Gannett Peak Eclipse
Gannett Peak Eclipse: A View From The Highest Summit Along the 2017 Solar Eclipse Path of Totality
Posted Aug 29, 2017, 1:28 PM by Matthew Anderson
When I was growing-up in a small northwestern Minnesota farm town I stumbled across John Cleare’s book “Trekking: Great Walks of the World” and it included a mesmerizing account of Alastair Scott’s solo hike in the Wind River Mountains near Gannett Peak. Two decades later I was planning a canyoneering trip in southern Utah to coincide with the May 20, 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse but accidentally clicked on NASA’s webpage for the August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse. I quickly realized the path of totality passed directly over Gannett Peak and set the date for a summit attempt.
As plans came together friends Brad Bishop, Chad Skupien (Skup), Jason Hatfield, and Stuart Cohen all from Colorado; my brother Aaron Anderson from Minnesota; and Aaron’s friends Pete Erickson from Minnesota and Scott Chastek (Chappy) from Iowa all decided to join the team. We arrived in Pinedale at dinner time on Friday August 18th and quickly learned the Forest Service had closed the Elkhart Park Trailhead because it had been inundated with eclipse watchers and after the parking lot filled, people started parking along both sides of the road blocking emergency vehicle access. We checked into the Rivera Lodge, a charming little creek side place with dogs that greet you when you arrive, and started discussing options for shuttling people to the trailhead. As we talked, Aaron went to the Great Outdoor Shop to buy more cordelette and overheard a rumor that a few parking spots at the trailhead had opened up. We quickly threw our backpacks in the truck, drove two vehicles to Elkhart Park, grabbed one of only two available spots, and drove back to town. Now at least we wouldn’t have to shuttle gear and we were guaranteed a vehicle at the trailhead at the end of our hike.
Saturday August 19, 2017
After a delicious homemade breakfast at the Rivera Lodge that included locally roasted coffee, coffee cake, fruit, yogurt, bacon and eggs we jumped in the cars and drove back up to the trailhead. To our surprise we didn’t find any rangers turning people away and during the night a couple more spots opened up, but we did have to fold the mirrors in on Chappy’s car to squeeze into one of them. We were hiking shortly after 9:00 AM and saw a female moose and a young calf within the first fifteen minutes; they would however be the only large animals we would see on the trip. We stopped for lunch and obligatory picture taking at Photographers Point and continued on past Senaca Lake to Island Lake, our first day’s destination. Due to the crowds at the parking lot I advocated grabbing the first available camping spot but Jason theorized that would be everybody’s thinking. He strolled right down to the lake and found the best spot in the whole valley available for the taking. That night we had a small camp fire and fell asleep to the sound of a distant waterfall.
Sunday August 20, 2017
After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee we got on the trail, rounded the the southeast end of Island Lake, and started hiking up Titcomb Basin. By the time we reached Upper Titcomb Lake a strong wind was blowing up valley from the south, white capped waves were breaking along the north shore sending spray into the air, and we encountered a bit of bad luck. First, despite setting up camp behind a large boulder the wind was more than Aaron, Chappy, and Pete’s tent could withstand and the rain fly started shredding so they moved a short distance to a more sheltered location. And then as we were practicing glacier travel and self arrest techniques the soles started separating from Brad’s boots; the rubber was completely rotten and crumbling. After some debate it was decided Gannett wasn’t a mountain to be trifled with so Brad would skip the summit and take a day hike appropriate for running shoes. After dinner we turned in early and tried to get a few hours sleep before Monday morning’s alpine start.
Monday August 21, 2017
On summit day we departed camp at 1:30 AM. The climbers trail up Titcomb Basin is quite faint so we navigated due north by compass bearing for one mile before veering northeast and then back north by northwest for the ascent up to Bonnie Pass. Due to the number of climbers making their way to Gannett Peak for the eclipse, navigation in the dark proved easy once we got on the snow; there were headlamps ahead of us and we were able to follow a well trodden track. Ideal overnight temperatures gave us perfect snow conditions and I estimate the climb up Bonnie Pass topped out between 35 and 40 degrees. We made good progress and reached the top only a few minutes behind schedule at 4:15 AM.
The top of Bonnie pass was windy and snow free but after descending a couple hundred vertical feet we got back on snow for a quick descent and roped up as we transitioned onto the Dinwoody Glacier. Once again, navigation in the dark was simplified by headlamps in front of us. We traversed north across the glacier maintaining as much elevation as possible, and reached the rocky Gooseneck Ridge 30 minutes ahead of schedule at 6:30 AM. By this point the wind had calmed and the sun was peaking over Horse Ridge but scattered clouds persisted and and we stopped at some low rock shelters to eat and refill our water bottles.
We roped back up, stepped out onto the Gooseneck Glacier on the north side of Gooseneck Ridge, started hiking east sticking close to the rocks on climber’s left, and ascended a couple hundred vertical feet up a punchy little 40 to 45 degree snow slope. At the top of the snow slope we removed our crampons for four hundred vertical feet of third-class rock scrambling along the Gooseneck Ridge and then put them back on for another 200 vertical feet of low angle glacier travel to the base of bergschrund. Despite being late in the summer climbing season, the snow bridge across the bergschrund was in great shape thanks to greater than average snowpack during the 2016/17 winter season. According to the Great Outdoor Shop’s March 20, 2017 Trail & Snow Conditions Report, 2016/17 was Wyoming’s third wettest winter on record. After crossing the snow bridge we ascended the snow slope above the bergschrund for a couple hundred feet to the rocky ridge below the Gooseneck Pinnacle; the snow was in great condition and I estimate the slope angle topped out at about 45 to 50 degrees. Upon reaching the ridge we unroped, removed our crampons, and packed them in our backpacks for the remainder of the ascent. We did however keep ice axes in hand because the summit ridge presented a mix of rock and snow and a slip down Gannett's east face ends with a 400 foot fall to the Gooseneck Glacier below.
A few ominous clouds started popping up around the area causing concern that cloud cover might obscure the eclipse and prompting some climbers to begin their descent. My biggest concern turned to the large number of people on the summit and the potential for accidents on the way down; additionally, a large crowd above the bergschrund could be bad if the weather started to turn. But by 10:35 AM as we reached the highest summit along the path of totality, the skies were clearing, and we were greeted by approximately 40 other climbers, including a group of veterans with No Barriers, all eagerly awaiting the eclipse.
The moon started slowly making its way across the disc of the sun and as totality approached Gannett Peak the lunar shadow blotted out the forest and lesser peaks below as it advanced across the landscape. And then to our unexpected delight the Grand Tetons suddenly appeared silhouetted black against the horizon as if the sun were rising in the west! Moments later the last bright flash of sunlight vanished and the sun’s corona was visible to the naked eye hanging in the indigo sky like a brilliant celestial wreath accompanied by the planet Venus. After 2 minutes and 22 seconds there was another bright flash of light as the sun reappeared. Venus faded, the landscape brightened, and it was over as quickly as it started. Almost immediately if felt like a dream.
A few minutes before noon we started gathering our things and preparing for the hike back down the mountain. After descending the summit ridge we found a short wait at the top of the snow slope above the bergschrund. There was a large group descending fixed lines anchored to the rock along the north side of the snow slope and several unroped individuals descending the middle of the snow slope. The surface snow was starting to soften so we decided to rope-up and drop in a few snow pickets on the way down for running protection. The probability of a fall was low but exposure duration was moderate and the consequences of falling into the bergschrund would be quite high.
As we waited our turn a large rock about four feet long, three feet wide, and eighteen inches thick slid off a sloped ledge on the north side of the snow field; dropped a couple feet to the snow; and slowly started accelerating down the slope. Two people tried without success to stop the rock before a third person who was attached to one of the fixed lines jumped in front of it, managed to bring it to a stop, and used his ice axe to pile snow in front of the rock to prevent it from sliding further. Jumping in front of the rock was a risky move as the fixed line visibly stretched under the force but if the rock had continued down to the snow bridge anybody in its path could have been killed.
After the excitement of the rock people continued making their way down the snow slope but there was a climber in front of us who was visibly nervous about descending unprotected. Our second rope team had room for an additional person so we invited her to join us and she happily accepted. To avoid any additional rocks that might come loose we stayed south of the fall line and I started feeling more confident after placing the first snow picket because it took five hard blows from the head of my ice axe to drive it into position. We crossed the snowbridge, descended the Gooseneck Glacier, and made our way back down the rocky Gooseneck Ridge without any additional excitement.
We reached the bottom of the Gooseneck Ridge about an hour behind schedule at 3:30 PM so we put our heads down, marched across the Dinwoody Glacier, and tried to make up as much time as possible. We arrived at Bonnie Pass only about ten minutes behind schedule at 5:40 PM. By this point we had been on our feet for sixteen hours, everyone was tired, and Bobs Towers were casting shadows across the snow route back down into Titcomb Basin. To avoid a fall on the home stretch due to fatigue, we decided to err on the side of caution and rope-up one last time. And as the slope relented if felt good to remove our crampons for the last time. My biggest scheduling error was in estimating that it would only take an hour to hike from the top of Bonnie Pass back to camp and in reality it took about two and a half hours.
We arrived back at camp at 8:00 PM after eighteen and a half hours on our feet and I was happy to learn Brad had a good day despite his boot malfunction. He hiked to Summer Ice Lake and then scrambled another 1,000 vertical feet to watch the eclipse high atop The Buttress. He then filtered water and prepped our stoves so all we had to do upon returning to camp was kick off our boots and stuff hot food in our faces. As twilight faded to night we could see headlamps still making their way down Bonnie Pass and assumed they must be the last climbers to clear the bottleneck above the bergschrund. With so many people on the mountain everyone was lucky to have ideal weather.
Tuesday August 22, 2017
Titcomb Basin is a long north/south oriented valley with 1,500 foot walls to either side that keep the valley floor shaded until mid-morning making it a glorious place to sleep-in after a long summit day. We took our time breaking camp and by the time we finished breakfast it was almost time for lunch but figured we should walk a few miles first. On our way down the valley I dropped back to talk with a hiker from California named Kayla who climbed Fremont Peak to watch the eclipse. It sounded like she was having a wonderful solo adventure and after chatting for a bit we said farewell and I hiked ahead to catch the rest of the group.
I caught everyone but Brad near the Indian Pass trail junction; convinced Aaron, Chappy, Jason, Pete, Skup, and Stuart to take a side trail to the waterfall that thunders out of the basin and pours into Island Lake along its northeast shore; and I continued along the main trail looking for Brad. I finally found him resting against a rock at Island Lake’s southeast end and convinced him to stop for lunch and a swim. There was no sense in making this beautiful sunny day a sufferfest. After a very brief dip in the icy water I sat on a warm rock and ate lunch until the rest of the group came by and we continued on to Senaca Lake. We stopped for the night high atop the rocks overlooking Senaca Lake’s east shore, watched a couple Ospreys fishing for their dinners as we ate ours, and watched the stars come out as we sat around the campfire late into the night.
Wednesday August 23, 2017
Wednesday morning had us up at first light because burgers and beer were waiting in Pinedale and we were back to Elkhart Park by 11:00 AM. At the trailhead we met four hikers who were originally planning to hike from Green River Lakes to Big Sandy but found themselves taking longer than expected and decided to bail early. We drove them to town and we all found ourselves at Wind River Brewing for lunch. An occasional glance at their table confirmed they were as hungry as we were and after stuffing myself with BBQ and beer I walked to Rivera Lodge, cleaned-up, and I napped away the afternoon to the sound of Pine Creek babbling past the back window of the cabin.
Recommended Personal Climbing Gear
- Climbing Harness
- Climbing Helmet
- Mountaineering Axe
- Axe Leash (For Attaching To Harness)
- Mountaineering Boots
- Hybrid Crampons
- Glacier Prusiks
- One Large Locking Carabiner
- One Belay Device
- Two Small Locking Carabiners
- Two Small Non-Locking Carabiners
Recommended Group Climbing Gear
- 60 Meter Climbing Rope (For Teams Of 3 - 4 People)
- Three Snow Pickets
- Three Ice Screws
- Three Quick Draws
- Three Shoulder Length Slings
- Fifty Feet of Webbing
Photos Available for Purchase at Jason Hatfield Stills & Motion