I’m not a mountaineer. I want to start of this post telling you that, because if there’s one thing this mountaineering experience taught me, it’s that you are stronger and more capable than you think.
The First Time I Heard of Gannett Peak
The first time I heard of Gannett Peak was about 9 months ago. Sometime around Christmas, I got called into a meeting, having no clue what we’d be discussing. The people around me start talking about awesome trips, mountaineering expeditions, and this remote mountain Frank (my boss) hiked in Wyoming, called Gannett Peak. Then they pulled up some images on Google. Wow.
This is where I need to pause and give a bit of background on me: I’m a 23-year old 100% New Englander. I was born and raised in New Hampshire, and I grew up hiking the White Mountains with my dad. The 4,000 footers have been my summer romance almost since before I can remember, and recent years have seen me moving deeper into winter hikes as well (Mt. Jackson = best winter day hike).
My point is that I’m a huge outdoor lover and hiker, but my glacier, rock-climbing, and mountaineering experience at this point were non-existent (though I did at least get some wilderness first aid training in last year). I’d never summited or attempted to summit anything higher than Mt. Washington (and that one was in the summer). I had never done anything that felt close to mountaineering, and I was not a mountaineer.
So I’m sitting in that meeting, staring at pictures of remote, gorgeous, breathtaking mountains, mountains like I have never seen before, and my mouth is watering, because it looks like hiking heaven. Not, of course, the kind of hiking heaven I pictured myself in, as I had no outdoor aspirations beyond finishing my 4,000 footer list and re-hiking all my favorites until I was over 80. But as they talk about Gannett Peak and decide they want to send a team up it, this crazy but totally impractical idea starts to go through my head though: I wish I could go on this mountaineering expedition.
That’s the moment Frank says, “Hey Jenny, would you be interested in going on this trip?”
Against my better judgment and all reason, I said yes.
My First Time in Utah
So flash forward through 9 months of training with my amazing team members (Joe, Chelsea, and Ben), and I’m stepping out of an airplane and standing in Utah for the first time. We’re headed to Wyoming (obviously), but we flew into Salt Lake City.
At this point, I’ve already encountered a bunch of “firsts”:
- First time holding an ice axe
- First time successfully self-arresting with an ice axe
- First time carrying more than 30 lbs. on a hike
- First time tying an alpine butterfly, tying a retraced figure eight, and walking as part of a rope team.
- First time wearing crampons (I hadn’t historically needed more than micro-spikes.)
- First summer where I hiked more with other people than with my dad
- First time working out more than 10 hours in a week
Regarding all of the firsts still ahead of me, I had no idea what to expect. Needless to say, I was nervous and even a bit afraid of what lay ahead, as my complete lack of anything to base the upcoming experience on made me wonder if I would like mountaineering, if I had trained enough, and if I would let my team down.
My First Time in Wyoming
We grabbed a rental car and started driving towards Pinedale, WY, which eventually brought me to Wyoming for the first time. The first hour or so of driving, the state did not look at all what I expected it to look like. As the miles passed, the landscape slowly transformed, and a mountain range appeared in the background. THIS was why I had said yes.
The First Day on the Trail
A bunch of firsts happened for me during Day 1 on the trail, though I’m glad to say they were all good ones, overall.
My First Time Hiking with 45 lbs.
I’m 5’1” and not what you’d call built or even muscular, so needless to say when Joe said something along the lines of “everyone is going to carry at least 40 lbs., probably more,” I was internally thinking, “I am not physically capable of this.”
Training tip: take the thing you fear the most and make it your focus. Instead of avoiding it, face it head on. During training, I spent hours walking on rolling terrain with my hiking pack full of my sister’s workout weights, slowly building up how much I was carrying.
We put together our packs at our hotel in Pinedale and weighed each of them. Mine weighed in at 45 lbs., which may not sound so bad until you realize that’s over 35% of my bodyweight.
Difficult does not mean impossible though! My hours of training 100% paid off, and any worries I had about carrying the weight were gone by the time we made camp after our first day on the trail. I was tired and had a headache (more on that below), but I felt strong and excited for what lay ahead, not weighed down by what was on my back.
My First Time above 10,000 ft.
I broke my elevation record with almost every step I took on this mountaineering expedition, but a few times were especially noteworthy, and this is one of them. Altitude was one thing I hadn’t been able to train for, and it definitely did affect me, though thankfully not for long.
The first day on the trail, I immediately experienced shortness of breath, which lasted the first mile or so before my body seemed to adjust. We went about 10 miles that day, and in the last couple miles I experienced an increasing headache, which Chelsea and Ben also experienced. Although I continued to have an above-average struggle during the first mile of each day after that, I’m glad to say the headache never returned.
My First Steps in the Wind River Range
Western hiking is not the same as Eastern hiking, from the trails to the terrain. We started down the trail through a pine forest (not at all an unfamiliar sight to me), but after a few miles we emerged into a giant natural clearing absolutely covered in wildflowers. I’m a wildflower nut and (no pun intended), it was a field day!
We passed through that field back into the woods only to come across an even bigger, more beautiful meadow. And so the hike went – although eventually we left the forest behind for good and passed into more open, rocky terrain, I will never forget stepping into those first few meadows or how, no matter how far along the trail we were, we never went far without being able to see the trail wander off in front of us. (In NH, you hike blind to what’s ahead of you 80% of the time.)
The First Day in Titcomb Basin
Two days of steady hiking brought us into Titcomb Basin, where we would camp for the next several days and from which we would launch our Gannett summit attempt. If you’ve never been to Titcomb Basin, you should go.
Looking one direction from our campsite, I could see Upper Titcomb Lake, Fremont Peak, and the Wind River Range fading off into the distance. The other direction, we were surrounded by rocky peak after rocky peak, almost all of which had snow on them somewhere.
Cradled among these peaks, I could see Bonney Pass. I can’t say this was my first time seeing the pass, as we’d been staring at the mountains ahead of us the past two days, and I’m sure I saw it at one point – I just didn’t know what it was. From the perspective of a girl on her first mountaineering trip, all I can say is it looked steep. Really steep. I won’t say impossible, because I refused to close that door as I stood there, but it was certainly a lot steeper and snowier than I had imagined.
My First Time in the Backcountry for Over 3 Days
We spent 3 days at our camp in Titcomb Basin. The day after we arrived we took as a rest day to review our skills, then the next day we went on a side adventure as we waited for the weather to clear up (more on that below), while the third day was our summit attempt. By this time, I was completely covered in a strange mixture of sweat, Natrapel bug spray, and sunscreen that I could no longer smell.
I had never been on such a long backpacking trip before, and needless to say I was rather dirty (as were my companions – I think Joe and Ben wanted to see who could be the dirtiest). I wasn’t sure what I’d think of being in the wilderness for so long, but I can safely say I loved it.
The deeper we want into the wilderness, the more my excitement grew. The views were amazing, but more than that there was something refreshing about being completely surrounded by nature, getting plenty of exercise, and spending all day outdoors, completely tech-free. I obviously prefer using toilets to tree stumps, but the trade was worth it on this trip, and I suspect I’ll find it worth it on any lengthy trips to come.
My First (Mini) Experience with (Real) Rock Climbing
Our second day in Titcomb Basin, Joe, Chelsea, and I decided to warm our legs by attempting to summit Fremont Peak, the third highest peak in Wyoming. The mountain was almost completely bare of snow, and the route consisted of what seemed to be a never-ending talus field.
Having spent some time in the Presidential Range of NH, I was not unfamiliar with rocky routes. However, this was by far the rockiest route I’d ever been on, as well as the most time I’d ever spent on a talus field, navigating my way through scree. Definitely watch your footing!
We must have been over two thirds of the way up when we ran into some dangerously-loose terrain. Joe went ahead to see if he could scope out a better route and came back with a sturdy but more technical option. In college, I tried my hand at the rock wall a few times, but most of my experiences with rocks came from the White Mountains, where I’d never gone on a trail above a class 3 scramble.
Joe said the route he found was great, but had one class 4 spot. If you asked any real rock climber, I’m sure they tell you that me pulling my way up and over that small cliff (which I successfully did!) was not rock climbing, but it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten!
My First Time above 11,000 ft.
Around that time, Chelsea checked her watch and said we were above 11,000 ft. My record was broken! We pressed on for another fifteen or so minutes only to run into a cliff – literally. Since we didn’t bring any rock protection, we headed back down to camp to do final preparation and get to bed early for summit day.
Right before we went to sleep around 5 pm, I also experienced my first hailstorm in a tent – we were glad the hail didn’t get any larger than it did!
My First Time Bivvying (& Being Above 12,000 ft. & Being Belayed Down a Couloir)
We hit the trail at 1 am on summit day. Titcomb Basin was pitch black, lit only by our headlamps. We turned off our headlamps for a moment over our rushed breakfast and saw the most amazing view of the Milky Way I have ever seen.
After a mile or so of trekking to the base of the pass, we started up the steep slope of ice and snow. In the pitch black, we ended up veering too far to the right and getting off route. We came up off the ice field onto some rocks on a ridgeline, with a steep upward slope to our right and steeper downward slope to our left, where we were relatively sure the correct route up Bonney Pass was. After a quick discussion as a team, we decided our best course of action was to bivvy until there was enough light to see if we could lower ourselves down the slope to the left.
Needless to say, it was cold. We were above 12,000 ft. (the highest I’d even been up to that moment!), sitting in the pitch dark on a windy, rocky ridge. I pulled on my extra layers and pulled myself into my Survive Outdoors Longer Escape Pro Bivvy. Straight up honesty here: This was the first time the whole trip I was truly scared. Something about not knowing where I was, sitting in the pitch dark, and losing feeling in your feet just sucks the sense of adventure right out of you. My bivvy kicked in though and my feet regained feeling as the light increased.
Packing tip: ALWAYS bring a heat-reflective bivvy or blanket, even on day trips - we would have been in a real pickle without ours!
With the light, Joe could see that we were just a steep couloir away from the route, so he took out the rope and got to work belaying us down. Having never been belayed before, I managed a not-so-graceful decent that involved smacking the rocks once and some nervous tears. Not all firsts are fun, but I’m happy to say that the 3 other times I got belayed that day, I quickly found myself moving from being nervous to totally enjoying it!
My First View of Gannett Peak
Back on the right route, we soon found ourselves on the top of Bonney Pass, where I saw my first view of Gannett Peak (which was blocked from view the whole way in from being so deep within the range). Wow.
This was the moment all my enthusiasm that I’d lost while bivvying came rushing back in. Mountains are definitely my happy place, and all I can say of Gannett Peak is that the view is worth the wait.
My First Time on a Glacier
I didn’t realize I was on a glacier for the first time till I’d probably been on it several minutes, as the Dinwoody Glacier at first just looks like the other side of Bonney Pass – a field of snow and ice on a steep slope! Once we had made the initial descent down the back of Bonney Pass though, Joe stopped us so we could rope up.
On our way up to the Gooseneck Glacier, we had to jump over one crevasse, skirt around another, and ascend a steep snow bridge over two large crevasses. Needless to say, those were all first for me.
If you followed our expedition, you know that shortly after reaching the end of the Gooseneck Glacier, we ran into a hanging snowfield that was quickly deteriorating. Joe sank up to his waist after just a couple steps, and he’s not a short guy. As a team, we came the difficult conclusion that we needed to turn around, especially as our current speed meant we’d be cutting it close to make it back to camp before dark.
Looking back on that moment, I’m glad to say we all know we made the right decision. It would not have been safe to continue with the glacier and snow in the condition it was in, and we made it back to camp just in time to gobble down our Thanksgiving-themed dinner as the last rays of light disappeared. I’m pretty sure I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
My First Time Mountaineering – It Won’t Be My Last!
I won’t go into the details of our hike out and other happenings from this mountaineering trip (though you should definitely check them out on our trip report!). But despite not reaching the summit, I walked out of the wilderness two days later and felt like I was glowing, despite having rather sore feet. I think if you’d asked me if I wanted to go do the whole trip again, I would have said “Give me 24 hours off my feet and eating burgers and ice cream, then YES – LET’S GO!”
What made my first time mountaineering so amazing? Obviously it didn’t hurt that I spent seven days in one of the most beautiful, remote places I’d ever been, but I think it was more than that.
I had an amazing, supportive, and fun-loving mountaineering team. I can’t convey how truly great they were, but I want to share at least one thing about each of them.
From rapping in the backcountry to belaying us down couloirs to making us stay ridiculously hydrated, Joe was everything you could ask for in a trip leader. If you’re headed out on a “first,” it’s vital you trust the experienced members of your team. Joe took his role seriously and always made sure to put our safety first, while also helping us have a good time.
- The best tent-mate award goes to Chelsea! Not only was she an amazing backcountry chef who made sure we all had the nutrition we needed, but she also had a positive, can-do attitude perfectly coupled with a realistic look at our current circumstances, helping us to make smart decisions as a team when it counted most. If you’re going to sleep in the same tiny enclosed space with someone for seven days, make sure you pick someone as awesome as Chelsea! (Plus, she liked to go to bed early, so we both got waaaay more sleep than the boys did.)
- Let’s just start with the fact that Ben has the best vision of anyone I’ve ever seen – he could spot wildlife or other hikers from miles and miles away! From reminding me to get all the points of my crampons in the snow to helping us lift the bear bags into a tree, Ben added a steady presence and relentless good humor to our team that made him a pleasure to travel with.
So here’s to first time adventures – I hope my story has encouraged you to pick one of your own! You will in all likelihood have to work harder and prepare more than you ever have in your life, but difficult is not impossible, and with a lot of preparation and a solid group of people, there’s not much you can’t accomplish.
That was my first time mountaineering, but if I have anything to say about it, it definitely won’t be my last! After all, there’s a whole lot of world out there, and Gannett Peak is definitely still waiting for me…
About the Author
Jenny Hastings fell in love with hiking from spending hours in the White Mountains with her dad. She spends most weekends in the summer and quite a few weekends in the winter out on the trails. The #BeSafeGannett Expedition was her first experience mountaineering, and she was excited to rise to the challenge with the training and by developing her technical skills. She's always looking for a new summit and ways to spend more time outdoors, whether on the trail or reading in her hammock.