Distance: 38.4 miles via the Ink Wells Trail
Elevation gain: 8,450 feet
Dates: July 24-28, 2018
Day 1 7.3 miles
Mike and I began our journey at 7:30 am at the Crowheart Store where we procured our fishing licenses and recreation stamps, met our guide and porter, sorted group gear, and used a toilet for the last time in five days. Once those needs were satisfied, we moved next door to settle up our transportation fee with the Reservation. In exchange for a standard monthly mortgage payment in cash, we received a round trip ride through roughly 13.5 miles of Tribal land and access to the shortest, and arguably easiest, approach to Gannett Peak.
The pick-up truck ride lasted just under 1.5 hours to the Cold Springs trailhead. From there, we hiked 7.3 miles to Camp 1. The first half of this leg felt like a punishing uphill, but once we had time to settle in to the altitude and heavy packs, we felt notably stronger. Along the way, we saw pronghorn in the open fields and caught our first view of Gannett, whose distance appeared seemingly unattainable.
We pulled into camp with leg muscles worked to the point of wondering how we were going to make the summit. Clouds of mosquitos made camp interesting, but it almost didn’t matter with the lovely view of Gannett in the distance. After a satisfying burrito dinner and about 12 hours of rest, we were ready to take this one day at a time.
Day 2 8.5 miles
Day 2 began with coffee and a hearty breakfast scramble. After breaking camp, we embarked on 8.5 miles of mostly downhill terrain, losing over 1,000 feet of elevation. The visual intake on Day 2 was stunning. Beautiful streams, picturesque mountain views, and flowers with brilliant pops of color, like Wyoming’s state flower, Indian Paintbrush, all come together to make you pause and contemplate the natural beauty surrounding you.
We took a break in the meadow near roaming horses so Mike could attempt fishing in the stream, with hopes of supplementing dinner. Nothing caught, but it wasn’t from lack of technique.
Next, came the endless, stressful stream crossings. We crossed so many times that we counted them on the return trip, because they seriously seemed to go on all day. On the return trip we counted 19 significant crossings, meaning a bad crossing could find you fully submerged in water or at least with soaked boots/pants. And, another 19 crossings which required the mental focus of rock hopping in order to maintain dryness.
Many of these required balancing on tree trunks of various widths and roundness. One crossing involved two strips of wood only slightly wider than the width of an adult foot, which sank in notably different amounts with each step. So, one foot would dip super low, while the other only dropped a little. At any moment, one of these could snap, which would plunge the crosser into the frigid water below. On two crossings (this being one of them), the guide and porter shuttled our packs across so we could simply focus on balance.
Needless to say, we took these crossings slowly, but made it across dry.
Stream crossings complete, we arrived at camp just as the sky began spitting a few drops. All week, the weather for summit day had been calling for thunderstorms. Now, its threat to the trip became a reality.
We pitched the tent before the torrents of hail began. Our guide – completely awesome – made us dinner in the hail and brought it to the tent so we didn’t have to withstand the unfriendly elements. She set our expectations that we might have to call the trip because of weather.
With the time, money, and energy we’d invested in this climb, Mike and I struggled with this possibility that was beyond our control. We managed to get some sleep, with the likely reality that our climb was over.
Day 3 7.2 miles
To our enormous surprise, our guide greeted us at 2:30 the next morning with a hearty “Good morning, mountain climbers!” The weather had cleared overnight! We were giving this a go! This flustered us a bit, as we’d mentally prepared for the disappointment of turning around without the summit. So, we found ourselves quickly, and perhaps clumsily scrambling to prepare for the long day ahead.
Mike had been excited about seeing Wyoming’s stars for months leading up to the trip. Every night had been foggy or littered with some other obstacle. But, this night was different. Before beginning the final journey to the summit, Mike looked up and saw his good luck constellation, Cassiopeia. The mountain gods were smiling down on us; we had this.
Finally at 3:30, we were on our way in the dark, scrambling over rocks, across snow, and through running water. We pushed through endless talus fields and across the glacier’s snow. We made our way up the seemingly vertical wall of the Gooseneck Gully and over the Bergshrund. As we began to run lower on gas, our guide encouraged us with these words:
“Focus on putting one foot in front of the other and eventually the summit is under you.”
That was the final inspiration we needed. Around 10:00 am, we found ourselves standing on the most glorious summit yet. The expansive views of snow, other peaks, and brilliant lakes made our efforts worth it. We took a few minutes to sign the register, snap some photos, grab a snack, and connect with the outside world (this is the only place you’ll have service on the entire trip).
The down climb required everything I had. As the first one down the Gooseneck Gully, I was kicking steps into the vertical wall for the team to follow. This quickly burned through any reserves I had left. Add to that, Mike and I both ran out of water and weren’t carrying a water filter that day. Thankfully, our guide helped with water treatment so we were able to rehydrate with another liter before we got to camp.
Over various snow and talus fields, the rock hopping/scrambling became even tougher. Shortly before camp, we passed a team of guys who noticed my fatigue and offered the final bit of encouragement, “You’re almost back to camp.” I am still grateful to these trail angels – I needed that as I just about literally crawled back into camp that night around 4:30 pm.
Day 4 11.6 miles
I’m not really sure how we pulled through the next day. The 38 total stream crossings with fresher legs on Day 2 was tough. Now, we had quads that were questionable at best, making this stretch particularly stressful. Mike almost lost his balance and I took these with less certainty at maybe half the pace I had on the way in.
Add to the stream crossing difficulty, more than 8 miles of Day 4 was uphill. Mike described the day as a death march where he expected gunfire at our feet to inspire faster progression. We were traveling the pace of slugs, at a stride one-quarter of our normal length. Yet, all of this movement came at an enormous effort requiring everything we had.
We ended up hiking farther than we’d initially intended so we could close out the uphill portion. We camped near the final water source, with the promise of an easy, downhill day ahead.
Day 5 3.8 miles
Less than four miles downhill, even with our heavy packs, felt luxurious. We awoke in good spirits, enjoyed our final breakfast together, broke camp, and hit the trail. This day felt like a stroll in the park compared with the previous four.
We dropped our packs at 10:20 for our intended 11:00 pick-up, which arrived at noon. The drive out only took about an hour. On the way back to Jackson Hole, we stopped in Dubois for lunch with our guide and porter before saying goodbye from this adventure.
- Carry more than 2 liters of water on summit day (or bring your water filter).
- Unless you’re super savvy in the wilderness, climbing with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides will increase your chances of success, with the benefit of good company along the way.
- Izzy and Kevin, thank you for keeping us safe! We had a blast climbing with you.
- Bug spray (and head net) is a must to battle the mosquitos lower on the mountain.
- Practice your balance beam skills for those 38 stream crossings each way.
- While I have not climbed the Western approach, the Eastern approach offers what sounds like a significantly easier summit day. From the West, you’ll ascend and descend a peak, before ascending the summit. You’ll tackle about 6,500 feet of total elevation gain on summit day alone, whereas from the East, it’s a straight up and down with about 3,800 feet of gain. The tradeoff is the added transportation fee through the Reservation, but for us, it was worth it.
We enjoyed circling Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National park after the climb. It was about 8 miles, but mostly flat and a scenic way to stretch the legs post-climb. Grab a sandwich at Dornans and eat outside with views of the mountains.
Try Cowboy Cafe in Dubois for dinner or lunch. They serve hearty, yummy portions, including pie that’s good enough to write home about.