I am happy to report that our recent mission to gain the summit of Gannet Peak, the highest point in the state of Wyoming at 13,804ft, was an overwhelming success! Thanks to the skill, perseverance, and dedication of our entire team, this difficult mountain to access was summited on Wed. June, 27th by 3 out of our 5 teammates including; 1stLt. Alexander Poulos, TSgt Jeffrey Perkins, and USAFA OAP Dir/Head Guide Casey Graham. The following is a re-cap of what turned out to be 4 days of very hard work, unexpected challenges, grit, triumph, and the building of lasting friendships and community.
DAY 1: June 25th 0300:
Early mornings like this are usually referred to as “alpine starts”in the climbing world. On this particular morning however, we knew as we met at FE Warren AFB’s Outdoor Recreation Centerin Cheyenne, WY, that no mountain would be climbed today. This pre-dawn meeting of our team of five was necessitated by a hefty amount of mileage to cover on our first day, beginning with a 5-hour drive. This, just to reach the Glacier Trailhead on the Eastern slopes of the Wind River mountain range in western Wyoming.
Our team included 1stLt. Alex Poulos, TSgt Jeff Perkins, Capt. Denise Campbell, and guides Sean Podrecca, NF-III of FE Warren’s Outdoor Adv. Program, and Casey Graham, NF-III of the US Air Force Academy’s Outdoor Adv. Program. All of our members had been training for this trip for a number of months in various ways, and while all of us felt fit and ready, we undoubtedly underestimated the intensity of the task on which we were about to embark.
Making a few stops along the way, we finally arrived at the trailhead just on the edge of the Wind River Indian Reservation. We went through one last gear check, laboriously schlepped on our packs, each weighing between 45 and 60lbs, and just before 1200, began our approach to Gannett Peak by entering the Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area of the Shoshone National Forest.
This first day wasted no time in showing us the raw beauty of this mountain range. We trekked through lush forest, over theraging gorge cut by Torrey Creek, and through the high alpine meadows gracing the western slopes of Arrow Mountain which were blanketed with yellow and blue wild flowers. We made short work of hiking the better part of 9 miles gaining 3300ft. to our high point of the day, a broad pass between Arrow and Talus Mountains. From here we could gaze north at the snow covered Absoroka Range, and southwest into the formidable interior of the Wind River Range. It was hard to believe that even being the tallest point, Gannett wasn’t even close to visible yet. What was visible was a toil of granite domes, cliff walls, steep snow clogged couloirs, and otherwise rugged terrain that was both beautiful and imposing.
Descending another 3 or so miles and close to 1,000ft, we passed by a number of alpine lakes, pristine and reminiscent of stock computer background photos. Not stopping to gape at shear rock faces which shot skyward from these freshwater sanctuaries was all but impossible. Eventually we decided not to fight this urge and at 1900 after 12.7 miles of hiking, made camp near the edge of Star Lake in a soft and inviting campsite with great photo opportunities as the sun and moon swapped positions in the sky.
While gorgeous, the day was not without it’s trials including a number of puzzling creek crossings, switchbacks through talus which climbed over 1000ft in a mile, and once we stopped, the dreaded mosquitos. Their numbers were almost biblical as they swarmed us at every opportunity, almost taking our enjoyment of the landscape from us in favor of slap-happy insanity. But a good amount of deet seemed to keep them at bay long enough to eat a well-deserved dinner and crawl into our tents.
DAY 2: June 26th 0600
After ultimately a better night’s sleep than we could have hoped for, we rolled out of our tents into the cloud of bloodsuckers once more, made a quick breakfast, and continued our quest toward our objective; the glaciated slopes of Gannett Peak. We began our day with the intent of making our way another 12miles to the base of the Dinwoody Glacier, a tall order to say the least.
With one of our teammates suffering from a penny sized blister on his heel, this goal seemed less likely right off the bat. But with expert medical care and a well-managed pace, he, and the rest of the team, all feeling the work out from the previous day, kept trotting along the Glacier Trail. Our packs felt a little heavier than the day before on our now bruised hips and shoulders.
After descending a steep, switch backed trail for 1000ft (which we quickly had the realization we would be coming back up in a much more haggard state), we were rewarded with a brief section of flat and pleasant hiking through a shady forest, keeping the hot sun off our necks. This was brief indeed though as our path quickly disappeared under a very swollen Down’s Creek.
The winds received a decent snow year this winter, and the high alpine is still choked with feet upon feet of snow. Downs Lakeand others like it, high above and far away from us, was no doubt bursting at the seams, as the creek had engulfed the strong old bridge and left us with no option but to ford the cold and silty river. This was more of a test of how long we could endure water just above freezing on our joints than anything, but we made it through without incident, and continued down the now mostly flat trail.
Over the next 7 miles, we meandered through open meadows, dense forest, boot top horse poop and muck, sandy beaches, over rickety log bridges, creek crossings where we missed the rickety log bridges, and generally unrelenting rugged wilderness. Each time we stopped to have a snack or a drink, we seemed to invite the mosquitos to do the same.
Through all of this however, it was hard to lose heart bearing witness to the valley surrounding us, and to raise our spirits higher, we finally caught our first glimpse of our ultimate objective, Gannett Peak, still far off in the distance.
The Glacier Trail at this point moves in a mostly consistent direction south, following a gently arcing gash in the landscape, carved patiently by glaciers long ago. Over eons, those glaciers left us with smooth walls of granite that tower thousands of feet above the green valley floor and Dinwoody Creek, and stretchesfor almost 13 miles. At least 3 of us in the group who had been to Yosemite Valley, widely regarded by climbers as the most hallowed ground in climbing history, agreed these walls rival The Valley in quantity and quality of rock. If this chunk of land was anywhere near anything resembling a road, it would undoubtedly be as popular. Our pace was slowed during this point not just by our packs weighing us down or the heat, or the mosquito frenzy around us, but by our inability to focus on hiking while looking so far up in wonder all the time.
After many hours of hiking and having covered 9 miles on the day, we were met with a new challenge: Snow. Our final 2 miles, now getting to the heart of the mountain range, in which we would climb back up to the alpine zone, had not fully melted out just yet. Route finding and staying on trail was difficult to say the least. Wandering from snow patch to dirt patch, we tried our best to stay on what we thought was close to the actual trail, all the while post holing into the soft snow up to our wastes under the weight of our packs. Thanks to modern technology, namely the Gaia app, we were able to successfully surmount this section of convoluted forest and get above the tree line, into the alpine tundra where travel, though still very snowy, was much more consistent.
Having trekked for 9.5 hours, covering just shy of 11 miles and gaining 1400ft, we finally reached what would be our second, and our high camp for the trip. At this point, we took stock of how the team was feeling and began refining our plan for our summit attempt the following morning.
It became apparent that two of our team mates were feeling uneasy about the prospect of attempting the technical objective and still having adequate energy to make the 24-mile trip back. To be fair, we were all feeling a bit beaten up in one way or another after just two days in this wild place battling the elements all the way to the base of Gannett Peak. Following an honest and logical discussion about the merits of having someone in base camp to organize a rescue if needed and supply logistical support to the summit team, it was decided that Denise and Sean would stay behind the following morning to do just that, as well as get some much-needed rest for the days ahead.
The upshots of our base camp were 3-fold: it was windy up there which meant no mosquitos; the views around our site were that of imposing rocky peaks and spires just aching to be climbed; though we were a mile short of our intended camp for the night, we had found one of the few grassy flats to camp on in the surrounding snow. With these happy thoughts in mind, we made a hearty dinner, and went to sleep as early as we could for the TRUE alpine start in the morning.
DAY 3: June 27th 0350
The wind throughout the night made it difficult for anyone to get any sleep as it thrashed and beat on our tents. The precious hours that were spent asleep were considered by us to be a gift. Wind or no wind, it’s hard not to be tired at the unnatural hour of 3am with a long day ahead. We scarfed down some breakfast and coffee, checked and rechecked our supplies, and departed camp just before 0400 for the summit of the highest point in Wyoming, 2.6 miles in front of us and 3200ft above us.
The day before, we encountered a group from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) who were camped in our originally intended site on the glacier. They had climbed the Gooseneck Couloir route on Gannett, the same route we were aiming for, two days before and were happy to report that, the most dangerous part of the route, an open bergschrund, was in fact closed at the moment and did not pose much of a technical challenge. They also informed us that the snow was getting very soft by 1200 that day and they had been post holing on their descent. Our plan was based on these last-minute conditions updates, and we were happy to find firm snow in perfect condition for climbing with crampons in the wee hours of the morning.
As we came around the cirque, we had our first full view of our route, which was clear and defined by the moonlight reflecting off the snowy peak. Once we reached the toe of the DinwoodyGlacier, we put our harnesses and crampons on, donned our helmets, and made our ice axes at the ready. We moved smoothly and swiftly up the Dinwoody, then over two uncovered moraines, gaining the Gooseneck Glacier. The Gooseneck, a small glacier as they go, was still filled with a monolith of ice, and open crevasses in its gut. We opted to stay away from where the glacier rolled and cracked, and climbed steep snow slopes to a succession of benches near the southeastern ridge of the mountain. The team had little trouble moving at a good pace over this terrain, looking and feeling confident in our movements, all the while keeping a wide margin of safety using the rope where we were exposed to objective hazards, and picking up time moving efficiently on sections of rocky class 2 ridges.
Finally, we made it to the route’s namesake; the Gooseneck Couloir. By now it was 0630 and the dawn had crested over the spires to the east, coating Gannett’s summit cliffs in a glorious reddish alpenglow. Looking at the 50deg slope, we noticed that the bergschrund was indeed covered up on one side with a boot pack already running straight up. We roped up and began our ascent. As we passed the open section of the schrund to our right, we took notice of how deep it went. An abyss of blue fading to black that dropped all the way into the bowls of the mountain. It would be dark and cold grave to waste away in if one of us was unlucky enough to not be on a rope and be committed to it. Giving this a wider birth, we easily ascended past it and gained the summit ridge.
As we marched up the ridge, gaining the summit at 0740, it was hard not to smile wide due to sheer joy, not just for getting to the top, but even more for being high up in the mountains surrounded by the unrivaled majesty of the landscape around us, and for the company we had to share this moment with. At an earlier point in this trip, Alex rattled off a thought that resonated with the team at this moment and throughout the trip saying “you hang out with and meet the best people in the mountains.” No words every rang truer at that point in time.
We took our obligatory summit photos with both the American and Air Force flags and learned that there is a process to this task that is much harder than one might think. Specifically, wind and flags are a pair of things that don’t play well with the timer on your camera. We took many summit photos that day, and finally got one or two that would work.
With the Grand Teton holding court over the valleys and peaks to the west, the expanse of the still snowy Wind Rivers all around us, and the vast parries and high deserts to the east and south, all under a cloudless, perfect sky, it was a hard place to leave. But, climbing the mountain is only half of any expedition. The way back would be long and hard and take all the energy we could muster. So we descended the way we came; down the summit ridge, and the steep Gooseneck Couloir, avoiding the open part of the schrund, then glissading like giddy kids down the slopes below onto the main parts of the Gooseneck and Dinwoody Glaciers. And with a brief walk down the snow slopes below the moraines, we rounded the corner and made it back to camp, losing sight of the route we had just completed in a fun and rewarding 7 hours.
Arriving back at camp earlier than we had expected at 1100, we decided to try and make some miles while we could. So at 1200, after packing up, we began our long hike out, reversing all the terrain we had worked so hard to cover the day before. This time, the snowy forest went much quicker having found the way previously, and the gentle slope of the valley made for a quick pace. As our feet began to ache and our sweat poured from the rising heat of the day in the lower elevations, we would stop more often. But nevertheless, we continued our march, ever discussing the possibilities of how far we could push, what we would try to do tomorrow, and how many mosquitos there were now that the wind was gone.
All in all, we went 10 miles from basecamp back down the valley that day, and camped at the base of the incline just a mile shy of our night 1 camp. For the summit team, we had walked 15 miles that day, 10 under heavy pack, and 5 on technical glaciated terrain, gaining 3200ft and loosing 4400ft. When we arrived at our spacious, but bug ridden camp for the night, everyone, through the exhaustion, had a sense of accomplishment on their faces. Denise and Sean had gotten the rest they needed and were ready for the hike out, and the summit team had pushed for the objective, triumphed, and were able to stay safe in the process. It was a good day all around, and by 1900, everyone was dead asleep.
DAY 4: June 28th 0600
It had been decided the night before that we would push over the pass between Arrow and Talus Mountains and try to make it down to the meadows in Bomber Basin, making our final planned day a short one so we could get back to Cheyenne at a reasonable hour. Staging our camp at the base of the incline up to the pass was intentional the day before as hard as it may have been, to set us up to be as fresh as possible that morning for the climb. Everyone feeling much better after a good night’s rest without the wind whipping at the tents, gaining the pass proved to be a time efficient task, taking only 3 hours to gain about 2000ft and 3.5 miles.
When we arrived at the saddle at 1030, it was apparent that we could conceivably hike all the way out that day, and avoid camping in what the sky was telling us was an imminent thunder storm, and potentially snow in the higher elevations. After a discussion about the plausibility of this option, we resolved to go for it, giving the day everything we had left.
Being basically all downhill from that point, the next 8 or 9 miles went surprisingly fast, though, the work load of hiking downhill with heavy packs on steep switch backs was not lost on any of us, least of all our knees, calves, and ankles. The whole team moved with purpose throughout the day however, ignoring any aches, pains, blisters, or bruises incurred over the previous days, determined to face and overcome one last challenge on this trip in the form of physical endurance. How long could we hike this fast? How soon could we be back to the car and out of bear country? Could we outrun the storm? Can our bodies handle this last sprint? All of these thoughts poured through our brains like the ice water we envisioned from the burger place in Lander, WY we all hoped to visit at the trip’s terminus.
Finally, with great effort and smiles all around, we reached the trailhead we started in at just 3 days before at 1600. Perfect timing for a well-deserved burger in town, and an easy drive back to Cheyenne. After a round of hi-fives and a quick change into fresh cotton cloths, we did just that.
We safely arrived back at FE Warren AFB in Cheyenne, WY just before midnight, having switched off drivers through the 4-hour drive. As we said our good byes, what we had just accomplished felt almost surreal. 4 days, a couple hundred miles of driving, over 52miles of hiking with heavy packs, and over 11000ft of elevation gain and loss, all to do exactly what we set out to do; claim a summit, be with friends and fellow Air Force folks in the wilderness, share a memory that will last a lifetime, and know that we are better for all of it.
The spirit of the USAF 50 Summits Challenge became apparent to all of us on this trip. Tagging the summit is the only truly measurable accomplishment of this challenge, but in essence, this challenge isn’t really about the measurable triumphs. This challenge is meant to engage the greater Air Force community in a bond of friendship, support, and comradery that can really only be gained through experiences like these. Summit or not, the teams who participate in this challenge walk away with new respect for their fellow airmen, and themselves having tried something new, or taught someone else something new, and forging ahead in the face of strife. Our team certainly engaged with all of these themes at one point or another in this brief time, and I’m confident that we will all be getting out with each other again, further strengthening the trust and community we began developing deep in the wilderness, in the shadow of the highest point in Wyoming.