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Boulder, CO

A guide to the wilderness of the West.

Wind River High Route

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Wind River High Route

Derek Bartz

Trip Date: August 15-21, 2015
Location: Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wind River Indian Reservation, & Shoshone NF
Miles: 96
Vert: A lot???
Start/Finish: Bruce Bridge in Sinks Canyon / Trail Lake TH
Permit Required?: Free, self register
Season: Late July-Early September

First of all, I need to thank Andrew Skurka for sharing his mapset and datasheet with me; without these this trip would NOT have happened for us.  Skurka has created what is easily one of the best, and most challenging backpacking routes in the lower US.  He is the real deal and tackling one of his "smaller" projects increased our already strong respect for what he has accomplished over the years.  

Where do I go from here?  I have just recently finished up Andrew Skurka's Wind River High Route, and this was a constant question I repeatedly asked myself during the trip.  But what I really mean, is what is going to top this; I can't imagine a better backpacking trip.  The WRHR traverses one of my favorite places, the pristine, wild mountains in the middle of no where of the least populated state in the country.  The route is true to it's name, staying near the Continental Divide as much as possible, keeping you completely above 10,000' for nearly 90 miles.  And this is no Colorado 10,000'.  In the Winds, 10,000' seems to be the magical marker where all the good stuff happens.  Granite spires tower above from flat, green meadows(or rocky boulder fields) nestled against glacial blue lakes; a true mountain paradise.  The route was challenging both physically and mentally, more so the later; and 60 miles of off trail travel through every type of terrain from grassy slopes to unstable glacial moraines stand between Wind River Peak and Downs Mountain.  

The Wind River High Route is full of alpine lakes, towering peaks, and challenging terrain; such as Alpine Lakes Basin seen here.

And filled with views like this.

From the very first day the elements would control the progress of the trip.  With so much time spent above tree line, you are constantly aware that at any moment you may be forced to haul ass down to a sheltered location.  After cruising the first 14.5 miles up the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River it was finally time to leave the trail and head up Wind River Peak.  Clouds were building of course and at about 11,500' we heard thunder and were sent running back the way we came.  We dropped down to tree line and set up the tent convinced the first day was done.  An hour later I awoke from a nap to blue skies and asked Michele if we should go for it?  Reluctantly she agreed and we headed back up Wind River Peak around 4:30pm.  If I had only know 4 hours later we'd still be making our way down the West Gully in the fading light we may have waited for the morning.  The summit of Wind River is a fantastic "starting" point for the high route.  It truely is an inspiring place, with East Temple Peak & the Cirque front and center, and the rest of the range sprawled out in front of you.  Being up there in the low light of the afternoon didn't hurt either, other than the fact that we had to find the route down and descend a good 2,000' to find a level spot to sleep.  Skurka had noted on his mapset that the West Gully of Wind River Peak was 3rd Class and "not pretty".  We completely agree.  Assuming we chose the right gully that is, there was another gully that seemed to cliff out that brought you down just a bit further into the basin; but maybe it went.  The gully was in fact very steep, but the loose rock is what made it horrendous.  At times I found myself sliding down the slope somewhat uncontrallably along with the sections of rocks that had just gone loose from under my feet.  Whether we tried to stick to the big or small rocks, they all wanted to roll.  Boulders crashing down off the small, melting glacier to our left weren't adding any confidence to the experience.  The sunset on the surrounding cliffs was phenonamel though reminding me why we were there, struggling through the mess.  We set up camp around 9:15pm next to a lake at 11,200'; a common elevation for a nights camp on the high route.  

Re-ascending Wind River Peak after the first round of storms

From the summit of Wind River Peak, the high route is laid out in front of you

Michele about to make the drop into the West Gulley of Wind River Peak, the most challenging portion of the route for us

Sunset views, while "hurrying" down the West Gulley.  We camped at the lake below.

Miles and miles of boulder hopping exist on route, and we steadily became faster at working through this terrain.  Prior to this trip, I actually had very little off trail experience besides a couple miles here and there.  Everything I had read about this type of trip was true, plenty of type 2 fun(not that fun to do, but fun to talk about later) but in the end super rewarding and a sense of accomplishment that doesn't always exist on trail.  The section from Wind River Peak to Alpine Lakes Basin is fabulous, a good mix of technical off trail travel and use trails make for fabulous cross country miles.  The East Fork Valley, Raid Peak Pass, and Sentry Pass were especially enjoyable with a mix of grassy slopes, some class 3 down climbs, and two exceptional passes. 

Each night we would try to set ourselves up for a pass in the morning.  Here is camp on night 2 high in the East Fork Valley with Ambush Peak looming above.

The striking profile of Pronghorn Peak from Sentry Peak Pass

A typical route finding scene.  Photo Pass is the low point on the ridge in the distance.  It was awesome pulling out the maps, and determining what we thought would be the path of least resistance to get there.  Stick to the grassy slopes and try to avoid the boulders and willows.

Pronghorn Peak and Dragons Head during the descent from Sentry Peak Pass

A gorgeous afternoon on the Divide, looking down on Milky Lakes Basin.  This was the one section of the route where we weren't sure where to go, so we dropped down below Europe Peak and gained the Divide again the next morning.

The route kicks it up a notch again at Douglas Peak Pass, seen here at the middle right portion of the pic.  Not as bad as it looks, stay close to the headwall on the right and there are excellent, stable grassy slopes most the way. 

Nearing the top of Douglas Peak Pass

Looking north from Douglas Peak Pass into Alpine Lakes Basin.  Clouds threatened through this section, and we made the tough miles to Alpine Lakes Pass(seen at the top center) in 4 hours.

Blaurock Pass sits in the upper right hand corner of the photo, the top just out of view.

Gannett Peak as seen from Blaurock Pass

The Winds are so rugged, we actually almost bailed on the last 20 miles of the route.  After descending the burly Blaurock Pass(which is awesome by the way) down into Dinwoody Creek we had a big decision to make.  Continuing north on the route would mean crossing the Gannett and Grasshopper Glaciers.  Now when you hear glaciers in the Rocky's you normally think of snowfields; but not in the Winds.  These are legit, crevasses and all.  We had no experience on glaciers and with little knowledge about them(I didn't do the proper research prior to the trip) and no traction in our packs,  we had decided that morning we would skip this section by going out the Glacier Trail.  Then we met Ed, who had just done that section(taking 4 days!) and assured us the glaciers were wonderful and we would be fine on them without traction.  Still reluctant, we walked out 9 miles on the Glacier Trail that afternoon and camped.  In the morning we awoke unsatisfied though, and knew we had to go back.  So we did, nine miles back up the Glacier Trail and then up and over West Sentinel.  What greeted us on the other side was the incredible Gannett Glacier at the base of Gannett Peak.  Literally, we walked off West Sentinel Pass onto the glacier.  Those first steps were a bit uneasy, testing the waters.  Speaking of water, there was a bunch on it, running down the glacier.  It was past noon and the sun had gone to work melting the top layer.  Dozens of streams flowed down the ice sheet, some of them emptying into deep moulins that plunged down into the heart of the glacier.  A terrifying thought really.  

Leaving the Glacier Trail behind, heading up toward West Sentinel Pass

Starting across the Gannett Glacier

Yep, not in Colorado any more.

By the time we made it to the base of the Grasshopper Glacier it was 4:00pm and everything was a mess from the days sun.  Unlike Gannett, we would be descending Grasshopper all the way down to it's terminus(the low route alternate) in order to avoid camping directly on the Divide for the night.  The top of Grasshopper Glacier calves into a large lake, something you are more accustom to seeing in Alaska(so I've heard).  A huge boom echoed the basin from a fairly small piece of ice crashing down into the waters below as we walked by.  Looking down the entirety of Grasshopper to our destination below, we picked a line to the left that we best though would avoid any crevasses.  In retrospect, I would have preferred walking right down the middle.  To the left were tons of boulders littering the icefield.  Two-thirds the way down we were just starting to enjoy the glacier when from up above we happened to notice two BIG boulders silently coming down towards us from the steep walls above.  At first I didn't think they would even come close, and then the next thing we know the first boulder splits us coming with 10 feet.  The second boulder is bigger and makes a turn our way too!  It all happened so fast, we had little time to react, but luckily it also missed.  Quite shaken, we hurry down the remaining portion of the glacier to solid ground with a constant eye on the cliffs above.  It really was a close call and put some perspective on how easily things can go wrong in the mountains, even when everything feels under control.

A scene I thought I'd have to travel farther North than Wyoming to see.  The ice wall is probably around 100' high.

Upper Grasshopper Glacier.  A beautiful, but slightly terrifying place this late in the afternoon.  I was most nervous about this crossing due to the fact that we crossed the entire thing, and looking at the map I was sure there would be large crevasses somewhere along it's length.

The following day we would summit Downs Mountain under hazy skies(from the wildfires skorching the West, the only bummer of the trip) and howling winds.  The sustained 20-30 mph gusts made it somewhat hard to enjoy the final push out on the exposed Goat Flats back to the Glacier Trail; but the realization that we just completed the WRHR was surreal.  It brought me back to a recent article Andrew Skurka had written about the general nature of high routes and how they differed from less involved backpacking trips.  In the article he highlights three things: 1. Expect to fail, 2. It will be tougher mentally, 3. Off trail travel is slower, all of which were true during the WHRH for us.  

  • 1.  The weather really can determine whether the route will go or not.  Luckily we had great weather most of the trip, with only that one thunderstorm the first day and a brief snow squawl while descending Alpine Lakes Pass.  Besides from the constant wind and a couple nights below freezing, most days were mostly sunny with some passerby clouds, leaving us to hike into the evening.  
  • 2. The trip was much harder mentally than physically for me.  Every mile was a question mark and the unknowns added up to stress.  Were we heading up the right pass?  Will the weather hold?  Will there be heinous boulders to negotiate along side that lake that may take longer than we have?  All questions that were constantly running through my mind.  
  • 3.  On a good day, such as going over Raid Peak Pass, Sentry, & Photo Pass, we were able to cover 15-20 miles on manageable terrain.  Towards the northern end of the route, the terrain became continuously more challenging, and 10-15 miles involved a solid effort.  Crossing unstable glacial moraines and sections such as Alpine Lakes were tedious and at times frustrating.  Realizing the line you pick can determine how efficient you will travel is powerful stuff though, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.    

Yep, going to be hard to top this one.

Leaving the Grasshopper Glacier and heading up toward the Divide.  We camped just above here next to an unnamed lake at 11,400'.

The nights were getting cold the last 3 days, despite it being the middle of the summer.

A cold, windy morning on Downs Mountain on the final day of the high route.

Happy campers on the WRHR