EDITOR'S NOTE: Every month, you will be taken to the highest point of a U.S. state with columnist Adam Fox as he continues his quest for all 50 (34 completed so far).
We start the series with my hardest climb to date that left me hated by half of the highpointing community: Gannett Peak, Wyoming.
It took days of hiking with a 50-pound pack, over mountain passes of 11,000 feet, to even get to Base Camp II. You start the expedition in shorts and a T-shirt, and end days later in full snow mountaineering gear.
A year before, in the summer of 2016, I re-injured my Achilles climbing in Montana and I didn’t think I could physically complete the trek. When you’re 40 miles from any road, an injury can quickly turn into a fight for survival.
The doctor had me on an intense rehab assignment at Ashland's Samaritan Regional Health System, and also prescribed yoga.
Three months out I went to Studio Rise, my stomach was flabby, my core was Gumby-like and I was sweating buckets trying to figure out downward dog while drowning in the tight black pants engulfing me.
Three months of running, stadium steps, intense training and yoga, my core turned to adamantium and my co-workers wondered about the weirdo doing the Vriksasana pose in the courtyard during lunch.
One-minute highlight video: https://vimeo.com/227136272
Full-climb documentary: https://vimeo.com/228998499
To climb Gannett, you should be a physical specimen. But that’s only part of the prep. The logistics are hell. Assemble a climbing team from across the country (via online climbing forums and from past expeditions), learn crevasse rescue (including new ropes and knots), dates, transportation, getting passage through the Wind River Reservation, winter and summer climb clothes, studying the mountain, finding a route, memorizing the route, GPS coordinates, backup plan, food rations, cutting weight from the pack, etc.
It never ends.
Day one started with a severely delayed flight (“we don’t have a pilot for your plane”) and it put me in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at 2 a.m. Five hours later, after a star-lit sky guided me across the state, I met the climb team of Minnesota David, Florida Jimmy, Wisconsin Michael, Boston Will and San Jose Ryan (the last member we’d meet on the trail) in Crowheart, Wyoming.
We had to get tribal permits to pass through the Wind River “Indian” Reservation.
“Wind River has a crime rate five to seven times the national average and a long history of ghastly homicides,” the New York Times reported. The recent movie "Wind River" deals with some of the worst features of this region.
In order to ensure safe passage through the Wind River, we each paid $325 for a native escort, and rode in the back of a pickup truck 17 miles, which took more than 90 minutes, on a dirt and rocky “path” to the trailhead.
The first four miles of the trail on Day Two led us to Scenic Pass, a flat plateau where trees couldn’t grow due to the lack of oxygen.
With no acclimation (usually I arrive a day early, but with work and family I couldn’t justify the extra day, even with my cellmate encouraging me to do so), 11,000 feet was like breathing through a small straw -- 60 percent less oxygen. I felt like I was slowly suffocating.
But the pass offered clear views of the Wind River Range for the first time, glorious black peaks blanketed by the heavy snowfall of 2017.
While the landscape was very “Sound of Music” like in beauty, the anxiety and fear instantly crept in as we saw Gannett Peak for the first time. How the hell were we going to get to the top of that?
From Scenic Pass, we hiked down into a valley carved by Dinwoody Creek, and set up lower base camp in a meadow. Although down to 9,000 feet, we were all pretty exhausted and couldn’t push further.
Next came tent setup and then igniting small fuel canisters to boil water to pour into pouches of dehydrated food for dinner. You have to cook away from camp so the grizzly bears don’t find you and maul you in the middle of the mountain-dark night. The mosquitoes were horrendous, and drank bug spray like tea, forcing me inside my tent around the 20th bite.
The temps dropped below freezing, and even with all my gear on, I was too cold to sleep. Weight is everything, so I opted for my 30-degree sleeping bag instead of my sub-zero bag, which saved me all of a pound and a half.
At dawn on Day Three, the ground was crusted in frost as we prepped a hot oatmeal breakfast on a large boulder in the meadow. Then I ventured out into the bush alone to use the bathroom. Every rustle I heard convinced me a grizzly was going to appear and devour me as I squatted over a log.
With all day to hike up to Base Camp II, we took our time in the valley, meandering along Dingwoody Creek, with high mountain walls on both sides. The river crossings took balance and focus, as we cautiously inched across the fallen logs used as bridges.
The rapids were in full force as the glaciers continued to melt. If you fell in water that cold, you’d have to immediately strip off all of your clothes, build a fire and hope to warm your core before hypothermia took over and killed you.
Base Camp II was above the treeline, so that meant more exposure to wind and the elements. There were cold gray granite blocks everywhere you walked.
After dinner, we got the ropes out, went over crevasse rescue again, checked gear and made sure everyone was on the same page — from prusiks down to each locking carabineer. I would lead a four-person team, and behind us would be a three-person group.
Since we’d be doing glacier travel in the dark the next morning, there was no room for error. If the first person in our four-person rope team fell down a crevasse, the second person was to self-arrest while the two behind set up an anchor. (Self-arresting is digging your ice axe into the snow as you’re sliding, with your body weight on top of it, slowing your descent.)
If the second couldn’t self-arrest, the third had to. If they couldn’t, chances are the weight and momentum would be too much for the fourth to stop, and we’d all go sliding over the lip and into the blue void, hoping to only break a leg when we finally hit bottom.
At 3:30 a.m. on Day Four, my phone alarm went off at Base Camp II, but I was already awake. It's hard to sleep at altitude and I was too excited for “summit attempt day.”
Headlamps mounted to helmets, we began bolder hopping towards the Gooseneck Glacier. We could hear the river running underneath us and were glad no one fell through.
At the base of the glacier, it was time to put on harnesses and crampons (10-point metal spikes for your feet so you can dig into the ice and not instantly slip to your death). We also roped up to one another. Time for the tight grip on the ice axe.
It took us an hour to go a very short distance, as we had to keep stopping for Boston Will and Florida Jimmy. Before we got to a very difficult part of the climb, however, we unroped.
Florida Jimmy’s crampons kept falling off and it was relayed to me that Boston Will had altitude sickness. My four-person team was spread out across a 60-meter rope, so information had to be passed up along the line to me, the leader.
San Jose Ryan and I decided it would not be safe for anyone if we all continued tied together, so we separated. That decision has caused tons of controversy in the highpointing community. We left them on a safe, flat spot; they weren’t injured and were fully capable of getting back to Base Camp II.
I would have done the same thing in retrospect. The reason we got up so early was to beat the thawing of the mountain, and the longer we waited, the bigger risk for a snowbridge to melt or avalanche danger.
At the end of the glacier there was a bergschrund, where the ice slab the size of a football field had split, but a snowbridge was still intact. Luckily, the crossing held and San Jose Ryan and I climbed up to the Gooseneck Pinnacle.
The last major hurdle was ascending the near vertical hanging snowfield right before the summit ridge. It’s called a “life slide,” because if you slipped there, you would slide to your death if you couldn’t self-arrest.
The summit views were the type that inspired deities, and given the solitude, it felt like we were early native settlers, the first to gaze upon the miles of mountains linked together that created the Wind River Range.
Instead of returning to Base Camp II, Florida Jimmy and Boston Will kept climbing. The three-person team behind us added them to their short rope group, but when they got to the hanging snowfield, a few hundred feet from the summit, they turned back.
Florida Jimmy’s crampons were taped on at that point (which is like taping a parachute to your back instead of using shoulder straps) and had they kept going, there’s a real chance they all would have died.
On the descent, San Jose Ryan and I belayed (lowered via rope) all the climbers down over the bergschrund. That left us without any rope and we had to downclimb the hardest part without any protection.
Twelve hours of continuous climbing later, we all made it back to Base Camp II.
“I’ve done Ironmans (triathlons) before, and today was way harder,” Wisconsin Michael said.
The two-day hike out was a death march. Despite the training, my body was exhausted and the 50 pounds on my back seemed to be breaking the bones in my shoulders.
Making dinner that last night, I was too tired to swat the blood-sucking bugs from my face and body, and just let them consume me as I did the mountain.
The Snake River Ale I cracked before my flight home tasted like a blend of mead, gold and glory.