7/20/2005 at 9:50 pm #7828[Ed: Imported from Americas Roof ‘Summit Trip Reports’ forum][By: markv on July 20 2005 at 9:50 PM]I don’t want this to read as an overdramatic cautionary tale, but it seems enough highpointers might be interested in how a climb can go wrong, so i’ll tell it like it happened. No pictures are part of this report, but if you are planning to try this route, email me and i might be able to dig a couple pictures out that can give you an idea what to expect. Rex’s pictures in the trip reports section are of the same route we did, and are excellent.
On July 7th, i set out to climb Gannett Peak, WY, starting at the Elkhart Park Trailhead near Pinedale, approaching the mountain via Titcomb Basin, and climbing it from Bonney Pass and the Dinwoody and Gooseneck Glaciers. The map i used was from Earthwalk Press. My partners for this climb were Serge Massad, Ray Schwartz, Doug Varga, and Emma Philips. Doug and I have previously climbed on Rainier, Hood, and Borah together. Emma is my girlfriend. Serge and Ray i met for the first time on this hike. Four of us, minus Serge, made our meeting point Salt Lake City, and after a day of fretting over not being able to get in touch with Serge, he did call and we met him in Pinedale.
All information from rangers and outfitters had led us to believe that there was a LOT of snow on the route. We all brought snowshoes, but then after talking with some very adamant people at the outdoor shop in Pinedale, decided that we’d leave the snowshoes behind in the car. So we set out early in the afternoon on the 7th with ice axes, crampons, rope, pickets, 6 days of food, etc. Our packs varied from 40lbs to Ray’s gargantuan possibly 70lb. load. As varied as our packs were, our paces were at least as varied. We spread ourselves along the the Pole Creek Trail under mixed skies, meeting in bunches here and there at junctions, trading some heavy items, and getting to know each other while grunting our way along the rolling terrain.
It was clear that the different paces in the end meant that the whole group was moving at a snail’s pace, like an amoeba stretching one finger out and then waiting as the rest of the blob oozed itself forward to meet the finger. The scenery is gorgeous…one stunning alpine lake after another. Stunning distant views appeared of the Continental Divide, including Fremont Peak and the pass we’d have to eventually cross to get to Gannett. The snow was around, but mostly off the trail, and when on the trail it was easy to follow the postholes of the parties that had preceded us in previous days. Snowshoes were certainly not necessary. But, the mosquitos were epic. We all had headnets, but that wasn’t enough. They were biting me THROUGH my capilene shirt, and whenever we’d stop, we’d bundle up against cold that didn’t exist, just for the sake of keeping the mosquitos at bay. (At this very moment i’m scratching a mosquito bite on my earlobe, still there from this trip.) The other main drawback was that we were making very very slow progress.
That first night we made camp above Hobbs Lake. A deer wandered through camp. I’m not sure why, but i couldn’t sleep at all. Premonition stress maybe? It seemed to me just from the first day that we were not going to make it to Gannett Peak as a group…the communication wasn’t ideal, and the paces and conditioning were so varied. We were a group forged by highpointing…but little else.
The next day was much more of the same. Beauty everywhere. Mosquitos everywhere. The five of us everywhere on the trail, miles apart. Wading through Little Seneca Lake was a minor and even fun obstacle. The snow on the ground got thicker, but was never too much of a pain. (Our route was the standard one…if you have a map follow the obvious most direct trails from Elkhart Pass east and north to Titcomb Lakes, you’ll know our route…or email with questions.) In order to make sure no one got lost, we had agreed to meet up at the trail junctions, but more often the person in front just decided to go on anyway. After a long day of hiking and waiting, we made it as far as the southern end of upper Titcomb Lake. It was a little short of our intended base camp, but it was a great spot, and we set our camp for the next 3 nights.
Our third day was set aside as a rest and “practice” day. Emma, though proving herself to be one of the strongest hikers in the group, had never been on glacier before. Ray hadn’t either. Doug and I had been a few times, but needed to brush up on our basics. Serge took command as the group leader and under a 2nd straight day of crystal-clear skies, put us through some exercises in basic cramponing, self-arresting, and walking as a rope team. There were several “techniques” he showed us that were at odds with what Doug and i had learned previously, but it was clear he was the most experienced of us, and we gratefully fell in line with his instruction.
By the end of the session, Ray had decided not to try for the summit. He was feeling the grind of the past 2 days, badly. It was clear he was physically too taxed to keep up on the very long summit day from our not-so-advanced base camp. The rest of us got our gear in order and went to bed early in hopes of getting some sleep before our 1 a.m. departure. I hadn’t slept more than a couple hours in the past 2 nights…and this night i didn’t add to that total.
At 1 a.m. on summit day, for the first night, there were no stars. I.e. the sky was clouded over. We left on time with headlamps on, but instead of it taking the expected 2 hours to get to the base of Bonney Pass, it took nearly 4. Serge had scouted out the route the previous day, but wasn’t able to find his tracks, so we followed him as he zig zagged along the basin in the dark. We started the steep climb up Bonney Pass. The other 3 reached a windbreak on Bonney Pass at about 5:50. I caught up at 6:00. I thought i had been further behind than that, and i was upset. I was zonked. Whether from lack of sleep, conditioning, stress, or what, i felt exhausted like i never felt on Rainier or any other climb. I told the others they should go without me, but Serge told me i’d be fine…just to take a minute and we will all go together. Emma gave me a hug and i believed. I decided to leave a liter of water wedged in the wind break, surrounded by errant M&Ms left by a previous group, to lighten my load and give me something to look forward to on the return.
With the dawn broken, the dark cloud cover was now apparent. Doug and i each asked for Serge’s assessment of the weather. I didn’t know if i was just looking for an excuse to turn back, but it looked like looming storm clouds to me, and i said so. But Serge was unconcerned, and we were eager to believe him, so at about 6:15 we roped up and started down the Dinwoody Glacier. The down felt good to me, but roped up, it was still taking a lot of time. By the time we had traversed the snow finger below Gooseneck Pinnacle and started the climb up the Gooseneck Glacier, it was nearly 9 a.m. Up we went. At 10 a.m., at 13,100 ft., we stopped for a break. We did an inventory of water. Emma had brought 2 1/2 liters and was half out. I had brought 3, but with one left behind at the pass, i was mostly out. Doug had brought 3 but lost one along the way, and Serge had only brought 2. We were low on water, and while we were discussing it, snow started to fly and wind picked up dramatically. It took some convincing, but we came to a consensus that we were not going to summit Gannett that day. We had started from too far away, wasted time getting lost, and all in weather conditions that nobody in their right mind would have set out in to begin with.
Serge told us that at this point it would be “safer to not be roped up anymore.” We unroped, and he started back the way we had come. It was the last words i heard from him until the next day. Serge quickly turned into a speck in the distance, as Doug, Emma, and I stayed together. The snow turned to sleet. With no cover from the wind, soon there were gusts that required leaning full force into them to keep standing. The next 6 hours were hell. I can only speak to my own condition with any exactness, but i don’t think the other 2 were doing much better. My rainjacket, boots, gloves, and pretty much everything else failed me. I don’t know if it was from sweat, faulty gore-tex, or what, but i was drenched through quickly. In ~32 degrees, this was bad bad news. I was exhausted, but if i stopped moving at all i immediately started shaking. My fingers and toes were numbing, and so were Emma’s. At first i was able to follow Serge’s tracks, but soon they were filled in with sleet and snow. Luckily i had a beat on where we had to go, so direction wasn’t an issue even in the bad visibility.
I’m not sure what else to say about those 6 hours. We just kept pushing on. Frankly, thoughts of death crossed my mind. I’m just grateful we stayed together and helped each other out in our own ways. I won’t detail it much…nothing was overly-heroic…but we just kept each other going. I did most of the leading. Doug loaned me some overmits. Emma was tireless and encouraging. When we got to where i had left my water at the pass, it was gone. No one besides Serge passed by that spot that day…maybe the mountain gods took my water. The descent was made easier for Doug and Emma by some wild, butt-numbing glissading in the sleet. I tried it, but immediately started shaking uncontrollably…i needed to keep my feet moving to stay ok. We pushed our way to the bottom of the pass and were met by the real hero of the day…Ray.
When Serge had arrived at camp a couple hours earlier, he had told Ray that we didn’t have any water and he should go to find us…before Serge disappeared into his tent. Ray interrupted his daylong battle with the marmots to load up his pack with food, water, and dry clothes, and had headed up the basin to find us. It was a big boost to see him. He led the way back to camp. Apparently i was walking like a drunk, which i hadn’t realized. Early hypothermia. By the time we got back to camp a little after 4:30, the sleet turned to showers and finally abated. I got rid of my wet clothes, re-staked the tent, and hit my sleeping bag. Thank god Ray boiled water and brought it to each of us. By about 9 i had finally warmed up and stopped shaking.
The next day was clear again. A perfect summit day…for someone other than us. We agreed to leave and proceed on our own until Seneca Lake. Emma and i left last. It gave us a chance to have a last moment at Titcomb Basin. It’s truly a glorious place, and what had gone wrong couldn’t put a dent in that glory. We left camp a full hour and a half after Doug…3 hours after Ray had left. Doug had gotten on the wrong trail and so we ended up bumping into each other at about noon. The three of us together again, we hiked along until we crossed paths with a pack train. It took us about a second flat to flag down their leader and ask what the rates would be for packing our stuff out to the trailhead. (Bald Mountain Outfitters, 307-367-6539, email@example.com, http://www.baldmountainoutfitters.com. i’ll never again complain about horse poop on a trail.) They took our gear (minus some snacks, water, and raingear), and caught up to Ray and took his gear, and so we did the whole 17? mile hike out to the trailhead in one day.
I could barely keep my legs moving, but this time instead of the cold, it was the mosquitos that pushed me on almost without a break for the entire day. There was a brief, heated exchange of words with Serge. He had left his rope behind and i called after him to ask if it was his. At that point, i figured it was the last i’d see of him and demanded to untie my accessory cords before he took his rope back. He tried to yank it from me…i suppose i was putting him behind schedule, or that i was supposed to carry his rope. (he was the only one who opted not to pay the horse packers to carry his gear.) Considering what had happened the previous day, i think we were all glad that was the extent of my discussion with Serge for the rest of the trip.
We made it out by 8 p.m. or so…retrieved our gear…could NOT find a hotel in Pinedale or anywhere short of Evanston…Ray drove us safely to the Motel 6 there.
None of us are worse for the wear. Hopefully i’m a little smarter now. It was pretty trying, but i can’t say i’m turned off from climbing yet. I just need to change a few things. I will never again trust someone (non-professional at least) to lead me when every instinct in me is telling me they are wrong. If i’m leading someone, i’ll never leave them behind in trouble. I need to figure out what went wrong with my gear. People climb in harsh conditions, and still stay dry and warm somehow. I didn’t. I’d welcome any suggestions for better gear or approaches to it. I sweat like crazy, and then i end up freezing. I need to figure out how to rest better in the wilderness…i was exhausted so much of the time, which in part spoiled what should have been 5 days in the most beautiful of places. And i just need to be in better shape.
Specific to Gannett, i would have to say if you are approaching from Elkhart Park, camp further up the basin than we did. Consider adding a weather day to your planning. Consider horse packers in. Or better yet, try a different route…i know if/when i go back, i’m going to try it from the Dubois side instead.
Thanks Ray for your help, Doug for your help and companionship on yet another highpoint odyssey, and Emma of course for everything. (How did i find such an incredible hiker chick??? Now i just have to get in condition to keep up with her…) Thanks Rex for your info.
31 highpoints and holding.
8/15/2005 at 8:09 pm #7829
Mark, you forgot a small detail…[Ed: Imported from Americas Roof ‘Summit Trip Reports’ forum][By: serge on August 15 2005 at 8:09 PM]The story was told very well like it has happened except that:
1-I have never said I was your personnal guide on this trip,
2-If so, I have never got paid for that king of service;
3-you forgot to say that you “kind of” started crying on the top of Bonney Pass.
4-That was the first time I experienced being with someone that was crying on the mountain so consequently had very limited experience to that kind of situation, sorry
8/12/2006 at 7:54 pm #7830
the othe side?[Ed: Imported from Americas Roof ‘Summit Trip Reports’ forum][By: Erik on August 12 2006 at 7:54 PM]Gannett should never be underestimated and it seems you have learned your lesson. However I laughed out loud when I read that you would do it from the Dubois side instead next time. I have gone in both ways, and the Glacier trail(from Dubois) is not only about 10 mi. longer but is waaaay harder. I would just train more and go for the elkhart trail again.
4/6/2009 at 3:02 am #7831
The other side…seems a long time ago[Ed: Imported from Americas Roof ‘Summit Trip Reports’ forum][By: markv on April 6 2009 at 3:02 AM]The Gannett reports were bumped up and i just now noticed this post! We did end up going from the other side (Dubois/Glacier Trail). The approach is definitely harder, but the summit day was so much easier that after doing both ways i’m still not 100% sure which way is more difficult to summit from. My advice would be if you’ve tried from one side, go see the other side the next time!
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