|| Background ||
For YEARS I have had my eye on the Wind River High Route, a route that is famous amongst off-trail backpackers for its pristine quality. For 100 miles, the route traverses the backbone of the Wind River Range, a short but dramatic range in central Wyoming across from the more well-known Tetons.
Finally, as part of a larger roadtrip with my friend Kyle, I had planned the time to tackle the Wind River High Route. YES!! I was so excited. Off and on I had tried to make the time but got distracted with other international and domestic trips. Not any longer…
|| Route Overview ||
The Wind River High Route was pioneered by Andrew Skurka and Buzz Burrell in the late 2000s. The route follows closely to the Continental Divide through the Wind River Range and is largely off-trail; of the approximate 100 miles, 65+ miles are off-trail, depending on your measuring device. The route traverses glaciers, boulderfields, alpine meadows, lakeshores…simply put, there is a lot of variety. The route is “book-ended” by two 13ers: Downs Mountain (13,350′) to the north and Wind River Peak (13,192′) to the south, and includes Europe Peak, a 12er, mid-way through the route. What a line!!
I will not try to recreate the work that Andrew has already done through his creation of the route and detailed mapset that he sells on his site, but I will share a few of my own notes about the route:
- There are a few “variations” of the high route, in particular, one created by Alan Dixon. The main difference between Alan’s route and Andrew’s is the northern section of the route near the Gannett cirque, where Alan’s route deviates down into Titcomb Basin, where the CDT lies. In my opinion, the “truer” high route is Andrew’s, as it remains closer to the Continental Divide through the northern section from Gannett to Downs Mountain. This section involves glacier travel, however, and seems to intimidate those without snow or glacier travel experience. On our trip we found the majority of hikers we crossed to be following Alan’s route.
- Andrew advises to follow the route from south to north, beginning near Lander at the Bruce’s Bridge trailhead and climbing up towards Wind River Peak, then following the high route north towards Dubois, finishing at the Whiskey Mountain trailhead. Andrew’s main reasoning behind this is the northern section is more rugged and difficult than the southern section, and starting in the south serves as a “warm up.” We opted to start north and head south, preferring to “get the hard part out of the way” and end with the “easier” southern section, which features more on-trail miles.
- The route only picks up trail for three main sections: climbing up the Glacier Trail from the Whiskey Mountain trailhead (the northern terminus), near the Cirque of the Towers where the route picks up trails near Texas Pass and Jackass Pass, and then after Wind River Peak going down to (or coming up from) Bruce’s Bridge. Aside from that, there are only brief stints of on-trail miles, near Golden Lakes, Europe Peak, and a few other locations. For the most part, the route is largely off-trail, as mentioned previously.
- The route character of the route is starkly different:
- The northern section features snow, ice, and glacial cirques and is remote; we did not see many people from Downs Mountain to the Gannett cirque.
- The middle section of the route is characterized by pass-and-valley: climb up to a pass, descend boulders into a meadow, hike across a valley, hike up to a pass, rinse and repeat.
- The southern section is much more crowded, especially near the Cirque of the Towers and Big Sandy Lake. We saw dozens of hikers near Jackass Pass hiking up from Big Sandy towards the Cirque. As soon as we turned up towards Blackjoe Lake, nobody.
|| Trip Report ||
Day 1: Whiskey Mountain Trailhead to below Downs Mountain (14.25 miles, 5,000′ gain)
Side story: After the Beartooth High Route, I had an OOPS moment where I left the keys in my car and in an attempt to get them out broke the side window of my car. The end result was finding an auto glass shop in Dubois, WY and having the owner give us a ride to the trailhead. Thanks Matt and shout out to Dubois Glass if you ever need your window fixed in Dubois!
Whiskey Mountain is the starting point both for the Wind River High Route (WRHR), as well as the Glacier Trail, which approaches Dinwoody Creek, the basin below Gannett Peak. We started in sagebrush down at the Whiskey Mountain Trailhead, along a rocky pack trail that was well maintained. We knew it would not last long, as we would depart from the trail once the Glacier Trail headed southeast from Glacier Pass. We gained nearly 2,000′ on the switchbacks of the Glacier Trail in no time! Once above the switchbacks the trees faded away to low alpine tundra, much more characteristic of the high route and the rest of the trip. At Glacier Pass we left the trail and headed west-southwest towards Goat Flat on our way towards No Man Pass and Downs Mountain. I joked that No Man Pass should be named “None Shall Pass.”
We passed a pair of high routers on their way down from Downs Mountain, racing towards Dubois for a burger and beer. They looked tired…maybe that’s how we would look in time?!? Only time would tell…
We reached a large flat below Downs Mountain in the early afternoon, one that we had identified as a viable camp spot. There was a small tarn and run-off from the snowfields below Downs, so water was plentiful. We looked at our watches, then at each other…it was early enough that we could push on further, so a decision needed to be made:
- It was around 1,000′ to climb up to Downs Mountain, at over 13,000′. From Downs, the route follows the Continental Divide to Iceberg Lakes Pass, around 5 miles south. This is the next spot we identified as a “viable camp spot.”
- A storm was forecasted to roll in the next day, so we were trying to decide if it was better to stay below Downs or push on and try to make it all the way to Iceberg Lake Pass, which was a bit lower elevation than the tarn below Downs at 12,000′. The issue was that there were no real viable camping spots in between Downs and Iceberg Lakes Pass high on the divide, and our exposure on the Divide would be significant if we were slow or got caught in a storm.
- The rationale for pushing on would be to get through the Divide section sooner rather than later and avoid getting “stuck” before Downs if the storm did roll in the next day as forecasted.
We all looked at each other and stepped a few feet onto the snowfield below Downs. The snow was rotten and mushy…in my gut, I felt like staying put was the right choice. I looked at Logan and Kyle…all of us were dumbfounded. Kyle and I had experiences in the Sierras with alpine storms, which rolled in like clockwork in the early afternoon and cleared by the night. Logan, however, reminded us how fickle the weather in Wyoming and Montana could be.
Lacking a strong opinion either way and standing as the seconds ticked away, we opted to stay below Downs and stay put for the night. We had reached our “planned” campspot, so we were still on pace for what we had measured out for our 7-day trip. We were able to find numerous previous bivy sites that others had assembled in the flat below Downs, most likely other high routers in the same spot as us. We pitched out our tents, using rocks as our “stakes”, as the ground was much too rocky to dig into, and began to settle in for the night.
After finishing off our dinner we saw two hikers coming down through the boulders from No Mass Pass. Other people!?!?! WHAAAAT!?! It was a couple from Telluride, CO on the same route, planning for 9 days as opposed to our 7. We chatted with them as rain began to trickle down, hearing about their climbing exploits in the Tetons just days before, where they climbed Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton. As the rain began to pick up, I headed back to my tent, fearing the storm was approaching…
Day 2: below Downs Mountain to Dinwoody Creek/Gannett Cirque (12 miles, 3,500′ gain)
And what a storm it was! The storm rolled in around midnight like a freight train, blasting our tents with 30 mph winds for hours on end. I lay in my tent, tucked into my sleeping bag, not willing to move an inch. My tent was holding strong and up until 5 AM, did not leak one drop of water onto me.
The weather began to ease around 6 AM and I peeked out towards Logan and Kyle’s tent just to the east…they had a restless night to say the least. Kyle’s Tarptent shelter got broadsided all night long and they got more wet than I did, in my palatial Big Agnes Fly Creek 3-person tent. We agreed to spend a few minutes drying out gear while we ate breakfast and let the clouds pass. Turns out the storm came earlier than predicted…and we were glad we had stayed below Downs.
The snow was not much better in the morning, as it was waterlogged from the downpour overnight. We chose to ascend a rock rib on the climber’s left looking up towards Downs, which meant more boulder hopping and scrambling. The movement was slow but easy, Class 2 at most. Kyle zoomed past both Logan and I, heading for the top and making his movements look effortless. Near the top he tried to “trick” us to climb the false southern summit of Downs so that he could grab a picture of us on its promontory…not so fast. Logan spotted him to our right, on the true northern summit of Downs, and we headed his way.
The winds were still strong on top, so we broke for some snacks, photos, and kept on moving south off the peak towards Iceberg Lake Pass along the Continental Divide. The descent off of Downs was simple but tedious, a long stretch of boulder hopping all the way to the snowfields atop the Continental Divide. In reality, this would become the norm for the rest of the trip.
Atop the divide, the clouds of the night before had parted to yield sweeping views across the Wind River Range. To the south we could see peaks like Mount Febbas, Gannett Peak, Mt. Warren, and other striking features stretching skyward. Glaciers were tucked below us on either side, bare ice cracked by gravity as they fell down towards the valleys below.
Snowfields were patchy across the Divide, and where there was not snow there was mud and muck, the soil waterlogged from snow melt and the rain from the night before. We plodded across the Divide towards Iceberg Lake Pass, where we could see Yukon and Klondike Peaks and the sunning Iceberg Lake, true to its name, with a large glacier pouring off into its turquoise waters. WOW! This would have been a cool place to camp, I thought….but it DEFINITELY would have been exposed and not an ideal spot to weather out last night’s storm. Well, a good enough place to take a few photos at least!
We climbed up from Iceberg Lakes Pass over a large hummock towards the Grasshopper Glacier to the south. I picked my head up to look towards Klondike Peak and saw a runner coming down from its slopes. THAT LOOKED LIKE FUN! Peakbagging along the Divide would be an amazing adventure…something to come back for.
We skirted to the east of Pedestal Peak and headed down towards the Grasshopper Glacier…bare, blue glacial ice. COOL! In Washington most of the glaciers are still covered in thin snow throughout the summertime, fed by the monstrous Pacific maritime snowpack. Out here in Wyoming, though, the continental snowpack is less considerable, and these glaciers are much thinner. Water ran underneath our feet as we crunched along past crevasses and other breaks in the ice. A little hop and a skip over some chasms kept us entertained!
As we crossed over to the Gannett Glacier a runner past us, on his way south on an FKT attempt of the Wind River High Route. When Kyle and Logan asked him how long he was trying to take, he just responded with “the FKT (Fastest Known Time) is 2 days 5 hours.” WOW…that is ambitious and very committing.
The Gannett Glacier was a sloppy mess…the late afternoon sun cooked the snowpack to be mush underneath our feet. We stepped carefully, trying to avoid getting soaked but then…OH NO! Slosh, slosh, slosh. We were melting away into the glacial water below us, sinking ankle deep. Ugh, wet feet. Part of the adventure…
We reached West Sentinel Pass in early afternoon and got our first view of the Dinwoody Cirque and WOW what is amazing. Glaciers nested deep in the cirque, hugging up close to peaks like Warren and Gannett. We could see climbers coming down from Gannett, heading up Bonney Pass towards Titcomb Basin, as well as the bivy sites below where we would make camp for the night.
We found a faint trail leading down from the pass towards the Dinwoody Creek camp where many Gannett Peak climbers camp before their summit attempts. There were nice, established bivy sites, encircled by rocks, so we picked this as our spot for the night. Perfect! We took in the sun setting over Gannett Peak, lighting the cirque beneath it dramatically. Ahhh…the alpine.
Day 3: Dinwoody Creek to Alpine Lakes (12.15 miles, 5,000′ gain)
We woke to sunrise lighting up the Dinwoody Cirque, basking the glaciers in early morning light. Our goal for the morning was Blaurock Pass and Mount Febbas, a fun little peakbag from the pass. We headed down Dinwoody Creek towards the Heap Steep basin, climbing up the loose and scree filled slopes of Blaurock Pass.
We reached Blaurock Pass, woofed down some food, and threw on shell jackets as we climbed up towards Mount Febbas, one of the 13ers in the Wind River Range. Logan had read up on the route on SummitPost briefly, which is to say that the route description was basically, “yeah, climb up from the pass.” Kyle led the way, up the 2nd class slopes towards the summit. The scrambling was fun and easy, and before we knew it we were at the summit, a typical flat plateau full of rocks and expansive views. A pile of rocks denoted the “summit” and we found a glass mason jar…the SUMMIT REGISTER! It had been placed there in 1996…daaang, this thing was older than I am! It was cool reading through some of the older climbs, from years ago when I was just a baby.
From the summit we could see for miles, to the east towards the Wind River reservation and the valley below, to the west towards the Tetons, to the north towards Downs, and to the south towards the Cirque of the Towers (although we couldn’t specifically make out the Cirque).
We scrambled back down the way we had come to Blaurock Pass, uneventfully, and returned to our packs we had stashed at the pass. Another few handfuls of food and we set off down towards Bull Lake Creek, a beautiful alpine meadow from where we would climb up towards Alpine Lakes Pass. The route was so aesthetic to look at, so simple in its design: STAY HIGH. Love it.
Down in Bull Lake Creek we skirted along the shore of the creek, looking for a good place to rock hop across. Logan daringly jumped from rock to rock, but I was intimidated by his effortless moves. I decided to wade across, the water not looking more than knee deep. Off went the socks and shoes, and remembering mistakes I have made in the past, I zipped them up into my pack, not wanting to make the same mistake as I did infamously on the JMT.
Once we crossed Bull Lake Creek, we began to climb up towards Alpine Lakes Pass, just above the Knife Point Glacier. As typical for the route, the climb up was loose rocks, mixed with boulder hopping, and some occasional snow. Typical high route terrain.
Atop Alpine Lakes Pass we gained sight of the Alpine Lakes basin, a series of beautiful lakes nestled amongst dramatic peaks. Clouds began to form above, a typical afternoon development in this area. Looking down, we agreed to aim for the lakeshore of the second Alpine Lakes as our site for camp. We would be rolling in early, around 3 PM, but the clouds were building and it did not appear there were any great camp spots until past Douglas Peak Pass to the south, which was further than we wanted to venture for the day.
On our way down from the pass, we passed a group of high routers going north, climbing up towards Alpine Lakes Pass. They asked us about the snow conditions on the climb up…uhhh, fine I guess? We hadn’t really noticed anything really, just a normal snowpatch that was perfect for a boot ski down or a simple slog up.
We maneuvered around the lakeshore of the first Alpine Lakes, scrambling up, down, and around boulders to reach the second Alpine Lakes, where we found a reasonably flat bench for camp. Rain trickled on and off and the wind picked up, but fortunately the storm never came.
We lounged around camp as the sun dipped beneath the peaks above early in the evening, well before we were ready for bed. It was nice to get into camp early each day, as we had plenty of buffer for unexpected scenarios, but to be honest I always have ants in my pants and suck at waiting around camps. I dozed in and out for a few minutes, turned over and looked at my watch, realizing only minutes had passed. Oh well…
I spent some time trying to figure out what the heck was going on with my sleeping pad!?!?! It had been deflating through the night and there was no apparent leak. I inflated it, pushed on the mattress and listened intently for leaks. Nothing. Finally, I concluded it was the valve, leaking small amounts of air throughout the night. Well, no real fix for that in the backcountry. I would have to remain content with a 1 AM wakeup to huff and puff my way back to sleep.
Day 4: Alpine Lakes to Middle Fork Lake (19.5 miles, 4,700′ gain)
We were getting into a good groove at this point, our morning routine setting in. I woke at 5:30 AM to watch the sunrise, pack up my sleeping kit, and munch down my morning granola with protein powder. Kyle and Logan woke at 6 AM and performed a similar routine. I enjoyed waking up just a few minutes earlier, which gave me time to watch the light illuminate the valley.
We continued around the lakeshore of the Alpine Lakes towards Douglas Peak Pass, which at the time we didn’t know the name of. Climbing up to it, we decided a more appropriate name would be “Ass Pass,” for its slopes were a GARBAGE mixture of loose rock and screen and dirt and just overall crap. The way down confirmed the name even more. We decided to descend it one-by-one because of all the loose rocks being kicked up with every little movement. Yelling “ROCK” was frequent on the descent.
Once down from Ass Pass, we picked up trail for a few miles along Golden Lakes. The “trail” was hard to follow at times, as it would be clear until reaching a beautiful meadow, then split into a million directions as people wandered aimlessly amongst wildflowers and grassy patches.
From the southern end of Golden Lakes we left the trail and began the long, gradual climb up towards Europe Peak. The climb was FANTASTIC, a low-grade climb along tundra and grasslands. We lunched near a tarn below Europe Peak and filled out water. Looking towards the west we could see storm clouds building, fast.
As is typical, I threw on my rain jacket and as soon as I did the rain stopped. STOP PLAYING WITH ME RAIN!! Taking it off only made the rain start again. LOL. Weather is fickle.
The final slopes up to Europe were large boulders, typical, but the summit of Europe was amazing. The middle of the Wind River High Route, approximately, we could see Downs to the north and now the Cirque of the Towers to the south. WOA! I love being able to see for miles, that feeling of expanse.
We were in for a treat on the way down Europe Peak…a KNIFE EDGE?!?!? Well, kind of, a really dull knife. But a ridge nonetheless. It was unexpected but very entertaining, as we could feel the wind blowing over us and see the drop-offs to either side. The scramble down was easy, but for once we had a sense of verticality, not a long gradual mile-long climb.
We dropped down to the pass below to the east and then further down to the lakes below. At this point, the Wind River High Route has an interesting split:
- One variation of the high route splits east onto the Wind River Reservation, over and down Photo Pass towards the Middle Fork Lake. Going this way requires you to have a “fishing permit” granted by the Wind River tribe. Yes, a “fishing permit”, even if you are not fishing. They do not offer any other permit. It’s an odd system, one that doesn’t make much sense.
- Another variation of the high route climbs up from the lakes to the south of Europe Peak and dumps down onto Halls Lake, where it follows the drainage down from Halls Lake to Middle Fork Lake, where the high route rejoins the other variation. Looking at this pass, we could see it was crumbly, loose rock that would be similar to Ass Pass. Umm…I think I will name this “I’ll Pass”.
We opted for our own variation, since at this point the high route splits up anyway: we decided to descend down to lake 10,542′ and climb east on benches towards the Halls Lake drainage, only a slight variation but one that would keep us from more loose garbage. Plus, it would add some variety to the terrain, as we would be crossing meadows and plains rather than more boulders. In our opinion, the whole premise of a high route was to explore off-trail, so we felt that it was no different than following some off-trail route just a few miles north.
We were surprised to find faint trail on the route we took around Lake 10,542’…apparently it wasn’t so novel a concept?!? We couldn’t tell, but the soft grass under our feet was much nicer than loose scree crap. Our initial goal for the day was Halls Lake, but looking at the time and with the weather approving, we decided to push on towards Middle Fork Lake. This would allow us to decrease the mileage on the days in the southern section of the route, where we had allotted more miles per day with more on-trail sections.
We pulled into camp at a reasonable hour this time, closer to 6 PM rather than the 3 PM typical time we had days prior. We found a protected spot amongst some trees, pitched out tents, and lit up the stove for dinner, watching the sun set over Middle Fork Lake. What a good day! The route so far was exceeding expectations, and we were halfway done!
Day 5: Middle Fork Lake to Shadow Lake (16 miles, 3,500′ gain)
Sometimes, you can tell what the day is going to be like just from the sunrise. This was going to be a good day. The sun lit up the Middle Fork Valley so softly I could tell the pictures would be unbelievable.
We weren’t sure which side of Middle Fork Lake to follow to head up towards Raid Peak Pass; looking at my map, it seemed that following the north and western shore would be better than the south shore, so we opted for that. We followed a faint trail towards where the Photo Pass variation of the high route meets back up, and I stopped dead in my tracks. Looking across the lake, I stared up into the Middle Fork Valley, gazing at massive granite walls and spires towering over fields of wildflowers. CAMERA ENGAGE! Click…click…click went the shutter of my camera.
Wow…what pure rock we were staring up at, and the names of the peaks were just as inspiring! Dragon Head Peak, Pronghorn Peak, Raid Peak…now that’s dramatic. Better than Middle Fork Lake! So boring…
We gradually made our way up Bonneville Pass, around Bonneville Lake, and up to Raid Peak Pass, where we came across a series of hikers: a hiker from Colorado, a group of friends doing the high route south to north from South Carolina, and a few others. It was fun chatting with them at the top, hearing their stories, sharing the scenery.
We turned the corner down from Raid Peak Pass and were flooded with views of the East Fork Valley. WOW! Another incredible sight. We could see Raid Peak, Tower Peak, and even Mt. Hooker nestled along the skyline, as well as a series of lakes that looked PERFECT for a late morning dip/alpine bath.
Dirty from days on trail, we dumped our clothes on the shore and sank into the freezing cold water for a clean off. WOW was that cold. But refreshing for sure. I hadn’t felt this clean in weeks! We lunched as we air dried, taking in the plentiful sun and pleasant temperatures. Perfect…nothing that I wanted to change about this moment.
We climbed up towards Pyramid Lake, where we picked up the trail that would lead us for the rest of the day towards Shadow Lake beneath the Cirque of the Towers. We CRUISED the on-trail miles, not having to think about picking up one foot and placing it in front of the other. At the trail junction with Washakie Creek we headed west towards Shadow Lake and paused to chat with a hiker coming down from the Cirque. We chatted with him for nearly 20 minutes, hearing about his experience thru-hiking the AT. After nearly 15 minutes of chit chat, he asked, “Hey…you have any weed?” LOL. I couldn’t help but chuckle. “No…sorry man.”
The Washakie Creek trail was nearly DEAD flat up to Shadow Lake, and we meandered our way up, passing more people in one stretch of a few miles than we had seen the entire trip. We were in a much more crowded and accessible area of the Winds; it felt so different, so much less remote than the northern sections we had come from, where we felt like alpine explorers, all alone in the wilderness.
Our camp at Shadow Lake was spectacular, though. We rolled in early, around 3 PM, and spent the afternoon lounging around, waiting for the sunset we knew would blow our minds. We could see the northern side of the Cirque of the Towers, the Sharksnose, Wolf’s Head, Overhanging Tower, and other spires in the group that created a dramatic backdrop.
After dinner I snuck into my tent for a quick doze before sunset, which would be in a few hours…I quickly rose at around 8:30 for the light show, and WOW! Clouds rolled in perfectly on queue, in a good way, providing texture to the skyline and setting up some amazing scenery. Kyle and I snapped dozens of photos, flickering the aperture and shutter settings as the light faded away into the night.
Day 6: Shadow Lake to Blackjoe Lake (12.5 miles, 3,200′ gain)
The morning light show was fantastic as well, not quite as good as the sunset we were treated to but still impressive. We packed up and headed up towards Texas Pass…but not before getting utterly confused and a bit lost trying to find the trail. HA! We had come miles off-trail, but finding the trail was now the hardest part! We managed to pick it up eventually, leading us up to Texas Pass, the entry into the Cirque of the Towers. Technically, the Wind River High Route that Skurka has designed goes into the Cirque via New York Pass, but Kyle and I wanted to peakbag Camel’s Hump, which is accessed via Texas Pass, so we opted for Texas. Sorry New York.
Logan watched our stuff at Texas Pass and Kyle and I headed up the slabs towards Camel’s Hump, which provided amazing views of the Cirque. The scrambling was simple, Class 2 with maybe one or two moves of Class 3, and there were plenty of cairns to follow higher up towards the summit. From the summit we could see the vast expanse of the Wind River Range, again Downs to the north and now Wind River Peak to the south, the southern terminus of our route.
We met back up with Logan at Texas Pass, and as we munched on some snacks he mentioned some of the people he had chatted with while we were gone, one a group of girls from Seattle who had offered him food. WHAAT?!?! Food!?! Our hiker hunger had set in and our stomachs yelled out. Comically enough, we met up with the hikers at Jackass Pass on the southern end of the Cirque and Kyle poked fun by asking, “So…we heard you were offering food.” Thanks Kyle for asking what I was thinking but afraid to ask! They treated us to extra food they were offloading, as they were hiking out that day. Some nuts, cheese, and extra dinner for tonight, some mac and cheese and lasagna. Yummy!
Jackass Pass was a perfect lunch spot overlooking the Cirque, albeit crowded with hikers coming up from Big Sandy Lake. We didn’t mind, though…soon enough we would be deviating off towards Blackjoe Lake, where we knew there would be less people. We would have our “wilderness” back soon enough. Kyle stared up at Pingora and Wolf’s Head, which he had climbed years earlier on a roadtrip.
We headed down the trail from Jackass Pass, following the trail down to Big Sandy Lake, passing hiker after hiker on our way down. WOW! This part of the Winds was crowded! Instead of taking a right to exit to Big Sandy, we deviated left, taking the trail up to Blackjoe Lake. The trail was in GREAT shape, unlike most of the trails in the Cirque. Sadly, there are SO many unmarked trails created by people trampling meadows and other delicate areas in the Cirque that the trail system has become a confusing, self-destroying maze of footpaths. You never know if you are on the “trail” or not.
The trail up towards Blackjoe Lake ended at the outlet of the lake, and without any thought, we continued on the southern shore of the lake, trying to skirt our way along the lakeshore towards the inlet of Blackjoe. Before we knew it, we were boulder hopping, up, down, and around car-sized boulders, climbing up to avoid the lakeshore, ugh…this was annoying. Rain began to trickle on and off, and for the first time we heard…thunder. Once we reached the inlet of Blackjoe Lake we stopped and searched for a camp spot. We wished we could have kept climbing up the drainage towards Wind River Peak, but looking at the topo, we figured near the lake in the thickets would be our most protected spot for the night.
And we were certainly right! Kyle, Logan, and I split up to search for spots and I found us a protected place near the inlet of the lake. Even when the wind whipped, our tents barely shook. PERFECT!
We settled in for the night, huddling into our tents for a few brief rain showers, then lounging on a rock overlooking the lake. Logan wandered around and amazingly CAUGHT A FISH WITH HIS BARE HANDS?!?! WHAAAT?!?! It was crazy. For dinner, we dined on the extra food the hikers had gifted us at Jackass Pass, stuffing our hungry bodies with some extra nutrition. Mmmm…yummy.
Day 7: Blackjoe Lake to Bruce’s Bridge Trailhead (22 miles, 3,500′ gain)
ANOTHER SURPRISE?!?! In the middle of the night we got an unexpected visitor…no, not a bear. A PORCUPINE! From my tent I could hear a rustling sound at first. Half-asleep, I stirred somewhat, but rolled back over to my slumber. A few minutes later, I could hear Logan and Kyle chatting in their tent. “What is it?”, I asked them. A porcupine…they shooed it away and went back to sleep, but in the morning we were treated to a surprise. Turns out, the porcupine had munched on the foam handles of both Logan and Kyle’s trekking poles. LOVELY…a midnight snack I guess?
We packed up and began up the drainage towards Wind River Peak, our last climb of the trip but a large one, over 2,500′ to the top through a glacial moraine and up a loose gully. The west gully of Wind River Peak had a bad rap from some of the hikers we had passed along the way on the route…loose garbage. Sounded like Ass Pass to me.
Approaching the gully, we could see it was steep but not too bad. The bigger hazard was the loose rocks that each of us kicked off on our way up the gully. One-by-one, we split up at times to avoid rockfall, yelling “ROCK” when anything hazardous came loose. Slowly, we crested the gully and continued our way up through boulders and the final talus cone to Wind River Peak, the last summit of the trip and a 13er to cap off the route!! WOOHOO! What an aesthetic way to finish such an incredible line. From Wind River Peak we could see our entire route, all the way back to Downs Mountain. WOW!
And then the march began…down, down, down and nearly 18 miles out to the trailhead. We knew it would be a long slog, but the zombie march was just beginning. Coming down from Wind River Peak was the typical mix of boulders and alpine tundra. Once we made it to Deep Creek Lakes, we picked up a trail that began to usher us back down towards the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River, which flows all the way back down to the trailhead. Once on trail, though, we still had nearly 12 miles out and all we could think about was FOOD. Ugh…what a zombie march it was. After 7 days of beautiful alpine terrain to stare at, dirt and trees was quite monotonous. For hours we stared at our feet, one switching with the other as we moved rhythmically through the terrain. 1:30, 2:30, I couldn’t keep from looking at my watch periodically, only reminding myself of the miles left to cover.
FINALLY…the trailhead! We grabbed our stuff from Logan’s car and immediately headed for the creek to wash off. Ahhhh…how good that soak felt! The cold water served both as refreshment and as therapy, our feet sore from the miles of monotonous trail.
We went down to Lander to fill up our stomachs, happy and proud of our accomplishment!
|| Route Notes ||
- The Wind River High Route is full of a variety of terrain. Expect miles of boulder hopping, snowfields, and occasional Class 2 (and maybe a few Class 3) scrambles, but nothing technical.
- The northern section of the route has a reputation for being “harder.” I’d agree with this but add that it’s not really the difficulty that is starkly different from the southern half, but rather, the consistency of terrain. Through the northern section the route is consistently rocky, snowy, and off-trail. There are minimal on-trail sections and numerous spots of high exposure to the elements. Unlike in the southern section, where you gain a pass, descend a pass to an alpine lake or basin, cross a valley, and rinse and repeat, the northern section is more of a ridge traverse along the Continental Divide.
- We really liked our choice of doing the route north to south because of the tone it set for the adventure: nearly immediately, we were in the alpine, with just a short approach from the Whiskey Mountain trailhead. If we had done it in reverse, it would have taken us nearly 15 miles to get above treeline.
- The hardest part, for many, is the logistics of the car shuttle. There are companies that you can pay to move your car for you from trailhead to trailhead. We had the luxury of having two cars, but we also met people that were doing a “key swap” with other friends.
- Surprisingly, we had very few bugs, something that people normally complain about around this time of year. The “hatch” varies from year to year, but normally only last a few weeks, after which many of the mosquitoes die out. We found early August to be perfect timing for avoiding the bugs.
|| Gear Notes ||
- I brought a fully enclosed, self-supporting tent for this trip and I was glad I did. The winds at some of the camps were strong, and my tent held up to 30+ mph winds. While it was not the lightest set up, it was burly and never once did I fear getting wet or lose sleep over what might happen in the middle of the night. There are some campsites where you may be camping amongst rocks/where your stakes may not drive into the ground, so just keep this in mind when you are choosing your shelter system. Kyle and Logan brought a trekking pole-supported tent and it worked perfectly fine for them, just playing devil’s advocate.
- We each brought a bug net but barely used it, except for a few places in the southern half where the bugs were pesky enough to warrant it. For the most part, the campsites we chose were windy enough that the bugs did not stick around to bother.
- We brought microspikes but never used them, as the snow slopes were either shallow enough that they were not necessary or mushy enough late in the day that the traction provided would not have added any benefit. I DO NOT REGRET packing them, though, as there are certainly sections where they may have been useful if our timing was different. The Wind River High Route can be very snow-covered, depending on the snow year.
- We did not bring ice axes, a choice that was reasonable given how late in the season we went. Earlier in the season, when snow coverage would have been fuller around some of the passes, our choice would likely have been different.
- We brought Ursacks for our food storage and thankfully never had any critter issues on the trip…well, except for the porcupine.
- Bring TONS of sunscreen…the solar radiation is intense on those snowfields.
- For such a rugged route, keep in mind that it is LIKELY that one piece of gear is likely to fail or break on you at some point. With all the boulder hopping, I would advise putting away your trekking poles for those sections, and ESPECIALLY keeping your hands out of the wrist loops for those sections. That is an easy and quick way to get yourself hurt.
- We had GPS devices, inReaches, but primarily relied on printed topo maps we had assembled beforehand. Honestly, the routefinding on this route is SO EASY, as the line of sight is vast and the features are stark and dramatic. Not once did I pull out my compass, but rather, I relied on the relative positions of other features and correlated them to the map.
- We did NOT use Skurka’s mapset, nor did we feel it was necessary, but I will say that his mapset is thorough and detailed if you want that information ahead of time.