Highpoint adventure

October 11, 2010 12:33 pm
What happens when you combine more than 1,200 miles of driving, 40 miles of backpacking in the remote wilderness, a marriage proposal and a 16-hour summit day climb to over 13,800 feet?

A trip you won’t soon forget.

At the time I didn’t know that it would be the hardest physical and mental challenge of my life. The trip was so exhausting that upon returning from the trip I nicknamed it “Sufferfest 2010.”

It all started this past spring when my climbing partner, Yuri Mereszczak of Boise, and I were not selected for a permit to climb Mount Whitney in California. We found ourselves in need of a state highpoint climbing trip.

We decided to climb Gannett Peak in Wyoming, summit elevation of 13,804 feet (for reference, the top of Mount Hood in Oregon is 11,239 feet). Gannett Peak is situated in the Wind River Range in western Wyoming slightly south and east of the Tetons and about 80 miles southeast of Jackson. Gannett Peak edges out the Grand Teton by a meager 45 feet in elevation to earn the state highpoint title.

As the trip got nearer the magnitude of the logistics were overwhelming. Even deciding on the physical route to take wasn’t easy. After staring at a map for what seemed hours and reading on-line reports of the best routes we decided to approach the mountain from the west on the Pole Creek Trail that eventually leads to the Titcomb Basin Trail. This trail is slightly longer and has more elevation gain than the Ink Wells Trail that approaches from the east.

The west approach from Titcomb also makes for one long, 12- to 16-hour summit day because you have to climb over Bonney Pass (13,000 feet) two times during the course of the day, not to mention summit you still have to climb Gannett Peak. This approach was slightly longer but it had its advantages. The Ink Wells Trail is on an Indian Reservation and you have to purchase fishing licenses and a permit for using the route, not to mention you have to hire a shuttle from the reservation — all of which can add up to more than $100 per person. In addition, by selecting the western approach it saved us from driving another three or four hours each way to get to the eastern approach trail head.

What do you take (or not take) when you are backpacking and climbing more than 40 miles roundtrip at over 10,000 feet in elevation?

It is a tough decision, but most items that made it into my backpack were items that could be used for multiple purposes. I used my coat wrapped in a shirt for a pillow. My lightweight two-person backpacking tent was left at home. In its place was a lighter weight “bivy” sack (outer waterproof shell that fits over your sleeping bag) that keeps my sleeping bag dry.

How much food should I take? How much water should I pack? Should I take my backpacking water filter or water purification treatment “pen”? The water filter is lightweight but takes up about the room of a 20-ounce soda in my pack. The water purification pen is super lightweight and takes up the amount of room as a Sharpie marker and can fit in your pants pocket. In addition, the treatment pen uses electricity to convert a salt/brine solution into chlorine to kill the bacteria in the water. The downside is that it makes the mountain stream water taste slightly like chlorine, similar to most municipal tap water.

I decided on the water purification pen, although this would be the longest trip in the wilderness for me and I wasn’t too keen on the thought that the purification pen batteries could go dead and make me have to boil my water each time I needed to refill my bottles.

These are just a few of the decisions that we had to make. I estimated that my final backpack weight was around 40 pounds. I don’t believe this is too bad for a 40-mile, four-day trip into one of the most remote areas in the continental United States. There is a saying in the mountaineering community, “Ounces make pounds and pounds make pain.’’

Day 1 (Friday): I left La Grande around three o’clock in the afternoon. I finish buying last-minute food and gear in Boise. I ate dinner in Boise with friends at a Sushi bar. It would be my last prepared meal for five days. I stayed in Boise overnight. Yuri and I went over the last-minute details until around midnight. In addition to the last-minute planning for the climb, Yuri filled me in on his idea of proposing to his girlfriend on top of Gannett Peak.

Day 2 (Saturday): The alarm went off way too early at 4:30 a.m. (Mountain time). We hit the road slightly after five and grabbed a strong cup of coffee and a scone (our last good breakfast). We drove across the Snake River Basin in southern Idaho on I-84. We took turns driving and sleeping. We departed I-84 at Idaho Falls and entered Wyoming after driving through Swan Valley. Several hours later we arrived in Pinedale, Wyo., around one. We met Theresa White, Yuri’s girlfriend (soon to be fiancé) from Salt Lake City.

We picked the brains of local climbers at the outdoor shop. Do we need crampons (metal spikes strapped to the bottom of our boots to help give us traction when climbing on the glacier), helmets to protect us from falling rocks, snow shoes to prevent us from “post holing” through the snow, etc.? Is the snow bridge still in tact and useable?

At the outdoor shop, we met a local climber who had just completed the 40-mile roundtrip climb to the top of Gannett Peak in less than 24 hours. Thiis kind of made us feel like wimps having scheduled four or five days for the same trip! We ate lunch at a local deli before heading north to the trailhead.

We made it to the Elkhart parking lot (about 15 miles north of Pinedale) around 2:30 and finished packing our gear. We met a couple of women who said that their husbands had left at five o’clock that morning on a trail run and were trying to complete the trip/climb to the summit in less than 24 hours. I began to wonder what was in the water in Pinedale that made the locals crazy enough to attempt such ambitious goals.

We started up the Pole Creek trail around three o’clock at a starting elevation of 9,100 feet. We slowly gained elevation on a narrow dirt trail through the forest and passed Photographers Point around mile four on the trail. This was our first glimpse of the Wind River mountain range. It was spectacular! I have never seen a range so dominating. It is far different than the Cascade Mountain range.

We reached Hobbs Lake, our camping spot for the night around seven in the evening. We had covered about six miles from the parking lot. Since we were in bear country, we were forced to hang our food in a tree several hundred feet from the camp. The sunset and reflection off the lake was amazing. The stars were even more amazing later in the night.

Day 3 (Sunday): We woke up around 8 a.m. and hit the trail around 11. I didn’t sleep well. My sleeping pad had a hole in it and I had to blow it up every three hours or so. We didn’t need to go to the effort of hanging the food in a tree to protect us from bears — Yuri’s snoring adequately defended us against any bear that was brave enough to get within a mile of camp. It is a good thing that I threw in a pair of ear plugs! I was plenty warm and tired but couldn’t get my mind to ignore the pending adventure.

We hiked two miles before arriving at Seneca Lake around one o’clock. There we grabbed a quick snack, soaked our feet in the lake and changed into dry socks before heading out. Two and a half more miles over a mountain pass we arrived at Island Lake. We refilled our water bottles, ate lunch and wondered how this mountain lake at over 10,000 feet had white sand beaches.

Because of the scenery and huge mountains everywhere, we covered the next two miles quickly and arrived at the lower end of the Titcomb basin around four o’clock. We thought that camp wouldn’t be too much further. Little did we know that the incredibly large mountains make everything look much closer than it is.

The Titcomb basin is over three miles long and we didn’t arrive at camp until around seven o’clock. The sun had already gone behind one of the 12,500-foot peaks on the west side of the valley. We set up our high camp around 10,800 feet inside of a horseshoe-shaped wind shelter made from rocks.

Theresa let us know that she wouldn’t be attempting the summit. I felt a little relief because of the safety element associated with attempting a hard summit with a relatively new climber. I also felt disappointment because I knew that Yuri had planned to propose on the summit.

I climbed in bed around 10 o’clock. I was too tired to write in my journal or to wonder what tomorrow’s adventure (summit day) would hold for us. I fell asleep quickly.

Day 4 (Monday): I woke up at 2:37 a.m. for an “Alpine Start.’’ It was seven minutes after my second alarm had gone off. I didn’t hear either of the alarms and we were lucky that I woke up or it would have ruined our chance for summiting.

An “Alpine Start’’ is a mountaineering term that means you get an early start that ranges from starting the climb the night before on long routes or you start not long before sunrise for shorter routes.

My climbing partner, Yuri  Mereszczak of Boise, and I quickly ate breakfast, having to will my body to eat knowing that I would need the energy later. I have found out from reading and experience that you lose your appetite while climbing at high altitude.

We hit the trail around 3:15 a.m., with our minimal gear (rope/crampons/clothing layers/etc.), water and our headlamps. It was not too long before we were boulder hopping on a screed slope climbing over the 13,000 foot Bonney Pass.

We reached the top of the pass around six in the morning and we were rewarded with the sunrise casting orange and pink hues on top of Gannett Peak. It was one of the most beautiful and intimidating scenes I have ever seen.

We put on our crampons, and began the descent off the pass and across the Dinwoody Glacier. We crossed several crevasses but didn’t rope up because we could essentially step across the crevasses. The bad news is that we had to descend to 11,500 feet before starting the true summit climb to the top of Gannett Peak. We crossed Gooseneck Glacier and started climbing up the mixed rock and glacier route on the backside Gooseneck Pinnacle.

The crux of the climb is gaining access to summit ridge from the Gooseneck Glacier. It usually involves crossing the snow bridge that develops when the lower Gooseneck Glacier pulls away from the upper Gooseneck Glacier.  It creates a bergschrund. Earlier in the year the snow is deep enough to cover the bergschrund so a climber may not know it is present. Later in the year the snow bridge gets smaller and smaller due to the warmer temperatures, and typically collapses in mid-August. Once it collapses it forces climbers to rock climb the adjacent rock face, which looked a lot more difficult than crossing the snow bridge. Some bergschrunds are large and some are small depending on the glacier size and the time of year.  This particular one could easily swallow a few houses and not fill up!

We roped up and set temporary belay anchors to cross the snow bridge. The temporary belay anchor is set up by each group of climbers and uses an ice ax (or other anchor) driven into the glacier and the rope is attached to the ax and the non-climber to help protect against a fall by anchoring yourself and partner to the glacier.

The glacier slope above the bergschrund was very steep. Even after you cross the snow bridge you are not out of dangers way. A small slip and we could both slide into the bergschrund from above.

Finally, we are able to gain the summit ridge and make our way to the large pile of rocks at the far end that marks the true summit (13,804 feet) around noon. We promptly discussed a 20-minute time limit to eat, take pictures, rest for a few minutes and sign the summit log. Many of the 50 highpoints have summit logs where the climbers can sign and date when they visited the summit. This particular summit log was stored in a sealable keg to help preserve it during the winter months.

While on the summit we spoke to a climber who had completed his 28th highpoint. While signing the summit log I noticed a note from a climber who had finished his 47th highpoint the day before. I signed the summit log for both of us and we snapped several summit pictures of both of us before leaving.

I could see the route we ascended over the past eight hours and knew it would be a grind back to the camp. The descent went fast to the bottom of Gooseneck Glacier. We crossed the snow bridge with a few minor slips and wondered how much longer the snow bridge would be intact. There was a “mystery hole” where we could see through the snow bridge forming near the foot path that made both Yuri and I nervous. This was the second time that day that both of us were dependent on the other for properly belaying and anchoring the other while crossing the snow bridge. If you are a mountaineer and have a climbing partner, it takes total trust and commitment from each other for both climbers to return from a trip safely.

At the bottom of the Gooseneck Glacier a thunder and lightning storm rolled in. I was kicking myself for not bringing my rain coat when it started to lightly rain and snow. Lightning would flash and the thunder would instantly rumble without any delay. We put on our warmest layers of clothes and pack covers over our backpacks to keep them dry, gearing up for the worst, and then the clouds blew away. Within a few minutes the sun was baking us on the glacier and we stripped down to short- sleeve shirts. It was amazing to think we were still well above the top of Mount Hood on a glacier in short-sleeve shirts. It didn’t last very long, though.

We were forced to put our coats back on when we reached the bottom of Bonney Pass. The wind started to pick up and the temperatures dropped again. Yuri took the lead going up the steep snowfield (45- degree slope) and kicked steps in the snow all the way to the top of the pass. At one point I was so exhausted that I had to count 100 steps at a time to try and keep my brain and legs engaged in the climb.

A 50 mph wind met us as we climbed over the pass — and in our exhausted state almost knocked us over. At this moment Yuri and I were 20 or so feet apart and we glanced at each other and we both thought “we have to get the heck out of here in a hurry.’’ We didn’t exchange words but we both knew from “the glance” what the other was thinking. Looking back on the trip, this is the moment that stands out to me the most, even more than the summit.

We were exhausted and on top of Bonney Pass. The problem is that we still had 2,000 vertical feet to down climb between us and the camp. We put on our crampons (for what felt like the millionth time that day) and started literally jogging down the steep snowfield leading us to the Titcomb basin. Near the bottom, Yuri slipped and hurt his ankle. This was a scary moment for me watching from several hundred feet above. I didn’t know he was hurt until I reached him and then my mind started going through the iterations of what to do with a hurt ankle when we were more than 20 miles from the parking lot.

Yuri shook off his injury and we slowly continued to descend to camp. We arrived in camp completely exhausted, both physically and mentally, around seven o’clock, nearly 16 hours after leaving camp that morning. Theresa had cooked us a gourmet meal with rice, sausage, cheese and black beans. Yuri and I both walked around camp dazed and confused in a zombie-like state.

After the trip I figured that we burned more than 12,000 calories each on the summit climb and probably took in less than 2,000 the entire day, mostly by eating energy gels and bars. We fell asleep quickly because of the mental and physical exhaustion.

Day 5 (Tuesday): I woke up around 7 a.m. and laid in my sleeping bag trying to stay warm. Yuri and Theresa woke up around 8 a.m. It was a rough night because of the hole in my sleeping pad and the howling cold wind, rain and snow pelting the bivy sack. The overnight temperature dropped into the mid-20s. We all milled around camp un-motivated until around 9:30 a.m. when the sun crept over the top of Mount Helen (13,620 feet). We packed up camp and took a few pictures while discussing our goals of where we wanted to hike to today. We departed what we named “the best camp site in the USA” around 11 o’clock, I later learned that this was not a good time to leave if you have 20 miles of backpacking to reach the car.

Yuri and Theresa decided to stay at Island Lake because Yuri’s ankle was not feeling good and because Yuri still needed to “propose” to Theresa. I decided that I needed to get out of the wilderness and stay at a hotel tonight in order to sleep better, eat better and shower. We ate lunch at a lake in the lower Titcomb basin and made it to Island lake around three o’clock.

I said goodbye to Yuri and Theresa knowing that the “proposal” was scheduled for later that night. After the trip I heard from Yuri that he proposed on a large rock formation looking over the lake, Fremont Peak, and a small waterfall at sunset. Yuri was born in Wyoming. He felt it was only fitting that he propose to Theresa in his home state.

I made it to Seneca Lake and took a break to soak my feet, refill my water and eat a quick snack. It was just before five o’clock and I was only half way. I set a goal to make it to Hobbs Lake by six and if I could do that I would hopefully be able to make it to the car by 9:30 and be in town by 10. As luck would have it, I made it to Hobbs Lake shortly after six o’clock and I didn’t stop knowing that if I did I would be forced to stay another night.

At this point I was running on pure heart and determination. My energy tanks were below empty and I was very sore. I set my next goal to make it to Photographer’s Point by 7:30. I made it around 7:40 and stopped to eat a quick energy bar and slather on some bug spray. I put on my long-sleeve shirt and retrieved my head lamp from my pack knowing I would need it in an hour or so. I snapped a few sunset pictures of the Wind River Range from overlook and hit the trail.

The sun set around 8:30 and it was completely dark by 9. My acute senses kicked in again and I picked up the pace knowing that I was by myself in bear and mountain lion country. I sang songs and purposefully hit my trekking poles on rocks along the trail trying to make enough noise to scare off any predators. Finally around 9:50 I made it to the parking lot. I was excited that I would sleep in a hotel, eat a good meal and have a shower tonight. I drove into town and went straight to a local bar and grill. I excitedly limped in the front door.

My excitement lasted about 10 seconds until I noticed that everyone had a drink but no one had food. I asked the waitress at the door if the grill was closed for the night. She said yes. I asked her if there was any place in town that was serving food and she said to try the supermarket — strike one. I drove to the supermarket and purchased Advil, chocolate milk, a turkey/cheese/cracker deli meal, banana and ice cream. I ate the items in that order!

Having temporarily satisfied my hunger, I set out to accomplish my second goal of finding a hotel room. It turns out that there are only five hotels in town and it was the middle of oil season. None of the hotels had a vacancy, so I slowly started to realize that I was going to have to sleep in my car and not be able to take a shower — strike two and three. The next closest town is Jackson, and that was more than 70 miles away. Demoralized and exhausted, I point the car west and started driving out of Pinedale around 11 at night.

Day 6 (Wednesday): I ended up taking several short and very uncomfortable naps in the car. I stopped at McDonald’s to get a large breakfast consisting of a breakfast sandwich, a side order of pancakes, orange juice, and coffee. It is funny what your body craves when it has burned approximately 30,000 calories in the past four days.

I hit the road for the seven-hour drive back to La Grande around 7:30 in the morning. I stopped in Boise at noon and grabbed a huge burger and extra order of French fries at Red Robin. I arrived at home around three o’clock and spent the afternoon with my family and started unpacking.

Reflecting on the trip over the past few weeks I have wondered if checking off the second most difficult highpoint in the United States was worth the risk? Do others understand why I climb? Why do I climb mountains? Am I officially considered a “mountaineer”? What’s next? Mount Borah this fall? Mount Whitney next year? Mount McKinley in 2012? Only time will tell…

Jeremy and Yuri climbed Mount Borah (12,662 feet) in Central Idaho on October 2.

Editor’s note: Jeremy Morris is a La Grande resident who contributes occasional outdoor recreation pieces to The Observer. Recently he wrote about his goal to climb the 50 states’ highpoints. In this article he relates his experiences climbing Gannett Peak in Wyoming.