I’m not an elite endurance athlete, a long-distance thru-hiker, or a climber. I respect those things tremendously, but that’s just not me. That probably puts me with most others who visit this website: I love backpacking and keep in reasonably good shape, and I enjoy chasing spectacular scenery and the challenge that it provides.
Let’s just say I’m an “ordinary” backpacker.
Here then, I offer some reflections on my recent Wind River High Route (WRHR) loop for others who may be considering such a trip, particularly if your background is similar to mine.
Should you do a trip like this? What is unique about the WRHR loop after all?
I will tell you at the outset that this trip pushed my son Peter (22) and I (60) hard. It was also some of the most spectacular hiking I’ve ever done. We tackled Loop #6 from July 29 through August 1, 2020. This was our second WRHR foray, the first being loop #2 through the Cirque and over Wind River Peak three years ago. For those who have tasted the Wind River Range, its pull as a raw and spectacular wilderness is hard to resist.
Although it’s easy to run out of adjectives to describe the natural beauty and wonder of the WRHR, this trip was significantly challenging and potentially dangerous, so I’d like to offer some general reflections on the trip to help those who may be considering it.
First and foremost, this is not “normal” backpacking on groomed trails. By comparison, I just completed a 75-mile section of The Colorado Trail, and the experience was vastly different from this challenging WRHR loop. Hopefully, my insight into some key elements will help explain why.
The more you suffer before a trip, the less you suffer during the trip. At least that’s my adage. I’ll add to that, for a WRHR loop in particular, the more you suffer before the trip, the more likely you are to complete it safely, and in one piece.
The demands a high route puts on the body are very different than that of an established trail. You should be in great shape at a minimum before taking on a trip like this. I worked hard, alternating street running, trail running hills, and hauling a 30lb pack up and down a steep hill. This got me there, but not by a lot. If I were to add anything, I’d say do squats. Lots of them.
You need good navigational skills to do any high route, but especially the WRHR. Not only are you walking without a trail, but you have much less margin for error. You are already tired, and potentially wet and cold too. Plus, going back the way you came may literally not be possible depending upon your level of exhaustion and how challenging the ground you have already traversed is. Finally, there may be no bailouts and no other hikers to ask for help either.
Don’t make navigational decisions based on what you see or what intuitively ‘feels right’ either. Always include in your decisions what the map, compass and GPS are telling you. I’ve made two big navigational errors in the last few years, and both times I went with my gut and didn’t check a bearing or GPS coordinate before making a critical turn. No matter how much you read about navigation skills, there is no substitute for experience in real-life conditions, and factoring in things like fatigue, mentality, etc. In short: You need to be really confident with your navigational skills before attempting any part of the WRHR.
Take the weather deadly seriously in this area. Again, you have little margin for error, you are very exposed, and camping spots are limited. Peter and I got up-to-date weather reports from my wife via satellite messenger, and this helped our planning greatly. We hunkered down for day #3 and knew we would likely have just a few good hours before weather events on day #4. This was essential information for safe route planning.
The best piece of gear you can bring is a well-trained body and a head full of useful knowledge and experience. That said, here are some specifics:
Most shoes will get shredded on this course, even in a couple of days. They need tough uppers that can handle frequently scraping against sharp rocks. They must be nimble, yet also fit securely, particularly in the forefoot. Good traction on rocks, wet or dry, is also critical.
The Bushido II’s Peter wore were literally “rock-stars.” I highly recommend them in this type of setting if they fit. Unfortunately, they are too narrow for my wider forefoot (despite having a low volume foot overall) so I went with Salomon X Alpine Pro’s, which handled it well.
Microspikes are essential. I would not have wanted to cross sloped snowfields or glaciers without them. I’ll address ice-axes under safety/danger below.
My Suunto Ambit3 was very helpful with contouring and route finding.
A pyramid shelter helps guard against monsoons in exposed areas.
Don’t forget bread-bags for camp footwear, your feet will be soaked!
Gorilla gloves are very light and help the palms when grabbing sharp rocks (which will happen).
This, of course, is a personal thing and will depend on your experience level and fitness. For “ordinary” backpackers like me, I would not plan on more than 7-10 miles per day on more challenging sections of the WRHR. It takes so much longer than just pounding out miles on an established trail.
Editor’s note: The most reliable method of predicting your pace is by accounting for vertical feet, not horizontal miles.
I am hardly an expert on this. However, I’ve seen enough to know that, while exhilarating, this route can also be bleak, austere, and lonely. We didn’t see a soul on the WRHR, despite it being in peak season. The isolation can be a good thing for many, but it is definitely something to factor in. Parts of the route were spectacular, and yet foreboding at the same time. Nature is indifferent to your presence, and you should venture into this area with tremendous respect and humility.
How do you weigh the risks of a trip like this to see if it is appropriate for you? It’s not my place to decide that for anyone, but this trip pushed me hard, especially physically. Peter, a 22-year old track athlete, who is cool-headed and tough as nails, was tired but did well.
The climb up “Bastian Pass” was uncomfortable for both of us. One bad slip there could have been fatal. I don’t have experience with ice axes, but it seems like having one, and the ability to self-arrest before sliding down a slope would have been well worth the weight penalty. Speaking with locals in Lander, it seemed typical to bring an ice axe on similar ventures, depending on conditions.
Chronological trip report
“A Tale Of Two Trips”
Loop #6 represents the crux of the Wind River High Route. It is a 48-mile “Tale of two trips”, so to speak.
Trip #1 is a 23-mile hike up the Glacier Trail, from Trail Lakes trailhead to the foot of West Sentinel Pass. At this point, one scrambles up the pass and enters a whole different world of glaciers, rocks, and the Continental Divide-The High Route! This part is trip #2, but more on that later.
First, I’ll give an overview:
Day #1 consisted of a 10-mile hike to the Dinwoody Lakes. We shouldered our packs on a Sunday morning at the Trail Lakes Trailhead and took off. Notable is a 3,000 foot climb out of the East Torrey Creek basin to the high point of the day at about mile 7 on Burro Flat (10,900 ft.).
While somewhat of a grind, the switchbacks are well-graded and it’s a tolerable effort. I’d suggest doing this in the cool of the morning, as this section of the trail can be very hot. A 3-mile rocky descent then took us to Double Lake where we enjoyed a beautiful campsite near the water. The mosquitos (while numerous in some locations) were easily managed throughout the trip.
While the trip up to this point was lovely, the true beauty began on day #2, with a 13-mile walk to the base of West Sentinel Pass. With the morning sun we enjoyed unbelievable views of the peaks surrounding the glass-like Dinwoody Lakes. Following a short climb out of the Dinwoody Lakes Basin, the trail adorned by wildflowers, we made our way to Dinwoody Creek continuing south toward Dinwoody Glacier and Gannett Peak. We splashed through the Down’s Fork crossing, which was flooded over by water.
The Dinwoody Creek basin is the most beautiful river basin hiking I have ever done. Turns of the trail would often bring breath-taking sights, with Gannett and partner peaks enticing us in the distance. We were often stunned by what we saw and just had to stop and savor it a few times. Dinwoody Creek became an intense roiling mass of green, milky glacial runoff the further south we traveled. The appearance of the creek alone declared something wild and untamed was ahead!
The expected weather soon arrived as we made the final climb to the terminus of the Glacier Trail. We were lashed by waves of wind, rain and hail, and so we quickly threw up our pyramid shelter in a partly walled-off site about a ¼ mile from the terminus. With a break in the weather, we came out and surveyed our surroundings. In 23-miles we had traveled from a green, forested trailhead to what looked like another world. Snow-shrouded peaks and bleak, rock walls surrounded the Dinwoody Glacier and terminal lake.
This was a taste of things to come: an awesome, yet somewhat forbidding atmosphere.
This was a pre-planned zero-day, as we knew bad weather was coming for the next 24 hours. We hunkered down as waves of rain, wind, and hail assailed us throughout the day.
As dawn broke, we were boulder-hopping from our campsite to the base of West Sentinel Pass. Setting the stage for what was ahead, it took us at least an hour to make our way to the Pass, hopping and scrambling around suitcase to refrigerator-sized boulders. Of note, there are several flat campsites at the base of the pass. These were occupied by people climbing Gannett Peak or surrounding edifices. We paused and had a brief, friendly chat with the climbers, who were the last people we saw until we rejoined the Glacier Trail late the next day.
This is a fairly steep, partly snow-covered pass with talus and rock on either side. We chose to go up the right side. In retrospect, I might have followed climbers’ steps right up the snow rather than staying to the right of it, kick-stepping the final steep portion. But we made it! As we crested the top of the pass, we got our first glimpse of the High Route with Gannett Glacier stretched out before us, and clouds swirling about the peaks above the glacier.
Across the glacier in the distance was the target peak 12,025 and the gully just to the west of it. Donning our microspikes, we crossed the glacier to the gully, the snow equal parts crusted and slushy. I scrambled up the rocks on the east side of the gully, which was a stiff little climb. Arriving huffing and puffing at the top, I found Peter already there, having kick-stepped up diagonally across the snow. In hindsight, he made the better choice!
Cresting this gully, we appreciated for the first time some of the big challenges of this loop. The descent from this pass to the north was long and steep! Examining the map, we had planned to contour to the left and try to maintain some altitude. No way! The slope to the left was way too steep and rocky, so we ended up kick-stepping and sliding (in my case) down the snow nearly to the bottom. The ground along with the snow to the right of the pass was saturated and felt like liquid concrete. After a scramble northwest across a mixture of snow and rocks, we got to the bottom of what I will call Bastian Pass, with Bastian Peak to the left.
This was one of the most harrowing points of the trip for us, on another fairly steep snow-covered slope. We elected to climb along the rock edge of the pass to the left about 2/3 the way up, and then traversed by kick-stepping diagonally across the snow to the top. On our way across the snow, we looked over our right shoulders down a fairly steep, 300-foot slope that ended in a small blue lake of ice-cold water and slush. Choosing not to dwell on the worrisome potential outcome of a slip, we focused on our steps and made it safely to the top.
After a brief rest atop Bastian Pass, we made our way across rocks, boulders, snow, and tundra to the area south of Grasshopper Glacier. We traveled to the east of three lakes in succession. The first having a small island in it, and the third being the terminal lake. The other lake was listed on Andrew’s maps as ‘no longer here’, but it apparently had been reformed since then. The sloped snowfield and ice shelf above the terminal lake were awesome and intimidating.
We had climbed up three snow-covered passes, come down another steep one, hopped over countless boulders of various sizes, and plowed our way through snow, rock, and ice. Our feet were wet, and freezing and the skies were darkening above us. Navigation was a bit confusing here too, as we had initially not reckoned on the middle lake and could not see the terminal lake from where we sat. NOTE: The GPS map, ‘Wind River Range North’ overview map and Andrew’s maps did not completely agree regarding the lakes. That’s backcountry navigation: thinking on your feet!
We got ourselves quickly oriented, and after a quick snack break, we circled east and north of the terminal lake and zig-zagged our way up Grasshopper Glacier to the Continental Divide, just in time for the weather to cut loose on us at 12,400 feet. The usual mix of rain, wind, and hail thrashed us again, but fortunately, there was not much lightening and the temperatures were moderate.
With forward movement, we stayed warm until this monsoon passed after 30 minutes or so. Crossing the Divide going west, just south of peak 12,705, we were met with stunning, but bleak views of Sourdough Glacier, Iceberg Lake, and Baker lake. Peter nudged us north toward Iceberg Lake Pass. He pointed down toward Sourdough Glacier and said, “We don’t want to end up on that.” The ice shelf above the lake looked at least 15 feet high and forbidding, with large chunks of ice floated atop the lake’s surface.
We contoured west of peak 12,705 and it rained on and off as we descended several hundred feet over the boulders we were becoming accustomed to, towards Iceberg Lake Pass. The rocks were wet and slippery on the way down, and I fell twice. Luckily, I suffered no damage other than a bruised ego and backside.
At the pass, there were flat areas suitable for camping so we threw up our shelter in a lull. The weather prohibited further progress, and I was spent anyway. We had gone 7 miles, but it felt like 20! The usual alternating rain, wind, hail, and blue skies persisted for 2-3 hours and then the weather cleared up. A beautiful rainbow formed to the east, spanning the vast canyons and jagged peaks in the distance.
We began the last day by making our way up Yukon Peak. We knew we had 17 miles to do that day, with nine of it off-trail scrambling like the day before. The weather was gorgeous, and we were thankful for that! We feasted on views of Sourdough Glacier on the way up and contoured to the east of Yukon Peak. This climb and the next few miles to the lunar flats were some of the most jaw-dropping, sublimely beautiful hiking I have ever done. It was like walking in the clouds.
On both the west and east sides of the Divide were spectacular views of pristine alpine lakes, jagged peaks, and canyons stretching as far as you could see. There were lots of photo ops, and we took the time to just savor this rare opportunity. We then dropped to the saddle between peaks 12,702 and 13,062, contoured to the east of 13,062 at about 12,400′ and arrived at the edge of the lunar flat. Then, we ascended up the lunar flat to the base of the shoulder to the south of Down’s Mountain, where we found human footprints, which was strangely encouraging in this austere setting.
The path to the top of Down’s Mountain goes over large boulder fields, so you can count on more rock hopping and scrambling. There are actually three peaks at the top, and we crossed between peaks two and three (numbered south to north) as we went over. We were at about 13,200′ at this point. Needing to keep moving, we did not savor the views long. We went all the way over Down’s to get to the top of the slope lower the east side of Down’s Mountain. This slope was long, fairly steep, and snow-covered. “No-Man’s Pass” could be easily seen in the distance.
For the last time, we donned our microspikes and began a long diagonal kick-step traverse across the snow face. Tired, with ice water-soaked feet, we took a breather at the flats below the slope, where there were partially walled sites for camping. Mentally, I mistakenly felt like we were done with the off-trail portion of the trip at this point. True, the steep climbing and descending was finished, but we still had several miles to go across Goat Flat until we reached the Glacier Trail.
So, we crossed No-man’s Pass and continued to ascend, soon reaching Goat Flat where we actually did see some goats!. From this point, it was an interminable, fairly flat walk across a lunar landscape, of course with its share of rock-hopping, going northeast. We finally reached the high point of Burro Flat and the Glacier Trail around 5 pm.
The 17-mile day was finished with a downhill dash to our car, arriving just after dark.
So, would I do it again? Absolutely! With an ice axe, perhaps… The time with my son under these challenging conditions was priceless.
But should YOU do it? You need to decide, of course, but I hope my narrative and insight will help those of you who are considering such a trip. With limited experience and less-than-ideal fitness, this trip (and others like it) can be downright dangerous, so evaluate yourself honestly. I would suggest getting lots of experience backpacking on traditionally established trails and practicing navigation first. If you’re set on the WRHR, consider starting with one of the more moderate loops, though none of them are easy. Loop #6 is much tougher than loop #2, for example. Finally, going with someone who has experience in this area is always a good strategy.
With proper planning, preparation and experience, the WRHR loops are arguably some of the finest backpacking anywhere on Earth.