up for a little while in the middle of the night. I woke up for good at 7:30, but was not in any rush. Even though I had decided my trip was over and I was heading home, I didn't feel the need to leave right away. I had a soak in the hot tub, hoping to help my sore feet. I finally used the PBJ materials I had carted around for some sandwiches for the ride home. I finally got away a little past 10 am. Since I hadn't expected to be home until Monday or Tuesday at the earliest, there wasn't any reason to rush home, other than just to get home. I had thought I'd spend the night in Colorado Springs, possibly even enjoying the fact that it was Friday evening, but didn't really feel like it after taking a quick spin through. I had actually been interested in touring the US Olympic training facility and the Air Force Academy, but they'll have to wait for another trip. I spent the night in a horrible dive of a motel in Trinidad, and was on my way again at 7:30 am. Now that I'm home again and still have a week of sabbatical left, I can detox from all the junk food I ate on the road and get back to triathlon training.

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