It was one of those cold summers. Snow patches lingered in the yard till June and we were still climbing snow couloirs in June like it was May. The July rains came early, rock climbing consisted of long drives to Hatcher Pass only to turn around and drive home. Mountain climbing became something you did in sneakers and rain jacket. Even the fishing sucked.
And so I started thinking of sunny rock and old partners… and one day I picked up the phone and called my old climbing partner Brad. He barely managed to say hello when I pointedly asked, “How much time do you have off?” There was a brief moment of silence on the other end. Between work and 3 year old Brad didn’t have much time… but this was my old climbing partner and somehow I knew he’d take the bait. “I’ll call you back,” he said, and hung up.
I first met Brad in 1997. It was my first ski day – ever – and I showed up in the Hatcher Pass parking lot with a mutual friend wearing Scarpa Invernos and floppy Atomics mounted with Silvretta 300s. Brad looked at my gear and me with a puzzled look but neglected to say anything. We set off with him breaking trail and me in the back trying to learn how to skin. He waited patiently at the top for me and once I got there he sat around while I pulled off my skins. Then he dropped off the ridge and made perfect tele-turns down into the bowl – stopping 1000′ below and looking up at me.
I dropped in and somehow eventually managed to make my way down – my “tracks” being more of a series of ski cuts complete with sitzmarks at every turn. Brad laughed… and then set off uphill again to repeat the process.
I eventually learned how to ski downhill without falling every other turn and Brad and I started climbing together. We climbed all the time – and climbed anything and everything we could – from rock along the highway, to ice, steep couloirs and peaks in the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains. We spent the summer of 2000 climbing hard every weekend – pouring over beers and maps all week and leaving work Friday night not to return home till late Sunday night exhausted. “You can sleep at work,” we used to tell each other while slogging out late at night.
The summer of 2001 we both quit our jobs, blew our savings and went climbing. We started in the Ruth Gorge, climbed Denali – and then worked our way south. Along the way we over-nighted on snowy ridges, ran out of food on icefields, climbed some good rock, climbed some bad rock and had the time of our lives.
That summer our climbing became rhythmic and predictable. Brad could take one look at my face and read me like a route topo. I could tell by the way Brad was racking the cams that he was nervous about the next pitch. Once we called off a glacier trip that had particularly bad serac hazard just from the vibes we gave each other while putting on our mountain boots. We cliqued for days and weeks and our journey lingered for 90 days. It was one of those trips you’ll always look back on through the fond filter of youth and wonder if anything will ever compare.
We came back from our summer trip and life changed. Brad found a wonderful girlfriend, Jen, who was willing to pack it up and go climbing. They got married, sold their house, threw the dogs in the pickup and drove south in search of solid rock and sunny belays. He settled in Helena, Montana; I settled in Anchorage, AK. We sent emails back and forth detailing profound changes in life – weddings, children, purchase of homes, passage of dogs – and called each other on holidays.
Five years went by. How is it possible to just let five years drift past? Does time become crunched as we get older? Didn’t the years in our 20s move by like a tidewater river? It seems in our 30s the river has become a bit more turbid.
Brad called back shortly as I knew he would. Somehow he had managed to juggle his schedule, work some magic on his wife, and assuage his guilt over leaving his child to go climbing. He was short and to the point: “Six days,” Brad said. “West Face of Gannett Peak.”
I flew into Helena in late July. Brad picked me up at the airport – he looked pretty much the same as he had the last time I had seen him which was almost 5 years ago. Perhaps his gut was a bit larger – but in comparison to outward migration of my pant size, the change was miniscule.
We drove to their house – a comfortable ranch style home tucked into the woods outside Helena. Brad and Jen’s son ran around full of energy – excited by the commotion of guests and backpacks. His name is Logan… only a Canadian (Brad’s native country) could get away with naming their child after the highest mountain. I wrestled with Logan and after getting him wound up, destroyed all hopes of a peaceable breakfast. And then abruptly Brad and I were off to Wyoming – driving 5 hours through Louis and Clark country, past Island Park, lunch at a greasy Driggs, ID taco joint, grocery shopping in Jackson Hole and finally 40 miles down a dusty bumpy gravel road to Green River Lakes trailhead.
Our plan was to hike 10 miles up the main Green River Lakes trail with absurdly heavy packs that contained camping and mountaineering equipment. After 10 miles on the trail, we turn northeast and tromp 7 miles up and over a pass following old hunter and game trails. This would eventually lead us to the West Face of Gannett Peak, where we would supposedly find moderate climbing to the summit.
In the late afternoon sun we shouldered our packs and began the hike. When Brad threw his pack on his shoulders he suddenly grew very introspective. “I feel like every time we do something it involves me loading an obscene pack on my back and hiking for many, many miles,” he said – his eyes narrowed in pain. I grunted a reply and started down the trail hoping Brad – a pharmacist by trade – had packed some very good pain drugs. I was going to need them soon.
The trail meandered up the valley floor with stunning views of Green River Lakes – two turquoise blue gems that sparkled in the dimming sunlight. At the head of the valley loomed the oppressive northwest face of Squaretop – a 2000′ wall of granite leading to a perfect tabletop summit – and all around us swarmed the uninvited guests: mosquitoes – hundreds and hundreds of hungry mosquitoes dive-bombing every inch of exposed flesh as we jogged along swatting.
We made it about 7 miles up valley when darkness overtook us. As usual for Brad and I we continued hiking blissfully unaware of the sunset until suddenly realizing it was dark and we were exhausted. Thus began the search for the campsite – which entailed trudging up the trail stopping every 100 yards or so to investigate the woods. Finally we found a flat spot next to the river and we were able to un-shoulder our packs, set up the tent, cook dinner and pass out to the sound of rushing waters.
Morning came and we rolled out of the tent to wash in the cool waters of the Upper Green. The deep blue waters tumbled over boulders and logs and we ate breakfast in the sun with our toes dipping into the river. We then shouldered our packs and hiked another three miles upstream passing a stunning stretch where the river constricted and poured into a deep canyon over drops and boulders blocking the entire passage.
Around noon we reached our turnoff spot – to our northeast lay the steep rocky drainage of Tourist Creek. We forded the Green and then began weaving our way up the massive talus blocks. The route through the talus blocks looked easy enough from below, but we soon found that the going was really slow. The talus was loose and steep – and with heavy loads on our back our progress slowed to a crawl. An hour went by, then two…then three. Our water supply dried up and we ignored our parched throats. We continued the trudge up the steep rocks with the big open sky above, and the winding Green River below. Finally 2 1/2 hours later we crested the talus and traversed to Tourist Creek where we dipped our heads into the stream and drank deeply.
Above the talus there was a faint trail and after a brief rest we kept hiking. The trail wandered through charred forest fire debris, past deep clear pools and lush meadows sprinkled with the Indian Paintbrush, Wild Lupine and Harebell. Finally – at 7pm, after losing the “trail” and scrambling up a steep chimney, we unpacked the tent and went to sleep on a rocky outcropping beneath the huge walls
Morning came and we quickly re-found the trail. The valley had finally begun to level out a little and progress became easier. We hiked about 2 miles through knee-deep Columbine, ascended a short waterfall and crested the pass at 11,000′ where a beautiful alpine lake provided an amazing vista of the valley we had just ascended – and the valley where we needed to go. Lunch was devoured on a boulder above the water and after a short rest we once again continued on, traversing around the lake and aiming for a pass that would drop us down into Wells Creek where we hoped to set up our high camp.
Until this point we had not even laid eyes upon Gannett Peak. We didn’t know anything about the route; our information was solely based on an ascent that a co-worker of Brad’s had made 10 years ago. Our packs contained ice axes, crampons, rope and rock gear. Because of this we were a tad anxious – and given that we hadn’t even seen the peak yet, our anxiety seemed to grow with every passing hour. Finally, upon cresting the pass on the other side of the lake, we looked down into Wells Creek and east where the massive West Face of Gannett was finally revealed.
As was the final part of the approach. Brad let out an audible groan when he saw this. We needed to descend 500′ of hard fought elevation, boulder hop around two more lakes and thrash a final two miles to reach our highcamp. However – it was still early; not even noon, and the descent to Wells Creek went by quickly. We scrambled around the lakes, passing huge beautiful golden boulders and finally reached our high camp at 1pm where we dropped our packs and collapsed in the afternoon sun, happy to be done with hiking.
Our campsite was idyllic; a ring of soft grass and wildflowers surrounded by an ocean of talus. Just beyond camp a waterfall cascaded over a glistening band of rock and above us granite spires stood guard watching our every move. We basked in the sun, our fingers tracing imagined routes up couloirs and across ridges. Melted out gullies beckoned us to return in May; golden dihedrals called for rock shoes and a full rack. And towering above everything stood Gannett Peak, a molar of rock jutting into the afternoon sky. We set up the tent, cooked dinner and then collapsed into our sleeping bags as the evening grew cold.
The alarm buzzed at 4am. If there is anything I hate about alpine climbing it is the alpine start. Every time the alarm buzzes at 4am I secretly wish that when I look outside it will be raining and I can go back to sleep. Brad shares this sentiment with me so we pretend to ignore it. Finally Brad sat up and poked his head outside. “It’s good,” he said in his early morning slur. He almost sounded disappointed.
We slowly got dressed while the stove boiled water for coffee. When I finally emerged from the tent at 5am the sky was turning a deep pink as the sun rose behind Gannett peak, which lay directly to our east. By 5:30am we were hiking as the sky slowly turned a pale blue and the stars flickered and then disappeared in the early morning light.
The day began with a talus thrash. Neither Brad nor I are morning people so we just put our heads down and began the slog without a word. Jumping over shifting boulders at 6 in the morning isn’t really fun; one foot in front of the other while wishing for another cup of coffee, all the while hoping the boulder you’re precariously balancing on won’t shift and roll. But the talus jumping went fairly quickly and after an hour of boulder hopping we reached the Minor Glacier where we donned crampons and set off across the glacier towards the couloir that would lead us to the North Ridge.
The glacier rolled before us in the early morning light. Bare patches of ice glistened on the rollovers surrounded by rock hard snow. It only took an hour to traverse and soon we were kicking steps up the West Face couloir. To our right loomed the magnificent West Face (and the magnificent West Face couloir) and behind us the valleys began to fill with sunshine as the morning turned into another beautiful day.
The couloir steepened and Brad kicked some nice steps up. Around 3/4 of the way up the snow ended and we had to remove our crampons and pick our way up steep scree and loose talus. Finally after what seemed an eternity we reached the col.
Moving from a cold dark couloir into the sun high on a ridge on a glorious day is a joy. Before us lay the massive expanse of the Gannett Glacier – the largest glacier in the American portion of the Rocky Mountains. To our left snaked the spiny airy ridgeline to Mt. Koven and to our right lay the north ridge of Gannett Peak. We were in the heart of the Wind River Range – 20 miles in any direction from the nearest road and 12,500′ into the sky!
We stopped to admire the view and eat a quick snack. Then we cached the crampons and started scrambling up the ridge. The ridge was exposed 4th class on immaculate granite blocks. I scrambled up to the left and Brad stayed to the right out of the way of potential rock fall should I knock anything off. My way was easy but somehow Brad got suckered into an overhanging corner sans rope. I waited above him on a ledge looking down casually until I started paying attention and noted a series of grunts following by deep breathing. This was my hint to drop the rope; not that Brad would ever actually ask for the rope on exposed 4th class. He’d rather push himself through the overhang breathing deeply and gripped out of his mind than actually open his mouth and ask for the rope. But if someone drops him the rope he’ll take it… so when I dropped it down next to him he quickly grasped it and jerked himself over the lip where he stared at me and asked, “Why’d you make me go the hard way?” I shrugged and then set off again up the ridge, Brad in step behind me, already forgetting his moment of fear.
Moments later we were faced with an icy snow step. And the crampons were now 500′ down the ridge at the col. We decided it was safer to climb the rock instead of working our way up hard snow without crampons, so we broke out the rope and tied in.
It had been five years since we tied into a rope together. I tried to think of the first time we climbed a mountain together. It took me a minute but then I remembered perfectly. 1998. Chugach State Park, the North face of O’Malley peak. We had just tied in when I dropped a football sized rock on the rope almost cutting it in half. Brad had laughed and nonchalantly tied in again above the core shot, as if football rocks thrown at his head were all part of a day in the mountains. A wonderful day with a beautiful rock pitch covered in snow to the summit. We started in the dark and ended in the dark and it became a tradition. “It doesn’t count unless you end in the dark,” we used to say while staggering down the trail well past sunset.
I reminisced about our first climb but Brad snapped me out of my daze. “Your lead” he said. “You always liked loose exposed rock.” I do like loose exposed rock as long as it’s easy – and this looked pretty easy so I took off, working my way up the rock next to the snow step. It was easy climbing and I quickly tiptoed along the spine with the West Face dropping off to my left.
And then before I knew it we were there. The spiny ridge gave way to a flat summit that had an easy sidewalk stroll to the final summit blocks. It was the perfect day. Not a cloud in the sky, a slight breeze, not a soul around, temperature around 50 and perfect views in all directions.
Brad joined me and we shook hands and then sat down to enjoy the day. There was a familiar feeling about our scenario. How many times have I topped out on a peak with Brad and then silently sat down to enjoy the view? And when was the last time we climbed a peak together?
Looking South and East from Gannett summit.
I remembered that perfectly as well. The CMC Route on Mt. Moran. 2001. We summited on a perfect day pretty much similar to this one… only that time we were looking east towards the Wind River Range trying to figure out which peak was Gannett whereas right now I was looking west trying to figure out which one was the Grand and which one was Moran.
Looking North and West from Gannett summit.
Our rhythm came back without thought. We sat in silence and then without a word, stepped over to a point where we snapped the obligatory summit shots. Then Brad straightened up and looked off in the distance and opened his mouth to speak. I was behind him so he couldn’t see my mouth but I knew what he’d say before it crossed his lips so I mimed his words: “Well we’ve done the optional part of the climb.” Brad announced. “Now the mandatory part: getting down.” It’s Brad’s mantra. And by default, since I’ve climbed so many routes with him, it has become my mantra as well and friends sit on the tops of peaks waiting for me to say the words before we can descend. And thus with the mantra spoken, the spell was broken. We stood up, took a final look around and began the descent.
We reversed the route, breaking out the rope for the short snow step and rapping off some fixed anchors to bypass the exposed rock step. Back at the col we quickly downclimbed the snow to the glacier below. Then it was a wade through rotten afternoon glacier slush to the talus and finally reaching the tent in early afternoon.
It was way too early to call it a day so we packed up camp and began hiking back out the way we came – moving down valley and then climbing back up to the beautiful alpine lake where we had eaten lunch the day before. We reached the lake in early evening and had a relaxing night sitting out next to the water watching the stars grow bright before falling asleep for the night.
The next day was the big slog. All good climbs end with an infamous slog back to the trailhead. Heavy packs, tired backs and sore feet are endured in a haze of miles traveled down valley to where you’ll collapse next to the car, boat, bike, plane or whatever waits to take you back to your home.
We reached the car just at sunset and then drove away from the mountains into the expansive plains. Driving down the empty Wyoming highway euphoria set in and we relaxed, our bodies slumping into the car seats, the warm air pouring through open windows.
Tired, sore and happy we talked about what we climbed today, what to climb tomorrow and what was climbed in years past; the days, years, routes and mountains blending together into an infinite route.
When we used to climb all the time our conversation often turned to this. Memories mixed with desire and together they became the infinite route. It is a route composed of routes we’ve climbed – and all the routes we want to climb – all mixed together and stacked on top of each other. A climb without end – a climb from the past where the route is familiar, but also a climb of the future where we don’t know what lies beyond the dying beam of our headlamp, where we don’t know how much longer we’ll be on belay. The infinite route starts with an arduous slog to base camp with obscene heavy packs and not enough food. Above camp is the inevitable scree slope, then talus, a twisted broken glacier traverse, rock ridges that turn into ice. All this is capped by a narrow corniced ridge, traversed under moonlight towards a distant summit. Memories blend into a route without beginning or end, like the nature of friendship.
Can you really remember when the climb started, how the pack felt when you first lifted it or did you only really notice the pack once you started to climb steeper ground? Was the first meeting with your friend the start of the friendship – or does a friendship start slowly like the slog to base camp, solidifying only as you get higher and the climbing gets harder and scarier with no end to the difficulties in sight?
But the infinite route is just a metaphor. All routes have an end and after you traverse the narrow corniced summit ridge your hope is that there will be a safe place where you can sit down, enjoy the view and catch a brief rest before reversing the route that will lead you towards home.
This makes me think: I’ve always misread Brad’s mantra. For years I’ve only thought of it as a reminder that we must descend, safely reversing the narrow corniced ridge, rappelling the ice and rock pitches. We must keep a tight rope through the crevasse field back to camp. In a sense that’s what he means – but beyond the safe return is the knowing that we need to go down in order to go up again. That we need to go back to our family, friends, work and home where we can love and embrace our changing life as we know it. But on top of that we need to plan for the next journey, for it is the journey that makes us aware of where we have been, what we have and what may be.
Brad snapped me out of my daze with a question, “What do you think of the North Couloir of Granite Peak?” Only it wasn’t really a question. It was the next leg of a journey that may happen next year or sometime in the next five years. I smiled and opened my mouth to say something but the words never left my mouth. Besides, Brad knows the answer.
The answer is “Yes”. It’s always “Yes”.
Guidebook: Joe Kelsey’s Climbing & Hiking in the Wind River Mountains is the bible for this area. His classic guidebook writing style will get you there and give you an idea of where the route is; after that it’s up to you to figure it out yourself. Some people dig this… others find his intentional ambiguity infuriating. I’m somewhere in-between.
Route & Gear: Kelsey describes this route as II, 4th Class which I’ll concur with. The rock step from the col to the summit ridge is quite moderate (at most 5.1). We carried a rope and it was nice to rap down this step (there are fixed anchors) – but most climbers should be able to down climb this step with a little care. If you’re comfortable on moderate rock without a rope then you could do this entire route sans rope and gear – which would make your pack quite a bit lighter! I would suggest crampons and an axe for the glacier / couloir. We did rope up on the glacier going up – but upon scoping the down route from above we felt comfy descending the glacier sans rope. There are holes – but you can easily skirt them. You could also probably get away with sneakers and Kahtoolas if you’re into that kind of thing.
Floating the Upper Green: Hauling a packraft, lifejacket and paddle in makes for a fun multisport adventure – however it also makes for a miserable 10 miles. If you can go light (no rope etc.) then I’d suggest taking the packraft – otherwise it’s an additional 10 lbs and the heavy loads will force you to portage much of what you’d normally run with a lighter pack on the raft. Upper Green River is mellow above Tourist Creek – but downstream of Tourist Creek there is a class V+ canyon that looks really tough. Below the canyon the river is Class II with fun ripples and some wood. If you want a longer float the stretch below the lakes looks spectacular (although you’re next to the road the entire time). Bring your fly rod – the fishing looks spectacular.
Links: Wildflowers of Wyoming has a nice database of flowers and names to aid in identification of the many flowers you’ll see. Mayer’s Flower Garden also has a good collection of photos. Steve Romeo at TetonAT.com has a few write-ups of ski descents of Gannett; if remote, steep couloirs are your game, peruse his site. For those who need a guide, Exum Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides offer guided trips to Gannett. The guides in these companies are some of the best climbers in North America – they’re also good people and downright fun to hang out with.
Environmental Concerns: In the past few years the lands surrounding of the Wind River Range have seen a high influx of oil and gas development. This rampant development threatens air and water quality in this amazing area and residents have begun to organize and petition for a sustainable approach. Oil and gas brings much-needed jobs to this economically depressed region – and few people want to stop all exploration and development – however a balance must be reached. The Wyoming Outdoor Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Upper Green River Valley Coalition are a few of the groups working to achieve this balance. If you visit the Wind River Range please donate to these causes; these people are working hard to protect the land for future generations.
Also – if you’re interested in a good articles about glacier retreat, this page from Nichols College, Dudley, MA, has more information on the Minor Glacier.