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Reaching for new heights

Andrew Pfeffer, of Saugus, and daughter Katie find adventure in mosquitoes, challenging terrain

Posted: August 27, 2009 9:39 p.m.
Updated: August 28, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Pfeffer throws his arms up in triumph after making it to the summit of Gannett Peak during the adventure. Upon reflection, Pfeffer called the trip "the best week ever" and appreciated the quality time spent with his daughter, as well as making it through difficult weather and terrain.

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Editor's note: Andrew Pfeffer, of Saugus, and his daughter Katie Pfeffer, 19, embarked on a journey of discovery and to conquer new heights to Gannet Peak in Wyoming during the last week of July. The following is Andrew Pfeffer's account of their experience.

July 25-28: the hike
Below is fact and not fiction, not exaggeration or hyperbole, and has created the most incredible and proudest moment of my life.

My 19-year-old daughter Katie and I started hiking into the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming towards Gannett Peak - the tallest mountain in the state. Gannett Peak is two hours south of the Grand Tetons. The Grand Teton is the second highest mountain in Wyoming, but has a short approach to high camp.

These mountains are known for having the longest approaches of any climbed mountains in the United States - and boy, oh boy, did we find that out. I remember when I climbed Mt. Hood in Washington state, I pulled into the parking lot, and boom, the mountain was right in front of me.

When we climbed in the Sierras, we'd hike for a day, be there and head up, but this was different, this was so very deep into the wilderness.

On Saturday, July 25 we awoke at 5 a.m. and started making our way to meet our climbing partner and guide Steve Quinlan. We finally headed out onto the trail at 9 a.m.

At that point, those first 13 miles were the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, and it was only the first day. Our summit packs had 20 pounds versus the 60-pound packs we were having cached to be picked up on the way, and we acclimated to the altitude as we hiked. Thank goodness for the "outfitters" hauling our heavy stuff the first day.

It was the hardest hike ever, uphill for the first 5 miles, then up, down, over, up, down, over, deeper and deeper into the wilderness for the next 8 miles gaining and losing elevation until we settled in at around 10,500 feet.

We arrived around 6 p.m. after the first 13 miles and a big river crossing (there must've been 20 crossings the first day) and set up Camp 1.

Over the course of the next three days, we progressed deeper and deeper into the wilderness, and higher and higher in elevation, working our way to Camp 2 the next day, and then another day of hiking to Camp 3 within a mile of the base of what is called Bonney or Dinwoody Pass.

Finally, by the time we reached Camp 3, we were away from the mosquitoes which had followed us up to this point (about 11,300 feet and about 22 miles into the back country).

Each day brought more storms, hail, lightning and thrills for me. I absolutely love the Alpine experience and I enjoyed watching the storms roll in. I enjoyed sitting in the hail and snow - it was beautiful and I only entered the tent to sleep.

July 28: my birthday
I woke up early, hiked back from Camp 2 to Camp 1, because I couldn't find my journal. After an unsuccessful search, I hiked back up to Camp 2, only to find my journal hidden in a really funky spot in my backpack.

There's nothing like an extra 3- to 4- mile hike in the morning to get the blood pumping, We hung out for hours waiting for the thunderstorms to stop. We packed up camp once, then the storm came again, and the three us ducked into the tent and hung out and rested. Then packed up again and hiked up to the top of what is called Titcomb Basin and set up Camp 3.

This was my kind of birthday.

July 29: the climb
On the morning of July 29 (now a day into turning 52 years old,) I awoke at 2 a.m., got my climbing gear together and went to wake up our guide. Quinlan has guided for more than 20 years and has done so in Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Asia. He has climbed The Nose at El Capitan (tough route up the tallest monolith located in Yosemite), Half Dome in Yosemite in a lightning storm, Aconcagua (a pig of a walk up in South America at 22,000 feet), and the two of us warmed up tea and oatmeal.

Katie slept.

Katie decided she had had enough of the pain and enough of the snow. When she looked up from Camp 3 she saw the depth of the snow, the length of the hike and the vertical snow walls - as well as what we were trying to do - she felt it was too scary and didn't want to go up there - and then turn around.

Quinlan and I put on our crampons and started trekking. It is difficult to describe the experience in words - the intensity and exhilaration doesn't come through - but I'm going to try.

We started by hiking through snow under headlights heading towards the base of Bonney Pass. After about 30 minutes, we reached a wall of snow. We started climbing an 80-degree angle wall of snow at 3:30 a.m. When we got to the top (two hours of uphill climbing), we were treated to a wild scene of glaciers, crevasses and snow everywhere.

The immensity of it all was astounding, yet I still couldn't see Gannett Peak! We were surrounded by numerous granite peaks, valleys, and glaciers. It was incredible, but here I was four days and 22 miles, and the mountain I was trying to climb was still not in sight.

It was more than 2 miles away - in addition to a few thousand vertical feet.

The sky was turning foggy, we could see weather coming in. Quinlan turned to me and said, "When we see electricity is when we turn around."

What I thought at that moment: "Good thing Katie didn't come this far, she would've turned around."

We down climbed and plunge-stepped for what seemed like forever (oh the heel pain, bone spurs were killing me) from Bonney Pass to the glacier. After we crossed the glacier, we stopped and filtered water - delicious glacial runoff - into our bottles.

Somewhere on the way down Bonney Pass I realized that in 12 hours I'd have to re-climb this mountain pass - exhausted, I didn't allow myself to think about it for very long. Onward and upward.

We then followed a ridge for about 40 minutes and far in the distance we saw a large group of climbers making their way up the Gooseneck Colouir. The Gooseneck is the normal approach to the Summit Ridge of Gannett Peak.

Quinlan and I both saw the group and decided we didn't want to get caught in a bottle neck. Nor did either one of us want to take the standard route. Instead, we roped up to climb an unclimbed colouir (it was a wall of snow between two sheets of rock about 30-feet wide and straight up). The snow was deep and there were no steps cut in - every step took concentration and effort. It was what I've dreamed and read about. It was eerily quiet, as we were both conscious of any falling rock, avalanche, the storm, and our own breathing. When we topped out at the rocks, we were met by about 20 more minutes of rock scrambling. I hate climbing on rocks with wet mountaineering boots (weighing 5 pounds each when dry) and with crampons on. It's hard and you better not fall.

Then we reached the summit ridge, roped up again and it was wild. A knife edged ridge with a steep drop off to the right (fall down and you'll slide off the mountain unless your rope partner can self arrest in 2-3 seconds) and on the left was rock with literally nowhere to go but thin air. The snow was coming down, and we only had 30-50 feet of visibility. We climbed the ridge for about an hour concentrating heavily on each step, and on the rope between us.

Finally, there we were - the summit of Gannett Peak - the tallest mountain in Wyoming and 24 miles deep into the wilderness.

There was no view, too much snow, fog, and cloud cover everywhere and the wind was blowing. We took some pictures, made the summit phone call home, and after about 30 minutes started heading down. This is when the "fun" really started.

It's true what they say, "when you summit, you're only half way."

Down the mountain
The next six hours, were the most life changing, terrifying, yet exciting moments of my life. Down climbing is hard and very scary. Between the rocks, the crevasses, the storm, the lack of water - I was in heaven and hell at the same time. I had no water left, so I took my water bottle and stuffed it with snow, jammed it into my jacket and hoped it would melt.

We picked a route down, staying roped on the verticals and the summit ridge, hit a gradual field where we could glissade (slide on our backsides using our ice axes as rudders and brakes) and then leveled out for a minute or two. We crossed one of the glaciers to the base of a bergschrund and trudged towards the big glacier across the valley between the peaks.

When we started crossing back over the glacier to head up the wall to Bonney Pass, the storm really let loose.

Here I am in the middle of granite peaks, walking on an ice field that must be a mile wide and totally exposed - the lightning with thunder so loud I thought it was an inch away. I'd let go of the ice axe, only then realized, the thunder claps after the lightning, duh! The snow was blowing, the hail was coming down, and I scraped the top of the snow so I can get some moisture. My water bottle never did melt the snow, and both Quinlan and I were out of water.

As we started the climb up the wall of Bonney Pass with the thunder so loud, and the snow falling so fast, that Quinlan's kicked steps filled up.

He's moving at a much faster pace than I, so while I'm grateful for the steps he's providing, I need to watch the ground carefully.

I have to confess more than once while climbing up this vertical wall, I wanted to just lie down and sleep. I would take 10 steps at a time, stop for 10 seconds to catch my breath, scoop up some snow, and then start again. I'd already been climbing for more than 12 hours and was exhausted at this point.

At first, I'd look up ahead to see where Quinlan was, but it got depressing to look up and see not only how far ahead he was, but how much more vertical wall I had to climb. Instead, I kept my head down and tried to think of thoughts other than how hard this was, how cold it was, how the weather was getting worse, and therefore I only glanced up occasionally.

It was so hard it's almost impossible to describe, but I do have the most amazing feeling of pride for having accomplished this.

We finally made it to the top of the pass. My heel was burning, the bottom of the same foot (surgery scheduled for Sept. 9) suffered a torn ligament and I was wearing these freakin' crampons. With the wet boots, clothes, lack of water and the crampons on my boots, it felt like a lot to overcome.

My crampons had also ripped the bottom of my pants, (results of lazy tired feet) and now they've filled up with snow between the lining and the waterproofing, and it made me wetter and colder and heavier with each step.

I was totally wet, my fingers were cold from being wet and holding the ice axe. It turned out I had both my liner and glove on left hand, but on my right hand was only the liner. It was so wicked out there I never stopped to put on my outer glove. Now my right hand was wrapped around my axe.

Quinlan helped me get the liner off and we found the glove in my pack. When I pulled off the glove liner four of my fingers were white from the second knuckle to the tips.

He helped me put the mountaineering glove on and off we went.

After about 20 minutes of down climbing, where I plunged my heels into the snow so I didn't fall, we finally reached a place where we could glissade down the slope.

We roped up again so we didn't lose control and proceed to slide - 35 minutes later I'm down at Camp 3 and crawling into the tent - everything I had on was soaked.

Back to the world
Katie said she had a fun day, she said the storm was so wicked on her side of the pass that she never left the tent except to use the bathroom and grab the hanging food bag.

She stayed dry, read, ate and napped, and was extremely happy she didn't attempt the mountain, and that we had made it back in one piece.

We hiked down to Camp 1 on Thursday.

I stayed up late by myself that night, made a fire and watched the storms, the stars, felt the hail, and enjoyed the time. And then Friday, we did the 13 mile trudge to the trailhead. Up and down, up and down - we went to dinner in Pinedale, and then drove the two hours to Jackson Hole.

After we reached Jackson Hole, Wyo., Katie and I were finally safe and clean. It felt so good to shower.

We spent Saturday in Jackson Hole, and adopted a 3-year-old Boxer/Queensland Heeler (cattle dog) named Bella and made all the arrangements to fly her home with us.

It was the best week ever.

One moment in particular stands out. When I returned to the tent after the climb, Katie asked me, "Hey, Dad, would you do it again?" I thought for a second and answered simply, "Not today."

This experience was so much more then just climbing a mountain. I spent eight days with my daughter and I learned so much about her. I have so much respect for her. The respect came from not only her physical courage and ability, but also from the discussions we had. I learned things that opened my eyes about my daughter.

It was very cool. Heck, eight days, 24/7 and we didn't have an argument until we landed at LAX.

Andrew Pfeffer is a resident of Saugus.

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