Wind River High Route (Skurka version) – Southern Half. 75 miles. (8/10-14/2016)

At the end of this summer my father-in-law and I set out to do a complete thru-hike of Andrew Skurka’s “Wind River High Route”. I had been extremely excited about this trip for well over a year (it became my next dream trip as soon as I got back from completing the SHR in 12.5 days last summer). There was a lot of hype around the Wind River Range. I was hearing CDT hikers and triple-crowners rave about. Both Andrew Skurka and Alan Dixon were claiming that their routes were the premier alpine experience in the lower 48. I couldn’t wait to go see if the range lived up to it—after all, what could be better than the Sierras?

I put together a video documenting this amazing journey, and walking through the experience of Skurka’s route-line (at least the southern half…)

I’m starting graduate school as a PhD student at Cornell on Aug 22, and I had decided to leave my other job early (middle school afterschool coordinator) so that I could have Jun-Aug to see all that I could of the Rockies and Sierras before leaving the mountains behind for the East Coast. I had had an unforgettable summer: a thru-hike of the Dixon/Wilson Southern Sierra High Route, and more relaxing trips to Yellowstone and Glacier NP. However, Skurka’s Wind River High Route was beyond a doubt the one that I had had on mind for the longest, and the trip I was most excited for. It was going to be the crowning experience of a wonderful summer.

My wife and I had come up to Boise in July. My in-laws were sweet enough to let us use Boise as a base of operations for our Rocky Mountain trips. Tim, my father-in-law, is a huge lover of the outdoors. Although he hasn’t backpacked in years, he has some mountaineering experience and ultra-running experience. I thought it would be incredible to introduce him to “high route” style adventures. He was very up for the challenge, and the timing worked out perfectly—he was able to get a week off work. I had initially planned to do the trip in 5.5 days when I was looking at it solo. The most we could add for Tim and I to be back in time was 6.5 days. Tim had to get back to work, and I had a one-way flight to NY on Aug 19.

Pronghorn Peak on the descent into the Middle Fork valley
Pronghorn Peak on the descent into the Middle Fork valley

Unfortunately it turned out that 6.5 days wasn’t enough time for Tim. The Wind River Range is extremely tough. I couldn’t believe it, but mile-for-mile, it is absolutely tougher than the Sierras. You have to have an insatiable appetite for inhospitable rock. We passed another hiker who was also bailing out from the range who aptly said that a mile in the Winds is like four miles anywhere else. I have to give HUGE props to Tim for handling the range with continuously high spirits and a positive outlook despite massive setbacks. I felt really responsible for totally under-preparing him for how brutal of a high route experience this turned out to be. If it hadn’t been for work, he was absolutely ready to keep going and finish off the trip. As it was though, he just wasn’t able to keep up with the 6.5 day itinerary I had set for us. This had a lot to do with the fact that he was coming off of a gnarly broken toe and two meniscus surgeries—as a result he had to go into the trip cold, no training. Plus he had a couple of scary falls on the trip and altitude sickness. He’s a huge inspiration to me for what I hope I’m still able to do at that age. And it was amazing to watch his sheer  joy at the amazing environments around us.

So after finishing the southern half of the primary route, 56 miles up to Hay Pass, we were still a few miles behind itinerary and I knew things were just going to keep getting harder, and more remote. We wouldn’t finish on time, and Tim absolutely could not afford to add an extra day. So we made the judgment call to bail out at Hay Pass and spent the next day hiking an extra 19 miles to the Boulder Creek Trailhead.

It was a huge bummer to run out of time. However, it was still absolutely the trip of a lifetime. And I’m already scheming of a complete thru-hike next summer. And even though Tim couldn’t finish, I’m so, so incredibly glad I could bring him with me and introduce him to a world-class high route. We learned so much from each other and had such an amazing experience together. Wouldn’t want to have done it any other way.

 

General Impressions: The Winds – Skurka’s version

Lowest Deep Creek Lake
Lowest Deep Creek Lake

As mentioned, I didn’t believe the Winds could be any more rugged or difficult than the Sierras. After all, the Sierras is a land of 14ers, and is twice as long and wider, whereas the Winds is only a land of 13ers. I was deeply mistaken. The Winds are extremely rugged and extremely alpine. The mind struggles to comprehend the nature of the rock in this place. It is a constant barrage of massive, monolithic, foreboding, overhanging towers, spires, walls, cirques. Compared to the Sierras, the rock formations here are just more brutal, have more character and are more challenging. It’s a terrain less hospitable to life—it’s just steep and barren, and so vegetation is much more of a rarity. As a result, the true alpine feeling that you get only in pieces on a Sierra-style high route is completely the norm here. Unlike Sierra high routes, after 56 miles of travel on the Wind River High Route (WRHR), I almost never dropped below 10,000 feet, there was never any glaring or obnoxious low-point. In those 56 miles, there were only TWO instances of traveling through forest, and both were extremely short, only a mile.

A lot of this has to do with the route that Andrew Skurka has devised. It’s the only high route I’ve seen that stays so incredibly true to the spirit and vision of a high route—to an intense degree, even more so than Roper’s original, which I never thought would be surpassed. Skurka and the pals that helped him devise this (Buzz Burrell, Peter Bawkin) maintained a singular, unrelenting focus on always staying high, always staying on alpine rock, always hugging and/or crossing the main crest of the Continental Divide, and always pushing up towards class 2 and class 3 climbing.

Descent of the West Gully
Descent of the West Gully

As a result, this high route is definitely the hardest non-technical high route that I know of. Physically, the vertical change is abusive, as is the onslaught of steep, loose talus and class 3 ledge systems. Mentally, the exposure gets to you, and the long miles between safe campsites is often scary.

However, this high route is without a doubt the most rewarding one that I have ever been on. I am hugely impressed with Skurka’s route-line. It is just so incredibly beautiful and inspiring. I am already constantly fantasizing about coming back next summer to do it all over again. Plus, to be able to go on a trip where there are three thrilling mountain summits — a 13er at the beginning, a 12er in the middle, and another 13er to cap it all off — makes this such a world-class trip, and has such a perfect mountain rhythm to it.

We met almost a half dozen groups thru-hiking the Dixon/Wilson WRHR in and around the Cirque of the Towers area. I was surprised by how many. Comparatively, we saw not a single other group doing Skurka’s high route, or that were even aware of it. It’s a shame—after thinking that there was nothing that could be more impressive than Roper’s SHR, I can’t say enough how much my mind was blown by the flawless grandeur Skurka’s Wind River route-line. Skurka writes that after the first day of climbing through the forest, there’s never again any “ho-hum” scenery and that you will never again be bored about the route. I really thought this was just sort of obnoxious marketing at first. But it’s so incredibly true, such an apt description of this journey.

 

Shuttle — Classic Cruise Control

We parked our car at Trail Lakes Trailhead, and then shuttled over to our starting point at Bruce’s Campground.

After trying to go through Wind River Transit Authority (WRTA) for shuttles as Skurka’s guidebook mentions, we found that, also as Skurka mentions, they refuse to drive out to the trailheads, which is a big bummer. However, the dispatcher at WRTA gave me the phone number for a business called “Classic Cruise Control” out of Lander WY. This business is run by a man named Christian, who is just so awesome. I really can’t say enough positive about him and his business. He is so incredibly authentic, and gives incredibly fair pricing. I highly recommend anyone trying to do shuttling on the east side of the range to give him a call. He shuttled us from trailhead-to-trailhead for a mere $150, which easily beat the WRTA prices. Furthermore, when Tim and I bailed out to Boulder Creek TH, we had to bail out to the western side of the range, which added a huge complication because our car was parked up at the top of the eastern side. Originally we were going to go with the Great Outdoors Co. out of Pinedale. However, we contacted Christian again and he quoted almost half the price that Great Outdoors Co. had quoted, even though he had to drive much, much farther to get to us.

I know Skurka has said he doesn’t anticipate making any further updates to his guidebook — however, I hope he’ll add Classic Cruise Control somewhere to the overview of the route on his description. It’s definitely worth knowing about.

 

Day 1 – Bruce’s Campground to Deep Creek Lakes (14.2 miles)

DSC_0040As Skurka writes, this is the most casual and mellow day of the route. For at least the first half of the day, you are following the Middle Fork of Popo Agie, which is an absolutely gorgeous river that meanders slowly and lazily, snaking through the valley. It’s a very pleasurable way to begin the hike and gain some rhythm. After about the first 8.7 miles, you turn northish and leave the Middle Fork and start climbing upwards through forest. After a while you pop out at the beautiful, stunning lowest Deep Creek Lake.

We decided to camp here because we weren’t sure what the “semi-protected” campsites further up that Skurka’s mapset mentions would like. In retrospect, I wish we would have continued up past PR-06 to the tarns below the peak. There’s abundant krummholz at this point, and some amazing fully-protected campsites. It sets you up perfectly for an early AM ascent of Wind River Peak.

 

 

Day 2 – Deep Creek Lakes to Big Sandy Lake (9.5 miles)

Tundra on the way up to Wind River Peak
Tundra on the way up to Wind River Peak
Summit view from Wind River Peak
Summit view from Wind River Peak

Summiting Wind River Peak is one of the most amazing mountain experiences I have ever had. The ascent is a long beautiful, gentle slope, following spacious tundra almost the whole way up. Plus the summit views might be the best that I have ever had.

It’s a good thing that Wind River Peak is such an amazing experience, because descending the West Gully is probably the single shittiest high route experience I’ve ever had. It’s incredibly steep and incredibly loose. But the worst part is just that it’s incredibly long. Imagine Snow-Tongue Pass going on for a solid two miles. This experience was a very rude awakening for Tim. Definitely full immersion to the challenges and dangers of a high route. To make matters worse, midway down the West Gully, we got caught in a full-blown snowstorm. We were getting covered in snowflakes, the rocks were all wet, and visibility went all to crap—could barely see 15 feet in front of us. In retrospect, it was an incredible experience. However, all in all, it took us over 4 hours to descend two miles. This was the moment where our planned itinerary got blown, and from which we could never quite catch back up. Tim had two very scary falls here too, which drew a lot of blood, gashed up his gear, and left him some gnarly, aching bruises. He was really lucky to avoid a head injury, or more serious bone or joint injury. However, the terrain really got into his head at that point, as did the altitude. As a result he wasn’t thinking straight, nor eating nor hydrating properly.

DSC_0169When you finally drop into Black Joe Creek, the terrain is just beautiful. Very sound-of-musicesque. Walking along the large Black Joe Lake is all lovely too, but the massive cliff-band just before the outlet of the lake is super obnoxious.

We were hoping to get to Cirque of the Towers that night. By the time we finally wrapped all the way around Big Sandy Lake and got to the trail junction with Jackass Pass, Tim was in a really bad way and just went straight to sleep. By this point, I was aware that if he couldn’t recover by the next morning we’d have to pull the plug.

Alpenglow at Big Sandy Lake
Alpenglow at Big Sandy Lake

 

Day 3 – Big Sandy Lakes to Bonneville Basin (16.5 miles)

Looking back at Cirque of the Towers on the way up Texas Pass
Looking back at Cirque of the Towers on the way up Texas Pass

Luckily, in somewhat of a miraculous turn-around, Tim woke up feeling much better. We got an early start and pushed over Jackass Pass before pushing into the legendary, jaw-dropping Cirque of the Towers. We agreed this was a place to come back to and dwell in for a day or two, and soak in all of its glory.

As we started to push out of the Cirque, we had two options, New York Pass or Texas Pass. Tim wasn’t at all liking the looks of steep New York Pass, so we went for the longer, easier option of Texas Pass. We ran into a ton of people in the Texas Pass area. The views along Texas Pass are just absolutely calendar-perfect. It’s such an enjoyable place to go up.

After exiting the Cirque, we had a long meander through wide tundra-strewn valleys and basins. Then, after a brief test of navigational skills through a mile of forest, we started working our way up towards the Divide again, heading up the East Fork River.

Overhanging vertical walls of the East Fork
Overhanging vertical walls of the East Fork

Going up to the head of the East Fork valley is as beautiful as the Cirque, but in stark contrast, you are already very remote, and have the place all to yourself. The valley is embraced by massive, overhanging arms of towering granite on either side. It’s a magnificent place to be.

We started up Raid Peak Pass in the evening. The going was long but smooth for Tim. The views from the top are surprising—you can see straight down to the flat Wyoming plains on the other side.

We pushed down into Bonneville Basin. I had to grab Tim’s pack for him to finish off a couple of steep semi-exposed moves on the class 3 cliff bands. We set up camp in Bonneville Basin and watched an absolutely glorious display of alpenglow on the dramatic peaks surrounding us.

Alpenglow in Bonneville Basin
Alpenglow in Bonneville Basin

We had a yummy dinner of rice and black beans, which Tim enjoyed (his first dinner in two nights), but unfortunately ended up throwing it all up 😦

 

Day 4 – Bonneville Basin to tarn below Europe Peak (13.9 miles)

Moonscape at the top of Sentry Peak Pass
Moonscape at the top of Sentry Peak Pass

After getting close to catching back up with itinerary last night, I was starting to feel a little bit hopeful about being able to get back on track and finish the trip. At the same time, I knew that today would be a bad day to have to play catch-up for Tim—almost no trail all day, a difficult stretch of forest navigation, and a very difficult, exposed push over Europe Peak down to the Golden Lakes. The latter turned out to be true for us—Tim had another rough day of altitude, heat exposure, nausea and headache.

We got up over Sentry Peak Pass early in the morning. The views of the striking Pronghorn Peak from this pass are superb. There’s an incredible, alien, moonscape feeling to this pass.

Then we pushed down into the lush, gorgeous Middle Fork valley — another place you could really stay and dwell in. Jaw-dropping mountain scenery.

Then we began our push up to Photo Pass. The first half of the pass is steep, but covered with mellow tundra so the going is still pleasant. The second half of Photo Pass is very pleasurable. A long stretch of flat tundra past soulful tarns, with world-class views of the Divide behind you. Then a nice use trail up the final stretch of scree. The views from Photo Pass were perhaps Tim’s favorite from the trip.

After Photo Pass you drop down to the South Fork of Bull Creek and then begin a diagonal, northwest push through a mile or so up a thickly forested hillside, before popping out and beginning the ascent of Europe Peak Pass. Skurka describes this as challenging. Luckily, it went very smoothly for us—just keep your compass in your hand constantly and stick to your bearing.

Lush, spacious Middle Fork valley
Lush, spacious Middle Fork valley

When we popped out at the tarn that marks the beginning of the long ascent of Europe Peak Pass, Tim was again in a really bad way, like on Day 2. Heat exhaustion, altitude, lack of calories and water all had taken a heavy toll on him. We started up the tricky stretch of navigation to get up to the pass. By this point Tim became so nauseous and dizzy that I was becoming seriously worried for his safety, so I insisted, much to his objection, that he give me his pack which I slung over the front of me and carried the rest of the way up to Europe Peak Pass. Luckily he started to recover a bit by the time we reached the pass. However, I was seriously worried all day for how he would feel when we arrived to the final 800 ft ascent of Europe Peak itself, which Skurka describes as including a class 3 knife-edge. My worries were confirmed—it was getting late, and with the way Tim was feeling and the pace he was able to sustain, there was no way going over that made any sense. Instead, from Europe Peak Pass, was descended down a long boulder field to the unnamed tarn just below 10,800 ft, above and feeding into the highest Milky Lake (and just to the southwest of it), tucked up against the ridge-line of the Divide.

Looking up at Europe Peak
Looking up at Europe Peak

We found a nice protected campsite in the krummholz. We knew we had to talk over our options. I became really silent and withdrawn because I was really, really wanting to convince Tim that we should add an extra day and finish the route. At the same time, we had already discussed the fact that that was simply not an option for him. He had to be back to work on Wednesday. Plus, that would leave me only one day to pack up all my stuff for moving out to Ithaca, NY and a 6:30 AM plane flight early the next day.

After some tough thinking and a bit of soul-searching I came to terms with the fact that Tim wasn’t going to be able to finish, and that splitting up would be unsafe and completely impractical. So I told Tim that the next morning we should try to bail out ASAP. I actually became really sad and worried that night about finding our way out, and Tim was such an amazing, loving support to me that night — he totally buoyed my spirits.

 

Day 5 – Tarn to Boulder Creek TH (21 miles)

Not a whole lot to say here. We regained the main ridge of the Continental Divide early in the morning. There was a clean way up to the ridge, via a steep gully that went straight up to snowfield lying directly above the northwestern corner of the shore of the tarn that we slept at. The going was very steep, but pleasant tundra led almost the whole way up. Only at the final push, when you run into the snowfield, does the going turn more dangerous with very steep, loose talus blocks on a semi-exposed slope. Earlier in the season if this snowfield were more expansive (which is extremely steep, only go on it if prepared to self-arrest with ice axe) it could make the going much more treacherous.

Spectacular 11,000+ ft ridgewalk
Spectacular 11,000+ ft ridgewalk

After following the route along the lovely, beautiful tundra ridge-walk along the Divide, we connected to the Hay Pass Trail.

We often lost the trail, but by the time we reached Lake Victor and started hooking up with more official trails, the going went better. But by that point your mostly walking through burnt out forest all the way to Blueberry Lake, so the going is kind of hot and depressing. Also a word of caution, it looks like Andrew Skurka’s descriptions are based on outdated USGS topos. Beware that this needs to be updated in several places and that if you don’t find a current map you will likely get lost. (I.e., there is now a “new” highline trail, which is what the signposts now point towards, and that leads in the opposite direction from the old highline trail. You’re you’re supposed to take the old, original highline trail, and no signage indicates its existence in any way. Another trail that Skurka mentions is now “nonmaintained” and has actively been decommissioned and thoroughly covered over.)

Looking down at Boulder Creek Trailhead
Looking down at Boulder Creek Trailhead

 

Huge props to Andrew Skurka for devising what has been the most rewarding high route experience for me yet. I absolutely can’t wait to return Summer 2017 to do all 97 miles in one go!

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