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Northern Crux || Trip Report: Wind River High Route, Loop 8

By Rud Platt, Krishna Dayanidhi, and Nathan Roseberry

Sunset in the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek, looking towards Blaurock Pass (low spot on right) and Turret Peak.

Sunset in the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek, looking towards Blaurock Pass (low spot on right) and Turret Peak.

We met in Alaska in 2013 on a guided trip with Andrew and Alan Dixon, and have gone on several backpacking excursions in the lower 48 since then. This year we opted for Loop 8 of the Wind River High Route, reportedly one of the hardest and most spectacular section hikes. That proved to be an accurate assessment.

Route info

  • Overview route map
  • 64 miles, 47% off trail
  • Net vertical change: 38,000 ft
  • Glaciers traversed: 4
  • Passes over 12,000 ft: 5
  • Highest Point: Downs Mountain (13,300 ft)
  • Difficult but non-technical. It can be safely hiked in trail running shoes.

We completed the route in 6.5 days. On a few of those days we probably could have hiked a little further, but were at the base of a pass in the late afternoon so stayed put. We all live at sea level (NY, PA, TX), and needed to squeeze in our training between normal jobs and family responsibilities.

We arrived at the start of the loop, the Green River Lake Campground, late on an August night. As we set up our tents, a shooting star lit up the sky, its trail lingering for nearly a minute.

Leaving Green River Lakes, with Squaretop in the background

Leaving Green River Lakes, with Squaretop in the background

Day 1: A glitchy start

Before we departed we discovered that we had purchased too little denatured alcohol (stove fuel) for the trip. We scouted the campground for hikers and received some funny looks when we asked if they had extra alcohol. Did they think we wanted a drink at 8 AM? Rather than drive three hours round trip to the nearest store, we hit the trail.

We hiked 15 miles from the milky Green River Lakes, past the iconic Squaretop Mountain, and up to Three Forks Park. Along the way we passed several backpackers openly carrying handguns. For bears? Or as some sort of survival fantasy?

Tired, we camped at Vista Pass next to a muddy tarn peppered with horse manure. It was only then that Krishna discovered that he had forgotten his spoon. Summoning all of his resourcefulness, Krishna carved a new spoon out of a tree branch and named it Spoonie.

Day 2: Alpine ascent

In the morning, we hiked past Peak Lake and spotted the small cluster of krummholz trees in which Rud and Krishna had camped two years prior during a week of ridiculously bad weather that had stymied their high route plans. This time around the weather gods were smiling on us, at least for now.

We scrambled up to the top of Knapsack Col, the first of many passes over 12,000 ft. Donning our Kahtoola Microspikes for improved traction on the ice and snow, we descended the west side of the pass. Incredibly, the snowfield that had extended 1,000 feet down the valley just two years ago was nearly gone. In its place was loose ankle-twisting talus and scree.

Wildflowers in full bloom in Titcomb Basin

Wildflowers in full bloom in Titcomb Basin

We reached the stunning Titcomb Basin intact and strolled through wildflower-covered meadows and sparkling alpine lakes until reaching our campground at the base of Indian Pass.

Day 3: Transported to Alaska

The day started with a hailstorm. Once it had cleared, we summited Indian Pass, entering the remote eastern side of the range. For the next few days, we would travel continuously off-trail by map, compass, and GPS.

Again clad with microspikes, we stepped onto Knifepoint Glacier from near the top of the pass. The thrill of walking across a glacier soon turned to disbelief — the glacier was melting before our eyes like an ice cream on a hot day. Rushing torrents of water gushed through small channels crisscrossing the glacier. A rock the size of a car (and much heavier) slid slowly near Rud’s path — scary but easily avoided.

Traversing the glacier was easy until we reached its edge, where we encountered unstable moraine deposited recently by the receding glacier. Once through the moraine, we descended to a rushing creek that we forded in our socks (a Skurka suggestion).

Fording the icy and silty outlet of Knife Point Glacier. We removed our shoes, but wore our socks for better traction and protection versus bare feet.

Fording the icy and silty outlet of Knife Point Glacier. We removed our shoes, but wore our socks for better traction and protection versus bare feet.

The next few miles resembled a mini Alaska – we followed game trails through tundra and krummholtz before finally descending into the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek. Here, we pitched our tents in an expansive glacier-carved valley surrounded by staggering peaks. Sadly, Krishna lost ‘Spoonie’ and had to carve a ‘Spoonie 2.0’ in order to eat his Thai Noodles.

Our camp in the spectacular North Fork of Bull Lake Creek

Our camp in the spectacular North Fork of Bull Lake Creek

Day 4: A navigation error and aching legs

The morning started with a stroll through the mushy tundra (“sponga”) adjacent to a huge outwash plain. Our destination was Blaurock Pass, which is high (12,000+ feet) and steep, averaging 1,200 vertical feet per mile for 1.5 horizontal miles.

After an hour of hard hiking, we realized that we were in fact headed up the wrong pass. While we had initially correctly identified Blaurock pass on the map, we refused to believe that it could be the right one — it looked just too hard. Once we realized our mistake, we scrambled over to the correct route and arrived at the base of the pass, exhausted.

Finally, we made the relentless ascent up Blaurock, sometimes using both hands and feet. While not technically difficult or dangerous, we reached the pass feeling wiped and demoralized. Bighorn sheep greeted us at the top, and then leaped away effortlessly as if to mock our feeble climbing skills. We were met by stunning views at the top, but did not linger there.

The descent was almost as brutal, and it felt like the talus would never end. We passed a skull-shaped permanent snowfield, which seemed to say “abandon all hope ye who enter here”.

Ominous looking snowfield on the descent from Blaurock Pass

Ominous looking snowfield on the descent from Blaurock Pass

After crossing Dinwoody Creek in our socks, we arrived at our campsite. It was a dusty moon-like landscape ringed by massive peaks, including Wyoming’s high point, Gannett Peak (elev 13,804).

A panorama of the Dinwoody Glacier basin

A panorama of the Dinwoody Glacier basin

Day 5: A tale of three glaciers

After a tough but quick ascent out of Dinwoody Creek, we stepped onto the massive Gannett Glacier, which spreads below Gannett Peak. We made fast time across the crunchy snow and ice.

On the Gannet Glacier, which collects below Wyoming's high point

On the Gannet Glacier, which collects below Wyoming’s high point

A few quick passes later we reached the Grasshopper Glacier. As we approached, a huge chunk of ice calved off of the end of the glacier sending rippling waves across the lake below. We ascended to the top of the glacier, which was a melting mess.

The Grasshopper Glacier calves into this 12,000-foot lake.

The Grasshopper Glacier calves into this 12,000-foot lake.

Finally, we descended along tundra ramps and large rock slabs to Iceberg Pass. Yes, we had to descend to the 11,400 ft pass. Our campsite had five-star views once again, with views of Sourdough Glacier and Baker Lake.

Day 6: The weather gods frown

The day’s plan was to walk up and along the Continental Divide, ascend Down’s Mountain (the northernmost named 13’er in the range and the psychological terminus of the high route), and then descend to Crescent Lake high in the Roaring Fork. We met another backpacker who reported a chance of thunderstorms, so we were determined to begin our descent no later than 1:00 PM. Nate felt unwell from the altitude, but soldiered on.

A building storm, with few places to hide on the 12,000-foot Continental Divide. A good weather window is critical on this section of the route.

A building storm, with few places to hide on the 12,000-foot Continental Divide. A good weather window is critical on this section of the route.

We hiked for several hours along tundra ramps and the desolate rock-strewn landscape of the Continental Divide. As we neared Downs Mountain, storm clouds gathered. We found protection under a few overhanging boulders and sheltered in place, waiting for the storm. The storm moved slowly and when it finally arrived it brought massive hail — two inches accumulated at our feet. Forty-five minutes later the hail stopped and we saw sun along distant ridges, but also ominous low clouds to the south. We decided to make our move.

Taking cover while the storm passes through

Taking cover while the storm passes through

We contoured around the summit of Downs, taking care not to slip on the hail-covered rocks, and gradually started to make our descent. A snow squall whipped through, diminishing visibility to the south from where we had come. Thankfully the way forward remained clear.

We descended into a maze of gullies and features too small to show up on the map but difficult to cross nonetheless. Nate led the way with his amazing orienteering skills. The descent took hours. Adding insult to injury, it began to pour rain.

The route between Downs Mountain and Crescent Lake cuts against the grain of the topography, making for tricky navigation with many micro features too small to show up on the map.

The route between Downs Mountain and Crescent Lake cuts against the grain of the topography, making for tricky navigation with many micro features too small to show up on the map.

We arrived at Crescent Lake towards the end of the day, passing families in large Marmot tents along the way. Desperate for a sheltered site, we reconnected with trail for the first time in 24 miles and descended below treeline to camp.

Day 7: Back to civilization

From our campsite, it was an easy 10-mile stroll downhill back to the car. The hike started in thick and wet subalpine forest, and ended where the mountains meet the parched plains. On the way, the sun finally came out and allowed us to dry our gear, still soaking wet from the rain and dew of the previous day.

When the sun emerged, we hit the reset button by drying our gear.

When the sun emerged, we hit the reset button by drying our gear.

We were tired but also felt a deep satisfaction for completing this difficult route — probably the hardest hike we had ever done. We expected the vertical gain, the elevation, and the exposure to be challenging. But it was the grind of loose moraine, talus slopes, and rock-hopping that set this route apart in terms of difficulty. As Krishna put it, “If anyone wonders if they’re a masochist, they should try Loop 8. If they complete it, they’re a masochist.”

But it was also the most amazing backcountry adventure any of us have had. And we even had denatured alcohol left over at the end.

After reaching the car, there was one more important leg to the journey: find a brewpub in Salt Lake City, toast to the success of the trip, and eat real food. To quote Alan Dixon: “The trip is not over until you have placed your order”.

No worse for wear

No worse for wear

Equipment notes:

  • The Sidewinder Caldera Cone stove systems really shined. They are compact, super-efficient and also have a wood-burning mode. If not for these versatile stoves, we would have almost certainly run out of fuel.
  • One of Krishna’s Cascade Mountain Tech Quick Lock Trekking Poles (Skurka’s review) cracked and failed for no apparent reason. This may be a trip where a more robust trekking pole would be worth the weight.
  • Mini-crampons are essential for this trip. The Kahtoola Microspikes had great grip, and were easy to get on and off. In contrast, Nate’s Vargo Titanium Pocket Cleats were fiddly and did not grip as well. The Kahtoolas are worth the extra 8 ounces.
  • Gaia GPS on our smartphones was essential for staying found, especially in the confusing terrain below Downs Mountain. The trip was too long for just one charge — we all brought and used Jackery Chargers. (More: Mapping recommendations)
  • The DeLorme InReach SE was great for sending status reports to loved ones, and would have been essential in an emergency. (Tag: DeLorme inReach)
  • The forecast for the week was for sun and relatively warm weather. Even with such a favorable forecast we all used our puffy jackets, fleece mid-layers, rain shells, and gloves.

3 Responses to Northern Crux || Trip Report: Wind River High Route, Loop 8

  1. Michael August 25, 2016 at 7:58 pm #

    I didn’t know y’all would be famous. 🙂 I’ll post the video of my trip report in a week or so, which will include you in a small snippet. Glad you made it through the storms heading toward Downs. I was worried about you. I didn’t get that much hail, but waited a couple hours for lightning. Upgrade the firmware on your SE to get weather ability or use http://wx2inreach.weebly.com/ – they were both useful to me but neither came close to forecasting the 18 F morning I had at Bear Lake. Made it fine without a puffy, but thankfully a sunny morning so I could dry my bag thoroughly. I think you were gone before all the wildfire smoke came up the Roaring Fork my last night. That was somewhat unnerving.

    -topshot @ BPL

  2. Rud Platt August 28, 2016 at 6:25 pm #

    Hey Michael – good to meet you out there in the wilds and glad you made it home safely! Look forward to watching your video trip report.

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