[Published in Apex to Zenith #54 – Third Quarter 2001]
Dave Kennedy on a clear July day – Number 50!!
[Ed. Note – Dave has kept us informed of his exploits by sending us newspaper coverage of his quest. An excellent article (photos, tables, maps, etc.) was run in the Fresno Bee. This article resides in the Club archives]
July 18, 2001 on a flight to Idaho Falls to meet my friend John, from Boise Idaho, I was concerned over the elevation gain that I would expose myself to all in one day. Living in Fresno California at just 300 feet above sea level and gaining over 9000 feet in one day just to camp out before our trip to Gannett, was a sure test. I knew the pain was going to be inevitable but the misery would be optional. Being on many high peaks in the west I’ve always suffered the first day. Sure enough this trip was no different. Arriving at the airport in the morning would give us a jump on the day to get organized and deliver our gear to Bald Mountain Outfitters to pack it in for us. Courtesy of Delta Airlines my second piece of luggage came in on the later flight. No big deal though, it only delayed us a little. After delivering our gear to the outfitters we headed up the hill to Elkhart Campground and spent the night. I only received a couple hours of sleep due to the altitude being over 9000 feet, and a grizzly bear snorting all night, just John.
DAY 1. As we left the trailhead we noticed many cars in the parking lot but only ran into a few people along the way. We found many of the people hiked in to go trout fishing, but not to climb Gannett Peak. Who would be insane enough to climb Gannett from the west side? Was this going to be our passport to insanity? As we hiked along the trail we came across a few people that said it had rained every day they were there. From the Elkhart trail head we hiked with very light Camelbacks and rain jackets to the first Titcomb lake. We left the trailhead at 7:00am and met Patrick, our packer, by the lake at 1:00pm. We approximated the mileage to be 16 miles, which was very easy. We then hiked our gear up past the highest of the Titcomb lakes where there were many existing camps with rock walls, due to the high winds. I owe many thanks to my friend John for carrying the bulk of the weight to our camp. His pack had to be around 100 pounds and mine around 20 pounds. All along the way, as our pack service told us, the flowers were unbelievable. There was every color in the rainbow. The mosquitoes were severe as well but the windy conditions kept them at bay the higher we got. The outfitters told us that the mosquitoes were so bad that they would carry us away. Without this wind I believe that they would have. Over the years I met many people who said they would never go back to the Wind River Range again due to these blood sucking creatures. From our high camp at 10890 feet, Dinwoody Pass looked very dry with little snow. The pass was 2000 vertical feet of loose talus and looked very intimidating. As the sun was setting we were already in our sleeping bags trying to get some rest for summit day. Laying there with a major headache and upset stomach I was doubting I would be able to attempt the summit the next day. With all the uncertainty racing in my head all night, I would guess to say I only received about two hours of sleep.
Suddenly at 3:00am my alarm went off, time to get UP! For a mountaineer when the weather is good you gotta go for it.
DAY 2. (SUMMIT DAY) As I boiled my water for coffee I kept wondering how the heck am I going to climb this mountain feeling the way I did with my symptoms of altitude sickness.
I guess you do what you have to do. As I hurried and guzzled my coffee it was 3:45am by the time we left camp. With our head lamps on we scrambled over streams, and up and down rocks. It was a new moon which made it difficult to negotiate our way. Route finding was very difficult and the only light was about five feet in front of us from our headlamps. I knew we were in for a real sufferfest for the day, especially starting off feeling sick. As we spent several hours sensing our way through the rubble we were about a third of the way up the pass when I had to stop to take care of business. After about fifteen minutes of doing the dirty deed, we were on our way when I discovered I left my glacier glasses in the tent. Wow, what a rookie mistake. Climbing all day on glaciers would surely blind a person without protection. John was the man, he gave me his glasses to use while he wore his contact lenses that had UV inhibitors built in. As we climbed 2000 feet to Dinwoody Pass we watched the sun rise and shine on Gannett Peak. What a majestic summit in all of its glory! Looking over the Wind River Range at sunrise above the Dinwoody and Gooseneck glaciers was a sight I will never forget. As we started our descent down the Dinwoody Glacier tied together, with our ice axes in hand and our crampons biting into the ice, I knew at that point we were going to reach the summit. The conditions were very poor. The glaciers were very melted out for this time of year. We were stepping across and jumping many crevasses. John was leading and doing a very fine job at route finding. At this point the ominous clouds above us were very dark and it was snowing. We caught up to a NOLS guided group and passed them before the slopes of the summit steepened dramatically. Skirting around the bergshrund (big open crevasse) we climbed above it to a steep 50 degree ice face that was very hard consolidated snow. John took off leading and I had him on a hip belay. As the rope became tight I fol-lowed. Both of us climbing together on the same rope, was to say the least, concerning. We were, as some refer to it, “solo climbing.” If either one of us fell, that would be pretty much it, no summit, no fun, lights out! That didn’t happen. With the karma with us we continued our quest climbing over several rock ribs, more snow, and up to the summit ridge. It was there, five minutes from the summit, I told John, “this is my 50th hi-point”. I was trying to keep it a secret till the summit but I couldn’t. It was hard enough keeping it a secret for the last year. We arrived at the summit at 10:30am July 20, 2001. For me 15 years of traveling the country in the hope of summiting the highest point of all 50 states has come down to being here and now on top of Gannett Peak in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. We both had to keep the mojo working cause we were only half way and needed to get back to camp.
At this point we already had been climbing for seven hours and it was going to be at least another seven hours back. So far the weather was stable so we weren’t too concerned except for the warming conditions of the glaciers. As we took many pictures and did our celebrating on the summit, it was time to start heading down. It was very pleasurable feeling the thicker air as we scrambled down the rock and ice. We avoided the ice face by doing three rappels to the bergshrund, then glissading down to the glacier. We avoided climbing down another steep ice slope by scram-bling down a rock rib on to the Dinwoody glacier. As we roped up I thought we had it made, up and over the Dinwoody Pass and back to camp. After gaining and losing over 8800 feet so far, I thought whats another 3600 feet. As we continued on our way we noticed the glacier was deteriorating at a very fast rate. The crevasses we led over earlier were mushier and much more concerning. We did see one crevasse in particular where someone had fallen into and we could see their foot prints at the bottom. When you’re nervous you tend to be able to leap further and jump higher. We made it across the crevasses without incidence. Heading up the slopes to Dinwoody Pass the glacier had many small rivers flowing over it from the melt due to the cloudless sky. Occasionally clouds are a godsend in the mountains and this would have been one of those times. Our feet were soaking wet and the rope was absorbing much water which made it extremely heavy to drag between us. Going on the eleventh hour and only having a peanut butter sandwich and two power bars in my stomach we were running on empty and it was showing. Both John and I looked at each other in extreme exhaustion and said, “this is how we are suppose to feel, isn’t it great.” We would travel ten feet and stop to rest. The closer we got to the pass the further away it looked. Having worked our bodies so hard, at the same time felt so good. Many times along the way we looked at each other without saying a word, knowing that in a sick kind of way, we totally enjoyed using every ounce of energy to climb Gannett Peak. Out on the glacier the silence was deafening. We had to break on through to the other side. As we reached the pass the winds were strong. There were a few gusts that blew me around a bit. We did not stop due to the fact that our bodies were running on fumes, and if we did we might not get back up. We scrambled down a lot of loose talus and glissaded down several snow fields to save not only our knees but a lot of time. Once we reached the flats we stumbled several miles back to our tent. It was now 5:15pm and we gained and lost 12,400’ of elevation over 13 ½ hours, and climbed and scrambled over ten miles of rock, ice, snow, and two glaciers. I don’t remember much but I know we were extremely dehydrated and spent to the max. I remembered John saying, “I thought I was a hard man but this brought me back to reality” and “that was the hardest day I ever had.” I seconded that emotion. It was good to hear John say that because I couldn’t have expressed it any better for myself. As the sun set over the Wind River Range we were in our sleeping bags off in lala land.
DAY 3. (Recovery Day) We gingerly hiked down to Titcomb lake and hung out by the river. Walking around was fine as long as we didn’t have to hike up hill. Our highlight of the day was watching a mar-mot leap across the glaciated river we camped by. At first he was very apprehensive to cross and as time wore on he became more and more daring. Then, all of a sudden I saw him contemplating this jump that was around four feet and the ledge was also two feet higher than him. There is no way I thought. Then the extremist went for it. Smack! He missed it by a mile, and fell into the cold swift cur-rent. The marmot was saved by a rock he washed into, climbed up, and ran back into a hole. We were rolling on the ground in tears. I guess nature has its moments as well.
DAY 4. Feeling recovered we decided to climb another peak. We thought the peak we chose was West Sentinel Peak but it wasn’t. We found out later it had no name. It was conveniently located across the river from our camp and we decided to call it the Blob. It went down without a hitch. The views were spectacular. From an elevation of 12,205 feet we could see seven glaciers, hundreds of peaks, and many lakes we didn’t know existed. After getting back to camp the sky clouded up so we packed up and headed on down to a lower camp. Again, Johns pack weighed a ton and it wouldn’t take long for the effects to wear on him. The gnats were ferocious as well as the mosquitoes and horse flies. When the wind would stop, it was worse than the Chinese water torture. But fortunately the wind began to pick up again and the problem was only moderate.
DAY 5. (Pack Out) We left our gear at the lower lake for Patrick, our horse packer, and headed out with Camelbacks and nothing else. Along the way we came across many people hiking in. They were bent over carrying monster packs hating life. We made the best choice of having a horse packer take our gear in. I would recommend Bald Mountain Outfitters in Pinedale, Wyoming to anyone going into the Winds. These guys are the real deal. They are professional and will work with you on logistics and haul your gear further in than any other pack company. People along the way were asking us where our packs were. When we told them we cheated with a horse packer they all wished they did the same, except for one gentleman. He started lecturing me about how rewarding it was to carry all your gear on your back. When he was done I explained the severity of my neck and knee injuries, hiking over 5000 miles in the mountains including the John Muir Trail, climbing Denali twice, and this being the 50th state highpoint. He backed off, took a few pictures of us, and we were on our way down the trail. We hiked the rest of the trail out uneventfully and headed into town for a couple of cold beers. After getting our gear from our packer that evening, we stayed the night and headed home the next day.