I heard about the Wind River High Route several years ago when I was reading Adventure Alan’s blog and then Andrew Skurka’s blog (both are very good blogs about fast, light backcountry travel). The route peaked my interest because so much of it traveled off trail through very high and remote mountain terrain. I scoured the blogosphere looking for more info on the route. I eventually found a track on Caltopo.com that followed the route described by Skurka.
While I continued to do mostly on-trail backpack routes in the Winds, I kept thinking about the High Route. This spring, I received a trip report on a 15 day Grand Canyon route from my old climbing buddy Work Ethic. I hadn’t heard from him in years. The only major thing we had done together was a 1978 trip to Mexico to climb Pico de Orizaba and Popocatépetl, and some very exciting rock climbing in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado.
I asked Work Ethic if he was interested in doing the Wind River High Route. He responded immediately and said he was interested. He also contacted several of his backpacking buddies to see if they wanted to do it too. All if his buddies were interested but had prior commitments for other trips in August, 2018.
Work Ethic remained committed…but concerned. Work Ethic and his buddies thought that 10 miles per day for 10 days was too hard. Keep in mind that we are all north of 60, and Work Ethic and I are now on Medicare. We are the definition of aging athletes. We’ve been hiking, climbing, biking, and skiing since our early twenties; age has taken it’s toll on our hips and knees and endurance.
As a result, even though I’d spent all spring and summer training, doing long, difficult, and steep, off-trail hikes in the Tetons, I started to have some doubt about the route and my itinerary. Also, I was worried that Work Ethic hadn’t done any training except to ride his mountain bike. No hikes since his February Grand Canyon trip.
After talking with Work Ethic about the difficulties, I modified the route to make it shorter and a bit easier. The complete Wind River High Route is about 100 miles; I eliminated the first 30 miles of the trip, making it a 72 mile, 8 day route. Instead of starting at Bruce’s Bridge in Sink’s Canyon, we started at Big Sandy and hiked the mellow trail past Dads and Marms lakes all the way to Skull Lake. At Skull Lake, we left the trail and started the High Route.
Below is a video I made of our trip.
Warning: This is NOT a Hiking Route
You will see lots of Wind River High Route images of smiling people hiking in jaw dropping scenery. Don’t be fooled. The High Route is not a hiking route: it’s a difficult, strenuous, and complex mountaineering route. Although you don’t need a rope for any of it, you will be glad for any rock climbing, snow climbing, mountaineering, and route finding skills you have. You will need them all.
For example, Gaia GPS app will show you a line going over a pass. What the GPS won’t show you is the best route over that pass. You need to be able to read the terrain to determine the best route. Both Work Ethic and I are experienced mountaineers and climbers, and we had to discuss and analyze each pass to figure out the best way to get over it. For any given pass, there were lots of ways, but by day 3, after we’d climbed 4-6 passes over 11,000′, we wanted to take the best route to conserve as much energy as possible.
Which leads me to Guidebook
We did not have a guidebook. Only a thin red line on a topo map; it shows you where you’re going, but it doesn’t tell you the best route. If you are not comfortable route finding over difficult, high mountain terrain, I suggest you buy Skurka’s guidebook. Although I have not read it, we saw a small sample of it for Europe peak. It had a LOT of Skurka notations on the map, and I think it comes with documentation that describes the best routes to take over the passes and peaks.
Weight is Crucial
I can’t stress enough to go as light as possible. You’re going to be hiking over 12,000′ passes on very difficult terrain: massive talus fields filled with refridgerator-size rocks; steep, lose scree; and granite blocks everywhere. You will pay dearly for every extra pound. I consider 25 pounds to be my high limit and prefer 18-22; I started with 27 pounds and felt it pulling on me the whole way.
Unless you are a very fast and strong hiker, you’re probably going to need 10 or more days to complete the whole route. In order to hike for 10 or more days, you need to carry a LOT of food weight, or you need to arrange for a resupply, either by hiking out to a trailhead (more days) or having a horse packer meet you at some point near the high route (most horse packers only go within 5-10 miles of the route). Or, you can split the route into smaller sections.
We chose to eliminate the first 30 miles and do it in 8 days, but I wish we had broken it down to a 5 day trip and done it in two sections. That would have made a trip with less weight and fewer miles each day, and maybe a rest day.
This route requires some specialized gear. Here is a list of my base gear.
As I said, this is NOT a hiking route; it’s a mountaineering route. Yes, you can do the Wind River High Route in trail runners. You can also drive a spike with a tack hammer. But in both cases, there are better tools available.
I love hiking in trail runners. So light and cool and comfortable…when you’re on a trail. When you are off trail, jumping from one refrigerator-sized boulder to another, with a heavy pack on, and you have 5 football fields of talus to climb or descend, you will love a pair of real boots. They provide a bit more ankle support, but more important, they protect your feet on the bottom, sides, and ankles, and provide much more stable traction than a trail runner. Also, unless you’re doing this trip as a fast-as-possible endurance event of, say, 5 -6 days, then I see little advantage to using trail runners. The saved weight of a trail runner is far outweighed by the extra energy required to gingerly place each footstep to avoid slipping or injury.
Note: About 2/3s of the people we saw on the route were in trail runners. If I were to do this route in shorter sections, I might go with trail runners, but the beefiest trail runners I could find. Something with a real rock plate under the ball of the foot. Still, boots would be a more appropriate tool.
You are required to cross several very big steams / rivers. I would not want to wade these large streams barefoot: they are too big and freezing cold and have too many rocks. If you wear trail runners and you’re ok with hiking in wet shoes and letting them dry as you hike, then you have your wading shoes.
If you wear boots, then you should bring a wading shoe. Boots can take days to dry out completely. I brought lightweight sandals – XeroShoes Cloud – Men’s Barefoot Sandal (11oz for the pair). They worked quite well for wading, but as a camp shoe, they gave mosquitos easy access of my feet because the sandals don’t allow you to wear socks with them. Work Ethic used a Crocs knockoff, probably a better choice.
We carried micro-spikes (about 1 pound) and used them a few times, but we really didn’t need them. That’s mostly because it was almost 80 degrees at 11,000′ every single day. It was like hiking in Moab, Utah in May. As a result, the snow was always soft when we got on it and we could get by without the spikes. If you don’t carry spikes and it freezes at night, you might be forced to wait for the sun to soften the snow, or pick a talus field on either side of the snow if it’s available, or abandon the route.
Important: The amount of snow on the route is different every year and different each month.
We asked the 5 people we saw on the route if they carried micro-spikes; about half carried micro-spikes and half didn’t.
We did not carry an ice axe. It was a weight choice. Did we need one? Not really. But we had unusually warm weather.
Although electrolytes aren’t necessarily gear, they should be considered required. Neither one of us brought enough. Since it was so hot, I could have easily used 10 capsules per day. Hammer Nutrition recommends about two capsules per hour when doing strenuous exercise and maybe a bit more if it’s hot. I had not used electrolytes on backcountry trips before. But on this trip I used 6 per day and I could feel a big boost in energy after each dose.
I use an iPhone with an Ankor 6700mAh candy-bar sized charger that can charge my phone about 3.5 times. It was more than enough for an 8 day trip. I use my phone for navigation, camera, a birding app, music, and once in a while, to send a text.
Rescue Device / Satellite Message
We did not carry a rescue device except for iPhones. On the Wind River High Route, a smartphone is almost worthless as a rescue device except in a few places where you have a line of site view to the east or west: there you might be able to get out a text message or maybe a call.
One reason we didn’t carry a rescue device is because we didn’t own one…and we’re sort of penny-pinching curmudgeons. And they add more weight. Everything you bring adds more weight. Ounces quickly turn into pounds.
Another reason we didn’t carry a rescue device is because we have been doing this sort of adventure our whole lives and have never had one. And we’re still alive. I felt it forced us to be more careful in those giant talus fields and lose descents.
If you’re doing this route alone, I highly recommend that you carry a rescue device; without one, you could easily die if you get injured. I read an account of a solo male hiker who died in a remote region of the Winds after his legs got pinned by a large talus block.
For the Wind River High Route, I considered carrying bear spray because so much of the route is above tree line and there is no place to hang your food.
Plus, the night before we started, we camped at the RV camp in Lander, and in the morning, we talked to a old, native, Lander hunter and horseman. He painted a pretty “grizzly” picture of the bear situation in the Winds.
I have been hiking and climbing in the Winds since 1978 and I’ve never carried bear spray there. And I’ve never seen a bear or bear sign. Also, Work Ethic googled “Bear Deaths.” From his limited research, I deduced that I am probably more likely to be killed by falling aircraft parts than by a bear.
Ultimately, it was a weight choice. We weighed our packs at the trailhead and threw the bear spray back in the car.
For navigation, I use Gaia GPS on my iPhone. I’ve used it for about 4 years now and it’s flawless. I almost never look at a map because I’ve gotten used to looking at maps on an iPhone screen. Work Ethic carried the North and South Wind River Range maps by Beartooth Publishing. These are very nice maps but the scale is too large for my tastes. The Gaia shows 7.5 USGS topos. Furthermore, the Beartooth maps don’t cover the area where you go into the Indian Reservation between Photo Pass and Europe Peak.
I had considered doing the Wind River High Route alone, but I’m glad I didn’t. First, unless you’re a very solitary person, it would be an intense and lonely experience. We saw only 5 people while off the trail. Furthermore, if you get injured, a real possibility, no one will hear you scream for help.
Second, the route has many difficult passes and peaks. I was glad to have an experienced partner with whom I could discuss the possible routes. A second or third pair of eyes is very helpful.
This was especially true on Europe Peak, the technical crux of the route, where we encountered low 5th class climbing to gain the knife-edge ridge of the peak. I’d heard that the passage to the ridge was 3rd class. The well-used route we found required multiple moves using hands and feet to climb straight up a corner for about 15′. Pretty sporty at 12000′ with hiking boots and a 25 pound backpack. I’d call it low 5th class. It was comforting to have Work Ethic there to discuss the route.
A guidebook or some beta would have helped tremendously; all we had was the knowledge that many “hikers” had done it. My hat is off to any non-climber who gets up or down Europe peak via the north-east ridge.