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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