By Dr. Jim Dahle, WCI Founder
In life, the greatest rewards often go to those who are willing to do what others are not.
Here's a good example of what I'm talking about.
A Trip to the Top of Wyoming
When asked to name the highest peak in Wyoming, most people will point to the Grand Teton. While a glorious peak in its own right and well worth the dozens of ascents it sees all summer, it sits 34 feet below the true summit of Wyoming, located on a non-descript peak in the Northern Wind River range called Gannett Peak. While millions of people gawk at the Grand Teton each year, Gannett Peak is not visible from any road. It is guarded by miles of wilderness and rugged peaks on every side.
While the Grand Teton is routinely climbed in a day (including by me several times), a car-to-car ascent of Gannett Peak has only been completed in less than 24 hours by seven people on the planet. Most people spend 4-5 days. So, when I was asked by WCI social media guru and high pointer Michelle Baker to accompany her on a trip to Gannett in pursuit of her goal to climb to the highest points in all 50 states, I informed her I wasn't sure I wanted to do that slog. However, she is nothing if not persistent.
After convincing the always adventurous Dr. Feinauer to accompany us, we embarked from the trailhead on a late morning in August. We were gobsmacked at how many people were there. The parking lot was almost completely full. There was a nearly constant stream of people going the other way on the trail. While we were already nearly at 10,000 feet, the trail was flat and wide and comfortable. Unfortunately, Michelle's borrowed mountaineering boots disintegrated under her feet just over two miles from the trailhead. We taped the soles back on as best we could, but knowing what was ahead, we had no choice but to turn back and consider alternatives. We got back to the parking lot, drove an hour and a half to Jackson Hole, bought new boots, and returned to the trailhead, beginning the trip for real at 6pm on Day 1. We only made six miles before darkness fell. That meant we had to do most of the approach the next day.
As the miles ticked by, we started seeing fewer and fewer people, despite the fact that the scenery was getting better and better. In fact, you could see little besides pine trees for the first 10 miles from the road. Beyond that, we were greeted by ever more impressive vistas of glorious granite peaks and alpine lakes. For the last five miles of our 18-mile approach, we saw no one at all. We had the entire Titcomb Basin to ourselves. We made our high camp just above the highest of the gorgeous blue lakes surrounded by 13,000+ foot peaks.
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Getting Started Early
We awoke at 4am for the classic Alpine Start. Mountaineers start climbing before dawn for several very good reasons. First, their objective often requires more than the 12-14 hours of daylight in a typical day, and the very definition of an “epic” is having to use your headlamp on both ends of the day. Second, snow is firmer in the morning hours before the sun hits it, enabling easier travel. Finally, afternoons are typically when nasty storms roll into the mountains.
Unfortunately, it seemed entirely too warm at 4am, suggesting a possible low-pressure weather environment. I could only see stars in part of the sky, too, so I punched up a weather update via the inReach satellite device. Sure enough, it said 0% chance of rain until 1pm when it went to 10%. Still plenty good for our plans. We left camp a few minutes later, now with all the stars obscured and navigating on the now trail-less terrain by headlamp and GPS. Within a half hour, it had begun to rain, then hail, and finally to snow. We put on our shells and began climbing up the first obstacle of the day—Bonney Pass, 2,100 vertical feet above us. This 12,800-foot pass is described by the guidebook author as “debris covered.” Think bowling ball-size rocks stacked on top of each other and now soaking wet and/or covered with snow and hail. It was pitch black, storming hard, and lightning was actually striking the peaks near the top of the pass.
We were still more than an hour from dawn. While now quite skeptical of the accuracy of the forecast, we elected to continue climbing until dawn to see if the weather would break. We knew if we turned around or even stopped to wait, we would not have enough daylight to complete our quest and make it back to the safety of the tent. We didn't have enough food (or time) for another summit attempt the next day.
Thankfully, as dawn broke, the rain slowed and then stopped. On the third day of our journey, we crested the pass to finally catch a glimpse of Gannett Peak. The only problem? We had to descend the other side of this “debris-covered” pass; cross the crevasse-filled Dinwoody glacier; climb snow, ice, and rock to ascend Gannett Peak via the Gooseneck Glacier, the Gooseneck Ridge, and then the South Ridge; and then do it all in reverse back to camp. While Gannett Peak sat “only” 3,100 vertical feet above our camp, we had to do nearly 6,000 vertical feet, almost all above 11,000 feet in elevation, to complete the task.
Needless to say, we were the only ones on the peak that morning. By mid-morning, we were facing the crux of the climb, a couple of hundred feet of pure ice sitting above the open bergschrund, the highest crevasse on a glacier where it pulls away from the mountain.
We expected steep snow, and we had brought two-foot-long aluminum stakes called snow pickets to drive into it to protect against a fall into the crevasse. However, those could not be driven into the ice, so I was forced to do most of the crux pitch without any protection at all until I found that I could pound the pickets into the space between the rock and the side of the glacier. Thankfully, we did not have to find out if they would actually hold a fall, but based on how much trouble Michelle had getting them out, they probably would have. The climbing was not actually that hard for anyone who has actually climbed ice before, but since today was the first day that Christian and Michelle had actually worn crampons (the spikes on your feet), they were very happy to have a belay rope!
Nearly seven hours after leaving camp, we had traveled over rubble, rock, glacier, snow, and ice and reached the summit of Wyoming at 13,804 feet.
After a few minutes of picture-taking, we began our descent. However, before I had left the summit ridge, I discovered that the sole of one of my boots was also peeling off, just like Michelle's. Ironically, both sets of boots were purchased 19 years ago in Jackson Hole after a trip in the Wind Rivers that was aborted due to melted mountaineering boots. Apparently, these things have a shelf life that is shorter than two decades, even with little use and ideal storage conditions. I hoped we had enough tape to keep it semi-attached for the next 27 miles back to the trailhead.
We descended the South Ridge, then the Gooseneck Ridge, and rappelled past the crux pitch. Reversing the rest of our route, encountering only a few sprinkles descending from Bonney Pass, we arrived at our camp just over 12 hours after leaving. Unfortunately, we only had one day left on our trip and none of us thought we could do 18 miles the next day while carrying 40-50 pound packs. After a short rest, we packed up our camp and hiked until dark, covering about five more miles.
The next day was fairly miserable given our aching feet, legs, and backs from our exertions of the previous day. The closer we got to the trailhead, the more people we encountered. We found it amazing to pass dozens of people after spending the prior day all by ourselves. Clearly, the vast majority of people who left that trailhead never received the opportunity to understand what French writer Rene Damaul was talking about:
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.”
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Do What Others Will Not
Why do I share that silly story from one of my latest vacations? Mostly because sometimes it's boring to just write about 401(k)s, HSAs, tax deductions, FIRE, and passive income. However, there are a lot of life lessons in climbing. The best one from this trip is that only a select few people will actually do what it takes to be successful. The more you are willing to do what others will not, the greater your rewards will be.
While there are exceptions to every rule, generally speaking, those careers that require the most risk, the most unpleasantness, and the most education and training pay the best. If one could make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year sitting on your duff and doing a mindless task, lots of people would do it. But life just doesn't work that way. If you want to make the big bucks, you have to live on an offshore oil rig in miserable conditions away from your family for half the year, you have to inspect used septic tanks, you have to spend a decade-plus learning your craft, or you have to constantly work under threat of lawsuit or bodily harm. Or perhaps multiple of the above.
Most people have no interest in financial literacy. If you are willing to do what most are not—learning the basics of personal finance, investing, and the tax code—there will be ample reward for your efforts.
Most people have little financial discipline. Everybody says they want to be a millionaire. But what they really want is to spend a million dollars. What they don't realize is that is the exact opposite of being a millionaire. You become a millionaire by NOT spending a million dollars that you could have spent. Exercise even a little financial discipline, and over time, it can add up to great sums. Most people won't save 10% of their income. If you will save 20% of your income, you'll retire very comfortably. If you save 30% or more, you'll find yourself financially independent before your kids even leave the house.
Most people don't like taking risks. They are afraid to negotiate a higher salary. They are afraid to take a new job in a new city. They are afraid of even a reasonable amount of leverage risk. They are afraid to open their own practice. They are afraid to embark upon an entrepreneurial pursuit. They are like the people who never made it more than 10 or 12 miles from the trailhead. They thought they went on a beautiful hike. They got to see a few nice views. But they have no idea what they could have seen had they pressed a little farther into the unknown.
My challenge to you today is to go a little farther from the trailhead. Yes, it'll be hard. Yes, something bad might happen to you. Perhaps you'll get rained on. Perhaps your shoes will fall apart. You'll get cold, tired, and probably even a little miserable at times. Develop a tolerance for suffering. When you come out the other side of this experience, you will understand why most people did not go.
But you will also enjoy the rewards of your journey. Bruises heal. Shoes can be replaced. Gear dries. And not only does muscle soreness fade, but those muscles grow back stronger than ever.
What do you think? What have you done in your life that most were not willing to do? How were you rewarded? Comment below!