In this multi-post series, Spiderwoman offers her tips for hiking the Wind River High Route and her comments about the Wind River Guide. View all of her posts.
Skurka writes that the first 14 miles are, in part, an opportunity to “find your hiking legs”. My pre-trip prep was two weeks of day hiking on trails with pack weight in the Sierra. That in no way prepared my body for what comes quickly: the West Gully descent. I may as well have started fresh off the couch for how badly my legs and core were worked. I recommend a vigorous couple weeks of cross-country mountain training sessions, on loose talus with pack weight, prior to starting Skurka’s WRHR.
Up the Popo Agie
“Double-checking” the signage and your map once standing at trail junctions was a good idea.
Wind River Peak
It’s a mellow, very pretty walk to the top of Wind River Peak…and an exciting way for a novice to both Wyoming and the Continental Divide to get acquainted with this new world. As we walked up up up, we were transported from a world of water and wood and closed-in shelter into one of rock, wide open horizons, and gorgeously-shaped peaks spreading as far as the eye could see. I took a “bearing” on a rocky outcropping way above us that may have been “Chimney Rock”, but once we got closer, it had plenty of company and we lost track of it.
To put yourself in the best position to descend off Wind River Peak via West Gully (to beat afternoon storms and at the very least, nightfall) consider these camping options:
- “Protected camps in krumholtz,” just past “PR-05”
- “Semi-protected camping” (just south of mapped Deep Creek Lakes)
- The “shallow saddle” between Chimney Rock and Wind River Peak.
There was water on the saddle, but I can’t remember details – I wish I had a better memory of that. I’d haul water up there just to be sure. If you know the weather’s going to be fine, this would be a neat place to camp. Imagine the evening and morning light shows from that vantage. And it would allow you to rest between up and down climbs. That extra rest would be money in the bank for your body to dip into further on into the trip. I wouldn’t plan on walking from Bruce’s Bridge to the saddle in one day – probably would negate any savings plan 🙂
To comment on the West Gully descent are these Tips primary purpose for existing.
The descent was brutal.
More accurately, my asinine decision to thru-hike Skurka’s WRHR without a resupply made for a brutal, dangerously inappropriate, scary descent. Our packs were simply too heavy for the terrain:
- Unstable talus resting on unstable talus resting on unstable talus resting on unstable talus
- Runs out into cliffs
I highly recommend descending West Gully with the most minimal pack weight possible. Unless you’re a Cyborg (aka Skurka) and only have 4 days of food on your back for your thru-hike (who are you!?!), please plan on resupplying at Big Sandy Lodge. For shelter, hang a piece of toilet tissue with some floss. For food, rob from your body’s reserves. In other words, figure out a way to do it summit-pack-style.
What were we thinking carrying such heavy packs down West Gully? There’s no good explanation for why I didn’t plan a resupply at Big Sandy Lodge. I just didn’t know better. And I think I remember reading somewhere in Skurka’s writings that because of inconvenience, one could consider thru-hiking the route without a resupply. That’s all and good for plenty of people I’m sure. But not so much with our fitness level + 10 day packs + fishing gear.
I assumed that since we’ve hauled similarly hefty packs over demanding x-country terrain before, we’d of course exert ourselves, but everything would be fine. As it played out, we were lucky to be fine. Every heavy-backpack-burdened step on that steep exposed unstable terrain was wickedly dangerous. Every muscle, I mean every foot, leg, core (especially core), arm, neck, and even face muscle was engaged in the tedious rhythm of balancing in a semi-squat, cautiously shifting the weight, testing the integrity of the few square inches of unstable talus being depended on, gently lifting the back leg and painstakingly bringing it forward to the next unstable unknown. Can I trust my footing? Am I about to start a rockslide? Is this rock or a rock 4 layers below it going to turn and send me flying forward? I have a better word for “Kelsey’s not pretty”: straight up ugly.
The descent did not start well. The Brawn went flying face-forward just after we left the summit. Maybe he hadn’t fully appreciated the instability of the terrain? It’s a steep angle, so he really crashed hard, and what a nasty surface for such a blunt force. It was the kind of accident where both of our reactions was silence. He was clearly shocked and hurting. All I cared about was whether or not he’d broken a leg bone. I quietly, carefully made my way down to him, and whispered did you break it? Trembling, he pulled up his pant leg and found a 5 inch bleeding gash, but nothing worse. Relief! Using my meager first-aid kit, I nursed him with the aim of preventing infection because that was about all we could do.
So now we’re moving in a southwesterly direction very cautiously. I’m orienting. I’m orienting some more. I’m orienting so hard I can feel the groan and clank that is my brain’s rusty map & compass skills waking up. And I just can’t see it. I’m trying to ID the landscape features that match up with Skurka’s mapped red dotted line (which on the HDT I came to react to with a mixture of excited anticipation and dread).
Here’s what I can see: an ever-steepening slope of unstable talus surrounding me that looks like it, according to the map, runs out to cliffs. My fear was that we weren’t on the red dotted line and would descend a nasty slope, get to a cliff’s edge, and experience a pucker factor I didn’t even want to imagine. Oh, and just in case things weren’t feeling edgy enough, it was thundering overhead with isolated rain cells in the near distance.
We’ve angled down now to a minor cliff band. I’m still not convinced we’re on the exact red dotted route. I’m only seeing steeper and steeper talus running out into the cliffs you don’t quite see. I’m scared. I mean, I’m feeling certain that if I keep going, I’m gonna have a nasty fall and maybe not be so lucky. I came up with a mantra that we were both saying out loud: there are only first chances here, no second chances.
I take off my pack. I try one more time to orient with The Brawn. He’s positive, he’s emphatic, he’s repeating and pleading with me the way we’re going is the only possible way. I finally told him I was so sorry (and mind you my mouth is bone dry, my palms are sweating, I have that sewing leg tremor) but I have to quit. I told him that if one of us got really hurt descending this thing, the root cause analysis would show we knew the risk was too high and if we’d have turned back, we’d be safe and sound.
The strange thing at that moment was, as if on cue, we both turned and looked uphill, back the way we came, and no joke, it looked like the talus was a wave, caught in a freeze frame, that would sweep right over our heads. We both felt it. He actually said look at that, it’s too dangerous to go back up. Rationally, I know the slope wasn’t that steep, but that’s the illusion my panicked mind came up with at the time.
I wanted to quit (which is totally uncharacteristic). He wanted to continue (he wasn’t gung-ho about the WRHR in the first place). We stood there for quite a while. He just kept pleading with me, promising me that he was taking the correct route/following the red dotted line. The key moment was when he got a certain calmness about him, burned a look of confidence and care straight into my eyes, and simply said trust me. So I did (and our relationship moved into a higher level of intimacy right then and there).
I put on all my warm clothes and rain gear. I stuffed my pockets with food, headlamp, a water bottle, and maps that would get me to Big Sandy Lodge. He was going to shuttle our packs, and I was preparing for the worst – that in the case of another fall, I could be left without my pack. I was prepared to walk to Big Sandy Lodge with the clothes on my back. THAT’S how unreasonably risky descending West Gully with my heavy pack was to me.
I’m not saying avoid West Gully. I’m just saying don’t descend it with a pack on that you have to rock back and forth a few times just to heft it from the ground up to your knee. I descended the middle one-third sans pack and felt completely safe. Getting the weight off my back gave me the body control I critically needed to safely negotiate descending this type of terrain. It still wasn’t “pretty” but it wasn’t death-defying ugly. It turned into the kind of terrain that grabs your full attention and sends you into that sweet meditative, emptied out head, relaxed state of being.
I put my pack back on for the final descent down the chute by the “dark gray bedrock slabs” and it went well. The “scramble about 100 feet down class 3 bedrock” was the nicest part of the descent. Stable rock. Bomber footing. I got down it with a spring in my step and blew it a kiss of gratitude. The “snowfield” was small; we stayed on the talus.
The moraines right before Lake 11,185 were another challenge. I read about the Wind’s unstable moraines in Nancy Pallister’s book so had an idea of their existence (and that this would be different from the Sierra). But I guess this was the first time I’ve ever been on a truly unstable moraine for an extended amount of time and with a heavy load. It was a surprisingly challenging new experience (and one the WRHR thru-hiker will have plenty of opportunities to hone). Getting off it was tricky. The task is to avoid big rocks poised to come down on you if their sloped sandy perch is disturbed and avoid punching through particularly unconsolidated spots.
The Brawn got worked. He got fatigued. He literally did laps up and down West Gully. What grit! What a partner! I was genuinely concerned for rhabdomyolysis, so we both pushed fluids.
Correction: The Datasheet lists “PR-08” as tarn at 11,700. The tarn is at 10,700.
Black Joe Creek
There was a use trail starting near the head of Black Joe Lake. It went along the north shore, then veered up a bit into the trees as it passed through hunting camps. When you get near the lake’s foot and the impassible shoreline “cliffs”, you’ll see the “Open slope below streaked slabs. Look for use tr.” We looked and couldn’t find it, so just made a straight shot up the open slope covered in large stable talus and vegetation.
At the top we intersected the use trail and were able to eyeball it back to the lake. It hugs the treeline that forms the eastern border of the open slope (the cliff is the western border). Standing at the lake, look for the use trail hugging the wood’s edge and you’ll find it no problem.
Climbing around the cliffs is on the use trail and it’s a sweet little section. Pretty and scrambly down to the dam.