Adventure and Adversity on the Wind River High Route

By Michael Lanza

In the West Gully of 13,192-foot Wind River Peak, a steep bowling alley of loose scree and boulders that look poised to roll into someone’s femur and crack it like a peanut shell, four of us move cautiously downhill, searching for the safest path through one of the most hazardous stretches of the 96-mile Wind River High Route.

With every other step triggering a small rockslide, there’s little opportunity to relax our focus for a moment. We walk with patient deliberation. The descent grows relentless.

Nearing the bottom of the gully, I step gingerly onto a large rock—it must easily weigh 300 pounds—and inadvertently kick it loose. As it tumbles downhill, I yell at Joe, who’s just below me, “Watch out! Watch out! Watch out!” He turns as it rolls past his leg, missing him by inches.

A backpacker descending West Gully off Wind River Peak on the Wind River High Route.
Kristian Blaich descending West Gully off Wind River Peak on the Wind River High Route.

But this will be only our first close call today.

Maybe 30 minutes later, moments before reaching Lake 11,185 in the valley bottom, I start across a sloping granite slab. A wafer-thin snowmelt stream a little too wide to leap over pours down the slab and plunges over a short waterfall—a sheer drop of perhaps 15 feet onto rocks awaiting anyone slipping here. I eyeball the stream, place a foot on a tiny dry spot in the middle of it, and then stride across to the other side. 

Out of habit, I turn to watch Kristian, who’s behind me, cross the water slick. 

He takes one step, slips on the wet rock and goes down, suddenly sliding out of control. Instinctively, I crouch at the stream’s edge and reach toward him—and we lock hands and forearms just before he whips past. With our arms still locked, he carefully rises to his feet and steps onto dry rock. And we both exhale loudly, our eyes wide as dinner plates.


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A backpacker hiking into the Cirque of the Towers on Wyoming's Wind River High Route.
Justin Glass backpacking into the Cirque of the Towers on Wyoming’s Wind River High Route.

Indeed, with our 2,000-foot descent of West Gully finally behind us—after two-and-a-half mentally grueling hours—the sense of relief feels palpable.

I’ve joined my Boise friend Justin Glass, his brother-in-law Joe Souvignier, and Justin’s friend Kristian Blaich on a 96-mile, south-to-north traverse of the Wind River High Route, 65 miles of which is off-trail.

Weaving back and forth across the Continental Divide about a dozen times, the WRHR stays mostly between 10,000 and 12,000 feet, crosses 10 named alpine passes ranging from nearly 11,000 feet to nearly 13,000 feet—nine of them off-trail—and tags the southernmost and northernmost 13,000-foot summits in the Wind River Range, 13,192-foot Wind River Peak and 13,355-foot Downs Mountain.

 

Rugged, physically and mentally strenuous, and navigationally challenging almost without relent, it’s also arguably, mile-for-mile, the most jaw-dropping trek through any mountain range in America—and I’ve taken many of the very best over the past three decades, including 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

And now, on our second afternoon on the Wind River High Route, it has already become abundantly clear that it promises a constant stream of adventure seasoned with hazard.

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The Wind River High Route

“It’s like having your own Yosemite with nobody here.”

Justin says this as we gaze at a miles-long chain of granite towers with vertical, 2,000-foot faces looming above the broad valley of the East Fork River—including 12,532-foot Raid Peak and other summits unnamed on the map. We’re hiking off-trail up the valley through open meadows on our third afternoon on the Wind River High Route. 

Just a shallow but energetic creek up here near its headwaters, the East Fork leaps over dozens of small cascades and waterfalls and swirls through granite bowls. Before long, tired of merely look at the crystalline creek, we shed our packs and clothes and each find a pool to fully immerse ourselves in the frigid water. It feels marvelous.

A backpacker in the East Fork River Valley on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.
Kristian Blaich backpacking up the East Fork River Valley on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.

We began this day in the cool air of early morning with the ascent to a windy Jackass Pass at 10,790 feet, reaching it at 7 a.m. There, under bluebird skies, we stared at the jagged, granite skyline of the Cirque of the Towers, golden in the low-angle sunlight. After descending several hundred feet to circle around Lonesome Lake, we made a long, steep, off-trail hike and scramble over New York Pass at around 11,400 feet. The gully descent on the other side seemed like a playground compared to West Gully on Wind River Peak. Then we spent a few hours hiking trails and seeing perhaps a few dozen backpackers before turning off-trail again into the solitude of the East Fork River Valley.

We’re now far enough into the WRHR to have wrapped our heads around the totality of its character, from the myriad challenges and unrelenting strenuousness of it to grandness on a scale rarely matched anywhere.

Traversing a range with few equals in the country by any measure—elevations, abundance of alpine lakes and glaciers, remoteness, length and breadth, or raw splendor—the Wind River High Route embodies everything we imagine a great hike in the mountains should be.

Plan your next great backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, in Yosemite or other parks using my expert e-guides.

 

Backpackers Kristian Blaich and Joe Souvignier on the Wind River High Route.
Kristian and Joe hiking up the valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route.

It passes countless alpine lakes while crossing one amazing valley or cirque after another—and confronting you with what can seem like endless miles of talus, scree, some snow and glacial ice and a bit of third-class scrambling, but no technical terrain. For its entire length, it stays on or near the Continental Divide, rarely coming within a day’s hike of the nearest road.

In all respects, the Wind River High Route offers one of the most remote, arduous, and glorious wilderness adventures anywhere.

At Lake 10,586, the uppermost of a string of liquid pearls in the East Fork Valley, we commence a 1,000-foot ascent over talus and boulders the size of cars to Raid Peak Pass, at around 11,600 feet—our third high pass today. With the aim of completing the 96-mile Wind River High Route in a week—an aggressive itinerary even if this route wasn’t two-thirds off-trail—we’re putting in 12- and 13-hour days that average nearly 14 miles and several thousand vertical feet.

Crossing Raid Peak Pass as the sun sinks toward the horizon, we scramble through cliff bands down to the Bonneville Basin Lakes. There, in fading light and cool wind, we pitch our tents at 7 p.m.—12 hours after we started hiking.

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Huge, Hard Days

In a sharp-edged wind that nips at our faces, we stand on rocky, mostly barren tundra at around 11,600 feet, staring at a topographical puzzle. Ahead of us, the ground rises like an earthen wave, steepening to what looks from this distance very much like a cliff standing between us and 12,259-foot Europe Peak.

Somewhere on that wall—which has already fallen into evening shadow—the Wind River High Route weaves through ledges and breaks in cliff bands to gain the high plateau above it, where we hope to find water and a place to pitch our tents for our fourth night on the WRHR.

As we did yesterday, we’re embarking on our third hard climb today: We’ve already made a couple of steep, off-trail grinds to Sentry Peak Pass at nearly 11,600 feet and Photo Pass at over 11,400 feet. In the valley beyond Photo Pass, we ate up more than an hour locating the route through convoluted terrain, bushwhacking through forest and scrambling ledges around high lakes, but ultimately reaching the alpine zone at the base of Europe Peak.

A backpacker scrambling up Europe Peak on the Wind River High Route.
Joe Souvignier scrambling up Europe Peak on the Wind River High Route.

Now, where Europe Peak’s east face steepens, we zigzag along ledges and scramble carefully up gullies of crumbling rock to reach the Continental Divide at around 12,000 feet north of Europe Peak, and then walk down a broad, gently rolling alpine plateau. Around 8 p.m., we find tiny patches of nearly flat, not-too-rocky ground for our tents a short walk from a tongue of snow about the size of a football field with a small pond of open water at one end. We eat dinner in a cool wind as darkness falls.

Hiking such long days, we rise with or before first light and start walking while the early-August air still feels like October at these high elevations. At any random moment on any given day, it’s hard to immediately recall where we camped the night before. Except for lunch and brief breaks, we don’t stop walking until dusk.

Start planning your next adventure now! See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip.”

 

Backpackers at a small tarn above Golden Lake on the Wind River High Route.
Justin and Kristian at a small tarn above Golden Lake on the Wind River High Route.

And every hour of every day, we traverse an alpine wonderland of rocks, scant vegetation, wind-whipped lakes, some of them partly frozen, and peaks towering over 12,000 and 13,000 feet, with glaciers pouring off them.

In early afternoon on our fifth day, we follow a steep, green strip of grass and moss up the edge of a gully to Douglas Peak Pass, at over 11,600 feet. There, we look down the long valley of the Alpine Lakes—a trough almost devoid of green and one of the most starkly beautiful places I’ve ever seen. At the valley’s far end, some four miles and at least that many hours away, today’s next objective, Alpine Lakes Pass, is visible as a notch in a tall ring of stone that encloses the valley like the sides of a giant bathtub.

We descend over ground carpeted with of rocks and boulders of all sizes and commence a circuitous, slow, and arduous traverse of the valley, hiking and scrambling over talus and snow and navigating around three larger lakes and a handful of smaller ones, all at around 11,000 feet.

In the short time we spend along the shore of one lake, three separate car-sized blocks of snow calve with a loud whump into the iceberg-choked water. High above another lake, we cross a wide, grassy shelf sprinkled with rocks; it looks like a little piece of the Scottish Highlands transported to the Wyoming mountains. (Along with the East Fork valley two days ago, it’s among the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve regrettably hiked past.) Then we follow a system of narrow ledges and scramble on hands and feet up a fourth-class ramp. Here and there, wildflowers erupt from little patches of thin soil.

Most surprisingly, we run into five backpackers hiking in the opposite direction—a couple in their twenties and three guys who look college-age—exchanging with them expressions of wonder over the places we’re seeing out here.

In early evening, we reach Alpine Lakes Pass at about 12,150 feet. With each of us feeling the physical strain of these days, we begin another long, downhill slog over rocks, talus, and snow. As darkness looms, we stop for the day on grassy benches above the loud churning of the South Fork Bull Lake Creek.

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The Remotest Corner of the Winds

Around 6:30 a.m. on our sixth morning, layered up against a cold wind in a mountain shadow, we step into the shallow but icy South Fork Bull Lake Creek and cross to its opposite bank. After eating and packing up by headlamp, we started hiking 30 minutes ago, as the predawn light began brightening this valley. We face a huge day.

By midday, we’ll enter the fourth section of the WRHR and the most-remote area of the Winds, its northeast corner, home to towering peaks and the greatest concentration of glaciers in the range. With much of that section near or above 12,000 feet in the alpine zone, entirely exposed to wind and weather, potential campsites are almost non-existent. Our plan is to reach the marginally protected Iceberg and Baker lakes area for our last night on the Wind River High Route—and position ourselves to finish with one final, long day tomorrow.

Ninety minutes beyond the South Fork, we ford the North Fork Bull Lake Creek in a stunning valley below glaciers and 13,810-foot Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highest. That’s followed by a brutal, 2,000-foot ascent over talus, snow, and scree to 12,750-foot Blaurock Pass, the highest on the Wind River High Route. From there, the Winds stretch far to the north and even farther to the south, a stirring panorama and a powerful visual representation of the tough miles we’ve walked—and the daunting terrain that still awaits.

See all of my stories about backpacking in the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.

The Gear I Used See my reviews of the outstanding backpack, ultralight tent, trekking poles, down jacket, and sleeping bag I used on the Wind River High Route.

I recommend wearing lightweight or midweight, waterproof-breathable boots; see all of my reviews of hiking shoes and backpacking boots and my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.” Gaiters would also be helpful in wet snow.

Find the best gear, expert buying tips, and best-in-category reviews like “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 10 Best Down Jackets” at my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside.

See my expert tips in these stories:

How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking
5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking
7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

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