G-3 Summit Conference
I’d had Gannett and Granite, the highest mountains in Wyoming and Montana, respectively, on my to-do list for quite a while. With some free time this summer, I finally headed off to get them done with my 17-year-old son Derek.
Gannett Peak, in the Wind Rivers Range, is the highest peak in Wyoming, only forty feet higher than the famous Grand Teton. Gannett is one of the most remote peaks in the lower 48 states and the two most popular approaches require 47 and 50+ miles for the roundtrip. The Grand, in contrast, almost sits on a paved road. That mountain rises 7000 feet in just a few horizontal miles. Whether via the easiest or most direct routes, the Grand Teton, on average, is twice as steep as Longs Peak in Colorado. It’s an incredible mountain with a vast and varied collection of climbing routes, many of which play a central part in the development of alpine climbing in the United States.
I’d already climbed the Grand Teton four times, by four different routes (Direct Exum, North Face, North Ridge, and East Ridge) and didn’t need that mountain, but Derek wanted it badly, so we added it into the G-Mountain Tour. As a compromise, I wanted to do the Owen-Spalding route, as it is the easiest route and the route taken when people run the peak for speed. Plus, that would give me five ascents of the Grand, all by different routes.
Granite Peak is in the Beartooth Mountains of southwestern Montana and it is one of the toughest state summits. It is 25 miles roundtrip, but half of that is on the Froze to Death Plateau - a giant, trail-less expanse that has caused many a peak bagger to get lost. The upper part of the mountain is steep and involves sustained 4th class climbing with some short low 5th class cruxes. If we could pull this off, it would be quite a week.
This mountain has been on my list for a long time, probably at least twenty years. The reason it is finally getting done is that my son Derek is an mountaineer/adventurer now and what better way to spend vacation time than with your family doing what you love.
|The big peak above my pack is Fremont (3rd highest in Wyoming) and rises out of the Titcum Basin, where we are headed.|
I’m sure I was first attracted to Gannett because it was the highest in Wyoming, but I wasn’t then and am not really now a “high pointer”, at least not in the usual sense of the word. My most vivid recollections about Gannett were the musings of my long-time climbing partner, the Loobster, about the Titcomb Basin and the Dinwoody Glacier. I think he just liked the sound of those places. They are named after a couple of brothers who climbed in the basin and a cavalry officer named Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie didn’t even come very close to the area and originally just a tributary was named after him. But then, “like a spawning fish the name traveled upstream” to a glacier, a pass, and a mountain. He said it so often that the place names became embedded in my mind. The names conjured up magical alpine adventures.
My friends Buzz and Peter explored shorten options to approaching Gannett via Wells and Tourist Creeks and Peter and then Anton put in incredible FKT efforts via a combination of the two that brought the time down to a remarkable 8h46m. This is for a world-class athlete in his element, however. While Derek and I could probably manage a one-day ascent via this route, it didn’t sound nearly as appealing as the Titcomb Basin, which is revered by the guidebook author, Joe Kelsey, who calls it maybe the most spectacular area in the Wind Rivers, with the only rival being the Cirque of the Towers. That was good enough for me and I chose that approach.
Gannett can and has been climbed in a day via the Titcomb Basin approach as well, but 47 miles was a bit more than Derek and I wanted to bite off and it would involve extensive night-time travel in order to hit the glaciers at the right time of day. So, we opted for a 3-day approach: hike in 17 miles to the Titcomb Basin on day one; climb Gannett on day two; and hike out on day three.
|I think this is Barbara Lake|
We left town around noon on Monday and drove straight to the trailhead where we set up our tent in the parking lot, not directly next to the “No Camping” sign, but pretty close. We had dinner, packed our packs a bit, watched a movie on my laptop and went to sleep. The next morning we got a bit of a lazy start, but were hiking by 8:30 a.m. It was a bit chilly, probably high 30’s or 40’s and we hiked entirely in long pants. The weather for the next three days would be as perfect as I can imagine and didn’t know if the Winds has ever had a three-day stretch so nice. We didn’t see a cloud for three days. We had very little wind. Temperatures were mostly in the 50’s and 60’s and probably hit the 70’s the day of our climb.
We both wore long pants, hat, gloves, and Derek even wore his light alpine down jacket. I carried a water bottle in my hand, thinking I’d stash it in 30 minutes or so. Instead, I stashed it 5.5 hours later when we sat down for the first time in the Lower Titcomb Basin, 15.5 miles from the trailhead.
|And this is Seneca Lake...I think|
Besides the first few miles, which are in a forest, this is the most spectacularly beautiful hike I think I’ve ever done. There is a new stunning lake every mile. The views of wild, high peaks are everywhere. This place has so much water and so much greenery, it was the alpine version of Seattle. Yet, we wouldn’t see a cloud for three days. The one drawback is that horses use this trail too and we saw a few and their droppings as well. On the way in I didn’t seem to notice this much at all, but did on the way out, especially over the five miles nearest to the trailhead. But this was nothing like the horse sewer of the Valley Trail in Yosemite or the Kaibab or Bright Angel Trails in the Grand Canyon.
|Passing Island Lake|
We had a late lunch in the Basin and Derek crashed a bit. He had been rolling on the way in, but now his heels had bad blisters and he was tired. He was done. I looked around for a campsite without much luck. The slopes of the Titcomb Basin are steep and don’t flatten out until hitting the lakes. I convinced Derek to hike another two miles to get past the Upper Titcomb Lake where the terrain offered more options and I knew campsites existed. We did get past the lakes, but not very far and I found a pretty good site right next to the trail. Right next to the trail…that would become a slight issue the next day.
|Looking south in the Titcum Basin|
For the first time backpacking, I brought in four pre-cooked Bratwurst and buns. This was a very good decision, as they were huge hits both nights. I forgot to bring in water filtration, but it wasn’t as bad as it might sound. There were exactly zero people camped above us in the entire watershed and we just dipped from the streams. I guess we’ll find out if we have giardia in a fortnight or so. On the other hand, forgetting the sunscreen on the next day, as we climbed on snow for hours, was just as bad as it sounds. I guess we’ll know if we have skin cancer in a decade or so.
|Camp in the Titcum Basin. Bonney Pass is seen above the left side of the tent|
I brought a charging brick so that I could recharge my phone, but I brought the wrong cable and my phone died on the first day. I was distraught. This was our source of audio books that we listened to while hiking and as we went to sleep (this trip featured Don’t Know Much About U.S. Presidents). I was also going to use it to read a Kindle book. We’d have to talk to each other! Derek’s great, of course, but between the hours of 5 a.m. and noon he isn’t much for conversation. Plus, 17 miles is a long way to hike and it’s nice to listen to a book, learn something, and discuss it. I didn’t realize how dependent I was on this device.
|The ugly 2000-foot grunt up to Bonney Pass|
I was startled awake the next morning when a team of climbers hiked by our tent (remember, we were right on the trail.) I check my watch: 4:20 a.m. At 5 a.m. I made a cup of coffee and at 5:20 a.m. Derek and I started up toward Bonney Pass (previously named Dinwoody Pass). I was a bit dismayed how far it was before we really started to climb. We stepped across streams, climbed over boulders and talus and traversed slopes before getting to the 2000-foot scree slope that leads to the pass. Derek got a bit of an ass kicking here. He frequently starts slow in the morning, as he has trouble eating, feels nauseous, and, this morning, he was fighting some painful blisters. I was concerned. Despite knowing how tough he is and knowing that he’s only turned back on a mountain once in his life - when he threw-up trying to climb Longs Peak when he was 12 years old - I thought he might cry “Uncle.” But he kept on hiking. I guess I’m still learning about his fortitude and toughness.
|On the Dinwoody Glacier and looking up at the summit of Gannett. We descended here and then up onto the Gooseneck Glacier which is the upper snow above and slightly left of me. We do not follow it to the skyline, though.|
We made the pass in two hours and got our first look at the mountain we’d come to climb. Gannett did not disappoint. On Bonney Pass, the view of Gannett is the same as all the Google images we searched up during recon, and it is striking. The mountain, though still far away, gave us a boost of energy by virtue of its magnificence, and we started hiking down. Derek was still struggling, and said he was feeling nauseous. He decided to just puke and hopefully feel better after. He did! He got some food down right after and we then ventured onto our first (Derek’s first ever) glacier, the Dinwoody Glacier. This glacier was trivial. The snow was still fairly hard and it was easy walking. I had my light steel Kahtoola crampons, while Derek only had Microspikes, and he was fine.
|"What do I do with this thing, again?" Derek on his first glacier and sporting Bronco orange headwear.|
After the Dinwoody Glacier, we stowed the crampons and climbed across and partway up the Gooseneck Ridge. Here we saw a guy who had been waiting for “a couple hours” for his nephew to summit. This was the mystery of our ascent, as we never saw a soloist, and when we got back down to this point, the man was gone. Climbing up this ridge, which was mostly class 2 and 3, with some harder scrambling if you got off route (we did a bit on the descent), Derek discovered that he had lost one of his gloves. Bummer. Especially with the crux snow climbing above us. I had packed a spare pair, though, and it turned out that Derek did as well. He’s learning fast. Remarkably, on the descent and having forgotten about the lost glove, I stopped at one point to take a photo. Derek walks up beside me, looks down, and says, “Ah, my missing glove!” It was right at my feet. Cool.
|Hiking up the lower talus on the Gooseneck Ridge|
On this ridge, but off to our left was an older high-pointers couple. I called over a greeting and determined that they were still on their way up. They eventually turn around, as one was recovering from an injury and just wasn’t ready for Gannett yet. They were on their third day out. Bummer, after so much effort.
The crux of the climb is the Gooseneck Glacier, specifically crossing the bergschrund to get on the upper, steep glacier so as to bypass the Gooseneck Pinnacle on the ridge. Later in the season there is no longer a snow bridge across this bergschrund, but when we arrived, there was still a narrow, thin bridge. I thought it looked okay. From below we’d seen a party of three cross it roped (these would be the climbers that passed our camp). I decided not to rope us up and prodded Derek to just step lightly and keep ascending. I followed across after he was on the upper section and we followed good steps to the top and back onto the rock, where we stowed our ice gear once again.
|Derek crosses the bergschrund|
We scrambled up a brief bit of steep rock and then it was much easier scrambling (class 2 and 3) until we arrived at the summit snowfield. Here we met a guided party of three descending. They were all roped together and moving slowly down the soft snow. We strapped on our spikes and drew our axes and were on top ten minutes later. Here we met the three-person team from San Francisco. They were camping in the Titcum Basin as well and were planning to bag peaks for six days. This is a wise strategy to amortize that long approach and I hope to return with a similar strategy one day, but we would not be distracted from the G-3 Summit Conference.
|See what Derek's wearing on his shoes? Big shout out to Danny Giovale, Kahtoola, and Microspikes!|
We stayed on the summit for twenty minutes or so, eating and resting, and started down just before the SF Trio. We caught the guided party as the guide was belaying them as they downclimbed past the bergschrund. This was painful to watch. Derek and I had just walked up the steps and were just walking down the steps. When we arrived the woman was just going over the snow bridge and giving step-by-step updates on what she saw, expecting a response to each one. The man was kicking his boots five or six times per placement like he was soloing Slipstream. The guide didn’t say anything besides, “Nice job, Don.” Don was facing sideways with one hand on a ski pole and one hand on an axe. It was the most awkward, slowest way to climb anything and the guide remained mute to any instruction. I’d think a guide that was willing to teach skills would be even more valuable than one that just herds his clients to the summit and back. It took him fifteen minutes to descend fifty feet. A distance Derek and I would cover in about 30 seconds. We couldn’t easily go around though, as this was the only bridge across the bergschrund. We patiently waited and chatted up the guide a bit.
|Derek above the Gooseneck Glacier and high on the ridge|
They were on their fourth day of a six-day trip to bag Gannett. They took three days to reach their current camp on top of Bonney Pass. They’d return to that camp today and take two more days to reach the trailhead. That must be a hefty guiding fee.
The guide asked me a strange question, one I’d never heard from a climber before: “Why climb Gannett?” Why? It took me aback. It reminded me of when a reporter asked Mallory why he strived to climb Everest: “Because it’s there.” If you have to ask why I climb mountains, you probably won’t understand or be satisfied with the answer. What he really wanted to know, I think, was “Are you two high-pointers?” High-pointers are people that strive to stand on the highest point in each state and make up probably all of the guided parties on Gannett, as it is one of the four hardest summits, along with Granite (Montana), Rainier (Washington), and, of course, Denali (Alaska). I responded, “Why not? It’s a cool mountain. A neat adventure.”
|Derek on the final ridge to the summit.|
Derek and I reversed the route efficiently and quickly (save for the grunt back up to Bonney Pass). Once there, after a brief rest, we headed up Mt. Miriam, as it was only three hundred feet above us. It offered more than just another summit, for the apex was a striking spire and required some careful and exposed scrambling. We reversed back to the pass and I wanted more. I wanted Dinwoody Peak, but Derek finally called “No más”, but he encouraged me to go for it. I left the pack with Derek and headed up with as much pace as I could muster, which wasn’t a lot at this point. Wyoming has 31 peaks above 13,000 feet (with 300 feet of prominence). All of them, save the Grand Teton, are in the Wind River Range. Many are quite difficult and involve long approaches. I know of only one person (13er Girl) who has done them all. If I lived in Wyoming, it would certainly be on my list. I’ve only done two of them because Dinwoody (12th on peak list, but only 80 feet of prominence) and Miriam (44th on peak list, but only 240 feet of prominence) do not meet the separate peak criteria. The Enclosure a bump on the side of the Grand Teton is also on the peak list (it only has 80 feet of prominence) and I forgot to tag the summit when we climbed the Grand a few days later. Oops.
|On the summit!|
A few hundred feet up, I could see the the SF Trio had now joined Derek at the pass. They asked if I was a sponsored athlete. Why? I don’t know, but the funny part is that Derek knew I was sponsored, but didn’t know why. Actually, maybe that isn’t so strange. I’m not sure myself most of the time. I’m not an elite athlete. I call myself an evangelist for La Sportiva and I do cool things and write about them. If I have any notoriety at all it would be as a co-author of my Speed Climbing book, with Hans Florine and as a founding member of Satan’s Minion Scrambling Club. Derek just said, “Yes…he’s sponsored…but I don’t know why. Yes, I am his son… Uh, he’s the race director for the world-famous Rattlesnake Ramble.” Good save, Derek!
|The Grand Teton (our next objective) from the summit of Gannett|
I cranked out the 700 vertical feet to the summit and took some photos before turning back down, using as much snow as I could to hasten the descent. I caught up to Derek at the bottom of the scree field in Titcomb Basin and we hiked the rest of the way back to camp together and passed two people, a male and a female, sitting on a rock having a snack. They seemed to have ranger patches on their shoulder but when they asked what we’d done and I told them that we’d climbed Miriam and Dinwoody, they had no idea what I was talking about. I wondered what those patches were on their shoulder, but not for long, as they asked if we knew the regulations about camping. Uh, sort of. They took issue with our campsite being only two feet from the trail. In our defense it was a previously used site and, technically, the trail ends at the Upper Titcomb Lake. They seem to think the trail ended right at our tent and needed to be moved, as it was detracting from others wilderness experience. We knew that the only people that were going to come by our tent before we moved it were the SF Trio, but reluctantly agreed to move camp. Then we didn’t.
|Bonney Pass from the summit of Gannett (8x zoom)|
We got back to camp a bit before 5 p.m. and had at least a couple of hours of sun left. This would normally be great, but the sun made it too hot to get into the tent and outside of it the mosquitoes were rampant. We hadn’t noticed them the day before because the wind blew them away. We lathered on bug juice and they didn’t bite us (much), but they still buzzed around our faces. I endured it for awhile. Enough to cook and eat a brat. Then I took a hike up to Mistake Lake, so named because it is a mistake to hike the three hundred vertical feet to see the one uninspiring lake in the entire basin. But it got me moving and away from the skeeters.
|Climbing back up the Dinwoody Glacier to Bonney Pass|
The next morning we were hiking out by 6:30 a.m. Fifteen minutes into our hike we met the SF Trio hiking back up to bag another mountain. They climbed the same three mountains I did the day before, though taking four hours longer, making a 15-hour day for them. I was impressed they were up and at it so early the very next day. Right on!
|Derek on the summit of Miriam Peak|
We traded leading the miles, as usual, and Derek endured the heel pain. This is particularly painful starting out, because the nerves haven’t had a chance to be desensitized, and Derek limped along with compensatory gait. We moved continuously until 11 a.m. and then took a lunch break with a great view. After lunch we met an 11-person NOLS group that was on a 30-day hike. They had been resupplied twice by outfitters and didn’t have to leave the trail. Right on!
|Descending back to camp in the Titcum Basin|
When we ran into them they were on a “push” day doing eight miles. Most days they did about five miles. We did 17 miles that same day and were back at the car by 1:30 p.m. Both are great ways to experience the outdoors.
|Island Lake on our hike out.|
Looking at Derek’s blisters back at the trailhead I was shocked and proud that he had just hiked out 17 miles with not a single whine. Sure he walked awkwardly at times, but he never made a peep about the pain he was in. He never asked to slow down. He never asked for a break. He never asked for Advil. In fact, the closer we got to the trailhead, the faster he hiked. Maybe he just wanted the pain to be over. When he took off his socks I thought we might have to amputate his feet. Okay, maybe not that bad, but lord they didn’t look good.
|OUCH! Want to do 17 miles on these blisters? Derek is one tough dude.|