Last week I was in Wyoming’s Wind River Range with Buzz Burrell and Peter Bakwin, trying to complete a route that we’ve been eyeing for years and plotting for months. In short, we failed, due to an oversight in our gear selection and route planning.
Perhaps inspired by the increasingly popular Sierra High Route, there has been talk in recent years about a similar route for the Winds (see Wandering Daisy, Dan McCoy, Backpacker Magazine, and most substantially Dixon & Wilson). The terrain is certainly there, but our opinion is that the proposed routes fail to fulfill the range’s potential. It is fundamentally imperative that the “High Route” remain as high as reasonably possible (Class 3 terrain or less) at all times. Most specifically, it absolutely cannot bypass the northeast corner of the range, home to the biggest glaciers and tallest peaks, including Wyoming’s high point, Gannett Peak at 13,809 feet. Also, the consensus southern entrance/exit over Texas Pass near Big Sandy is underwhelming, lacking technical challenge, novelty, or a climatic view that offers inspiration to northbounders or a sense of accomplishment for southbounders.
So the true Wind River High Route remains unfinished. When I get back again to wrap it up (a first or not), I won’t make these same three mistakes:
My nightly accommodations included a Mountain Laurel Designs 9×9 Monk Tarp and SuperLight Bivy. The tarp weighs 16 oz (including eight 8-foot guylines and eight MSR Mini Ground Hog Stakes) and the bivy weighs 7 oz, for a combined 23 oz. I’ve used this system for hundreds of nights. It’s light and versatile, and it offers full-service protection against precipitation, bugs, wind, and wet ground.
But there was a better choice for this trip. Our route was very exposed, almost entirely above treeline, and the mosquitoes were slow to go away at night due to persistent cloud cover that prevented temperatures from dropping. A wiser choice would have been a mid + nest like the MLD SoloMid + InnerNet or a single-wall tent like the Six Moon Designs Skyskape Trekker. For a few ounces more, these shelters would have offered full-sided wind protection and more living space so that I could confidently pitch my shelter anywhere in any conditions and so that I could sleep without mosquitoes just inches from my ears.
In a normal year in the Winds, the bugs are quickly fading by late-July. But due to a wet winter and late spring, we correctly expected a consistent presence, plus pockets of heavy pressure. In addition, our route featured light bushwhacking through willow, and significant sun exposure while above treeline and/or on lingering snowfields.
Peter and I both took the “body armor” approach. I wore Sierra Designs Silicone Trail Pants (woven nylon/spandex) and an old but trusted GoLite Paparoa Longsleeve Shirt (woven polyester). The bugs could not bite us through our clothing, but we constantly overheated due to inadequate ventilation and breathability, especially on warm, sunny afternoons at the lower elevations. Buzz dressed like a runner, with short shorts and a knit polyester long-sleeve shirt. He stayed cooler than us, but the bugs ate him up and he resorted to wearing his nylon wind pants and second long-sleeve shirt for much of the trip.
These conditions highlight an underserved niche in backpacking clothing. I want a loose-fitting, long-sleeve shirt that is highly breathable and bug-resistant. And I want lightweight, durable, bug-resistant pants that offer the same ventilation, breathability, and range of motion found with shorts. The Columbia Insect Blocker Knit Shirt and Railriders Eco-Mesh Pant look promising, but I’d love to see more options in this vein from other brands.
My first mistake didn’t have consequences, thanks to cooperative weather; my second mistake only resulted in daily discomfort; our third mistake actually had real consequences.
Based on our collective prior experience in the Winds, on topographic maps of our planned route, and on our extensive snow travel experience, we did not expect to encounter snowfields for which we would need traction, e.g. Kahtoola MICROspikes or Kahtoola KTS Crampons. We knew that some of the passes would be snow-covered and/or steep, but we thought we’d be able to get over them safely by kicking steps with our trail running shoes and/or linking talus bands.
The south side of Bonney Pass, at the head of Titcomb Basin and 70 miles into our route (out of 100), turned us back — it was steep and choked with hard snow. We reached its base at 7:30 AM and considered waiting for the sun to soften it up, but determined that the risk and consequence of a fall was still too great.
Our bailout route around the north end of the range had some pleasant sections, but I struggled to get excited about it. For an extra 19 of pack weight, we could have completed the route, traveled more safely whenever on snow or glaciers, and avoided a long detour that decidedly lacked the scenery and challenge that we had originally sought.
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What about finishing going over Temple Pass or summiting Wind River Peak and exiting at Sweetwater Gap? Temple Pass is the last big pass heading south, and certainly gives you spectacular views. You get a pretty good view north too to see all the ground you’ve covered as well. Finishing with a summit of Wind River Peak and then out Sweetwater Gap (or Little Sandy) would be great because you can see north all the way to Gannett Peak, which certainly gives one the opportunity to revel in the accomplishment of covering all that high and rocky terrain.
My other thought is I agree skip Texas Pass, and I’d say go over Hailey or Washakie Pass instead. From there, go up to the Lizard Head Trail, and then onto the Cirque of the Towers or the Ice Lakes.
Hope you had a great trip even if wasn’t exactly what you hoped it would be.
You know the range well. We started our trip at Bruce Bridge and climbed up to Wind River Peak, which as the southernmost 13er is a fitting southern terminus. The peak was supposedly named by pioneers on the Oregon Trail who crossed the Continental Divide near South Pass City — Wind River Peak was a very prominent landmark for them. However, when on top you realize it’s even a more fitting name — you can see north all the way to Gannett.
I’ll have to look into Washakie Pass and Lizard Head Trail. We went over New York Pass, which is more difficult and more direct, but I’d be interested in a route to avoid the long walk to Pyramid Lake Trail.
Yeah that walk to Pyramid Lake is one buggy and marshy stroll. I think you would enjoy the Lizard Head Trail just fine. Let me know if you ever need need some up to date trail beta on the area, a shuttle, or base camp in Lander; I’d be happy to help.
I’ve been caught without a traction device on a couple of trips when I really should have had them. Frustrating, but sometimes you just guess wrong. I’ve also carried them on trip and never needed them, which is equally irritating!
Do you use permethrin (http://amzn.to/1u7DdmA)? I spray down all my clothing every 3 trips or so, and so far, it seems to give good results. I haven’t had to test it in a full on swarm though…
I usually wear an REI Sahara Tech Long Sleeve, which isn’t superb on ventilation – but adequate – and it does provide full coverage. Likewise, I’m still searching for breathable pants. I wear convertibles since I can’t stand hiking in pants generally (and suffer the bugs while hiking), but at least I can put the legs on for protection at night.
I think that permethrin is definitely part of the clothing solution. Specifically, it allows you to wear a highly breathable knit top without getting tortured by the bugs. The shorts/pants solution is less clear, because you can’t treat your lower legs with permethrin; DEET-treated legs will mostly stop them from biting you, but they still land on you, which is annoying. So the search is still on — we even joked about a pair of polyester knit long johns treated in permethrin. Functional, but not exactly stylish!
I’ve been wondering if the permethrin works or if it’s just a mental trick! Long johns + kilt? Could be a new trend!
I can only attest to their heat and sun-worthiness, and not mosquito repellency, but I’ve lately been very impressed with the Kuhl Response woven shirt and Raptr 2-way stretch nylon pant. Both are very light and breathable in spite of their tight, presumably bug-rebuffing weave. The Response (s/s) would pair for summer use well with a set of permethrin-treated knit sun sleeves as needed.
I’ve had success with my exofficio bugs away ziwa pants. I’m still looking for a light, bug-proof shirt. I’ll definitely be looking at their breez’r or Halo tops.
Any experience with them Andrew?
I used the Halo in Alaska. It effectively repels bugs, but it suffers the same trade-off as woven fabrics: the breathability is awful. Thankfully, temperatures in Alaska are generally pretty cool.
The Breez’r shirt is also woven nylon. I’m not sure what “Flow Through Ventilation” is, but I’m doubtful it works well: assuming the shirt is properly sized and that you are wearing a pack, the fabric will remain close to your skin, if not against it.
As far as a better choice for shelter, what about a golite shangri-la 2 with bug netting sewn around the perimeter? Its pretty good in the wind in exposed areas and with the netting while not a totally enclosed space does seem to do a pretty good job keeping the mosquitos outside. The weight on mine is around 26 oz with the netting.
Great shelter, but larger than I need for just me. I used the SoloMid start to finish on my big Alaska-Yukon trip, and it is the standard IMHO: about 24 oz with the nest depending on the fabric.
The Wind River High Route is stellar. It will become the standard test piece in the Winds, and one of the best multi-day routes in North America. I intend to finish off the last 30 miles later this month, and Andrew will make available the route description.
I’m curious as to what your Environmental and Route Condition Assessment (Temperature, Precipitation) research planning findings were, compared to the actual conditions that you encountered?
If I understand your article correctly, it appears that the mosquitos and snow/ice where the contributing factors resulting in the route change, but your clothing selections were ok for the temperature and weather conditions you encountered?
It was the snow only on one pass that had material consequences. In the 70 miles prior, we had been over about 10 other passes plus a 13er with no issues. We could tell from the maps that Bonney is high and steep, but the amount of snow on its south face (the sunniest aspect) was surprising, and from the map you also cannot see the stout chute near the top.
We expected the bugs and temperatures that we got. The problem was the limited clothing options for such conditions — bug-resistant clothing that has horrible breathability, or wonderfully ventilated garments that make you red meat for the bugs.
railriders insect shield eco mesh pants and shirt are light and venilated with mesh pannels runing up the sides.
You can also get insect shield hats and socks
Insect shield mesh (pullover) shirts/jackets, pants, and headnet/hoods are also available that can be worn over other clothing (or not as see through completely ventilated clothing)
Andrew, I don’t have a ton of experience with super buggy weather but I have done a few early season sierra trips that were pretty bad. I’ve found that as long as I’m moving, the bugs can’t get me. As soon as I stop they swarm. Instead of worrying about a bug proof hiking shirt I just put on my windshirt whenever I stop moving for a break. It works fine and is very versatile, you can wear whatever shirt you want.
When you were in the Wind Range, or in Alaska for that matter, were you bitten while moving?
When bug pressure is high, you will get bit even while on the move. This will especially be the case when you are walking with the wind, or dealing with a fast mosquito (there are many species and some are better flyers than others). Also, off- trail travel is usually slower and entails decision breaks to efficiently navigate.
I have used your technique in light pressure and it can be effective. But it would not have worked in the Winds.
Clothing is of course highly personal. I wore Columbia AirGill Chill pants because they were the lightest (7oz) light-colored (light gray) bug-proof pants I could find. While they were on the warm side, this didn’t bother me much. The lack of breathability of my Patagonia shirt was much more of an issue for me. If I go back to the Winds in bug season I’d use the same pants but get a looser knit 1/4 zip white poly shirt (like what Buzz had) and treat it with permethrin. I did notice quite a few other hikers in shorts and T-shirts, and assume they were covered in DEET, but I personally don’t care for DEET and use it very sparingly.
Skurka is 100 times more experienced than I, but I don’t agree that our shelter wasn’t up to snuff. With the 8.5×10′ Zpacks tarp Buzz & I had bomber shelter that we could fully close on 3 sides and weighs just 13oz with lines and stakes. Bugs were basically not an issue after bed time – it quickly got cold enough that they let us alone. I did not use a bivy, have never used one, and, frankly, don’t see the point of carrying the extra 5-7oz unless you are also using a really minimalist shelter (e.g., poncho tarp).
The WRHR is definitely an instant classic! Mile per mile it’s harder than the SHR, with very little on-trail hiking except at the very beginning and the very end. There are, of course, basically no convenient resupply opportunities, and, like the SHR, the shuttle is LONG. The Winds are just remote, rugged and committing!
Thanks for the informative comment. If you were going solo, would you still bring an 8×10 tarp or would you use a 7×10 or possibly 8.5×8.5?
I would bring a full-sided tarp like a mid
Failure is often so much more instructive than success. When you succeed it’s not always clear what you did right, causes of failure on the other hand can usually be easily identified. I recently found (at the thrift store) a toys r us bug net that is meant to go over a baby stroller but provides ample upper body coverage. I’m working on a way to attach it to my chrome dome (for cowboy camping) and also to the underside of my tarp. I’ve often found that mosquitoes seem to favor biting on the backs of my shoulders so I’ve taken a nice breathable shirt and added adhesive backed tent repair panels to the shoulders. Not a perfect solution, but an option.
Thanks for the description and insight. I’d love to get a detailed description of the route. I’ve pretty much hiked out the Sierra Nevada (though still love going there) and would love a committing long route to enjoy.
Glad to see you got to put some of your prior research into the range to the test, Andy.
On the issue of bug protection vs. ventilation, I have had good success with the Eco Mesh pants from Rail Riders. To save weight, you can get rid of the zippers, the mesh is on the inside, so cutting the zippers off only means you lose the ability to have warmer pants.
For traction, I like the older BD whippet poles that have the removable head if I don’t know that I will need them. That way, I can hike with the head removed, which is more comfortable.
Thanks for the write up.
I too like the Rail Riders Eco Mesh pants.
RR makes a similar sort of shirt, the Madison River. It likewise is permethrin treated and has full length mesh panels. For me it breathes well. I like the shirt collar that can be turned up when desired.
Thank you for the write up Andrew. Will you please include a gear list for this trip. I am heading there soon to do a similar trip and I am trying to lighten up my pack.
I’ll try to get my list up. I’m going again on Thursday but I have a lot to do beforehand.
Looks like a real barn-burner classic for sure. I do take issue with the avoidance of the upper Washakie drainage (Shadow Lake, Texas pass, etc.). I Just got back from a short distance, six day fishing loop from Big Sandy, clockwise up around the upper Washakie drainage, into the Cirque via Texas pass, Deep Lake and back. It was a mellow booze cruise on our end, but I consider this to be one of the finest short loops these eyes have ever seen.
Shadow Lake is a very special place with a sweeping and unusual look at the back side of the Cirque: Sharks Nose, Overhanging Tower and crew. I first got a sniff from a distance on a previous Elkhart-CDT-Hooker-Lizard Head-Big Sandy beatout. Looking into the mouth of the drainage from East Fork, I made a note and walked it last week. The view from Texas Pass into the Cirque, while dominated by Pingora, is incredible.
For the dinosaur bugs and sun protection in the mid-summer Winds, I favor long sleeves, long pants, wide-brim and permitherin. Oh and a Tenkara rod. Too much good fishing up there, but then I have a problem.
I’ve spent almost 15 weeks in the Winds and it is spectacular! Too bad you only allocated a week. Cirque of the Towers, Jackass Pass, Deep Lake, Lizard Head trail, in the South then Pyramid Lake, Grave Lake, Mt Hooker, Island Lake, Big Water Slide, Cook Lakes, Europa Canyon, in the middle are perfect for non-climbers to get fantastic views. And in the North the ever popular Green River Lakes and Square Top are absolutely worth going on the easy trail. ‘Popular’ means many people have seen it because it is WORTH IT! :-).
On the AT in July 2013, the mosquitoes and ticks were fierce. I wore an Insectshield long sleeve shirt and Sea to Summit bugnet mesh pants over shorts, both treated with permethrin. The pants were loose fitting and ventilated well. These were very effective for ticks and for mosquitoes while hiking. While resting, the pants would rest against my legs and a few mosquitoes bit through. Highly recommend this outfit especially for the AT where ticks and Lyme disease are a major issue.
Greetings Andrew, I saw your shelter recommendations for this trip, however I would like to ask why you have not considered/mentioned Zpacks Hexamid Solplex tent with the screen and sewn in floor? The Cuben weighs in at only 16.2 oz. with guy lines and stakes? Seems to solve the bug problem and no need for a bivy. Thank you for your input,
The Hexamid Solplex would be a fine choice for early-season conditions in the Winds (i.e. relatively warm temps, at least moderate bug pressure). But it’s not as versatile as the SoloMid because of its integrated floor — with that design, it’s not a good winter shelter, and it’s overkill when the bugs aren’t around.
My first trip to the Winds in early August was the Dads Lake -Marmes lake – Washakie Pass – Lizard head trail to the Cirque – Thankfully the rain & hail while on lizard head trail on day 2 washed out the buggers while above tree line – a bit scary, but no lightening or even thunder – just rain & hail. However , I did run into mosquitoes at Seneca lake from the Elkhart TH – thankfully, my Zpacks Hexamid with netting worked great in the evening. Stunningly beautiful area, but very, very rugged ! Even ran into Mike Cleland, author of Ultra light backpacking guide book – wonderful fellow & great trip.
Andrew, I’m mildly amused that you failed to complete the WRHR, but in the same breath criticized the route for not remaining “high” enough, for skipping the “biggest glaciers and tallest peaks”, and that the exit is “underwhelming, lacking technical challenge.”
Though I’m most interested in hearing your thoughts on precisely where “the” High Route should go…
Sharing of the precise route will have to await me completing it first, sorry. But, generally, if you establish strong parameters before you settle on any part of the route, it becomes fairly obvious. For example, if you decide that “the” High Route should traverse the entire range, then the northernmost crossing of the range’s crest needs to be further north than Knapsak Col; if you decide that “the” High Route should hug the crest as close as possible without encountering technical travel, then Photo Pass should not be bypassed due to needing a trespassing permit from the Wind River Indians; etc.
Just wondering, is there a reason why the skyscape trekker is recommended and not the skyscape x? (the cuben version)
Since the bug pressure was expected to be heavy going in I would like to know how Buzz expected to fully address this with his bare legs. Was he expecting that permethrin soaked clothing and DEET slathered bare skin would be enough?
I’ll try to speak for Buzz:
1. The bugs won’t be as bad as they were.
2. Between my really hair legs and my wind pants, I’ll manage.
I wonder if Columbia’s mesh InsectBlocker hoodie would be an option.
Full disclosure, I am a Columbia employee.
I’m unclear: is this a hiking shirt or a very lightweight jacket? If it’s designed to be the former, I wonder if the air-perm may be too high in cooler conditions (say, 60 degrees or less, depending on the wind). If the latter, that means you are always wearing two layers when the bugs are out, which would be hotter than just one shirt alone.
Under the “shelters” section of the article you mentioned you have used a 9×9 Monk tarp for many nights. I looked at the website for the product but didn’t see a 9×9 version of that tarp. Did you order a custom version? Or was that a misprint and should read 9×5?
Custom 9×9 Monk
I will be attempting this trial in 3 weeks, beginning got Sep 2015. Do you think traction will be needed?
Perhaps. I would bring something.
Lingering snowfields could get hard overnight if you get cold temperatures. But probably even more likely, the snow will have melted off the glaciers and you’ll have to walk across sloping ice, which has some native traction (due to embedded gravel) but which could be pretty slick and slow.
Awesome, thank you for the response. I have a pair of micro spikes so I will bring them as insurance.
Thank you for all your posts! Your core 13 gear list is helping me build my cloth list.
Andrew, when would you say it’s too late in the Colorado shoulder season to effectively use a 8×10 tarp setup? I’m taking some friends on the 4 Pass Loop in late Sep and was going to use a tarp so they could use my Duomid, but now I’m questioning that decision. I’ve used by tarp several times in the summer in Colorado and have never had an issue, but I’ve not had to deal with exposed, windy sites. Thanks!
Funny, I just did that trip last weekend.
There are ample camps in heavy spruce, and I would not hesitate in taking a tarp in late-September, or so long as the precip will be rain, not snow (which will start happening in October).
If you want to camp in exposed areas, weather be damned, you might want to reconsider your shelter, or at least have a backup on-hand in the event that the forecast is not favorable.
You guys go up there once and think you have it all figured out. I’ve been doing your so-called High route for 42 years. Stay where you live and keep this [email protected] off the internet
dbot – Obviously we didn’t, nor am I afraid to admit so. We had done nearly everything to the south over multiple trips, but our extrapolations from those experiences didn’t apply at least to Bonney, and we were skeptical of what lay beyond, too. None of us regretted trying to on-sight it — that tends to be our style, and it generally has had good results; if not, it at least pushes the ball forward.
Sorry, but you don’t own the Winds. Every reader of this post is equally entitled to going there, regardless of where they live and whether they have been there before or not. Your attitude generally does not win over friends, and is probably not effective in having the effect you intended of building yourself up while putting us down.
You are correct, everybody does have a right to go there.
If it weren’t for Backpackers the country would not be preserved the way it is.
It would be utilized for other things which would be a very bad human mistake.
But who knows who is reading this stuff on the internet. You could very well be miss leading them into their own death.
There is only a select blend of backpacking enthusiast who should actually attempt this route. You need to be on top of every aspect of the game.
It is not a stroll through the park for any novice who may read this on the internet and be inspired to try it themselves. People beware, you must start at the trailhead and learn the ways of the land or you will fall victim. We rescue dozens of people every year off this range. Navigation, survival skills and just plain Common Sense will keep you alive. Learn the entire range first. You need to identify Peaks from a distance. Do not rely on GPS and electronic devices of the today’s world. Know your limits. Learn from mistakes. And Venture further every outing. To just jump into this route by reading on the internet could be fatal.
As a random passerby on the Internet, this is a great response! I’m not an experienced backpacker at all, but have done a ton of research for my first trip in ten years (we are not going anywhere near the winds). It’s fun to read accounts like the ones on this site, from experienced people who’ve been all over the place…and warnings like yours do help a lot in stearing people towards appropriate routes.
Highly informative. As a close friend of Orrin Bonney’s grandchildren (sympathies for Lorraine’s recent passing – I visited her last in summer 2013; it’s a great loss), I’ve always wanted to climb to this pass, and I’ll be in the area again in summer 2018. As I begin to prepare for the trip, these comments (particularly dbot’s) are very helpful. Definite food for thought. Thanks.