First of all, here’s a cool video Jeff Mogavero made about the Wind River High Route: WRHR
Back when I was working on my geography degree in college, I’d often eat my lunch in the map library geeking out on the Gannett Peak USGS quadrangle. I was an awe of the vast ice sheets and ridiculously steep and rocky peaks—I dreamed of adventuring in the high altitude, glacier clad terrain of the northern Wind River Range. People have been of course visiting the high country around Gannett Peak for years and years, longer than recorded human history, in fact. Jenny and I did serval backpack trips in the area before we had kiddos, and I’ve been itching to get back up there for years. Andrew Skurka, and others, had done some good work planning “official” loops and routes in the area, and I’ve been an especially big fan of what’s been dubbed The Wind River High Route. It’s not the perfect route through the Winds, but it’s pretty darn good: in 97-miles it traverses almost the entire length of the range, including the northern and southern most 13,000 foot peaks (Downs Mountain and Wind River Peak) and keeps you up high and off-trail, but avoids the most technical terrain. Andrew Skurka set the fastest known time for the route in just over four days using lightweight backpacking gear; my vision was to try and “run” the route, something that had never been done before.
I’ve been trying for a few years to line up the right partner for the trip, but of course, for something that committing it doesn’t always workout. Fortunately this year, it wasn’t hard to talk my friend and ultra marathoning phenom, Jeff Mogavero, into the adventure. Jeff and I literally met on the side of Wind River Peak a few years ago and both share a deep appreciation for these mountains, so of course we’d make a good team. We both understood the remoteness, technical difficulty, and commitment it takes to travel in a running style across the Wind River Range. We both believed that covering the range in 48-60 hours was possible if we pretty much hiked, ran, scrambled, and slid almost non-stop and with very little sleep. It was a trip that scared and excited us at the same time.
We started up the Glacier Trail, just outside of Dubois, shortly before sunrise on Friday, July 20th at about 5:15AM. We were wary of afternoon thunderstorms, since there is literally almost nowhere to take cover on the first section of the Wind River High Route. We made good time up the nine-miles of mostly mellow climbing before we left the trail for Goat Flat, a grassy, rocky, and flower filled plateau above 12,000 feet. After crossing No-Mans Pass, we finished up our initial 6,000 foot climb to the top of Downs Mountain. To the north we could see the Tetons, and intimidatingly far to the south we could see Gannett Peak and the rest of the Wind River Range. It’s hard to describe how big, remote, and humbling this terrain is; seeing is believing .
Jeff and I were only carrying oversized running packs, so we felt good about our relatively quick ascent of Downs Mountain, and began the trip south towards the ice fields and glaciers of the range. We were giddy and jubilant as we passed the Connie Glacier, climbed up next to the Sourdough Glacier, and even more thrilled to slide down and across the Grasshopper Glacier. The Wind River Range has the highest concentration of glacier in the United State’s Rocky Mountains and the quality winter snowpack left us a spectacular white playground all to ourselves. Route finding was difficult at times and movement was slow, as we wanted to avoid crevasses or any other overly dangerous terrain. We had of course agreed from the beginning of this trip that nothing was more important than getting home in one piece.
After crossing the massive Grasshopper Glacier was the Dinwoody Glacier, and next the Gannett Glacier. We kicked-step into steep snow using only our running shoes and trekking poles for traction. Given our minimal equipment, we took our time and were always cautious, as a serious accident in that terrain is a guaranteed helicopter ride out. We didn’t meet any people until we slid our way down the Gannett Glacier into the Dinwoody Cirque below Gannett Peak. We chatted with a NOLS group of Marine’s before embarking on the absurdly steep climb up Blaurock Pass. Jeff had been moving faster than me on the technical terrain all day as I babied my weak ankles, but the high altitude was finally catching up to him a bit on the climb. Our goal was to make it down Blaurock Pass before dark, and as long as we didn’t take too many photos it wasn’t going to be a problem. We grunted our way to the top, rallied, snapped a few last photos of Gannett Peak, and headed down the pass.
Jenny and I had gone over Blaurock Pass on a backpacking trip back in 2011, and I remember some sketchy down climbing and trouble route finding. There is a huge snowfield on the right that looks awesome to cruise down, but it’s dangerously steep at the top before it mellows out further down below. Our only option to access the white highway down was to first take a smaller snowfield down on the left, and then cross a large boulder field. As we carefully moved through the rugged landscape, we commented that with all this technical terrain the route would be impossible with out trekking poles. Jeff and I usually opted for the same route through boulder fields, but sometimes during our extensive boulder hopping sessions we’d get just a bit a part. I chose a slightly snowier route than Jeff (I felt like I could move faster and safer on snow) and we got out of sight of each other for just a moment. I stepped off of a car size boulder onto a small, but sturdy looking patch of snow, and instantly lost my foot into a void below me. I post-holed, and unfortunately there was a pocket of just empty space below the snow and I just went straight down like I stepped off of a cliff. I leaned forward to catch myself and was greeted by a searing pain in my left rib cage—it almost happened in slow motion as I could think clearly to myself: Is there a cracking sound? Did my ribs break? Whew, no crack, I’m probably fine. Reality came back to me in an instant and I found myself crumpled on the sharp edge of a snowy boulder with one leg still hanging in the void. I pulled myself up and curled up in pain as Jeff came flying over to check on me. I slowly sat up to evaluate. My ribs were screaming at me, but I was pretty sure that I was still in one piece. Then I saw my trekking pole next to me that was completely cracked in half. I didn’t hear the pole crack, maybe I didn’t hear my rib crack either? I shook it off and rallied rather quickly, as I knew getting to the bottom of the pass before dark would make our lives much better.
I was very surprised just how painful it was to walk and down climb after the blow to my ribs. Every little jostling of the ribs was painful, and I felt pathetic as I groaned over and over with each twist of my body. Jeff let me use one of his trekking poles down the rest of Blaurock Pass to the headwaters of the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek, which I still think is probably the most beautiful place I have been in my entire life. We geared up with warm clothes for the night and had “dinner” with views of the massive Helen Glacier; I ate a Bobo’s Oat Bar, a Honey Stinger Waffle, and my brilliant “nacho” concoction of Frito’s and Moon Cheese, and then I washed it all down with a chocolate Skratch Labs recovery drink. I knew I could walk fine for a long time, but I seriously doubted that I had sixty-more miles in me, as every deep breath hurt my ribs. Plus, I knew that we were five off-trail miles and a glacier away from the nearest trail, twenty additional miles to the nearest trailhead, and the sun just went down. Even if we didn’t finish the whole Wind River High Route, exiting at Elkhart Park near Pinedale was still going to be plenty epic.
Jeff and I definitely worked well as a team and both agreed it was in our best interest to abort the FKT attempt. We decided to make our way to Indian Pass, which would mean ascending Knife Point Glacier in the dark. We made our way through the peaceful darkness across a couple frigid stream crossings and over many more boulders to the outer moraine of Knife Point Glacier. The silhouette of Indian Pass hung above us in the moonlight and looked like it was a million feet higher than we were. Steep ice and snow mixed with rock hung below the pass and it’s safe to say we were both totally intimidated. Crossing glaciers in running shoes is serious business in the daylight, climbing them in the dark is a whole other proposition. Plus, some of the snow was starting to harden up and freeze with the cooling night time temperatures. We agreed that we would keep climbing up until we were no longer confident in our traction, and then we would just bivy where ever we could until the sun came up.
Bivying on a glacier sounded just as cold as you might imagine, so we were pretty motivated to make it up to Indian Pass. We climbed boulders and moraine as high as we could up the glacier, and were forced to cross one more raging torrent of glacial meltwater before we started traveling over snow. Once on the snow, we took painstaking care to kick superb steps into the snow. Which ever one of us was in the lead used two trekking poles, while whoever was following used one pole to keep grip and work on improving our steps. We wanted to make sure our steps in the snow were secure in case we needed to turn around and back-track further up the glacier. The moon had already set behind the mountains, so seeing beyond our headlamps was impossible in the dark. Every few minutes we’d stop and sit on a stray boulder, turn off our headlamps, and let our eyes adjust to the light. From there we would plot our next part of the route kicking more steps up the snow and ice of Knife Point Glacier. We repeated this process for two-and half hours, from about midnight until 2:30AM when we finally made it to the top of Indian Pass at over 12,000 feet. Finally I was able to text Jenny and let her know we needed a ride from Pinedale sometime the next day and we could take a break. We chowed some more Honey Stinger Waffles topped with Trailbutter and started descending the other side of Indian pass, relieved to be on trails for the first time in twenty-five miles.
Unfortunately, most of the trail coming down Indian Pass was covered in snow or washed out in meltwater streams. Our progress down was ridiculously slow really, as route finding and decision making in the dark and cold of 3:00AM was starting to take it’s toll on us. We started to lose our senses a bit, as every single rock I saw appeared to be a cairn; Jeff slipped and fell on a small patch of snow at one point and decided he wasn’t walking on any more snow that night. That left us without a lot of options to travel around the small lakes in Indian Basin, and we wandered around for what felt like eternity trying to find where to go. Finally after crossing another freezing creek at 4:00AM and still not finding our way out of Indian Basin, we both surrendered to our tiredness and took out our 4-ounce emergency bivy sacks and plopped down to sleep, already wearing all the clothes we had on for warmth. Exhausted and distraught from the pain in my ribs, I’d guess it took me 15 seconds to fall asleep. Jeff guessed 5 seconds for him.
I awoke from a deep sleep from something thumping my head, as Jeff was kicking me trying to wake me up. I stuck my head out of my bivy sack and was shocked to see light, and a cathedral of towering peaks surrounding us. I was even more surprised to be warm and relatively comfortable; those emergency bivy sacks are the real deal! Jeff and I both went back to sleep for a few more minutes, before counting to three in unison to get ourselves up. It was 6:00AM and I was shivering hard as we packed up our “camp” and got moving right away. It was absolutely comical how obvious the route around the lakes was in the light, and how hopeless and helpless we were in the dark of night. We quickly bumped into some other hikers that were camped on the other side of the lake and wondered if they had heard us blindly wandering just a couple hours before.
Leaving Indian Basin left us with about 16 miles of on-trail slogging before we could make it to the trailhead at Elkhart Park. Our two hour nap did us a lot of good, but we were still tired and a bit dreamy as we made our way out. We kept ourselves busy playing games like “How did Donald Trump screw up today?” Finally at about noon, we made it to the Elkhart Park trailhead where Jenny and my daughters were waiting for us. My 6-year old was ready with her “doctor kit” to help me if I needed anything. Fortunately, I was fine and just in a lot of pain, which ultimately is not a big deal. We were out for about 31:30, with only two hours of sleep, and stupidly we only got three hours of sleep the night before leaving. We were just plain tired.
Jeff and I failed at completing the Wind River High Route, and setting the record for the fastest known time, but definitely succeeded in having one heck of an adventure. We picked that route in that style because it was a true challenge, and we knew there was a reasonable chance that we wouldn’t succeed. Honestly there isn’t much at all to be disappointed about, and I’m extremely grateful that we both got out safely under the power of our own two legs, saw the amazing glacier covered country of the northern Wind River Range, and that I have a wife and kids that are willing to pick my sorry ass up from trailheads. Will we try again? You bet. We’ll of course make a few changes and adjustments to increase our odds of success, but ultimately this route is a massive undertaking and a huge challenge no matter what style you do it in. Much credit and respect to Andrew Skurka, and anyone else, who has complete the entire Wind River High Route.
Once I’m caught up on sleep and get these ribs to stop hurting it’ll be time for one last training block before what should be my last race of the season, Wasatch 100. Thanks so much for reading.
And in case you’re interested, here is my Wind River High Route Gear List:
- Salomon Skin Pro 15 Pack
- Salomon XA Elevate Shoes
- Salomon Sense Pro Shorts
- Salomon S-Lab Hybrid Pants
- Arc’teryx Motus short-sleeve and long-sleeve shirts
- Arc’teryx Incendo Hoody
- Arc’teryx Norvan SL Hoody
- Arc’teryx Atom LT Jacket
- Salomon S-Lab Gloves
- Salomon Bonatti Rain Mitts
- Salomon Buff
- Honey Stinger Trucker Hat
- Suunto Spartan Ultra
- Julbo Aerospeed Sunglasses
- Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles
- SOL Emergency Bivy
- Stance Socks
- Petzl Nao+ Headlamp