For most of its length, the Wind River High Route feels very wild and remote — and it is. But the route, and the broader Wind River Range, has already been thoroughly explored. Today, we simply stand on the shoulders of earlier explorers: indigenous tribes, the Hayden Survey, sheepherders and cattlemen, pioneering mountaineers, and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), which since the 1960’s has sent thousands of groups into the Winds.
Information about the range’s peaks, passes, routes, and trails has been documented in two definitive guides: Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, by Joe Kelsey, and Beyond Trails in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, by Nancy Pallister (“Wandering Daisy”).
I was introduced to the Wind River Range in 2007 during my 6,875-mile Great Western Loop hike while following the Continental Divide Trail. Sadly, the CDT takes a lackluster route on the west side of the crest, and the highlight of my first Winds experience was when I finally left it in order to ascend well-trodden Texas Pass into Cirque of Towers.
My backpacking interests shifted the following summer, when I traversed Iceland and thru-hiked Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route with Buzz Burrell. Since then, hiking on trails has felt relatively limiting and mind-numbingly boring. When I returned to the Winds in 2009 and 2011 to guide 1- and 2-week trips, my planned itineraries were always more high route-esque.
While the Wind River High Route has recently gained much attention, it is not a new concept. Most impressively, Forrest McCarthy skied a high route in 1994 from Lander to Jackson. Jonathan Ley has included high route alternates in his CDT maps since the early-2000’s. Jared Campbell and Ty Draney first attempted their “Crest Route” in 2010. DanMcCoy shared his “Crest of the Wind River Range” in 2011. Pallister did a 39-day “Wind River Traverse” in 2012 that was intended to be “similar to Roper’s [Sierra] High Route.” The most substantial contribution comes from my friends Alan Dixon and Don Wilson, who in 2013 released a guide for a route that a fit hiker can complete within a standard one-week vacation.
I’d be shocked if the idea cannot be traced back further and to many more sources. The only debate today is over the route. Personally, I believe there is only one that best fulfills the potential of the range while remaining non-technical. Alternates may better accommodate weather and limited vacation time, but the complete Wind River Route should not be a compromise.
With the company of Buzz Burrell and Peter Bakwin, in 2014 I attempted what we considered to be the Wind River High Route, based on our cumulative experience in the range. We were turned back by hard ice on Bonney Pass, for which we were unprepared. I returned in 2015 and completed the route in its entirety in 4.25 days, then yo-yo’d 100 miles back to my car on an entirely different route in order to research alternate routes and section-hike segments. A few weeks earlier, Derek Bartz and his girlfriend had completed the entire route.
My knowledge of the Winds is not definitive, and it is my intention to continue to add to it. Nonetheless, I feel very confident in the accuracy of the information I have provided about the Winds and more specifically the Wind River High Route.