I don't really even like backpacking, but yet I organized a five-day 50-mile backpacking trip. Why? Gannett Peak, at 13,804', is the highest peak in Wyoming, and is on many other peakbagging lists as well. The only way to access this remote peak is by backpacking in with a 50-60 lb. pack for a couple of days just to get to the base of the mountain. Then it is a long summit day involving scrambling, steep class 3 climbing, glacier travel, and negotiating a troublesome bergschrund at the base of a steep snow chute. Then of course, you must make the long backpack out, which involves plenty of ups and downs. Sounds fun, huh?
The planning of this trip was a bit disjointed. Although the trip was scheduled about 4 months in advance, the participants kept shuffling. Additionally, the planned route actually changed because Collin lobbied hard for the longer eastern route. I'm glad he convinced me to go this way, because even though the approach is longer with considerably more elevation gain, summit day is much more reasonable (maybe 10-12 hours rt. from high basecamp as opposed to 16-18 hours from the western approach)!
I scheduled a couple of "snow" practice sessions (minus the snow), but as it turned out, I was the only one at our practice that wound up attempting the summit. It was good practice, and even though not needed, it probably helped the confidence.
So, our final group was Collin, Ken, Jen and I, with only Collin and I going for the summit. Ken and Jen came along for the backpack, scenery, and camaraderie. Since Collin was driving to Gannett from Colorado and Jen was driving from Utah after visiting some friends, Ken and I left Las Vegas Wednesday afternoon. We drove about 7 hours dodging dozens of deer along the road, and found a decent campsite just off the scenic Mirror Lake Highway east of Salt Lake City.
We got up bright and early Thursday morning and made a short hike up to a Utah county highpoint. It was a pleasant 1/2 mile jaunt up to the cluster of cairns marking the approximate county highpoint on the side of Murdock Mountain. It was more treasure hunt than hike, but at least we got to stretch our legs a bit.
Joel and Ken on (or near) the highpoint of Wasatch County, UT
From there, we still had about 5 hours of driving to reach the trailhead which is on the NE side of Gannett, a long way from Las Vegas! We reached the trailhead just after noon, and spent almost an hour packing up our backpacks. As I packed some stuff at home before I left, it seemed that my pack would have plenty of room and not be too heavy. How wrong I was! As we packed everything at the trailhead, I struggled to fit everything, especially the bulky bear barrel, and my pack became a 60 lb. behemoth. As we finally began up the trail just after 1 pm, Collin commented that this was the heaviest pack he had ever worn!
Not only was it the longest backpack I had ever done, we also carried snow climbing gear - ice ax, crampons, helmet, harness, rope, snow pickets, gaiters, prussiks and biners! We kept a pretty good pace the first day going just over 10 miles with 3500' gain to reach Phillips Lake by dusk. I was tired and went right to bed without even eating first.
Picturesque Double Lake
Day 2 promised to be longer, but slightly less elevation gain. We got up and broke camp and were on the trail by around 8:00. We descended down to beautiful Double Lake, then ascended to Star Lake, where we were surprised to find a dead horse in the lake just a few feet off the trail. We all commented how that could draw a bear. From Star Lake, we descended about 1200' down to 9200' to the first of many open meadows we would hike through that day.
Heading up the valley
It was very scenic, but even the gradual ascent the rest of the day became exhausting. Adding to the challenge were countless stream crossings, some descriptions mentioned 15, but if we counted minor ones, it could easily have been twice that many. Most of the crossings had rocks or logs to cross on, and weren't too bad. The worst part of the trail was all of the muddy and rutted sections with tree roots sticking up. Horses travelled this section regularly and really chewed up what was generally a good trail.
One of many stream crossings
As we followed this valley up, Collin and I began to wear down (since we were carrying the climbing gear) and slow considerably. Still two miles from our intended high camp, I told the group to just look for a good spot to camp, as we were all tired (at least I was). Soon after I said this, we stumbled onto a perfect campsite, just at the top of Floyd Wilson Meadow. It was just on the edge of the trees and had shelter, and a small stream nearby.
We were happy to get our monstrous packs off, and relax
a bit. We pumped water out of the silty stream, (which made pumping difficult
and time-consuming), and made dinner. Collin and I prepared the rope and
gear for tomorrow's summit day. We agreed on a 3:30 am start, since we
still had a 1.5 hour hike to high camp over numerous stream crossings
in the dark. We all turned in around 6:30 pm.
As we were sitting around camp playing cards and drinking
wine in the rain, several groups passed providing beta. One friendly guy
from Bend, OR named Sean passed late in the afternoon heading up. He said
he was planning to start from high camp at 4:30 am the next morning. Collin
and I mentioned that maybe we would see him as that was when we expected
to pass the high camp with a 3:00 start.
Jen trying to warm herself in the brief window of sun
Ken relaxing in camp
It was actually really nice to have a day to relax and enjoy the scenery as I had been pushing so hard the first two days, I hadn't looked around enough. Our campsite that we had stumbled onto was actually the best one for miles in either direction. Being in this long valley, the sun went behind the mountains by 5:00 and we were in our tents by 6:30 again.
My alarm went off at 2:20, and I went outside to check the weather before waking up Collin. I must admit part of me was hoping for cloudy skies so we could just hike out. I mentioned this later to Collin, and he said felt the same way, but as I looked up, all I saw was bright stars, except for one small cloud down in the valley. We were a go!
Collin and I had a quick bite to eat, and made final preparations before heading out by headlamp just before 3:00 am. Collin set a quick pace and I tried to keep up. My glasses kept fogging up terribly with the exertion and humidity as we crossed four major streams and several other minor ones. The terrain opened up into alpine tundra as we approached the high camp (Tarns Camp). Several minutes after 4:30 we passed Sean's (from Bend, OR) tent along the trail. We joined up with him for the rest of the climb, and he was an excellent addition to our summit team.
As Sean, Collin, and I meandered through the boulders of the glacial moraine in the dark, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by water...we had unknowingly followed the boulders out onto a peninsula in a glacial lake! We went down trying to find a way to cross without backtracking too much, but keeping our feet dry. I found a spot with somewhat sketchy jump across, but Collin and Sean opted for the longer but safer walk around. As I waited for them to catch up, I got to look at the spectacular surrounding scenery in early morning light. I could see some of our upcoming route, but the upper part was hidden by a giant cloud!
Pinnacle with first light just hitting it
The bouldery peninsula we had wandered onto in the morning
Amazingly as we got further up the boulder field, the cloud receded, then disappeared. As first light hit the higher peaks, there was not a cloud to be seen! We could see our route clearly - through the boulders, up the Gooseneck Ridge, then up the Gooseneck Glacier to the summit ridge. The routefinding actually was surprisingly trivial.
Once finally through the boulder field, we climbed some fun steep class 2-3 rock slabs to just below the Gooseneck Pinnacle. At this point we donned our snow gear as we headed out onto the glacier. The first part was fairly level traverse over to the steep chute we would follow to the summit ridge. As we approached the chute, we got a good look at the gaping bergschrund at the base of the chute. There appeared to be two snow bridges across - one in the center, and a slightly larger one (which other climbers had recommended to us) on the right side.
We discussed who would go first, and Sean volunteered to be the guinea pig, as he had considerable snow experience in the Cascades. He followed some tracks up and the snow bridge was solid as it was still early in the morning. Collin and I followed and found that there was a second bergschrund/crevasse just above the main bergschrund. We had manuever around it, then climb the chute. It was steep (about 50 degrees), and somewhat intimidating to know the bergschrund was waiting below with a misstep. Most of snow was solid enough, but there was one section in which the snow wasn't deep enough to fully plunge your ice ax. I found this part quite creepy, but fortunately it was short, and then we were back on solid rock.
We stashed our crampons, and continued up the rock with short sections of snow. We had less than 1000' vertical to go, but there were still significant challenges. The elevation became an issue as we climbed steeply to reach the actual summit ridge. Our slow, steady pace led us along a somewhat narrow ridge with sheer drops on the left and a fairly steep snow slope on the right that led to a cliff in about 100 feet. There were several short snow sections that we were careful with as the aforementioned cliff face loomed.
Picking our way along the ridge
Finally, just before 11 am, we topped out on the roof of Wyoming to perfect weather (temps in the 50's, no wind). The views were breathtaking...lots of jagged snow-capped peaks all around, which is why Gannett is not obvious from many angles. We took summit photos, ate lunch, and reveled in our accomplishment. We found the summit register, but it was frozen solid, so we did not even get to sign in!
Joel, Sean, and Collin with the frozen register
Collin is the king of the world...or least of Wyoming!
Joel just below the summit with many jagged peaks in the background
We enjoyed the summit, but we all agreed we would be more comfortable once below the glacier section. When we reached the the snow chute, we put our crampons again. Also, we had noted 3 rappel slings on the side of the chute. We tied Sean's 30m rope to our 30m rope for rappelling and headed down to the first rap station. The raps although a bit difficult to get to on the rock face while wearing crampons, proved most helpful as the snow was now very slushy and soft. We used all 3 slings to rappel down.
There were some awkward aspects to rappelling with crampons, and the final rappel was weird as you had zigzag around the 2 bergschrunds. I actually cut the corner too sharp over the higher one and went waist-deep in. I managed to work my way out, but then found myself too low hanging over the edge of the larger lower one. I actually climbed the rope a bit (reverse rappelling), and then sidestepped around to the snow bridge. We were all relieved once past the bergschrund!
Collin rappelling around the bergschrund
Then we enjoyed a brief, but fun glissade down to the end of the snow section. We were all a bit giddy as we knew the technical terrain was behind us. Collin and I were out of water at this point, so we began to look for a good spot to get water. Soon we found a place where the water poured through a crack in the rock. We decided not to even filter it; Collin and I agreed it was some of the best water in the world!
For the next couple of hours (felt like 20 hours) we crossed the tedious boulder field and found that some of the little streams we had crossed in the morning had now swollen significantly with the warm temps. We had to wade several larger ones. Eventually, we got out of the boulders, and soon reached Sean's tent at high camp. We said our goodbyes and continued. Sean turned out to be an excellent climbing partner, and we all worked well as a team. His experience and extra rope really were helpful. I think our last rappel over the bergschrund with just one 30m rope would have been borderline wheteher it would have been long enough to get us over the bergschrund!
We finally got back to our camp around 6:30, too late to try to pack partway out. We fell immediately asleep.
Boy, I look tired.... hiking out with Gannett Peak in the background
The next morning (Monday), we got an early start and were moving by 7 am. We made surprisingly good time, even though Collin and I were a bit tired from the previous day. We made steady progress toward my stated goal of a campsite about 6 miles from the trailhead. Collin mentioned that he might just power through all the way to the trailhead that night (20+ miles)! As I cruised into our campsite around 6 pm, Ken and Jen informed me that Collin had indeed pushed on.
Ken, Jen, and I enjoyed a nice evening camping on a ridgeline above a small stream. The next morning, we were focused on getting out, and flew through the final 6 miles in 2.5 hours! It was very satisfying to be back at the vehicles. We noted signs at the trailhead warning hikers of the bear danger of the dead horse at Star Lake!
Dead horse in the water along the trail in Star Lake
Sign posted at the trailhead regarding the dead horse
We drove a little over an hour to a brew pub in Lander, WY that Jen had spotted on the drive up. It was cool place and the beers were tasty, especially the jalapeno beer. Good call Jen! After a good long break there, we hit the road, and actually got back to LV by about 10 pm. Ken could actually get a decent night's sleep before his 8:00 meeting the next morning!
The menu at the Cowfish Brew Pub in Lander, WY - we recommened the Fire Tiger!
Looking back on this trip, I can safely say it was the toughest trip I've ever done. It was about 11,000' gain over 50 miles over a myriad of challenging terrain. Collin agreed it was definitely tougher than Mt. Rainier! It was a great cohesive group, including our summit day friend from Oregon, Sean. There was lots of fun conversation, and of course, plenty of suffering, which only makes it sweeter in hindsight!
We saw no bears or any other large animals, and the mosquitoes weren't as bad as we had heard they could be. I won't ever forget this amazing trip. It might go without saying, but I won't be putting on a heavy backpack any time soon!
DEATH VALLEY NP - BULLFROG MOUNTAIN, BEATTY MOUNTAIN & CHLORIDE CLIFF
Having wanted to explore the most eastern reaches of Death Valley NP, even into Nevada, Henry Arnebold, Jim Murphy, and I drove out to this area, checked out the small ghost town of Rhyolite, and then set off into the Bullfrog Hills via a series of dirt roads. After a bit of searching we finally found our way to a saddle at 4,400 feet where we parked, and headed up toward the summit of Bullfrog Mountain (4,959’). We struggled up through some serious 30 mph gusts where we found an old register and a great view of the surrounding peaks, including neaby Sawtooth Mountain. We could see what looked like a bull-dozed track all the way up to a communications platform about 200 feet below the rocky summit. After returning to the car, Henry expertly drove all the way up this steep dirt 4wd in some worsening wind conditions, and then we spent a little time struggling just to stay upright, before deciding that the last class 3 ledges would wait for a better time. In these windy conditions, we decided to retreat to Beatty, Nevada and found a room at the Exchange Commission Motel, and after a nice Mexican dinner, watched the finals of the Women’s NCAA basketball finals, and went to sleep.
The next day we headed just out of Beatty and found a dirt road off of Highway 95 that got us up a ways along the base of Beatty Mountain (4,282’), where we were met by a bunch of wild burros that serenaded us most of the way up this steep, ball-bearing infested slope to the summit. There was no register in the cairn, so I left one, we took pictures of the town of Beatty, and the other summits of this Bare Mountain range, and then headed down to be greeted by our burro friends again. Henry had found some adventurous 4wd roads in his guide book that we went for next. He got us down the entire length of Titus Canyon Road where we checked out the ruins of the old ghost town of Leadfield where they mined a lot of silver ore, and then we headed back up the Daylight Pass Road to start up another 4wd track that Henry negotiated almost all the way up to the top of Chloride Cliff (5,279’). We found the old register in the cairn where I had signed in previously back in Dec. 2009 with Steve and Shane Smith. After helping a young lady who was stuck on a dirt road with her 3rd flat tire in three days, we drove all the way across Death Valley to try for another free night in the luxurious Boxcar Cabin but as it was already occupied, Henry headed for the hostel in Lone Pine where we checked in for the night.
After a nice breakfast at the Alabama Hills Café, Henry set our destination for an interesting traverse of Cactus Flat Road just off highway 395, and then we headed home back to the city.
This adventure was one in a series we have done based on Andy Zdon’s book “Desert Summits” which I’ve been working on for many years now. We still have a lot to go out in the Mojave Desert!
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