Looking east from the summit of Gannet Peak.

A year ago, to the week, I climbed the Third Flatiron in Boulder, CO for the first time.  Legendary mountaineer and guidebook author Gerry Roach stridently proclaims its standard East Face route (5.2) “the finest easy rock climb in the world”.  Back in June of 2011 I had broken my leg and last Fall–with the bone finally knit but other lingering soft-tissue issues still preventing me from doing any consistent running–I decided it was time to start actually getting back on the rock (I live in Boulder, afterall, practically the rock climbing center of the universe) after letting it fade away as a consistent practice when my main climbing partner graduated during college way back in 2003.  Plus, words such as Gerry’s made me think that I had to be missing out on something.

So, on September 23rd last year, I dusted off the rock shoes and harness (for the rappel) and met Buzz Burrell and Peter Bakwin at Chautauqua for a first lesson in scrambling. With partners to follow (whose casual demeanors inspired confidence) and hyper-sticky rubber on my feet, soloing the giant slab proved to be empoweringly simple.  Despite moving steadily, it still took us nearly an hour to complete that first ascent.  Our rappel ropes wouldn’t pull, though–due to too much drag; we’d tied together two 60m ropes to accommodate the 200′ free rappel off the back–so to retrieve our lines, Peter and I elected to hit another lap and do the three-pitch rappel off the southwest aspect of the rock.  We made the second climb in 26min–a huge improvement!–and I was already much more comfortable with the staggering 1000′ of exposure that the Third offers.

Descending the Third Flatiron in a traditional (heavy, slow) fashion. Photo: Buzz Burrell.

It was an inauspicious beginning for sure, but my injury had slowed me enough to rekindle my interest in this type of locomotion in the mountains–simple but still technical movement over radically exposed terrain–and forced me to realize the merits of and inherent aesthetics that getting comfortable with this sort of thing would open me up to.  Prior to my injury, I was almost exclusively–myopically–interested in only what I deemed to be runnable terrain.  I was inspired by a 14er if I felt I could run nearly every step of the trail.  Scrambling over talus, spidermanning my way up a pitched slab, hiking up tundra steep enough to reach out and touch the ground with my hands—none of these things made sense in my brain as being within my interest of “mountain running”.  I took the term far too literally, and seriously.  And it limited me in the mountains.  I never strayed from pre-determined trails, it never even occurred to me that I could look at a topo map and engage the truly creative part of my brain.  If the mountain threw a chunk of terrain at me that broke my running stride, I became frustrated and looked for an easier way.

My broken leg changed all that, however, and that initial outing on the Third was my first step in developing a skill-set that would allow me to begin exploring the more interesting, direct, aesthetic lines on a mountain.  This skill-set would ultimately allow me to explore more mountains, mountains that had previously stymied me because of their technical difficulty.  The real shift for me was that the mountain–the landscape, the terrain, the crags and ridges–became the ultimate value, not the supposed workout that I contrivedly achieved through some arbitrary biomechanical preconception.  Instead of being the ultimate priority, running to me became just another skill in the toolbox for getting to the top of a mountain quickly.  If the terrain dictated that I could only use it on the gradual approach, or once I’d achieved a high ridge, or maybe only on the descent, then that was fine.

Climbing the Third in a little different style. Photo: Joel Wolpert.

After the last few months of scrambling in the Flatirons–including the First and Second–I recently ran to the base of the Third, scrambled it in running shoes in 7:20, down climbed it in 5:45 (definitely faster than I could ever do the standard three-pitch rappel), and then continued my run to the top of Green Mountain.  This is not to brag–I am fully aware of my embarrassing lack of true technical climbing skill–but to present in stark relief the progression I’ve made in the past 12 months, a progression that this past week was most markedly represented in an iconic pair of Wyoming summits: the Grand Teton (13,770′) and Gannet Peak (13,804′–WY’s highest point).

Both of these peaks are mountains that a year ago would’ve been completely outside of my soloing technical abilities or even my mountain running interests.  The easiest line on the Grand is the Owen-Spalding, rated at 5.4 (granted, it’s only a few moves, but if you’re not comfortable with those moves and the potentially stomach-churning exposure, you’re not getting to the summit without heavy climbing gear).  Gannet is an impressively remote summit that, after a lengthy running approach, is guarded by endless boulder-hopping on which true running is almost impossible, glaciers, and some high 4th Class scrambling.

Over the September 15-16th weekend my sister was getting married in Dubois, WY, so after the festivities were over, I planned a late-season rush on these two mountains.  Monday morning I drove the 1h30 to the Lupine Meadows trailhead, charged to the summit of the mountain in 2:08 (the OS Chimneys held some ice, signifying the change in seasons and slowing things appreciably going both up and down on the upper 700′ of the mountain), and after a few pictures, down climbed to the Upper Saddle and ran back down to the TH in 1:15 for a 3:23 roundtrip.  I passed three different parties high on the mountain, each of which was likely achieving the summit in two to three days (as evidenced by their heavy mountaineering gear) rather than the three hours it took me.  Among other things, this allowed me to spend the afternoon in a much more civilized fashion, sipping chai in downtown Jackson with my sister and new brother-in-law.

Summit of the Grand Teton (13,770′).

I used to be of the opinion that speed isn’t important.  And, in an absolute sense, I don’t think it is.  In a relative sense, however, I think that one’s speed does matter.  This is because–relative to one’s innate ability–striving to operate as close to that ability as possible requires a level of commitment to the craft and presence in the moment that I have yet to achieve by other means.  For instance, because I wanted to move quickly when climbing Gannet (or any mountain), I made a point to study the map carefully, read other trip reports, solicit advice from friends who had already made the outing.  Not to mention spending countless hours in the mountains building skill and fitness (and having fun!). Without the impetus of speed I would’ve undoubtedly taken a more lackadaisical approach that likely would’ve left me irresponsibly underprepared, with less respect for the mountain, and, ultimately, less connected to both the landscape and the community of enthusiasts who venture into this gem of a mountain range.  Going fast requires–above all else–paying attention, and achieving that fleeting measure of grace where my effort and abilities are meshed perfectly with the challenge is a huge motivating factor in what I do. I find that this practice of paying attention is one of the more instructive and valuable takeaways that a trip to the mountains offers me.  Plus, I’m just really inspired by wild landscapes.

So, on with the nuts and bolts already.

Getting to the Green River Lakes TH on the west side of the range requires driving an hour, one-way off the main highway, half of it on wash-boardy gravel road.  Approaching Gannet from this trailhead seems to still be a relatively novel concept.  Buzz and Peter are the likely recent-times pioneers of this strategy, when, upon looking at the map in 2004, Buzz questioned why everyone was suffering through these uber-long trips (~21mi from the Elkhart TH on southwest side, 25mi one-way via the Glacier Trail on the northeast side of the range) when a summit bid using the Highline Trail from the GRL TH seemed quite a bit shorter–somewhere between 17 and 18 miles in one direction.

The answer is that the obvious line of ascent from the Highline Trail–the Wells Creek drainage–requires extensive off-trail boulder-hopping and route-finding….and a solid pitch of 5.6 backcountry climbing to negotiate “The Cleft” at the top of the Wells Creek canyon.  Still, Burrell and Bakwin went for it in their typical style–sight unseen, 25m of 5mm cord and one piece of gear for rappelling. Buzz ended up soloing the pitch, belaying Peter on his climb up, and then using said cord to rappel on the way back.  This semi-casual fact-finding mission took them 18h15min–just short of Chris Reveley’s then FKT of 17h48min using the longer, more traditional Elkhart TH start. (Short note on Reveley: this is an inspiring man of the mountains. He established the first ascent of the now uber-classic “Casual Route” on Longs Peak’s Diamond, used to hold the speed record for running Longs Peak, and won the Pikes Peak Marathon in 1979 in 3:39 with a blazing 1:18 descent. Just knowing that he thought Gannet a worthy enough peak to run in a day gave me motivation to go check it out for myself.)

In 2009, Peter went back alone–and because he’s not comfortable soloing 5.6 in the backcountry–he explored the Tourist Creek drainage just north of Wells Creek and established a notable FKT of 12h39min for a trip that most people do over at least three days (backpack in, summit day, backpack out).  He reported finding even more extensive boulder-hopping, but no necessary 5th Class climbing.

After Jared Campbell and Dakota Jones–both strong climbers and experienced backcountry travelers–were stymied by The Cleft in Wells Creek back in August due to route-finding errors and excessively high waterflow in the crux, the Tourist Creek route became the obvious choice for me.

The approach from GRL begins with ~11-12mi on the flat (really, despite running up-river, it gains only 200′ or so), buffed out Highline Trail. At my 7:20am departure the thermometer in the Roost still only read 28F, but skies were clear and the forecast was for an outstanding autumn day with highs approaching 80F, so I left the trailhead wearing shorts, shoes, BUFF, sunglasses, a 3oz jacket, and a light pair of gloves.  I carried with me only a camera (with a picture of the map on it–I didn’t want to repeat Jared and Dakota’s 15hr epic), 12 gels, and a 13oz bottle of water.  Correspondence with both Peter and Dakota had convinced me that I wouldn’t find crampons or an ice axe necessary for the negotiation of Minor Glacier, which fills the basin below Gannet’s west-facing walls.

Square Top Mountain as seen whilst running up the Green River Valley that morning.

My run up the Green River valley was extremely pleasant despite the frosty temps.  Only 30min in I scared up a pair of moose so dark they appeared almost black and nearly the entire way I enjoyed views of Square Top Mountain’s majestic granite walls to rival Yosemite (how it isn’t a legendary climbing locale is beyond me) and the Green River’s idyllic meandering and obviously glacially-influenced aquamarine hue.

At 1h28 I crossed the bridge to the west side of the river and I knew that soon after this I would be directly across from the mouth of the Tourist Creek drainage, my chosen route of ascent.  After a quick consultation of the map on my camera I ascertained I was at the beginning of Three Forks Park and it was time to go up.  I left the trail, found my way through a still-frozen, boggy meadow of high grass, waded the thigh-deep Green River and headed up into the trees.

Frosty meadow where I left the trail and crossed over to the mouth of the Tourist Creek drainage.

Almost immediately I was confronted with the boulder hopping that Peter had mentioned, and I gained elevation quickly, even coming across a cairn or two and the occasional footstep.  I actually really enjoy traveling across fields of boulder and talus, and the Tourist Creek drainage definitely gave me a hefty dose.  Moving efficiently on the surface of refrigerator-to-car-sized boulders was not unlike trying to solve a puzzle and a maze at the same time, physically demanding and mentally engaging.

The route I was planning on requires trending south to eventually get into the Wells Creek drainage, so when the valley forked up high, I stayed to the right and soon found myself striding along the western shoreline of a serene lake at the base of Mount Solitude.  The southern end of this lake is defined by the divide between the Tourist Creek and Wells Creek drainage, and the drop down to Scott Lake in the Wells Creek drainage is guarded by a short bit of maybe 3rd Class down-scrambling.  Followed by yet more talus/boulder-hopping, of course.  But this descent offers the first glimpse of Gannet’s summit, to the east.

View of Gannet (far left horizon) from the Tourist-Wells divide.

From there, it’s still a vertical kilometer to reach Gannet’s summit, and I got right to work, taking the most direct line I could climbing a mix of grass and talus to some fast, low-angle slabs on the southerly side of a long, skinny lake. From this lake there are still a couple of ridges–moraines really–before you reach the glacier proper, and they are best ascended by sticking to the biggest, most secure talus you can find.

Skinny lake with Gannet behind.

I’d been a bit apprehensive all day about my lack of traction once I reached the glacier proper, but a short inspection revealed a surface of crunchy, firnspiegel-type ice that offered surprising purchase in combination with the glacier’s relatively low angle.  It only took me a couple of minutes to get across it and to the base of the summit couloir, and if I’d really been in a pickle, I could’ve just stayed on the rocks to the left of the glacier, never needing to step on snow/ice.  Such are the conditions of a dry winter and hot summer, I suppose.

Minor Glacier and Gannet Peak. Ascent couloir to the left.

The final 1500′ of vertical of the route consists of a steep, scree- and talus-filled gully that looked slow and unappealing in its looseness.  I started up, picking my way on all fours, looking for the most stable blocks of rock until I could reach the more solid country rock on the climber’s-right side of the couloir, scrambling these mostly 4th Class slabs for ~1000′ to the mountain’s North Ridge, which I then scrambled to the summit proper, eschewing the snow field that exists right on top of the mountain.

Summit of Gannet.

View west down the Wells Creek drainage. Skinny Lake, Scott Lake, and The Cleft below.

It had taken me 4:45:39 to get to the top of the mountain from the GRL trailhead, and I spent the next 4min+ enjoying the view, signing the summit register (the first one I’ve signed all summer), and taking some pictures.  I left at exactly 4:50:00, descending the same way that I’d came, except on the way down I took the loose terrain directly in the couloir, instead of the steeper, more exposed slabs.

On my way back to the Tourist-Wells divide, I also opted to stay quite a bit higher above Scott Lake (to the north) and endure more talus/boulder-hopping in order to avoid losing and regaining unnecessary elevation.  The remainder of the journey back down Tourist Creek to the Green River was more of the same, except that I managed to lose a few minutes flailing around in the conifers and aspens at the bottom of the drainage, bushwhacking instead of finding the more clean, cairned line that I’d used to ascend that morning.

I jumped back onto the trail at 7:12 since I’d left the trailhead and was determined to run the basically flat trail back out faster than what I’d run it in that morning.  Thanks to some focused effort and a couple extra gels I was able to do just that, running this ~11mi stretch just under 11min faster than I had in the opposite direction.  I arrived back at the trailhead at 4:06pm for a total car-to-car time of 8:46:32.  Less than an hour later–after a wash in the river and some Jet Boiled dinner–I was back in the Roost and headed south back to Boulder.

Mountains like the Grand and Gannet provide a tangible pull and inspiration through their proud profiles (the Grand) and remote, wild settings (Gannet), and it is satisfying to have evolved my mindset and skillset in such a way that summits like theirs are now accessible to me in a light and fast manner.  While I certainly see myself returning to them many times in the future, I will also continue to search out even more inspiring lines on other mountains and in other ranges, hoping to see new things and learn more as a result.

Full Splits:
Lakeside Trail junction – 28:35
Green River bridge – 1:28:45
Left Highline trail – 1:44:50
Waded Green River – 1:47
Tourist-Wells Divide – 3:09
East end Scott Lake – 3:29
Minor Glacier – 4:06
Base of summit couloir/leave glacier – 4:14
Summit – 4:45:39
Left summit – 4:50
Base of couloir – 5:14
Tourist-Wells Divide – 6:06
Waded Green River – 7:10
Back on Highline trail – 7:12
Green River bridge – 7:24:35
Lakeside Trail junction – 8:23
GRL Trailhead – 8:46:32