This Saturday, the 14th, is the anniversary of my first ski trip ever into the Wind River Range in 2005. I put a little piece together about the trip and sent it to some magazines, and ended up getting two pages in Backcountry. I was really hoping to get a feature slot, so I had to edit out a lot of the original copy. Here is the piece in it’s entirety. I hope you like it.
A trip to climb Gannett Peak (13,804′, highest in WY) in the Wind River Mountains is never easy, let alone one to ski it. Most people who ski Gannett Peak ascend, as well as descend, via the most popular route, the Gooseneck Couloir. Stephen Koch put up one of the most technical descents on the west side of the peak in 1992. It is about 25 miles each way from any trailhead, assuming you can drive to it, and is a semi-popular summit in the summer time. In the winter however, even early spring, it may as well be a ghost town.
Mid April. Since my Teton ski season had been going so well, I decided to dedicate one of the few remaining weekends of the season to skiing Gannett Peak. I figured four days would allow for plenty of time since I had heard of Mark Newcomb, Hans Johnstone, and Bill Dyer making the trip in late winter in only three. My long time ski partner Reed Finlay was out of town, or busy that weekend, so I enlisted friend and Jackson Hole native Dustin Lemke to join me. We opted to approach Gannett from the north since all other points were still months away from being accessible via automobile and arrived at the trailhead around mid-morning. I knew the first day was going to be tough the minute we pulled into the parking lot, not only due to the gusty winds we fought on the drive up, but mainly because we didn’t see any snow!
The plan was to do the majority of the approach the first day, summit and ski Gannett the next, leaving one day for weather, rest, or other exploits, and the fourth and final day to hike out. Trying to stay optimistic, we decided to wear our AT boots right from the parking lot, hoping we’d be able to start skiing within 2-3 miles. Needless to say, the skis didn’t come off the pack until after 6 miles on the Glacier Trail, through Bomber Basin and up over 3000′ to the high plateau. We were both excited as we approached the pass, because on the other side there was 6 miles of gradual downhill to Dinwoody Creek, fallowed by only 8 more on flatter terrain to Floyd Wilson Meadows where we planned to set up camp. Upon cresting the pass however, it was obvious the Northern Winds had been paying the price for the warm temps we had in February and marginal snowfall this season. Not only were we going to have to take off our skis again, but we barely made it down 1.5 miles before we had to start to sniff out the remaining snow in order to continue skiing.
As we skied down to the Dinwoody Lakes area, my motivation started to dwindle. I wanted to take a break to re-assess where this trip was headed. To start out with, at the current pace and snow coverage, it looked like the planned one day approach was turning into two. In fact, the coverage looked so grim that it seemed as though we would be going dry-land a few more times before making camp. Not what I had in mind. After voicing my concerns to Dustin, we both decided that something was going to have to change to make this trip a success, and boy did it ever. As we discussed our situation, we began to look around at the surrounding terrain and consulted the map for alternatives as well. The Dinwoody Lakes region, where we had stopped to rest, sits between 10-11,000′ and is surrounded by sheer cliffs and summits to well over 12,000. I spotted one aesthetic line slicing the granite walls relatively close by and knew that there had to be a few more not too far away. Coming to the conclusion that two whole days of skiing the goods was much more fun than one day on Gannett Peak, with probably more time hiking on dirt than snow. Taking all this into consideration, we immediately set up camp at the outlet of Upper Phillips Lake.
Waking up the next morning to bluebird skies and mellow winds, one could say that I was pretty psyched to let the fun begin. I knew that today would sort of be a scout day, maybe skiing a couple lines, getting a feel for the lay of the land and planning for a bigger day to fallow. After some quick hot chocolate laden oatmeal (my little secret to being able to swallow the stuff) and a cup of java, we skinned-up and headed towards Golden Lake and the line we scoped out yesterday, what we would eventually name Ascent Couloir. Classic Wind River geology came into view as we arrived at the lake, vertical if not overhanging cliffs plunging directly into high alpine lakes. Throwing on the spikes, we made quick business of the over 1000′ climb. Lucky too, since the couloir’s eastern exposure was causing snow and ice on the cliffs above to quickly melt, keeping us on high alert.
A glamorous view of our previous objective was had upon reaching the top and I was glad we had made the choice we had, as Gannett still looked many miles away. Knowing that the skiing was going to be corn-a-copic (i.e. awesome corn skiing, off the cob) we anxiously cleaned the ice from our boots, talked about a few photo-ops, and then hooted and hollered down the chute. Thinking of days past, Scott Schmidt style turns began to emerge. Leaping 3-4′ above the snow with each rhythmic turn, my ski edges performed like knives, slicing though the soft snow with the greatest of ease. Letting the skis run on the fast, icy surface of the lake, we coasted to the far side and turned around to relive the moment…like all of us do.
Knowing we still had time for more exploring, I suggested we head southwest toward a northeast facing pinner I had seen earlier that morning. We moved quickly on frozen creeks and lightly covered slabs to a series of higher lakes and even more exciting terrain. After picking and choosing our way to the base of what we were now calling The Spaghetti, we energetically booted to the top. Turning around, we could see the surrounding terrain begin to reveal itself. Right off the bat we saw two lines that we instantly put on the hit-list for tomorrow. One line being a super-steep looking face on the other side of the canyon, and an impressive couloir further to the southwest. From a distance it looked to have big, tall cliffs on both sides and a tricky entrance to boot. Having fun with what I call “kung-fu turns”, we “zipped-up” the Spaghetti. As we skated back to camp we flew across the frozen lakes, probably even more amped than when we left. I remember going into racer mode, hammering out the last few strides to slide into camp ahead of Dustin. After mixing up some user-friendly tuna and ramen goulash, we sucked down hot drinks and some good ole Yukon Jack, gabby about the days events until sleep won out.
Another day from the heavens greeted us the fallowing morning and after the usual goat-meal and caffeine fix, we were again headed towards Ascent Couloir. One thing that we noticed from yesterday was that both of the lines we had planned to ski today descended from a continuous high plateau, named Goat Flat. Since we had already set the boot-pack on Ascent Couloir, which topped out on the same plateau, we decided to cruise up the firm track and then skin over to the other awaiting shots. The views on the plateau were unbelievable, and I found myself day-dreaming about skiing everything I saw. As we approached the top of the super-steep face line, I wish I had been paying more attention. I lined things up as best I could and cautiously made turns on crappy, wind scoured snow as the slope began to fall away.
The slope kept getting steeper and steeper, I couldn’t see the bottom yet…I just wasn’t sure. I sidestepped up to my left, trying to get a fix on things. A precarious kick turn, followed by more side stepping…now up to the right. Suddenly, I remembered I had taken a photo yesterday from the other side of the canyon, on top of Spaghetti (all covered with cheese, HA!). I found a comfortable place to pull out the digi-cam and double-checked the line. Shit…I was on-track the first time, the steepness of the slope only frightened me away, the challenge was now set. With a deep breath I again made turns down the upper pitch towards were it began to rollover. Luckily, the snow conditions improved as the pitch increased, allowing me to ski it more confidently. Each turn began with a gulp and the body contortions were extreme, I had my poles adjusted to their lowest setting. Definitely one of the steepest slopes I have ever skied, earning it the name Freefall Wall. Feeling strong in our abilities, we skated and polled back to Ascent Couloir.
After another quick boot and high traverse, we headed to what looked like the flagship descent of the area. We had already dubbed it Vader Couloir. From a distance, it looked like there was a slot entrance on the skiers right under a small cornice, followed some of the most gothic type of terrain you can imagine…if you’re into that kind of stuff. The entrance was obvious since I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it as we came in from the top, something that adds a special element to ski mountaineering, not climbing what you ski that is. Upon entry, the snow proved to be challenging. It was firm, wind scoured and undulating. I think I even touched the snow once with my uphill hand…a personal style-points no-no for steep skiing. Call me a dork, a loser, whatever…I call it obsession!
The slope rolled over, the walls got higher, the shadows got longer and the conditions stayed firm, just what you would expect from something from the dark-side. We quickly skinned up a bit positioning us for the cruise back to camp. Then we took a long deserved safety break to let the nerves settle after two high intensity descents, as well as two days of skiing in one of the coolest backcountry playgrounds I have ever been to. The sun was warm and we were in no hurry. My heart slowed to a sub one beat/second pace and I think I even fell asleep…I barely remember anything else from that day.
The ski out went okay, until we weren’t skiing anymore. Our feet and knees paid the price of wearing AT boots from the start, as it was now 6 miles of hiking downhill…in ski boots…with a heavy pack. We saw some goats, they barely moved as we passed by, locked in a stare-down. Most of my unsuccessful trips into the mountains are hardly even an after-thought, most of the time wishing I had stayed home in bed. This is one of the few that will probably be remembered more than the original goal.