Earlier this month I completed the Wind River High Route, a project that I’d been working on since 2008 and that I left frustratingly incomplete after a failed attempt last year with Buzz Burrell and Peter Bakwin. It took me about 4.25 days to complete the 95-mile trip, which has 60,000+ vertical feet of change and which is two-thirds off-trail. I started at Bruce Bridge and finished at Trail Lakes, and along the way tagged the range’s southernmost and northernmost named 13’ers, Wind River Peak and Downs Mountain. I believe this to be “the” high route for the Winds, but you can judge for yourself.
Since I still had four days of food left when I finished — I was prepared to be slower and/or be shut down temporarily by weather, though hoped to not be either — I yo-yo’d back to my car on a different route in order to scout prospective alternates and section hike loops.
Undoubtedly, the Wind River High Route ranks among the most premier backpacking trips in the world, easily on par with the Sierra High Route, Kings Canyon High Basin Route, and the like. The challenge is not to be understated, however. I would categorize it as an expert-level undertaking, and would recommend it only very fit backpackers who are comfortable hiking off-trail, over extensive talus, relentlessly up and down, at high elevations, occasionally on lingering snow and/or glacial ice, and across un-bridged rivers. Prior trips in the Wind River Range, or at least in the Mountain West, are a big asset. If a thru-hike sounds like too much, consider a section hike; I’ll detail some options when I release a guide later this year.
With adequate skills and experience, cooperative conditions, and good backcountry wherewithal, the route is doable. Near Big Sandy (mi 23) I met three southbound Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers who had followed the route from Trail Lakes (mi 96). Derek Bartz and Michele finished the entire route a few weeks before I did. And I know of at least two parties that completed the southernmost 70 miles before pulling the plug at Dinwoody Glacier, north of which there are no easy exits.
Lake 11,185 as seen from near the summit of Wind River Peak, which as the range’s southernmost 13,000-foot mountain was a distinct landmark for pioneers. This is a fitting start to the route: on a clear day, it’s possible to see the range’s northern high peaks. While I didn’t have those views, I was happy to at least get up and down it before the afternoon rains.
Mitchell Peak and Lonesome Lake, which sits at the base of the famed Cirque of Towers, as seen from New York Pass. Jackass Pass, the popular access route from Big Sandy, is the low spot across the way.
Granite cliffs tower above the upper East Fork River valley
With a trespass permit for the Wind River Indian Reservation, I linked up Photo Pass (location of photo, looking south), Europe Peak, and Golden Lakes. Without a permit, the logical legal route is via Halls Lake, which is relatively boring and unaesthetic.
Europe Peak is a mid-route 12,000-footer that sits on the Continental Divide. The ascent involves a Class 3 scramble that tops out on this knife’s edge, just below the summit flat. Smoke from nearby wildfires obscured my views in this area, but thankfully it did not stick around.
A pyramid-shaped tarp (with a nest, during peak bug season) is the clear choice for shelter, as the route spends significantly more time above treeline than below it. This prototype Sierra Designs shelter should be available next year, and it’ll be well worth the wait.
From Lake 10787, Douglas Peak Pass looks very intimidating: steep and loose. Looks are deceiving: there is a slick route along the east wall that is steady and mostly stable. My effort was complicated by lingering hail from intense thunderstorms the night prior.
There is no better name for Alpine Lakes: there are just a few pockets of krumholtz spruce and willow, and little tundra. Prepare for four miles of rock-hopping between Douglas Peak Pass and Alpine Pass, which the low spot across the basin with a small crescent-shaped snowfield just below it.
The Knife Point Glacier (left) and Indian Pass (center). This is one section where more snow, not less, is an advantage, as it covers up the extensive moraine left by the rapidly receding glaciers.
The milky, glacier-fed waters of the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek. Blaurock Pass is the snow-free low spot on the ridge with the cloud immediately above it. The aptly named Turret Peak is the most prominent on the skyline.
My bivy camp in the extensive moraine field of the Dinwoody Glacier. Normally I avoid such exposed locations, but conditions were relatively mild and calm, and I wanted to get an early jump on the final leg between here and Trail Lakes, which is remote, rugged, and committing.
Morning light on the north side of Gannett Peak, which at 13,809’ is Wyoming’s high point, as seen from the Gannett Glacier.
A terminal glacier lake and calving glacier near Pedestal Peak, at the head of the Grasshopper Glacier. With the exception of one saddle at 11,800 feet, the route stays above 12,000 feet for the next 11 miles. Downs Mountain, the range’s northernmost named 13’er, is the tiny bump on the skyline to the right of the horizontal glacier.
A healthy group of bighorn sheep, the second such group that I saw in this section.
No, this is not Alaska, it’s still Wyoming. Klondike Peak, the Sourdough Glacier, and Iceberg Lake.
Bear Basin in upper Clear Creek, as seen from the Continental Divide. Other proposals for the Wind River High Route, including that of my occasional hiking partners Alan Dixon and Don Wilson, can be found four-thousand vertical feet below in the upper Green River valley.
From Downs Mountain, the northernmost 13’er in the Winds, looking south. Gannett Peak is in the center with the large snowfield on its left shoulder, in line with the Grasshopper Glacier.
After putting my personal backpacking ambitions mostly aside for a few years, it was very gratifying to reach Downs Mountain and complete the Wind River High Route, the second big route for me this summer, the other being the Kings Canyon High Basin Route. To reach Trail Lakes from Downs, I crossed No Man’s Pass and Goat Flat, which is the featureless alpine expanse on the right side of the image, and joined the Glacier Trail.
Really excellent photos. I said it on another post, but I really like the idea of these “short is the new long” backpacking routes that explore the absolute best-of-the-best backcountry in a timeframe manageable for those of us who work for a living. I look forward to exploring both this and the kings canyon high route at some point in the near future. You may be way ahead of me on this one, but have you looked at the Sawtooth wilderness as a potential location for one of these routes? Last year I hiked a route pioneered by Dan McCoy which he called the Roof of the Sawtooths (search youtube), and this year a friend of mine did the same but managed to take it even more off-trail and over high passes. If you’re planning to keep pioneering these kinds of routes, the Sawtooths may be worth a close look, it’s up there with the Winds and the Sierra in terms of possibilities IMO
The Sawtooths are on my list, but that list is long. When I looked previously, I think I determined that they were small but worthy.
It’s a challenge to develop these routes. Even if I were to visit the Sawtooths, it might take me a second or third visit to really have figured out what “the” route should be. Consider that it took me 8 weeks of guided trips in Kings Canyon, plus a thru-hike of my draft route, to feel confident that I finally had the route. Similar story in the Winds: my route this year had two notable changes versus the route from last year, which was based on the collective experiences of me, Buzz, and Peter; and I think the final route that I propose in a guide will have another change or two, too.
If you simply try to on-sight one of these high routes, I think you end up with something less than perfect. Too low or too high, too hard or too easy. To the highly trained eye, “the” route is usually the right one, but there are always a few spots where that’s not the case, and being able to weigh two or three alternatives will definitely make for a truer and more refined route.
Absolutely incredible and inspiring pics. Really anticipating the future guide you mentioned for this 🙂
Also, is that ULA Robic 210 fabric on a non-ULA pack?? Gotta say, I’m a sucker for those checkers…
I used a Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack, in their black Cuben laminate. I’ll try to post a review next week.
I was just curious if you ever posted a review for this pack? Thank you.
No, but I would not recommend it. There are some good things about it (nearly waterproof, body-hugging fit, light) but there were too many deal-breakers for me. The design of the hipbelt pockets did not account for the curvature of the body, and thus trapped my camera in them. The side pockets are not accessible without taking the pack off. The roll-top closure feels like it takes about 10 minutes to open and close. The stays need to be a few inches higher, so that more weight can be transferred to the hips and so that load-lifter straps could be used. And the stated volume is a misrepresentation, since a crazy amount of it includes the extension collar, which is a worthless place to put anything with any heft.
Oh, and it costs about $75 more than slightly heavier but overall better packs.
Epic hike Andrew! Epic. So glad you nailed it and had such a good time.
I love that HMG 2400 SW pack. Carries great. Takes a licking on NE bushwhacks too.
I had a different experience with, generally underwhelmed. It carries okay for a 2-lb pack, but could be much better for a few extra ounces. And a lot of the features (e.g. side pockets, top access, compression straps) I thought needed improvement.
What a great smile! Glad you’re doing something so satisfying.
I don’t have the cross county chops for this yet, but good to have big goals to work up to!
What is your footwear of choice when hiking talus/scree slopes? I love my Saucony Guide 7 trail runners but during brief off trail moments I’ve torn into the side fabric and pictured them not being a good choice if I were to do a more extensive off trail route. Thanks for the teaser on this route!
On this trip I used the La Sportiva Raptors, which are an earlier generation of the La Sportiva Ultra Raptors. I had held onto that pair for a trip this like, where I would want good traction and a durable and protective upper. On my Kings Canyon High Basin Route thru-hike, which has similar demands, I used the Salomon Synapse.
Other shoes to consider:
Salomon X Ultra
Salewa Speed Ascent
Congratulations on the route and thank you for sharing the amazing pictures. I am looking forward to your guide.
I have done two trips in the Winds and it hasn’t dissapointed.
I just came back on September 4th from a two week backcountry trip in Brooks Range (11 days in the backcountry) which can make me only appreciate your Alaska trek even more. The dwarf birch, alder, and willow were thick and slow, but the muskeg and tussocks might have been slower. It is beautiful country though and I am hoping to go back in 2017 or 2018.
I am just starting to plan out my trip for 2016 and am looking into the Winds, or your Kings Canyon High Basin Route (a section hike loop from it anyways)
Awesome post and very inspiring. Have you ever seen the Chugach mountains? Thanks for posting about products and the explorations they allow you to enjoy!
Yep, been there: https://andrewskurka.com/adventures/alaska-four-range/
4.25 days, nice work! Glad to see the wildfires didn’t effect your trip too much. Iceberg Lake (which we actually missed due to descending Grasshopper) looks incredible, we will have to go back.
Terrific – glad you finally knocked it off!
The WRHR (as we worked out and you just did) is one of the best routes in the world. It’s at least as good as the SHR – a little shorter, and more “pure” – the WRHR doesn’t zig zag around; it does what Roper originally suggested: follow the crest unless it’s technical climbing.
Is it safe to assume you’ll probably come out with a map set?
Yes, safe to assume that. It will be a Fall project. Based on my experience with the Kings Canyon Guide, it will require a lot of butt-in-chair time to present a good package.
Excellent to see a conclusion to this project. The Winds are magic. Cheers for sharing your route.
Andrew, are there any spots in Nevada that interest you? I noticed that’s the only Western state you haven’t really covered. You covered all but Nevada and Utah on your Great Western Loop and I know you’ve hiked the Hayduke Trail and a few other shorter trails in Utah since then.
There are a few spots in Nevada that interest me, but the strength of their draw is less than other locations in the West.
You want to pitch me on a project?
What about the Tahoe Rim Trail? Maybe check out Valley of Fire as well.
The PCT and TRT are one in the same for a while, so I know what that’s like and I don’t see myself going back. It’s pretty, but I’m jaded and there are much better things out there IMHO.
Valley of Fire, hadn’t heard of that one. Will have to look it up.
As for these high routes, is there one that’s better to start with than the others in your opinion (out of the Sierra High Route, Kings Canyon and Wind River Range) or are they all a relatively similar level of difficulty?
Good question. I think the answer depends on if you are insistent on a thru-hike. If you are not, then there are section hikes for all of these routes, Moderate to Advanced difficulty levels. So just pick one that works for you. In the KCHBR Guide I offered suggestions, and I will do the same for the WRHR Guide; I don’t know of anything for the SHR, but you might be able to poke around and find something.
If you want to do a thru-hike, then I would recommend the SHR or KCHBR. The Sierra has better weather, and there is no section on either route that is as difficult as the WRHR from about Douglas Peak Pass to Trail Lakes (through Alpine Lakes, across the glaciers, and on the Divide).
Between the SHR and KCHBR, the SHR is longer but has more trail miles, and probably less up and down than the KCHBR. But the KCHBR has less talus (though still plenty) and has easier logistics and bail-out options.
I don’t know if you’ve been to or have interest in the Great Basin National Park but that could be another possibility in Nevada.
I’m not sure what kind of potential Valley of Fire has for a really challenging route but it looks like it has some neat landscape. Nevada just seems to be the one state that everyone avoids in the West so I was wondering if you thought there was anything worthwhile out there. You could probably pull off something much bigger though, such as the Canadian Rockies or some sort of trip in New Zealand. I saw that Bakwin hiked across South Island.
Would you consider offering any of these high routes as a guided trip in 2016?
It’s not official yet, but at this point I do not plan on guiding trips in 2016.
Do you see any potential for one of these high routes in the Cascades?
Probably, but I don’t know the ranges well enough to identify viable routes. That’s the thing about these high routes — to develop a lasting one, you really have to understand the place, and that takes time.
Can you tell us a little more about that SD tent? I didn’t see the bug net in the photo. -when is it going to be for sale?
It’s a 2-pole asymmetric mid-shaped tent with an optional bug nest, which I left behind. It’s a year-round shelter that can be optimized for the conditions: it’s light (I’m expecting 1 lb for the tarp and .75 pounds for the nest), ventilates as good as an A-frame tarp when the doors are porched open, has an optional nest for heavy bug pressure, and is storm-worthy enough for winter use.
The sales plan is TBD, but I’m hoping it will be offered as a direct-only product starting in June. I’m biased since I have been involved in its development since the beginning — in fact, I drew the first sketches of it — but I think it’ll be the best mid on the market.
Thanks for the quick response. Unfortunately, ill have left for my thru hike before then. I’m very happy to hear your designing gear wit SD. Any gossip you want to leak about the new backpack you were working on??
Unfortunately for you, probably the same timeline — Spring 2016.
Again, I’ve been involved with this pack since near the beginning, so thus biased. But I think it’s a really, really solid package: 2.5 lbs, great load-carrying ability (I hauled 70 pounds of elk meat + gear in it a few weeks ago), durable fabric throughout, easy access to the pack body via a zipper instead of a roll top-type closure, easily accessible side pockets, built-in water bottle pocket on the shoulder strap, and finally a volume adjustment system that affects the pack uniformly rather than leaving bulges and narrow spaces.
Congrats and thank you for the report. In early August 1988 at the age of 30 I did a S to N traverse, 12 nights with 2 nights of food left, I moved camp everyday but some days were short depending on energy etc. It was my third solo in the Winds, plus experience in other ranges, with Nols, on glaciers etc. I was in good but not your excellent shape, started unacclimatized to the altitude, 65ish pound pack including a 4ish pound Gore-Tex tent, crampons and ice ax, etc. In planning my goal was to travel as close as I could with my skills and food load along the part of the Winds that form the Divide between the Colorado and Mississippi drainages. The route went as planned, but with the experience I’ve had since and the information available online and in guide books I could (if I was in shape lol) do a harder route, like the Alpine Lakes area that you did, looking at the topos I wasn’t confident that’d work for me. The only significant part of the route I’d been on before was the Divide from Tourist Creek to Iceberg Lake.
Before we had the opportunity to crowd-source topo info, I think a lot of these routes would look intimidating enough to simply stay away.
My ’88 route, if anyone wants more details please ask. Sweetwater Guard Station, Little Sandy Lk & Creek, Temple/E Temple col, Jackass Pass, Texas Pass, East Fork River, Raid/Bonneville col, 11,865/11,925 col, Middle Fork Lk, Photo Pass, point 11,630 E of Europe, Europe Pk, on the Divide plateau to Hay Pass, dropped to the E and then back on the Divide N of Angel Pk, on the Divide then into the Pole Creek area at lake 10,842, around the west side of Elephant Head into Indian Basin, Indian Pass, Blaurock Pass, down Glacier Trail to Gannet Creek, back on the Divide above Tourist Creek, over Downs and Shale Mtns to Three Waters Mtn, then left the Divide to the west on Pinon Ridge, I forget how far but maybe past Gunsight Pass, then dropped and hooked back to the south reaching Green River Lakes trail head from sage brush country. Scariest part was the end, nothing between me and a buffalo bull, but he stayed calm.
“A pyramid-shaped tarp… is the clear choice for shelter.” I’m unclear whether that is meant to apply to the prototype Sierra Designs shelter then and later mentioned, but the photo sure doesn’t look like a ‘mid to me. More like a tetrahedron on edge, with vertical projections for walls, and hence a more or less horizontal ridge line between the two poles (disregarding catenary and sag). Hence a square floor plan, with the ridge line on the diagonal… am I mistaken? But that right-hand wall does look rather shorter than its mate… so – something like a TrailStar?
In our 2014 attempt I packed a flat tarp, which I regretted despite its big size and versatile pitching configurations. Even though this is a backpacking route, a mountaineering-style shelter serves much better. There is a reason why NOLS, which runs hundreds of trips into the Winds each year, uses the Black Diamond Beta Mid shelters, which BTW has a catenary ridgeline between two poles, very similar to my prototype SD mid, and I think we’d all agree that the Beta Mid is a classic mid.
Besides pole height, your description of my prototype is correct. The poles are the same height.
Loved your article. My husband and frequently do trips like this, although we go slower! We are looking for a new tent, and have not pulled the trigger. Your tent prototype looks interesting. Is it similar to the Tarp Tent Stratosphere 2? If I cannot wait for your prototype to be released, what other two person tents do your recommend for similar trips? I live in Seattle area and hike mostly in Washington State in alpine areas above tree line. Need wind stability and prefer inner to be at least partially solid material to help block wind from entering tent. I do not want a pole support to be inside the tent in the middle.
The shoulder should be available in late-Spring, though we’re only looking at a 1-person version to start. I’m biased since this shelter is my brainchild — I literally sketched out the initial drawings on some scrap printer paper — but I think it’ll be worth the wait. It’s about as light as any double-wall mid out there (i.e. tarp + nest) but has many advantages over other mids: no poles in the sleeping area, side walls reinforced with poles, relatively more usable perimeter space due to steep wall angles, dry entry (i.e. can open the shelter without everything inside exposed to falling precip), excellent ventilation even in a storm, and optional bug nest for peak pressure.
I don’t think there is a lot of similarity between the BetaMid and your design – the BetaMid rises to two peaks, each of which is in effect a single pyramid, so speaking from a formal architectural and geometrical perspective, I think you would be ill-advised to “pitch” your design specifically as a mid. Your design (as far as I can ascertain from the one photo) is more a ridge design, which essentially sheds rain either side from a line, not a point. That’s not to knock your design, which I suspect has definite potential as a pretty refined design. A certain (potential) elegance. It looks like it is possible to pitch the tarp with just 4 pegs… I presume you truncate the inner space parallel to the ridge line for the inner, to give an inner that is a long hexagonal in plan, with right angles at the two ridge ends (in plan), so two triangular vestibules (presuming two entrances) under the low tapering eaves. Interesting. Or maybe you only access from one side, and have a bigger single vestibule. But I see now that you describe it as asymmetric, so maybe I’m misinterpreting the shape – I was assuming mirror symmetry about the ridge line, but maybe you are working rotational symmetry. My interest is purely theoretical, I’m not making tarps or tents… I take your point about the unsuitability of tarps for your 2014 attempt. A related advantage to the DuoMid/Khufu pyramidal form is the psychological centering it affords, no mean benefit in a remote and potentially hostile environment. Like a stupa in the Himalaya. Good luck with your new shelter design and your adventuring.
You mentioned in the post that you are going to do a guide on this trip sometime before the end of the year? Any idea when you’ll have that ready… I’m planning my 2016 summer exploits and am considering a variation of this route, but would love to see some more details on it. 🙂
I had hoped to have it done already, but I never scratched out the time for it. But I’m aware that there are many like you who want the info so they can start planning 2016 trips, and that should give me some extra motivation.
At this point I’m thinking that I’ll release a pre-edition in January, which will have all the key information but might be thin elsewhere and/or need an edit, and then a full edition in February or March.
[…] are endless possibilities for high routes in the Winds. A month after our trip, a couple completed Andrew Skurka’s proposed High Route, which is a more difficult, longer variation, shortly before Skurka hiked it […]
[…] reports are any indication, this line has proven very popular. This past summer Andrew Skurka completed a different line, which is longer in miles, hews more closely to the Continental Divide, and […]
Andrew is a wannabe. There are people that do that every day of the summer every year. I have been performing them Routes for over 40 years and appreciate the fact that you can get somewhere on your own. and not see people like him who just want to exploit for the cash. Very selfish Outlook. shame on you Andrew
Hi dbot – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope they made you feel better about yourself. I look forward to meeting you in person sometime.
You’re not the first one to do these routes, so don’t portray that you are inventing the wheel. Forget about the cash. It will only ruin everything. Let people explore on their own. It is the best way to get the whole experience. I hope to see you myself. It will most likely be in the way back country. I admire people who get into that terrain. Most people don’t get that far. But keep in mind you’re not the first or the only one.
Oh, don’t worry, I definitely have no allusions that I was the first person anywhere on that route, nor that I was the first person to conceive of this route, or high routes in general.
And I’ve been very open about this point:
It’s true that venturing into the unknown is a big part of what makes a journey exciting and epic…I’ve watched Lord of the Rings plenty of times…but then again, no one’s forcing you to buy these guides or read this blog either. It’s like when people complain about concession prices at the movie theater, theme parks, etc…if you don’t like it then don’t buy it. I don’t know how else to state this.
I enjoyed your description and choice of the wind river high route. I have loved going to the Winds since the mid 70’s. The northern area around Downs Mt is my favorite area to wander around.
I would like to send you a couple of pics to show the change in the glaciers.
> I would like to send you a couple of pics to show the change in the glaciers.
Please do. Based on the topo maps, I can tell that they have massively receded in just the last 60 years. But pictures show it differently.
Andrew, what is the blue bivy sack you are using in these photos?
MLD Super light with sil bottom.
Hey Andrew! Thanks for putting this together. We are planning on completing the Loop 7 section hike in August. Do you have any recommendation regarding safety on glacier/snow field travel? Besides traction devices is there anything else we should be thinking about bringing? Is there big risk running into crevasses that would require more mountaineering type equipment?