Wind River High Route

The Wind River High Route is possibly one of the best backpacking routes in the world. It runs along the spine of the Wind River Range in northern Wyoming, probably the most wild and remote range in the Lower 48, is modeled after the famed Sierra High Route, and thus is mostly off-trail and above timberline.  I put together the great team of Andrew Skurka and Peter Bakwin, and July 29-Aug 3 we gave it a go. It still has never been done … Alpine Pass

Flowers

CONCEPTION

Someone has to think of these things don’t they?

Andrew and I did the Sierra High Route in 2008 (also here), and Peter and Flyin’ Brian (Robinson) did it last year. Guidebook author Steve Roper’s concept for the SHR was iconic and excellent: “Go high and stay as high as possible without any technical climbing”. The Continental Divide Trail is a relatively popular route thru the Wind River Range, but it parallels the crest down mostly in the trees – the Winds are a great mountain range – they needed a High Route also.

In 2006 I did the Wind River “Northern Loop”, exploring the high country on the northern end, 2008 was the “Southern Loop”, back in 2004 Peter and I pioneered the west side routes up Gannet Peak, the highest in Wyoming (and the route now used for all FKT attempts), and last year I did a “Middle Loop”, which proved a full North – South traverse following close to the high crest of the Winds was possible.

Independently, Andrew Skurka had been hiking and guiding this range for many years, and had been considering the exact same project. So we joined forces and the addition of Peter made a great team.

AS BB

THE ROUTE

The WRHR goes either direction; we chose South to North because the car shuttle was easier. This route dials into focus stunningly well:

Day One (for us) started in Sinks Canyon out of Lander, immediately climbing Wind River Peak, the southernmost 13’er in the range. After a long and loose 3rd class descent, we cruised North thru beautiful alpine basins finally going over Jackass Pass into the fabled Cirque of the Towers.

West Gully, Wind River Peak

West Gully, Wind River Peak

Day Two we crossed the Divide again to the west side, heading North thru remote country with many lakes; the season was early and the ground was like a wet sponge.

Lonesome Lake, Cirque of the Towers

Lonesome Lake, Cirque of the Towers

Day Three started by climbing Europe Peak, a beautiful summit on the Divide that almost exactly marks the halfway point. The route then enters even higher country, crossing numerous high passes and glaciers, with a camp in famous Titcomb Basin. At 70 miles done out of about 105 total, we were way ahead of schedule.

Middle Titcomb Lake

Middle Titcomb Lake

Day Four was supposed to go over Bonney Pass, the standard climbers approach for Gannet Peak, but we didn’t do that.  See below.

Day Five was intended to climb back up on the Divide, traverse the crest for miles, ending with Down’s Mountain, the northernmost 13er in the Range, then down to the TH at Trail Lakes.  We didn’t do that either – once off, the Winds are so technical one cannot get back on route.

The WRHR described here thus traverses the entire Range, never goes really low, is perfectly bookended by the southern and northern-most 13’ers, and passes thru two of the most famous alpine cirques in the country. I love it.  Too bad we didn’t do it.

AS Cornice

ALT FINISH

After much teeth-gnashing discussion, we decided Bonney Pass was too difficult to safely ascend without crampons, which we hadn’t brought.

The snow was frozen very hard, our skimpy running shoes were making no impression on it, the Pass narrowed at the top to a fairly steep snow chute with few options to move onto adjoining rock (see photo), any slip would have resulted in a very quick trip to the bottom, and we were too impatient to wait a few hours for the snow to soften up. So we went around this Pass, taking an interesting, much longer, mostly on-trail route around the entire northern end of the Range to finish at Trail Lakes at the end of Day 5, after a solid 110 miles.

The Alt Finish (part of my earlier Northern Loop) is actually a creative and very nice route, but mostly it gave us plenty of time to second-guess our decision to skip Bonney Pass. Maybe I’ll write a 500 page blog post on this topic later.

Bonney Pass is the snow chute in upper right

Bonney Pass is the snow chute in upper right

WHAT WORKED

My partners are fabulousAndrew is young, strong, smart, a professional guide (and possibly the only professional hiker in the world :-), and all that shows up on a project. His website has the best information on Ultralight Hiking anywhere, and his guided trips are to be recommended. Peter Bakwin has been my partner from Aconcagua to the JMT, and he remains the most remarkable combination of fitness and technique combined with relaxed presence I have ever seen.

AS PB

The Fastpack 30 – I’m REALLY happy with how our new Fastpack series is turning out. The rolltop closure on the large main compartment is quick, easy, waterproof, and can’t break (all unlike a zipper), there’s beaucoup exterior storage in stretch mesh pockets, and the vest design is as stable and comfortable as it is on the Signature Series. (The Fastpack 20 just hit the market yesterday, while the 30 isn’t coming until January – but product testing is going well)!

BB Flowers

Our training – We were all ready to go, were consistently ahead of schedule, with no significant screwups, accidents, navigation errors, or bonks. We do not feel the mountains are the place for an epic, not the place for a sensational story resulting from inexperience or poor judgement; we feel they are a place to respect, to blend into, and to learn from and become better outdoorsmen.

The Route – This is a great route. It’s hard, but consistently doable. One will definitely experience the Wind River Range.

WRHR

WHAT DIDN’T

We should have brought Kahtoola’s – Andrew asked about them during planning, I said we didn’t need them, so this was 100% my fault. We did have poles, which should be considered a prerequisite.

I needed beefier shoes – I am (or was) nimble with good technique so have always used light footwear, but continuous water, snow, and loose rock worked my feet.

Mozzies – Need to wear lightweight, light-colored, and breathable clothes to protect from bugs, sun, and wind.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

All three of us noted that mile for mile, the WRHR is harder than the SHR. The Sierra’s are  … “Nice”.  The Winds are … “Halfway to Alaska”.

YOUR COMMENTS WELCOME!

Have you ever been to the Winds? Thinking of it?  Looking for a multi-day project?  Let’s hear about it.

 

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15 thoughts on “Wind River High Route

  1. This is a great route for sure – remote, rugged, mostly off trail (except for the beginning and end). My thought on Bonney Pass is that really it’s not a hiker route. Some parties may do it that way under the right conditions, but in general this is a mountaineering route requiring at least a minimum of mountaineering gear and experience. The final, best WRHR will need to use a different route that at once stays has high as possible while being a true hiker route. Also, the WRHR is a route, and as such not any one particular line – many variations are possible throughout.

    I wish to express my personal thanks to Dr. Jeremy Rogers, whose expert work and advice enabled me to do this trip despite and injury that cropped up less than 2 weeks before. Dr. Rogers made overnight (literally!) mods to my shoes that were vital to my participation. Thanks!

    Finally, I think people will love the new Fastpacks. I’ve used both the 20 and 30 L models extensively – the design is simple, logical and just phenomenal!

    • I concur with your comments regarding Dr. Jeremy Rodgers. I used to live in Mead, CO and Jeremy was my “go to” person for all injuries and quirks that arose from my adventures. I live in Fruita now and still consider Jeremy the best Dr. I have seen.

  2. Hey Buzz, great writeup. The WRHR it is indeed a world class route. We are so fortunate that we have such easy access to it. I cut my teeth backpacking and climbing in the sierras, and I have a great affection for them, but have to admit that the Winds are wilder, with more beauty and adventure in ’em :-) Agree that “you are about half-way to Alaska.” -a

  3. Looks like a lot of fun terrain! Will y’all be going for it again before the snow flies? Also, is the gps track shown on the map above available for download? I’d love to check it out in google earth.

    • Andrew is the “keeper of the route”; please contact him via his website. There is talk about getting back up there this month but nothing is definite – Subscribe to this blog for updates!

  4. Oh wow…that sounds like a fantastic trip, successful or not!!! I am dying to do the Sierra High Route one of these years. I’ll be calling for advice and guidance!

  5. Another stunning feat. You made the right call, Buzz, and thanks for pioneering yet another route

  6. Thanks again for introducing me to a very small part of the northern WRHR in 2011. Glad to hear that you’re getting back there to give it a go.

  7. From my very limited experience with the Winds, this looks like a wonderful route. Good idea putting both trailheads on the same side of the range (unlike the SHR), so car-shuttles and/or hitch-hiking are feasible. Doing it during the Winds’ mosquito-infested-alpine-bog season was a strange choice, though — early September would probably be much nicer.

    P.S. Kahtoolas have spared me from wearing boots on all kinds of snow and flatter glaciers. Highly recommended.

    • Thank you for noticing our logistical positioning of the Start/Finish – the SHR is a major production! And unlike the west side TH’s, Trail Lakes and Sinks Canyon allow one to start/finish at the range’s two high points, thus the route traverses the majority of the Range. (The “Wind River Traverse” would start at Union Pass and finish at South Pass, which would be monumental, a difficult shuttle, and include lower terrain).

      I fully agree re timing! Ours was not based on optimal conditions but on fitting it into the rest of our lives – I manage the Ultimate Direction booth at the Outdoor Retailer Show, Peter does an annual 10-day meditation retreat, and Andrew guides professionally.

      Yes, I helped test the prototype Microspikes, swear by everything Kahtoola, have worn them from Aconcagua to the Alps, so I have zero excuse for forgetting them!

  8. Andrew Skurka and I are going back Aug 22; we will certainly bring Microspikes but not crampons. This is a high-snow year; it is just now drying out; conditions should be excellent. Enjoy!

    • Update: Weather totally shut down the Wind River High Route early this year! Snow line was at 9,000′ on 8/22 and unseasonable weather continued well into September. Next year.

  9. Thanks for an informative story. I have been curious about the Wind River range for years. I think it is doubly important to learn from the decision making process you all used. It may have made a “sexier” media friendly story to have gone up Bonney Pass without the essential gear and “struggle against the impossible” but wisdom prevailed.

  10. Awesome write up.. great insight Buzz as to how trips can go. I’ve been to the winds once years ago, but obviously not to this degree…amazing place for sure. Thanks for sharing the pics for perspective!

    Best

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