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Eight UW Students to Test Themselves in Gannett Peak Excursion Course

July 27, 2018
people climbing a snowy mountainside
Students in Mark Jenkins’ “Gannett Expedition” summer course climb one of the couloirs in the Snowy Range to prepare for their summit climb of Gannett Peak beginning this weekend. (Mark Jenkins Photo)

In most college classes, it’s up to the individual student to decide how hard he or she wants to work to obtain a desired grade. When you climb Gannett Peak, it’s a whole different ballgame.

“In almost every other class at UW, it doesn’t really affect you personally if your fellow classmate is doing well or performing poorly -- she could get an ‘F’ in the course, and you could still get an ‘A.’ In mountaineering, you’re only as good, and as safe, as the person you’re tied to,” says Mark Jenkins, University of Wyoming writer-in-residence, adventurer and course instructor. “Each student is dependent on all the others to have the necessary skills to catch a fall or stop a slide. There are mortal consequences for even small mistakes.”

Starting tomorrow (July 28), Jenkins leads eight students in the culmination of a six-credit summer course, where ascending Wyoming’s highest point -- the 13,809-foot Gannett Peak in the Wind River Range -- will serve as the final exam. This is the second summer he has offered the “Gannett Expedition” course.

“The team has trained now for two months, practicing snow-climbing techniques, running stairs and humping heavy packs uphill. So, they’re physically and technically ready to climb Gannett, but nothing is guaranteed in mountaineering,” says Jenkins, a renowned mountaineer, UW graduate and field staff writer for National Geographic. “Last year, we were just down from the summit when it started snowing hard. There are so many variables -- snow conditions, precipitation, wind, cold and altitude. You always need a little luck to summit.”

To prepare, students spent 40 hours in class learning geomorphology, glaciology, alpine ecosystems, and map and compass. Students spent close to another 40 hours in the field, learning to climb rock and snow. This is technical mountaineering training with ropes, rock shoes, ice axes and crampons. Then, the students had two months of physical training where they ran hills or stairs at least three times a week throughout the summer.

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, the group must traverse the glacier and use ice axes, crampons and other gear to reach the summit.

Last year, the group climbed Gannett Peak from the east side, coming in from Dubois. This year, the group will attempt the mountain from the west side, entering from Green River Lakes. They hope to ascend either the north face or the west face, depending on conditions. Jenkins says this approach will be more difficult.

“From the east, there is a trail all the way to Dinwoody Glacier. From the west, we have almost 10 miles of rock hopping and boulder scrambling,” Jenkins explains. “The snow on the upper portion of the mountain also is steeper from the west and north.”

people climbing a snowy mountainside
Students look upward as they climb one of the couloirs in the Snowy Range as part of their training for Gannett Peak this weekend. (Mark Jenkins Photo)

The students participating, listed by majors and hometowns, are:

-- Brittney Buckler, a senior Spanish and elementary education major from Sheridan.

-- Ryan Burns, a senior geography major from Laramie.

Burns says this will be a good experience because he hopes to make a living “exploring Earth’s untrammeled places.”

-- Sarah Devine, a senior marketing major from Cheyenne.

“I took this class because it was a major personal growth opportunity and also a bucket list item of mine,” Devine says.

-- Kaley Holyfield, a senior business management major from Montrose, Colo.

“It’s not every day you get to learn from two experienced mountaineers, make great friends and climb the highest peak in Wyoming,” Holyfield says. “Signing up for this class was a no-brainer. What we’re learning this summer is invaluable. “

-- Nick King, a junior wildlife and fisheries biology and management major from Cheyenne.

“This class gave me an opportunity to do something I wouldn’t have normally tried,” he says.

-- Devan LaMere, a junior nursing major from Jackson.

“Why not get college credit to learn how to do something I’ve always wanted to do?” she says.

-- Joseph Bailey Moore, a computer science and environmental systems science major from Clifton Park, N.Y.

Moore says the class allows him to learn “the necessary skills” so he can experience “the freedom of the hills.”

-- Danny Stanley, a junior majoring in both biology, and environmental and natural resources from Wakanda, Ill.

For the second consecutive summer, the group will be accompanied by guide Bridget Belliveau, of Beartooth Mountain Guides, based in Red Lodge, Mont. But the students will pack and cook their own food, and haul their own camping and climbing gear.

The end goal is for students to be capable of planning and executing their own mountaineering trip, Jenkins says. He explains this knowledge can be broken down into four categories: academic, physical, technical and field.

“Academic covers basic geomorphology, glaciology and alpine ecosystems. Physical is essentially training your body to go uphill for long periods of time with a heavy pack,” Jenkins says. “Technical is learning how to belay, catch a fall, perform various crampon and ice axe techniques, and self-arrest. Field is to put it all together -- the weather, the snow conditions, the morale of the team, the strength of the team, the technical ability of the team, the number of hours of daylight, the aspect of the slope or wall, everything. In the field, the most important skill is knowing when to turn around.”

Conquering a summit is an experience Jenkins believes students will carry with them throughout their lives.

“There are so few real consequences for mistakes in everyday life. We are surrounded by a vast safety net,” he says. “In the mountains, you must recognize the consequences of your actions and learn to make difficult decisions under difficult circumstances. This ability transfers over to the most seminal moments in life.”

Those who complete the course successfully will receive four 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.

For more information, call Jenkins at (307) 760-4731 or email mark.jenkins@uwyo.edu.


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