Smart Mountaineering: A Balance Between Drive and Risk Management

By: Josh Gonzalez
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
The picture above holds one of the most remarkable and rewarding views I have had the privilege to gaze upon. Held in the frame is the spiky and formidable Wind River Mountain Range nestled in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, not too far from the southern tip of Yellowstone National Park. This was captured from the summit of Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s tallest mountain. To the average Joe, this would be just another landscape shot you would see on Instagram or in an outdoor magazine-- but what a lot of people lack to see behind this image is what it took physically and mentally to capture it. This picture is a reflection of one of my proudest and probably most challenging achievements, one that I look back on and literally say “what the hell”. So how did I end up atop the tallest mountain in Wyoming? To ​start​ I am working on accomplishing the 50 State High-Point Challenge. The simple goal of this obscure challenge is to summit the highest geological point in all 50 states, something to this day only 305 people have completed. Some of those summits, like Alaska’s 20,310-feet Denali, are truly arduous, dangerous climbs. Others, such as Delaware’s 447-feet Ebright Azimuth, are mere hills. About two years ago, I came to meet a true hiking companion, Gary Reckelhoff. We met through the University of Cincinnati’s Mountaineering Club. He introduced me to the challenge pursuit and 25 states later, I can say it has been one hell of a ride. Through the two years of crazy adventures, I discovered that my higher goal to this challenge is to see the U.S. in a new light and appreciate the raw beauty that is our country’s backyard. From the majestic mountains to the amazing people I have met, seeing the true heart of this country brings forward a new sense of frontier-ship to me. A historical and cultural frontier. The high-points are just the cherry on top.

The decision to summit the highest mountain in Wyoming had been in planning for a while before I came aboard the team. I wasn’t brought on until about two weeks prior to the trip setting out. At the time, I was on a “less technical” trip through the New England area trying to knock out the simpler high-points in the east. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Gary had organized this trip with a couple other of our friends and I drew the short straw on whose car we would take. We were driving through Massachusetts in my beat up 2006 blue Jetta when Gary got on a planning call with the other team members of the climb. There was still a lot of logistics and gear arrangements to figure out before the climb. When it came to the state of Wyoming, they had to prepare for a very serious and technical mountaineering trek. Because of the glacier travel involved in climbing Gannett Peak, crampons, ice axe, and rope are necessities.

As Gary was talking, I overheard that somebody had dropped out of the group and a spot was now open on the team. I immediately volunteered myself. Gary, having been on previous mountaineering trips with me, knew I had the skill and endurance to withstand such a trek and threw my name in the mix. When it comes to climbs like these I operate on a shoot first and ask questions later basis. It’s rare when these opportunities come around and I knew that I had the faculties to face the challenge. With just a few further questions asked by the team I was on board. I was filled with excitement and nervousness, I did not know much about Gannett Peak and when the first Google search query brought up “Gannett peak death” I was slightly off put. After further research and consulting with the team, I learned that the trek would be a total of 6-7 days. Two days to make it to high camp, the summit push, then two days trekking out with the two additional days added as a contingency​ for weather or any other deterrent to the summit.
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
Fast forward two weeks and we were approaching the quaint town of Pinedale, Wyoming. With me was of course Gary, and another climbing friend, Corey. We had arranged to meet the fourth and final team member, Dustin, at the trail head. There was quite the buzz building within Wyoming. The path of the August 2017 solar eclipse cut right through the Wind River Range and Pinedale. The state was expecting a huge influx of people trying to witness this marvel of nature.
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
We did not see the full beauty of the alpine region until far up on the trail head. This wilderness was not like any wilderness I have known. Dense pine foliage on the lower portions of the mountain mixed with scattered wild ​flowers​ shining below on the shaded forest floor. The incline was moderate but with our full packs of gear, it was difficult for the day that lay ahead. After two long days trekking through, we arrived at base camp. It sat atop the Titcomb Lakes region of the range and anchored us to Bonnie’s Pass. The pass was a steep 1,500 ft slope with a difficult mix of rock and ice to traverse up and over. Gary and I found a spot beside a large fallen boulder to set up our tent. This was ideal because the boulder functioned as a natural windbreak for us. We set our alpine start for 1 AM the next day, but at night we were stormed out by heavy sleet. I was relieved, the past two days had really pushed my body and I needed rest to help recover for the summit push. It was early August, so the weather was on our side and the trails were fairly busy because of the ensuing Solar eclipse.

Our initial plan was to align our summit bid for the day of the eclipse, but with difficulties driving out we would miss it early by four days. We rested more that day and practiced our glacial traversing techniques. We all had a good bearing on what lay ahead beyond Bonnie’s pass when asking for beta (trail lingo for route advice) from others coming down the trail. Our biggest concern was if the snow bridge connecting the Gooseneck glacier to the summit ridge was still in good condition to cross over. Reports luckily were looking in our favor. Our ​diets​ consisted of freeze dried meals and Clif bars. My ​diet​ was lacking the amount of carbs needed for the trip. We luckily had set up camp next to two Idahoans who had decided to bail on there attempt due to the timing of the inclement weather. Before they set out, they threw me some of there left over Clif and granola bars to help me out. We went to bed early around dinner time knowing that we had to get up at midnight to organize all our gear and set out properly for the climb.
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
Waking up the sounds of the mountain air enthuses something deep inside me, a more primal sense of being. Facing these giants of rock I am humbled by my position to them. They have stood for millennia and have witnessed the true transition of time on this planet. A testament of resilience. I was refreshed and ready to face the challenge. I put on my headlamp and headed outside to meet Dustin and Corey getting ready by a small rock outcropping close to camp. I immediately looked up and was taken back by the denseness of the stars above me. I have been in areas where the Milky Way’s beauty can shine through but this was the clearest I have ever seen it to date. I grabbed my camera, propped it up against a rock and shot a long exposure to capture the stars…
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
We were making good time over the 1,500 ft pass and down to a subsidiary glacier leading us to a small rock scramble connecting to the Gooseneck glacier. When we approached the bergschrund -a crevasse that forms where moving glacier ice separates from the stagnant ice or rock- we all used good judgement crossing the snow bridge. I was second in the line and it was a difficult transition from the bridge to the steep connecting snowfall. We all made it over and continued onward up the final ridge and made our summit time by 1:00 PM. Sitting comfortably at 13,809′ ft the views of the range were truly unbelievable and I pulled out my camera and captured the shot above. A camera though is just another lens to our eyes and I decided to put it down. For me this was actually a liberating experience, I no longer had to worry about capturing the beauty of the moment and instead lived IN the beauty of the moment. There is a weird dialectic I always find myself in as a photographer on trips like this. There’s the urge to take as many photos as you can or just put the camera down and simply be.
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
Photo courtesy of Josh Gonzalez.
Attaining the summit only constitutes ​half ​ the climb. The absolute hardest part of a climb is the pending descent… when you’re tired, you can become complacent and think the difficulties are behind you, especially coming off the high-flying elation of achieving your goal. My friend Corey wasn’t looking so well and was displaying early signs of altitude sickness. I gave him some of the water I had left, which wasn’t much, and a Clif bar. He didn’t have a good time getting that down so we quickly got our summit picture and began our descent back down the ridge. I thought it would be best for Corey and I to switch spots and I would lead.

Ascending, we did not rope up, but this ridge was a little more sketchy going down because we were all pretty exhausted. The dangerous part about this ridge was the amount of exposure. When traversing we had to follow a narrow path leading down to the connecting rock scramble. On the left side of the path was a steep snow grade leading down to a 1,000 ft sheer drop off to the glacier below. If you were to gain momentum falling down this face and could not self-arrest in time with your ice-ax, you would surely be gone. This combined with the rock precipice to the right didn’t make the situation better.

Corey was not getting any better and we figured if he were to go down then it would be a lot easier to self-arrest if he were in the second position. We made it down to the snow fall connecting to the snow bridge. This is where some serious decisions needed to be made in regards to the order of us descending and the technicality of this feature. Crevasse fall emergencies normally require some amount of improvisation on the part of rescuers. The tools that make you able to respond effectively in a crevasse fall emergency are, first and foremost, your skills, which can be mixed and matched to fit a wide range of situations. What is not accounted for in most practice of a rescue is the state of mind of the rescuers. We had to keep all our heads clear and focused despite the exhaustion and effects of altitude. With myself leading the route down, it put a lot of pressure on my ability to follow a sound line descending this feature that would lead directly to the top of the snow bridge. It took a couple of steps to figure out my path and maneuver with my ropes, crampons, and ice-ax, but I eventually got into a rhythm and made it to the top of bridge where I guided Corey step by step. The transition to the snow bridge was very tricky and Corey was able to muster up as much focus as he could to avoid the two deep crevasses on either side of the bridge. Once we cleared this obstacle, there still laid an hour of descending to get to the Dinwoody glacier that would lead us back over Bonnie’s pass and eventually back to camp.

We were going pretty slow and it was becoming clear that we weren’t going to make it back before sunset, we had headlamps so darkness wasn’t the concern, it was Cory’s state going back up over Bonnie’s pass and the rest of the teams. Climbing a mountain is a two front battle, one with the mountain and one with yourself. It is your personal job to keep your body moving forward despite the pain or exhaustion you may feel. Gannett Peak to this day remains the hardest thing physically and mentally I have ever done. We set out 1:00 AM and didn’t arrive back at base camp until 11:30 PM. A total of 22.5 hours out on the mountain’s difficult terrain. We practiced as much trail first aid as we knew to keep Corey hydrated and were able to get him out to a lower camp the following day where he recovered and hiked out on his own power.

What makes this a proud moment for me is that I feel I learned how to apply true leadership in a tough situation and was able to make sound judgement to get us back to camp safely. To the everyday person this may seem small but to an aspiring mountaineer this is a great moment of growth and maturity in your respect to the powers of the natural world. What I took away most from this experience is that my body is just a mere vessel for my drive, drive to lead me up a mountain or drive to accomplish my biggest goals. Obstacles are only things you tell yourself you can’t make it around. No matter how physical or mental an obstacle that stands in your way may seem, as long as you believe you can surpass it, you surely will step by step.