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She’s the one: The complete Wind River High Route

A scan of my topo maps from the 2009 trip, during which we hiked the length of the range. Wind River Peak was a climatic finish for the group, as it will be for a southbounder on the Wind River High Route; for a northbounder, it's an inspiring start.

A scan of my topo maps from the 2009 trip, during which we hiked the length of the range. Wind River Peak was a climatic finish for the group, as it will be for a southbounder on the Wind River High Route; for a northbounder, it’s an inspiring start.

My guide to the complete Wind River High Route is finally live. This project was first inspired in 2009 while guiding a two-week trip through the range, and this winter it has been my biggest obsession, the focus of 100+ hours of time and the cause for several sleepless nights when it’s been more difficult to shut down my mind than my computer. BTW, has anyone else ever dreamt in contour lines?

The route’s specs:

  • 97 miles, with 63 miles (65 percent) of off-trail travel
  • Two 13’ers plus a 12,259-foot mid-route summit
  • Nine alpine passes; the highest, Blaurock Pass, is at 12,750 feet
  • 620 vertical feet of change per mile, and a total of 30,000 feet of climbing
  • Lowest elevation, besides the trailheads: 9,690 feet at Big Sandy Lake

The Wind River High Route Guide is a substantial body of work. This first release includes an 18-page set of extensively annotated topographic maps, datasheets for the Primary Route (thru-hike) and its Alternates, and a 15,000-word Guidebook. And it will soon grow: by the end of the month I will publish mapsets, datasheets, and guidebooks for six recommend Section Hikes ranging from about 30 to 60 miles that will normally take 2-5 days, or longer by combining loops. When new editions are available, all earlier customers will be upgraded.

No, this is not Alaska, it’s still Wyoming. Klondike Peak, the Sourdough Glacier, and Iceberg Lake.

No, this is not Alaska, it’s still Wyoming. Klondike Peak, the Sourdough Glacier, and Iceberg Lake.

The complete Wind River High Route

The Wind River High Route is not a new concept. I can trace it back at least to 1994 with Forrest McCarthy, who skied the crest of the range from Lander to Jackson. He’s posted a map of his impressive route, but little other instructional information.

More recently a number of individuals have attempted to formalize the route. Jonathan Ley has included high route alternates in his Continental Divide Trail maps since the early-2000’s. Jared Campbell and Ty Draney first attempted a “Crest Route” in 2010. Dan McCoy first shared his “Crest of the Wind River Range” package in 2011. Nancy Pallister did a 39-day “Wind River Traverse” in 2012 that was intended to be “similar to Roper’s [Sierra] High Route.” And Alan Dixon and Don Wilson released a guide in 2013 for a “Wind River High Route” that a fit hiker can complete within a standard one-week vacation.

Before my first thru-hike attempt of the Wind River High Route with Buzz Burrell and Peter Bakwin in 2014, we felt strongly that the available actionable resources (i.e. Ley, McCoy, and most substantially Dixon/Wilson) for the route fell short. While the lines were high route-inspired, they failed to fulfill the potential of the range, by design or not.

In particular, they missed multiple opportunities — notably Wind River Peak, Photo Pass, Europe Peak, and Douglas Peak Pass — to make the route higher and more scenic without exceeding Class 2 or Class 3 difficulty.

More tragically, they completely bypassed the most magnificent part of the range. In the upper headwaters of Dinwoody and Torrey Creeks, you will find: Wyoming’s high point (Gannett Peak, 13,804 feet) plus nine more of its fifteen highest summits; the largest concentration of glaciers in the American Rockies; and a rolling ridgewalk atop the Continental Divide that remains above 12,000 feet for five consecutive miles. Omission of this final section seemed akin to terminating the Appalachian Trail on Massachusetts’ Mt. Greylock instead of pushing north into the more rugged but ultimately more worthy mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Buzz, Peter, and I were unsuccessful in our bid to set a higher standard that year, and were humbled and inspired by the experience. I returned solo last August, and finished what I believe to be the complete Wind River High Route. It offers a paramount Wind River Range experience and has little, if any, room for improvement as far as high routes go.

More information:

The Guide is based not only on my two thru-hike attempts and my other trips to the Winds, but on the collective experience of several others, notably Buzz and Peter, Mike Clelland, Derek Bartz, David Eitemiller, and Douglas Wahl. Indirect inspiration came from Joe Kelsey, who wrote the range’s definitive guidebook, Climbing & Hiking in the Wind River Mountains.

Section Highlights

Section 1: Plains to Alpine

The Wind River High Route is bookended in the south by Wind River Peak, the range’s southernmost 13’er. The summit has sweeping panoramas, especially to the north. On a clear day, Gannett Peak is visible, 42 miles away by air and 56 miles by foot. For a northbounder, it’s an inspiring sight, full of mountains and valleys with which you will soon have more personal familiarity. A southbounder should be immensely proud — you just hiked all of that!

From the summit of Wind River Peak on a clear day, looking north towards Gannett Peak, 45 miles distant, which has the distinctive horizontal snowfield below its summit.

From the summit of Wind River Peak on a clear day, looking north towards Gannett Peak, 45 miles distant, which has the distinctive horizontal snowfield below its summit.

Section 2: Cirques, Valleys, and Basins

The classic pass-and-valley theme begins to take shape. The Wind River High Route passes through the world famous Cirque of Towers, and then carries on to the lesser known but equally impressive upper headwaters of the East River.

The upper East Fork is just as impressive as the Cirque of Towers, but it's lesser known and much less crowded.

The upper East Fork is just as impressive as the Cirque of Towers, but it’s lesser known and much less crowded.

The sections ends at Middle Fork Lake, the halfway point between Sentry Peak Pass and the next obvious high point on the Wind River High Route, Photo Pass.

From Sentry Peak Pass, looking across the upper Middle Fork valley towards the next pass on the Wind River High Route, Photo Pass.

From Sentry Peak Pass, looking across the upper Middle Fork valley towards the next pass on the Wind River High Route, Photo Pass.

Section 3: High above the Res

The upper tributaries of Bull Lake Creek are rarely visited. Access from the east side, through the Wind River Indian Reservation, is very long and limited. From the west side, there are few easy passes over the Continental Divide, and no obvious through-routes since no two passes are connected by trails. Only three of this section’s 29 miles are on-trail.

Climbing out of Golden Lakes towards Douglas Peak Pass, looking south towards the Divide and Europe Peak.

Climbing out of Golden Lakes towards Douglas Peak Pass, looking south towards the Divide and Europe Peak.

Europe Peak, a 12,259-foot midpoint, interrupts the pass-and-valley pattern. From the summit, Wind River Peak can be seen to the south, and Gannett Peak to the north. A 2-mile stroll atop the Continental Divide follows.

Among Bull Lake Creek’s four main tributaries, the North Fork is its most stunning. It’d be a fitting location for a Sound of Music sequel.

The upper North Fork of Blaurock Creek may be my favorite section of the entire route. The exit is via Blaurock Pass, the highest pass on the route and the second biggest climb; it’s the low spot on the right side of the ridge.

The upper North Fork of Blaurock Creek may be my favorite section of the entire route. The exit is via Blaurock Pass, the highest pass on the route and the second biggest climb; it’s the low spot on the right side of the ridge.

Section 4: Continental Crux

On the Wind River High Route, the best is saved for last, so long as the weather, your health, and your food bag are cooperating. The section starts with the crossing of two glaciers, Gannett and Grasshopper, which can be safely done in running shoes and without technical equipment (e.g. crampons, rope, ice axe).

Gannett Glacier, which sits just below Gannett Peak on the east side of the Continental Divide. Like many glaciers in the Winds, it has receded significantly since the topos were last updated, and it no longer is the technical obstacle that it once was.

Gannett Glacier, which sits just below Gannett Peak on the east side of the Continental Divide. Like many glaciers in the Winds, it has receded significantly since the topos were last updated, and it no longer is the technical obstacle that it once was.

The journey ends atop Downs Mountain, the range’s northernmost named 13’er. The north view makes it clear that you are at the topographical terminus of the Wind River Range. There are no higher points on the Divide, and the slopes in all directions seem to fizzle into forests and high plains.

Downs Mountain, the northernmost named 13’er in the range, is the northern bookend for the Wind River High Route. Wind River Peak cannot be seen from its 13,350-foot summit, but it’s a climatic and fitting finish nonetheless.

Downs Mountain, the northernmost named 13’er in the range, is the northern bookend for the Wind River High Route. Wind River Peak cannot be seen from its 13,350-foot summit, but it’s a climatic and fitting finish nonetheless.

12 Responses to She’s the one: The complete Wind River High Route

  1. Melissa February 15, 2016 at 10:09 pm #

    Thanks Andrew for doing this. We are looking forward to hiking this summer! We will get this and let you know how the shorter ones go. We live in Pinedale and will hopefully be able to knock out some great long weekend hikes. Once we get more time off of work we will do the entire high route. Our weekend hikes we usually try to figure them out based on our guide books etc. but some of the off trail portions can be difficult to asses difficulty, best route, etc. which result in us planning more conservative hikes so this will be a great resource.

    • Andrew Skurka February 15, 2016 at 10:16 pm #

      I am sure that living in Pinedale is not perfect, but having such good access to the Winds has to be a big perk.

      Would love to hear how the routes go for you.

  2. Melissa March 4, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    We will let you know how they go. Just purchased and will be looking through them this weekend. Please look at the Note we added to the order.

  3. Forrest McCarthy April 24, 2016 at 10:53 pm #

    According to CM Moore, the crest of the Wiind River Range was regularly traveled by Sheepeater Indians in the centuries before the first whites arrived. The route provided the Sheepeaters, a shortcut as it was more efficient to travel along the crest than navigate up and down all the steep and complex valleys. They range was more glaciated back then and provided a more efficient travel surface than you find today.

    The beautiful thing about traveling along the ranges crest is that there is no one best way; there are many great ways. The best route depends on the conditions as well as individual skills and preferences. Someone comfortable in glacier travel would not want to miss traveling the section that follows a major fault line from the Freemont Glaciers to the Continental Glacier. Those that like to fish and seek the prized golden trout for dinner would prefer a slightly lower route. Sometimes when traveling the crest I prefer to stay on the east side, other times the west. Neither is better, they are both fantastic.

    A big part traveling the Wind Rivers (especially along the crest) is studying the maps and dreaming and scheming of your own creative route that best fits your personal desires. This is why I generally do not provide detailed information about any of my routes in the Winds. Like Joe Kelsey’s intentionally vague route descriptions in his definitive climbing and hiking guide to the Wind Rivers, it has long been the tradition in the Winds not to spell it our for people. To do so is to deprive others of the opportunity for a full wilderness experience in a very special mountain range.

    Yet it seems this ethic is changing. Andrew and Allan Dixon are not the first to publish these types of guides. A few years back, a former NOLS instructor Nancy Pallister published “Beyond Trails in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming: Off-Trail Routes for the Advanced Backpacker.” In her book, Pallister describes the main routes NOLS has been leading students on for 40+ years. Interested, I bought a copy, yet I did not find it as useful or inspiring as simply studying maps and thinking up my own routes.

    Some are mourning the erosion of the Wind River wilderness ethic, yet likely it doesn’t matter much. A few more people will follow these published routes. Yet, those of us who prefer more of a wilderness experience that includes figuring it out for ourselves still have ample wild empty country to roam. This is similar to the Sierras, where the Muir Trail and Steve Roper’s High Route attracts some, while exploring the unlimited alternatives is more appealing to others.

    • Andrew Skurka April 25, 2016 at 7:53 am #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Forrest.

      I think some context is helpful, though. You have vast Winds experience, and live nearby. Thus, you don’t need route info (especially for a backpacking route that never exceeds Class 3 in difficulty), and you have the opportunity to explore the range multiple times per year.

      Someone without as much experience in or access to the Winds probably looks differently at the Wind River High Route, or other capstone-type routes like the JMT or SHR. For them, a prescribed route with an accompanying body of information is a guarantee to have a better backcountry experience than they would have otherwise, i.e. higher quality, longer, and either safer or equally safe while being more ambitious.

      Some may argue that this type of experience should be “earned.” This position seems unacceptably elitist to me. It also does not seem maintainable — to be consistent, one must oppose the sharing of all information, regardless of the source and the medium, e.g. Kelsey or me, book or word-of-mouth. Personally, I would not want to have to defend one guidebook over another, or to claim that Hiker A has more of a right to insider knowledge than Hiker B.

    • Boardman May 14, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

      I agree somewhat with Forrest McCarthy. The fun is in the planning and execution of your “own” route that no one else has done exactly the way you plan to do it.

      I am lucky enough to be part of a family that owns a ranch on Torrey and Ring Lakes near Dubois–you drive across our ranch on Rd. 411 on the way to the Trail Lake Trailhead. Although I live in Boulder, CO, I and my family have hiked a lot in the northern part of the Winds.

      Last summer, we did an off-trail route through Torrey Creek the headwaters of the Jakey’s Fork, including the Wasson Fork, where there was no published route beta. (Basically, we went up the East Fork of Torrey Creek, day-hiked to both Ross Lakes, climbed out from Mile Long Lake, and circled back to the trailhead over Shale Mountain and the Wasson Fork.) Finding a beautiful and unique route through these areas was one of the major highlights of the trip. There were no pictures of Old Ram Lake on the internet before my trip–it was fun to discover this area without having seen it.

      Although I like creating my “own” route, I also read the best print sources such as Pallister, Bonney, Kelsey, and Mitchell as well as online trip reports of climbers, such as the Adventures of Sarah T. I am willing to share limited information about my routes. See: https://www.spyderco.com/forumII/viewtopic.php?t=68256 for a description of the trip described above. However, I think that publicly sharing KMLs, route maps, or GPS waypoints on the internet is wrong. Why? Because it allows those not willing to put in the work to read guidebooks or look at maps/Google Earth to reach the same areas as those people that do put in the effort, thus spoiling the solitude of the “hidden gems.”

      I would have to say that Hiker A definitely has more of a right to insider knowledge than Hiker B if Hiker A put in tens or hundreds of hours of effort to learn about the range, bought guidebooks, poured over maps, and created his own KMLs while Hiker B only visited a website.
      ____________

      Anyway, I am planning my own Wind River High Route for this summer. It will be 26 days, 150 miles with packs, and an additional 50 or so miles on peak climbs. Total elevation gain will be about 80,000 vertical feet. The average elevation of the route (excluding peak climbs) is exactly 11,000 feet.

      We will start at Sweetwater Gap, climb Wind River Peak, climb Overhanging Tower in the Cirque of the Towers, spend a few nights in the South Fork of the Little Wind including climbing Mount Roberts, cross into the East Fork Valley and get resupplied at Middle Fork Lake.

      From there, we will traverse the Golden and Alpine Lakes, drop into Indian Basin, climb Fremont and Jackson, continue to Titcomb and ascend a gully to the Helen Glacier, climb Warren, Helen, and Sacagawea, cross Blaurock pass and climb Turret from the Dinwoody side, and drop to the Inkwells cutoff for a second resupply.

      From there, we will visit Klondike Lake and Grasshopper Creek, climb Bastion and Koven, descend to Scott Lake, climb Gannett from the west, cross to the heads of Tourist and Pixley creeks, descend to Downs Lake, climb Downs Mountain, visit the Roaring and Jakeys Forks, visit Snowbank Lake on the west shore of Ross Lake, and end by walking out to our ranch on Torrey Lake.

      I don’t believe that anyone has done a linkup of all of these locations before. There are several cruxes that are only mentioned in one sentence in the old-school Bonney & Bonney book and nowhere on the internet or in any other guidebook. (For example, Bonney says about my planned traverse of a valley west of the Downs Fork: “A lake completely fills valley & requires scrambling on adjacent cliffs to avoid swimming.”) To me, those are the kinds of places I want to visit–ambiguously described, almost mystical routes–not a cut-and-dried, prepackaged route from someone else.

      To each his own; YMMV.

  4. Jason May 26, 2016 at 10:37 am #

    Funny you call Forrest McCarthy’s view elitist. HA. I see elitism in assuming your prescribed route is worth purchasing. I see elitism in saying “she’s the one” about your version of a high route. I see elitism in saying that living in Pinedale “is not perfect, but…”. I see elitism in saying that regular folks (who do not have Mr. McCarthy’s experience in the Winds) should look to your route for inspiration. I see elitism in publishing a route that suits your experience, ability level, and interests while marketing it as something others should desire to achieve. I’m sure that will help sell a few.

    But anyway, to the folks planning adventures: Definitely come to the Winds. Get yourself a map and a Kelsey guidebook. Figure out what you want to do, and then plan your own adventure. Yours! It will be far superior to any prescribed route. Oh, and consider doing it out of the West side, despite our “problems”.

    • Andrew Skurka May 26, 2016 at 11:14 am #

      I’m confident in the route and I’m very proud of the Guide. But I will still thank you for sharing your perspective.

      As far as Pinedale, “not perfect” can be construed a number of ways, and I’ll elaborate since I care not to offend its residents unintentionally. No place is perfect; every town or city has tradeoffs. Boulder is far from perfect, too, but I overlook the congestion and stupidly expensive real estate so that I can go for long trail runs from my doorstep and so that I’m just a 1-hour bus ride to a major airport. Pinedale has its own issues, like the lack of a big hospital and a boom-and-bust economy. Not perfect, sorry, but that’s not to say it can’t be a great place to live.

      • Jason June 23, 2016 at 9:37 am #

        Fair enough. But then if no place is perfect, why bother to mention it at all?

        And to be fair, your route looks awesome. if you were writing a blog post about it and simply writing about your particular adventure as a function of your wants for such a hike, then i’d be stoked. It’s the prescription and subscription part that bugs me.

        Still, a guy has to make a living i guess, so do your thing.

        • Andrew Skurka June 23, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

          > It’s the prescription and subscription part that bugs me.

          I understand both of those sentiments. But for various reasons I chose this path anyway. More:

          1. There is enough (free) information on this website about the route (and logistics, weather, gear, etc.) that you could piece it together on your own in combination with other free resources. Consider the $25 a convenience fee. Of course, you don’t have to buy anything if you don’t have to.

          2. If you saw the guide in printed form at a bookstore, you would never question the cost. It’s a substantial amount of work and information, about 150 hours worth. It’s unfortunate that a download is perceived as having less value, because it’s a more user-friendly format than a paper copy (which can’t be updated, which gets destroyed in the field, and which can’t be easily broken apart for field use).

          3. You sound like you’re competent and know the Winds well. Frankly, you’re not my intended audience. With a loose description of the route and some un-annotated maps, you could probably pull off the route just fine, and wander along some alternate routes on a loose suggestion. But someone with less backcountry experience or familiarity with the Winds? Probably not. Understandably they need and want more guidance and specificity, and probably a more modest itinerary as well, which is why I included the section hikes. Among customers who have contacted me, not a single one is planning to do the whole route. If I left the route vague, it becomes out of reach for most. For those who do not need all the detail and want to retain a greater sense of adventure, they can avoid some parts of the guide (e.g. rely mostly on the maps, and rarely consult the written description).

  5. dbot July 11, 2016 at 6:36 am #

    Why do you continue to delete my posts on this blog Andrew. You are just a cash hungry selfish person who is only interested in personal gain and not the mountains. You plagiarize and make stuff up based on what you see on a map. You have proven and admit yourself to be unsuccessful with your planned routes, and think you are the warlord of writing documentation. Many of these places I question if you ever have put boots to the ground.
    Let me tell you what really pisses me off about you Andrew. 3 years ago while on a pack trip with my son I ran into you on the crest of the Winds. You questioned us, asked me where we were going where we were coming from, and then we parted ways. You took that information, followed it, and now you’re trying to gain an economic boost only for yourself at the cost and destruction of these magnificent pristine mountains.
    Is that how you earn a living Andrew. Wandering around on your own unsuccessful trips gathering information from people on trails and routes only so you can fill your pockets with cash and then move on to the next mountain range.
    The reason these mountains have been kept the way they are is because people that visit the winds appreciate the fact that they are pristine. They wish to come back and see it just as it was that day again. You have only one interest in these mountains. It is to make cash. Hundreds of people could have taken this step before you. But they love the mountains more than you do. We choose to preserve the mountains, not pad our pockets off of them. Shame on you.

    • Andrew Skurka July 11, 2016 at 7:44 am #

      Your earliest posts (here and here) on this blog have always been live, and were responded to. I have deleted many subsequent posts of yours because (1) their lack of civility is inconsistent with the overall tone of this website, and (2) they have no purposes besides repeating personal attacks. I will kindly ask you to stop trolling my website.

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