- Dates: Tuesday, August 29th to Saturday, September 2nd, 2017
- Route: Wind River High Route, Loop 4
- Weather: Temperature 60’s to 70’s, rained only one day, otherwise sunny and pleasant
- Distance: 43 miles
- Time: 4.5 days
- Trailhead: Elkhart Park
- Passes: Angel Pass, Douglas Lake Pass, Alpine Lakes Pass, Indian Pass
Chris Barrett, Paul Bennett and I met in 2015 on a 5-day guided trip with Andrew. In 2016 Andrew took a year off from guiding, so the three of us decided to undertake on our own Loop 1 of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route. It was a huge success for us and increased our confidence in our abilities. Read the trip report here.
Before the end of that trip, we had already started planning our next trip in 2017, to the Wind River Range. Unfortunately, Paul had to drop out this year due to a newborn baby, although we did bring a picture of Paul for photos. Chris and I decided to forge ahead, and undertake Loop 4 of the Wind River High Route, with the option of doing Loop 5 (which is only 11 miles longer but has two additional hard passes) if things were going smoothly.
Warm-up: Climbing the Grand Teton
As part of this trip we decided we also wanted to hone our sense of mountains, rock-climbing and alpine awareness. We signed up for a three day guided trip to climb the Grand Teton with Exum Mountain Guides. This was going to be our intro to Wyoming and it was a fantastic trip, apart from almost getting killed by rockfall.
The main take-away here was that the alpine environment can be unforgiving and there is some luck involved. You basically want to minimize the chances of something happening in dangerous places by keeping your time in that zone to a minimum. In our case we were in a steep couloir and there were descending climbers above us that brought rockfall down on us. “Rock, rock, rock!” We sprinted under some modest ledges and just missed some mini-fridge sized rocks crashing down on where we had been standing. Yikes. Needless to say we made it to the summit and it was a great trip — I highly recommend Exum Mountain Guides and my comfort in the alpine went up significantly.
Wind River High Route: Day 1
With a three-day summit of Grand Teton and about 12 hours total of driving behind us, it was time to start on the real reason for our trip — the Wind Rivers! Immediately you get a sense that this place is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a long drive from Denver or any other major airport and it feels like it is just sitting smack in the middle of millions of square miles of cattle ranching plains. As you leave Elkhart Park trailhead, though, you quickly get in to some beautiful forests and alpine meadows.
For us the first day was straightforward trail hiking, intended to gain elevation and get us off-trail. We met an amazing lady in her 70’s that was hiking by herself. She had previously had some hiking partners she had met on a course, like we did, but as life changed she found herself hiking solo and enjoying it with little fear or hesitation.
We camped at Spider Lake with our morning objective in site, Angel Pass.
Wind River High Route: Day 2
The next morning we went over Angel Pass at about 11,600 feet and dropped down to Dennis Lake. So far, the route finding had been very straightforward and perhaps even easier than the High Sierras, which frequently seemed to have more confusing and complicated talus that required better micro-navigation. In the Wind Rivers, everything seemed very clear and obvious to us. The only trouble we had at all on the trip was linking with the trail above Dennis Lake by going through very dense thickets of trees.
So far so good, with a feeling of true alpine beauty around us at all times. We made our way down to the Golden Lakes basin, again picking up a trail for a period of time. There was beautiful camping along the shores of the lakes and there were a number of horse packers present. We pressed on upwards again, reaching the foot of Douglas Peak Pass at dusk and camped on the shore of Lake 10787.
Wind River High Route: Day 3
The next morning brought some rain for a couple of hours and we lolled around in our sleeping bags. Both our tents performed very well, in my case a Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid XL and Chris had a Skurka designed Sierra Designs High Route 1 FL. Skurka’s design definitely had substantially more room, though it required a bit more staking skills. In a head to head they’d come out pretty even on a variety of factors and it probably comes down to personal preference. Chris had both the Skurka backpack and tent and really liked them both a lot.
While we were waiting for the rain to subside, we saw the first of two backpackers that we encountered on the High Route portion of the trip, both of them going solo. He was cheerfully walking through the rain and asked us for directions. Shamed by our lolling about in our tents, we decided to pack and got a late start around 11am just as the rain stopped.
Our first goal was to summit Douglas Peak Pass, which looked very intimidating from this side. But per Skurka’s excellent route guide, there was an incredible route just below the steep right side cliff that carried us all the way to the top. Once to the top we were feeling elated, until we turned to look down and out to our next destination — the Alpine Lakes Basin, culminating in Alpine Lakes Pass. Gulp. At this point I started to feel a sense of mounting dread. Alpine Lakes Pass lay at the end of the namesake chain of lakes, jammed at the bottom of a series of cold serrated peaks dripping in glaciers. The pass itself from this distance appeared to be a sheer wall of snow, almost vertical and perhaps four or five hundred feet in height.
Neither of us really had any experience on snow with self-arrest. We did have Kahtoola Microspikes and Camp Corsa ice axes. Definitively I would say the microspikes are required. This trip could not have been done without them, since there were significant sections of snow this year. Some of the snow fields were above steep plunges in to lakes. The ice axes were never put to the test, but I would imagine they too are required for self-arrest.
The closer we got to Alpine Lakes Pass, working our way through the talus and jumbled lake setting, the more dread I felt. What if I slipped at the top, could not self-arrest, and ended up bashing my head on a rock or breaking a leg on the boulder field at the bottom? The Alpine Lakes Basin was an environment of the sublime, with feelings of both awe and terror. I definitely felt like the mountains were crowding around us and keeping us penned in by the shores of the three lakes. We finally made it through the interminable jumble of lakes, snowfields, talus and moraine to reach the base of the pass by dusk, where we would set up for the night. We decided we would get up early and hit the snow slope while the temperatures were colder.
Wind River High Route: Day 4
I had a terrible night of dreams of various kinds of alpine death. When I woke up I told Chris that I was not sure about this and if I felt we had to turn around that I would need his support. Chris was rock-solid, just said that we should go one step at a time and check it out. It is very important to choose your partners wisely. In this case Chris was solid when I was wobbly.
We made our way to the base of the snowfield, got our crampons on and pulled out our axes. I started up the snowfield and the moment I was on it, I knew it could be done no problem. Though it seemed steep, I felt very safe, probably because it was early morning and the snow was hard and the crampons gripped securely. I set off at a fast pace and made it to the top of the pass with no issues. Chris followed shortly behind and we felt elated. The view of the next valley was not a problem for us now, even though it was even more snow-filled and actually had true blue glaciers that we had to ascend.
This was the moment of decision — finish early with Loop 4 or carry on to try Loop 5 and Bonney Pass. We had just met another solo hiker at the top of Alpine Lakes Pass and he told us Bonney Pass was pretty intense. That sealed it. After three days on the Grand Teton and already four on the Wind Rivers we felt like eight days in total was probably enough for us. Loop 5 would require at least one, if not two extra days, and it felt like it might be tight to catch my flight back to Toronto from Denver. We choose Loop 4 and turned left in the valley to go up and over Indian Pass.
This was relatively straightforward, though it was even more intense snow and glacier travel. By now we were feeling more secure travelling on snow. However the early morning starts are very important. In hindsight we could have gotten up even earlier to do Alpine Lakes Pass in order to make sure Knifepoint Glacier was also travelled during the early morning. By the time we reached it, it was approaching noon and the conditions were very slushy, creating difficulty in getting a positive foot placement on the steeper terrain.
We made it over Indian Pass and then dropped down on to trail travel again, passing by Titcomb Basin, where the backpacker traffic greatly increased. We found a final beautiful campsite by Hobbs Lake. The fish were literally jumping out of the lake at dusk. Note to self: this could be a great fishing destination as well. We had a swim and a final celebratory campfire.
Wind River High Route: Day 5
Our last day was a short four hour hike out on trail. Between here and Elkhart Park trailhead we passed horse-packers, goat-packers and llama packers, but it was kind of fun to see. Back to the car and we were done.
The Wind Rivers are a spectacular and stark alpine environment. It is a special environment and it was a great trip. Combined with the Grand Teton experience, I felt like my alpine experience significantly increased. In hindsight,however, I somewhat wish we had tried Loop 5 and Bonney Pass. Once again, thank you to Andrew Skurka for the superb instruction on his trips that prepared us well and his excellent High Route guide books.
I must admit, though, I also found the Sierras trip the prior year more challenging. Maybe because it was our first trip without the guidance of Skurka? The navigation in the Wind Rivers seemed much more straightforward and obvious. For me, the only challenge was mental, at the base of Alpine Lakes Pass. And although the Wind Rivers are sharper, more alpine, more sublime, there is something unique about the scale and sheer square footage of the Sierras. In the Winds it felt more like a long narrow range of mountains, whereas the Sierras felt vast and interminable in all directions.
So already I am thinking about our next trip in summer 2018. These trips always have about six months of excitement in the planning stages through the winter months and then a lifetime of memories, paying off many fold through time. Maybe back to the Sierras, perhaps coming from the east side instead? And maybe longer again. Four a half days felt too short. Seven day is too long, so maybe a six day loop from somewhere around Bishop? Stay posted for more next year.