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UW Student Team Reaches Summit of Wyoming’s Tallest Peak

August 17, 2017
people on a omountianside covered in snow with mountains in background
UW students approach the summit of Gannett Peak in west-central Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains early on the morning of Aug. 9. (Mark Jenkins Photo)

After growing up in the flatlands of eastern South Dakota, Jordan Jensen got his first taste of Wyoming’s high country by participating in an archaeology field school in the Cowboy State as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee-Martin.

Now pursuing a master’s degree in anthropology and environment/natural resources at the University of Wyoming, the student from Canton, S.D., took his Wyoming experience to the next level last week as a participant in UW’s inaugural expedition to the top of the state’s highest peak.

Led by famed mountaineer Mark Jenkins, UW’s writer-in-residence and international adventurer, Jensen and five other UW students reached the summit of Gannett Peak Wednesday, Aug. 9. It was the capstone of a five-credit summer course that Jenkins expects to make an annual adventure for students desiring to test themselves in Wyoming’s remote Wind River Mountains.

“The whole thing was a pretty incredible adventure, a cool experience,” Jensen says. “I have done a lot of backpacking, but this was my first trip with any kind of extensive snow or big climbing. I’m kind of hooked on it now.”

Seven students, Jenkins and guide Bridget Belliveau began the 25-mile hike to the base of the 13,809-foot mountain Aug. 6 and established their base camp on a snow field at an elevation of 11,200 feet Aug. 8. Then, Jenkins roused them from their tents at 3 a.m. Aug. 9, and they began the 2,600-foot climb to the summit at 4 a.m. to get ahead of customary afternoon storms.

All but one of the students made it to the top at about 7:45 a.m.; one had to stay at base camp due to a stomach ailment.

“Watching the sun come up while summiting was a super amazing experience,” says Jenny Berchenbriter, a senior psychology major from Casper. “We really lucked out with weather -- it was perfect timing.”

The group made it back to camp by noon, when it started raining and snowing, depositing 2 inches of the white stuff by morning. They headed out that morning, reaching the trailhead above Dubois Aug. 11 and then celebrating at the appropriately named Gannett Grill in Lander before returning to Laramie.

tents in a field of snow with mountains in the background
The UW team established its base camp on a snow field at an elevation of 11,200 feet. (Mark Jenkins Photo)

Jenkins says a number of other groups encountered during the trip were not able to make it to the summit, illustrating the difficulty of the expedition.

“It was a great trip. The students were so psyched that we made it, and they deserved to be -- they worked very hard,” he says. “The team jelled and worked together so well. I was very pleased, very impressed with the students.”

Jensen and Berchenbriter say the group bonded and worked extremely well together throughout the expedition.

“The team I was with was absolutely great. All of those people are fantastic, capable and competent,” Berchenbriter says. “We depended on each other for days. When you’re roped up with somebody on a glacier, you have to trust that person, and you don’t want to make a big mistake that would jeopardize the group. With fewer good people, it could have been a pretty rough trip.”

Both students say the experience will help them in their careers.

Jensen says he has a particular interest in studying high-altitude, prehistoric human occupation, and this expedition has made him more comfortable in such settings.

“Now I know what it’s like to be up there,” he says. “I can use this skill set to do some more interesting archaeology and work up higher than other people have.”

Berchenbriter, who would like to enter UW’s mental health counseling program after earning her bachelor’s degree next spring, says she foresees using the outdoors as a medium during her planned career as a counselor.

“This experience aligns with my counseling trajectory,” she says. “Also, it was just an awesome experience to just test myself physically and mentally -- to work to be in a good mood and a positive force in a group of people in a pretty difficult setting.”

Jenkins says the class was a success from many perspectives, not just the fact that the students reached the summit.

“Mountaineering is about learning how to make difficult decisions in dangerous places,” he says. “The team managed to gain a lot of knowledge in this area.”

Having Jenkins as the instructor was a particular treat, Berchenbriter says.

“Getting to do this with someone who is a legend in that field was just great,” she says. “I really encourage students to look into doing it next year. You’ll never get another opportunity to climb with Mark Jenkins. You’re in a different element when you get to hang with somebody like that.”

Other students who participated are Elizabeth Bentley, psychology and sociology major from Laramie; Andrew Flaim, geology major from Cheyenne; Austin Jensen, geography major from Tie Siding; Marshall McFarland, finance major from Laramie; and Cedar Wiseman, mathematics major from Cheyenne.


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