A couple weeks ago, my friend Phil and I went up to attempt a winter climb of Gannett Peak. We had been looking forward to this trip for a few months and our hopes were high. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned and the climb ended before it really began. Let me tell you about it.
On Sunday evening, January 10, Phil and I loaded up our bags of gear into the car and started the 4 hour drive to the Wind Rivers. The road leading into Elkhart Park is plowed to within about four miles of the trailhead, but because of snowmobile tracks packing down the snow, we were able to drive another two miles on the snow-covered road until finally on a steep hill, we got stuck in the deep snow and couldn’t go any further. We unloaded the car, put our gear on, and started our hike at about 2am Monday morning.
The first two miles to the summer trailhead went quickly as we were skinning on packed snowmobile tracks. We were sure that once we hit the summer trailhead, the snowmobile tracks would stop and things would get much more difficult. Luck was on our side, though, and the snowmobile tracks took us in an additional two miles past the summer trailhead. From the end of the snowmobile tracks we followed snowshoe tracks another five miles or so until we hit the far south end of Seneca Lake. We were very grateful that we didn’t have to break trail for a good chunk of the hike in, but at Seneca Lake our luck ran out and from there, deep snow and breaking trail became the norm.
For most of the hike into Seneca Lake, temperatures fluctuated from about 5 to -5 degrees Fahrenheit. As we reached Seneca Lake and the sun was coming up, the wind picked up and temperatures seemed to drop quite a bit. Both Phil and I were out of water and feeling hungry, so we stopped to melt some snow and eat some food. Phil pulled out his bothy bag to block us from the wind while we were melting snow. We climbed in and though they were uncomfortably tight quarters, the bothy helped keep us warm.
When we finished crossing Seneca Lake, we hung a right and started the slow hike up the passes dividing Seneca Lake and Island Lake. This was the first point where we started running into steeper terrain and the first place we started to notice that snow conditions weren’t stable. As we started to climb over the pass, any slopes we were hiking on that were about 25 degrees or steeper would break and start to slide as soon as we stepped on them. It was a very eery feeling that every time we stepped on the snow on the upper sections of the pass, we would hear a “whoomph” sound as the weak layers below the surface would collapse. We also ran into many wind-loaded slopes that, as we would step on the wind-effected section of the slope, the whole slope would fracture. If the slope was steeper than about 25 degrees, the wind-loaded slopes would slide. We also knew there was a weak layer a couple feet down that, though we didn’t get that to slide, we were concerned that as we got higher, if a large enough cornice or other wind-loaded layer were to slide, it might set off a deeper, persistent slab.
At this point we stopped and discussed our options and ate some lunch. It was pretty obvious to both of us that trying to climb over Bonney Pass, ski down the other side, and then try to climb up steep slopes up Gannett Peak, especially after having consistent high winds above an altitude of about 10,000 feet, was just not a smart idea and could potentially kill us. Neither of us wanted to give up at this point, but we both knew we needed to. So, with some hesitation, we turned around and backtracked a mile or so and set up camp.
When we got to camp, both Phil and I were very tired from not having slept for about 36 hours, so we climbed into our tent and took a nap. When I woke up, I had a major headache and was feeling quite sick. Phil melted snow and hooked me up with some food, hot chocolate, and water and an hour later, I felt like a new man.
We decided to go to sleep early and get an early start for our hike back out to the car. With clear skies, the nighttime temperatures were cold, but we slept quite comfortably. The next morning was still quite cold, but the air was still. It was so peaceful hiking in the snow before the sun came up. It seemed like we were the only living creatures in the whole range.
We started our hike out at about 7am and we were back to the car at about noon. It was a quick trip-hiked in, slept, hiked out-but it was worth the effort to see this beautiful area during the winter time. I’d love to head back on nordic skis and tour the whole area for days. Maybe next year.