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Gannett: The 4 Day Mountain Marathon

 Gannett: The 4 Day Mountain Marathon

by Tom Prigg

February 24, 2003

Photography by Craig Mills

Mt. Gannett is Wyoming’s highest peak at 13,804 ft. tall. Listed as one of the hardest peaks to bag by the “highpointers,” a club who’s members’ goal is to reach the “high point” of every state. Their high rating for Gannett is mainly due to a combination of the mountain and the approach it’s self. Which brings us to the first challenge, a 17.5 mile approach at 10,000 feet in 85 degree weather. The summer of 2002 was abnormally hot everywhere in the country as you may recall. This had complicated things a bit. Our plan was to fly into Salt lake city, drive 5 hours at the trail head, sleep for two, hit the trail for our hell march of 17.5 miles, set up camp at Titcomb lakes, one rest day, climb and hike back out the next morning. Having to cover a 40 mile round trip with no acclimation and no real rest time gave us no room for error. Packing light and being as fit as possible were key. We would however take Diamox to help with the acclimation.

Rope team one was made up of Jason Dichiccis, David Micklo and Mike McLoughlin. They were having little trouble with the altitude. We wondered if it was them or the fact that they had climbed Mt. Rainer only a week ago. That may had nothing to do with it. I felt fine as well. I remained in the rear with my fiancé, Jen. She was having a harder time adjusting to the altitude. Usually telling her to slow down on the Mt. Washington New Hampshire trips we take each winter. Jen Phillips is better conditioned than myself. I have more trouble on our long endurance runs so to see her struggle while I was fine was a clear signal of the effects of altitude on her. Craig Mills was doing well and only complained about a slight headache from time to time. Craig proved to be very strong and competent through the trip. I feel that it is important to assess people in your group. I size people up because I believe that I should know what limitations people have so I know what our group is capable of doing and what they can not. This all comes in play when we may have to make a decision of whether to bail due to possible weather. Jen, Craig and I would make up the second “floss” team as we called it due to our 7mm glacier string, err rope.

We planned a mid-night wake up for a summit push beginning at 1 am. At 12 am Jennifer gave me my wake up call. I had adrenaline slamming my heart waking me instantly. “This is it,” I thought. I rushed to put on my down coat, damn it was cold that night. We packed up and pushed out. No breakfast. An oversight of mine and theirs. I never planned on making and eating breakfast. My plan was to shoot down some Gu and drink my calories as I go. This would turn out to be a good plan for me but not so great for the rest of our team. However, we are a team and each person must be accountable for themselves. I consider this a “team oversight.” If one person bonks and becomes weak, we all become weak. “A chain is only as strong as the weakest link.” I live by this and wish that more would. Not that I believe anyone on this trip approached this trip in that sense. That is why I enjoyed climbing with them so much.

We arrived at our first obstacle in about 20 to 30 minutes. A 13,000 foot pass of snow somewhere around 60 degrees… I think… We began putting our crampons on to kick up the hill. But Jen began having trouble with her borrowed club crampons. The antique leather strapped pieces of crap kept falling off. This was despite her having to stomp her foot for it to fit into the crampons and several attempts by the both of us to strap these down hard. Now I know what you are thinking. Yes, we fitted these before going to the mountain but we had no snow to kick and climb. They are just not designed very well and should be thrown out! Let’s face it, there is a reason that we no longer have crampons designed like that. So we end up wasting 30-45 minutes trying to get these fitted right. I am beginning to worry that these crampons are a safety hazard and we are only beginning our push! We begin moving up the steep hill when our next equipment obstacle occurs. Craig’s head lamp begins to black out. Lesson two, buy a quality headlamp! I begin looking at my watch nervously thinking, “We must keep moving.” Yes it was still very early in the morning but time adds up and we don’t know what other obstacles were going to run into. Once our crampon and headlamp games were over we were moving at a quick efficient pace. We reached the summit of the pass around an hours time once the crampons were secured.

Approaching the summit Once we were over the pass we thought things would get much easier. Physically that turned out to be true but now we had a new problem. We were moving very quickly and it was still dark. Dave gave us some beta the afternoon before and mentioned many paths. Well, maybe this was easy in the daylight but in the darkness it was proving a challenge. We started using a logical route finding technique. It was a very obvious thing to do. We would split up and look for the path of least resistance. “How about right? No that is getting too steep. Keep pushing left.” Etc… This would prove to be a good method.

Once we made it to the glacier it was time to route find to start up the mountain. We searched around for the best route that would provide us with the least plogging time. We found a way up near a large… “Crater” looking area. The mountain, by conduction from the sun, had melted the snow around itself. It was nearly 20 feet deep and about a 25 or more feet to the base of the rock to the rim of the melted snow. It looked as thought the entire mountain was just dropped in place. We followed the lip of the crater around and jumped onto Gooseneck Glacier. “We are on our way.”

Great view from Gannett, Photo by Craig Mills Our climbing was easy but time consuming. AGAIN, we had problems. The terrain required us to switch many times with our crampons due to alternating rock scrambles and snow climbs. The antique crampons would eat up most of our time ascending. Near the top heading to the ridge, Jennifer was beginning to tire. I was watching the sky and noticed some dark clouds building up a few miles away. “Crap I thought” I was not going to say anything yet until I had an idea of how fast it was moving. Craig however also noticed and brought the clouds to our attention. We decided to keep moving until we knew for certain how fast it was moving. We were near the top. We only needed a few 100 feet to go… Well, in the back of my mind I was recalling all sorts of “epic” stories I’ve read. They reminded me of dumb decisions about pressing on when people should have turned back. But again, I felt we were very strong so I don’t believe we were taking it lightly but were cautiously moving forward. A little time passed and I started to become concerned about how quick Jen is moving. She is slowing down but still moving at a good rate. I keep working with her to keep her pace up so we can finish this and get back down.

Base of summit, Photo by Craig Mills The ridge did not take to long to traverse and was very easy to do so. Pausing and watching the clouds we noticed that the clouds were moving parallel to the mountain. This was a great relief. We met another person at the summit and shared a shot of whiskey with him. We took our pictures and started heading back down. Elapse time… 5 minutes. No sense in celebrating, we are only half way on the summit push, “we still have to get back down.” And we had to worry about the sun heating up the snow now…

Getting back down ate up a lot of time. I am not even sure how. I think we took longer descending than ascending. Whatever… It was only 10:30 am but the sun was really softening the snow. At one point in our descent Craig asked me what the strange depression was in the snow. Annoyed by our slow progress I just snapped, “I don’t know…” FLUMP, my right leg punches through the snow but since I was coming down the a steep grade I fell forward and was able to self arrest. Did I mention that we decided to not use the 7mm floss to save weight and speed? Hence the self arrest. I am also officially the first person to punch through the bershrund that year. We did not see it due to the cover snow. Well that was an experience. Now I am a little nervous. We have one more large crevasse to cross and I know that the snow is getting soft.

Once we make it to the crevasse we were able to cross without incident. Yeah I know why mention it at all. Because for the past hour in “real time” I am crapping myself looking at my watch and the sun and cursing Jen’s crampons for being such a pain in the ass to put on and slowing us to a snails pace.

Summit crew, Photo by Unknown climber We make it after some time to the 13,000 ft. pass that we came over the night before on our initial summit push. All we have to do is cross this and we are home free. I turn around while walking this endless ascent to see Jen and Craig a ways back. “What are you guys doing, come on.” Jen and Craig inform me that they would like to stop and eat. “Well, lets get to the top of this glacier and then take a break.” Well, as Wyoming wouldn’t have it any other way, we had another storm is brewing. Hmm… Make a decision, make a sprint and get over the pass or wait here till is passes and chance the soft snow on the other side. I decide our best course is to sprint. I give Jen and Craig an emergency 5 serving packet of Gu to give them a boost and “off we go.” But first we have one last obstacle, we have to climb 30 feet of steep ice roughly 50 degrees. “Screw those crampons, we have to beat the storm, I’ll cut steps!” Are you smiling? You should be. It is only 30 feet but damn what a workout. The guys of old were studs! Well, in the time it took me to cut steps it rained on us and passed. Well so much for a sprint. We finally made it to the rocks got over the pass. No problem. We get back and tell our stories, eat dinner, thanks rope #1 for heating the water! 5am wake up and make our 17.5 mile hike back to the parking lot. Only 6 hours! Damn do we know how to end it all in style or what! ;)

The entire crew, Mike McLaughlin, David Micklo, Me, Jennifer Phillips, 
Jason Dichiccis and Craig Mills, photo by unknown passer by For me I am a young mountaineer in terms of experience. This entire trip was about pushing ourselves and redefining our limits. I am addicted to this kind of climbing. I cannot imagine anything less. Going light and hard. This is the only way I can find that little zone of where I may break. When my body can no longer make it, will my mind keep pushing me. Do I have the will to finish what I dream of doing. Maybe you see this as a senseless way to think. Maybe you are saying, “Why make something harder than it needs to be.” I say it is not about making it harder but pushing a limit I would never know was there. Setting a goal that I may not be able to fulfill. This is living, can I push myself beyond what I believe is possible. This is why I began climbing in the first place. I wanted to climb because it challenged me. I did not know what my limits would be. This was a vehicle to push myself into the void. Luckily I have met a group of people who live this mantra. If you want to do this then you had better be damn strong. Everything must be wired, both physically and mentally. That is how I like and want to be. I hate weak scatter brained people who want to be guided around. Hanging on the coat tails of others. I could never experience the mountain. I love the challenge of reading a mountain and not being a mindless pack mule following mother duck. We had none of this, we were a well oiled machine, that was our standard and that was the goal we met. I can’t wait for the next mountain.

Fear and Whiskey…

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