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UW’s Jenkins Leads Gannett Peak Student Excursion

August 7, 2017
four people climbing up a mountainside covered in snow
Students in a course led by UW writer-in-residence and adventurer Mark Jenkins practice climbing techniques at a couloir near Medicine Bow Peak earlier this year. The group has begun a weeklong capstone excursion to the top of Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s tallest mountain. (Mark Jenkins Photo)

Since joining the University of Wyoming as a writer-in-residence in 2008, Mark Jenkins has brought the world to Wyoming by lecturing around the state about his expeditions to off-the-beaten-path locations in Nepal, Cambodia, Congo, Burma, Vietnam and Central Asia.

This week, Jenkins takes a group of UW students to Wyoming’s highest point, remote Gannett Peak, for their own firsthand adventure.

As part of a five-credit summer course instructed by Jenkins, the seven students are taking part in a weeklong excursion to the top of the 13,809-foot mountain in the Wind River Range. They began the 25-mile hike to the base of Gannett Peak Sunday, planning to walk about 10 miles, and they’re scheduled to cover about the same distance today.

If all goes as planned -- and that’s no guarantee, considering forecasts for snow on the peak this week -- the group expects to reach the summit Wednesday or Thursday.

“When the university asked me to teach a class, I said I could do it -- but not in a classroom,” says Jenkins, a renowned mountaineer, UW graduate and field staff writer for National Geographic. “As a field person, I took a look and decided to teach something that’s not taught at anywhere else, because there’s no place like this in all of the United States.”

Because of its distance from a trailhead, Gannett Peak is the most remote of all of the 50 states’ high points -- even more than Alaska’s Denali, the tallest U.S. peak at 20,310 feet above sea level. In addition to the lengthy hike carrying 50-pound packs on the Glacier Trail that begins near Trail Lake above Dubois, the group must traverse the Gannett and Gooseneck glaciers and employ ice axes, crampons and other gear to reach the summit.

The students are:

-- Elizabeth Bentley, psychology and sociology major from Laramie.

-- Jenny Berchenbriter, psychology major from Casper.

-- Andrew Flaim, geology major from Cheyenne.

-- Austin Jensen, geography major from Tie Siding.

-- Jordan Jensen, graduate student in anthropology and environment/natural resources from Canton, S.D.

-- Marshall McFarland, finance major from Laramie.

-- Cedar Wiseman, mathematics major from Cheyenne.

In addition to Jenkins, the group will be accompanied by guide Bridget Belliveau of Beartooth Mountain Guides in Red Lodge, Mont. But, the students will pack and cook their own food, and haul their own camping and climbing gear.

The goal of the course is for students to develop the skills, knowledge and competency to camp and travel safely and swiftly in snowy, mountainous terrain, entirely self-supported.

“This is a good team, a vetted team,” says Jenkins, noting that some students who originally signed up for the course were unable to complete it. “This group understands the reality of mountaineering and is ready for it.”

The course began in April, with six days of intensive training -- including cartography, alpine ecology, glaciology and geomorphology. Other classroom instruction topics included the history of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

The group practiced climbing and orienteering techniques at Vedauwoo and in the Snowy Range, and some members have done some climbing on their own on Colorado’s 14,000-plus-foot peaks this summer.

For the past 10 weeks, with oversight from Associate Professor Derek Smith in the Division of Kinesiology and Health, the students have taken part in rigorous individual physical training. That has included running stairs and hills carrying packs.

During the excursion, the students are keeping journals -- because of the remote location, of course, there’s no way to provide online or digital updates of their progress. After they return, they’re required to each give a 10-minute presentation that describes what they got out of the course.

Those who complete it successfully will receive three credits from the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR 4890/5890: Gannett Expedition) and two credits from the Division of Kinesiology and Health (KIN 4074/5587: Independent Fitness Training). The UW Outdoor Program also has contributed to the effort.

Jenkins -- who has climbed Mount Everest, Denali and many other of the world’s tallest peaks -- says there is something special about taking a group of UW students to one of Wyoming’s natural wonders.

“This is something in my own state that’s special, and these are students from Wyoming who are prepared,” Jenkins says. “We can do it together, even though it looks like the weather will make things real challenging.”

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