I scanned my headlamp back and forth through the darkness. I panned to my light left and then right, searching, but seeing nothing that could be the source of the bizarrely loud country music. I was at Deep Creek Lake, below Wind River Peak, and the sun had gone down for the second time during my Wind River High Route adventure. I was 100% certain there must be a tent filled with whiskey sipping campers enjoying obnoxiously loud and twangy country music. I failed to find the tent that I imagined the music was coming from, and as I continued down the trail and the music did not fade in the slightest, I knew things were starting to get weird again.
The Wind River High Route, which was in-part created by Andrew Skurka, Buzz Burrell, and Peter Bakwin, was modeled off of the famed Sierra High Route. The goal is to summit the two “bookends” of the range, Downs Mountain and Wind River Peak (both of which are over 13,000 feet) and stay as high as possible between the two summits while mostly avoiding 4th and 5th class terrain—trails be damned. That leaves backcountry travelers with an outrageous route, both in terms of beauty and challenge, that is about 100 miles long with around 30,000 feet of total climbing. The route ascends and descends 11 different major passes or peaks, and mostly stays between 10,000-12,000 feet above sea level. David Ayala blew my mind last year with a stout FKT of 2 days, 2 hours, and 35 minutes, which he also accomplished in extremely challenging snowy conditions.
I have dreamed of a Wind River Range traverse since before the time I even moved to Lander, WY (in 2008), and first attempted the Wind River High Route as a supported FKT attempt with Jeff Mogavero in 2018. Both Jeff and I were very familiar with the Winds, and both of us got our butts kicked, especially me, after surrendering to a couple of broken ribs sustained during a tumble on Blaurock Pass. Since then, it has been a top goal of mine to go back and to do it right. With the nearly complete cancellation of the 2020 racing season, making the WRHR my top priority was an easy choice. I did lots of slower paced scouting of the route and by the end of the summer I had traveled on about 90% of the route and was ready to go.
The first high country snow of the season came just at the end of August, and the next snowstorm was forecasted for about a week later, so I shot the gap on September 3rd and 4th and was fortunate to still get the better part of a mostly full moon. Temperatures were actually unseasonably warm as I left Trail Lakes at 4:23AM. The stoke was high and the scenery was off the charts as darkness slowly faded—the moon set behind Downs Mountain and the sun rose behind me over the Absarokas. The wind was strong and my Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest felt heavy at about 9 pounds, but I was super pleased to make the summit of Downs in 4:25—only 25 minutes slower than the FKT I established back in early July.
From Downs Mountain the travel is rugged, but mostly super fun moving up and down several relatively smaller undulations in the landscape with jaw dropping views of the Continental Glacier, the Tetons, Togwotee Pass, the Gros Ventre, and of course Gannett Peak and its surrounding glaciers. Last time I traveled through this area the glacial ice was still covered with the previous winter’s snowpack, but this year that was all gone and dark grey and gritty glacial ice was totally exposed. I was startled to see gaping crevasses exposed on Sourdough Glacier and Gannett Glacier. One crevasse on Gannett Glacier was about 4-feet wide and 20-feet deep—fortunately it was a pretty easy hop to clear the void. My La Sportiva Bushido 2’s fortunately gripped extremely well on both the rock and ice—no additional traction devices were required.
I dropped into the Dinwoody Cirque ahead of schedule and was astounded by the massiveness of the ice covered Gannett Peak. Getting out of the Dinwoody Cirque means climbing over Blaurock Pass, one of my many favorite places in the the Winds. It is properly steep, and actually not filled with too many boulders on the north face. The afternoon sun was blaring down by this point and I was surprised by just how hot it felt‚ especially for that altitude. I was also surprised to bump into a couple of hikers about half way up the pass. It was a great lift to chat with them, and welcome change from talking to myself for hours. I descended the south face of Blaurock Pass a little bit differently than I ever had before—I decided it was good mojo to avoid the area where I fell and cracked some ribs in 2018.
I continued on through the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek (also one of my favorites) and crossed the icy meltwaters of Knifepoint Glacier before starting a boulder hopping binge over Alpine Lakes Pass and the Alpine Lakes. This was one area I did not scout earlier in the summer, and I wish I had. Last time I traveled through the Alpine Lakes they were still frozen solid in early August and cruiser snowfield travel was easy. Picking my way around buttresses that flanked the lake was slow and tedious, and I was well aware that the sun was getting lower in the sky.
Even though my pace was starting to slow a bit, I still felt good about my progress as I approached Douglas Peak Pass. This pass was new to me and it looked bonkers steep. In the end it worked OK, but I can’t say I recommend that route—I feel like I alone created too much erosion on the loose terrain. There is a lower route towards Camp Lake that I have done before, but it is not as much in the spirit of a “high route”. Getting down the pass was even worse as I slid in the loose scree and dirt. I just made it down to the trail at Douglas Peak Lake as darkness set in.
There is a decent trail to the Golden Lakes area, and I was glad to be able to run a bit, even if it was in the dark. I saw a few headlamps in the distance around Golden Lakes, but I never bumped into anyone. Route finding in this area is pretty easy, but I got off course a couple of times because I was distracted by the stunning moonrise. Leaving Golden Lake and ascending the Continental Divide towards Europe Peak, sleepiness and fatigue really started to set in. I started seeing weird things out of the corners of my eyes—like elk wearing Christmas lights kind of weird—and this was the first sign of challenges yet to come.
Even though the off trail navigation in this area should have been incredibly straightforward I somehow how got really disoriented in the dark. The moon cast some light onto the landscape, but all the peaks of the divide were just a dark silhouette that blurred together in my tired vision. I inexplicably got off course in this area a couple of times—I even completely walked in a circle at one point. I struggle with sleep deprivation in any 100-mile race, and I could tell that this was already going to be much more challenging in that sense.
Europe Peak is known for having a rather exposed knife edge arête with a perilous drop on each side. This was the last section of the route that I had not traveled before, and I was nervous about on-sighting the arête in the dark at about 2:30 am. As I approached the narrow ridge, I was astounded to see two sets of bright green eyes (like unnatural electric green) look up at me, blink twice, and then turn and jump straight down into the dark void. “HOLY CRAP!” I stopped and stared for a minute, fully shaken. I tried to rationalize it and tell myself they were crazy mountain goats making a quick escape. But, I knew that wasn’t true. I knew I was starting to unravel. I stopped, sat down, and had a nice snack, trying to get my act together. Many ultra runners experience hallucinations, but I’d never witnessed anything that vivid or crazy before. I carefully scrambled down the arête, purposefully avoiding looking into the black void on either side, and slowly made my way down to Photo Pass.
The next part of the journey was through the high country of the Wind River Reservation, so before entering I made an offering to the ancestors as my friends in Fort Washakie had instructed me. Travel through this section was faster than I expected, and I enjoyed traveling below jagged cliffs of Windy Ridge. Some things just look cooler at night than they even do during the day. I got uncomfortably close once to a porcupine in the dark, my only wildlife sighting during the entire trip besides pika and a dazzling variety of birds.
Light began to fill the sky as I wrapped my way around Middle Fork Lake, and the moon set behind Pronghorn Peak. I had every intention of finishing the High Route from this point in daylight, and I believed that I could do it. I plugged along through Bonneville Basin and over Bonneviille-Raid Pass (another favorite area) and was feeling good, that is, until the morning sun started to shine down. Rather than bringing welcome warmth after a night out, the sun brought almost unbearable heat. Even at 10 am, I felt like I was quickly becoming dehydrated and over heated. I became indecisive in which route to take through Raid Basin, and zigzagged my way along while stupidly staying far from water sources. I wasted a lot of time in this area and was frustratingly inefficient, but I tried to be optimistic as I finally reached some single track at Skull Lake.
I was determined to make up time on the trail in this section and attempted to run the gentle climb up to Shadow Lake. I made good progress for awhile, until heat and thirst really started to wear me down. Fatigue and sleepiness became a constant struggle. I really do love Texas Pass, but as I stared up at it and the ant-sized hikers at the top, I just didn’t want to do it. I felt despair, hopeless, and like I had bit off more than I could chew. I sat at the bottom of the pass, flopped over, and closed my eyes for the first time. It couldn’t have been for more than a minute, but I “awoke” feeling better. I slurped down one of my last two caffeinated Spring Energy Koffee gels, and started the hike up to Texas Pass. I started feeling much better and enjoyed the climb, and enjoyed chatting to a couple of other hikers at the top. A couple folks gave me unbelievably kind words of encouragement and even offered me food. I was so tempted to accept, but I knew I could not if I wanted to keep this adventure categorized as “unsupported”.
After ascending the sunny and full-of-fall-color Jackass Pass, that left Wind River Peak as the last major obstacle of the Wind River High Route—and I consider that mountain a dear friend. I started around Black Joe Lake, climbing the first steep buttress in the hot evening sun, and just felt physically wrecked. I looked up at Wind River Peak and saw the first dark and ominous cloud of the trip and felt more self-doubt. I sat down in some shade and tried to evaluate the situation. I was dehydrated, I had about 800 more calories and 50 mg of caffeine left (for almost 12 more hours), I had minimal battery left for my headlamp, and not much battery left on my Garmin InReach, or on my phone. The West Gully of Wind River Peak is notoriously difficult (and rather dangerous). I started to question how safe it was to keep going. I was about ready to quit, and that felt truly awful. I messaged Jenny and lamented my situation to her, but of course she wasn’t buying it. She told me to be safe, but whatever I did I’d better have no regrets. I sat there for a moment, said “OK”, and got up and got moving again. Fortunately, the Wind River Range is so spectacularly beautiful you can often forget about your human challenges for awhile. The drainage above Black Joe Lake is second to none, and the lake below Wind River Peak’s West Gully is beyond words. I saw one final pair of friendly hikers in this area before finishing the journey on my own.
The sun was just setting as I clawed my way out of the West Gully onto the summit of Wind River Peak at 8 PM. I knew it’d be dark in 30 minutes or less, but was relieved to be on very familiar terrain now. But, even though I was on my favorite mountain, I’d never been on it in the dark before, and was astonished again at how disorientating it was. I had a terrible time finding my normal efficient line down the mountain, and the snow that I usually use during the descent was already rock hard and unhelpful. It took me two full hours to reach the trail at Deep Creek, compared to what might usually take me 40 minutes.
I did some blister repair on my feet for the first time in the trip, and got ready for 17-miles of solid single track running to the finish. This is when I started to hear the bizarre country music, and lot’s of other strange sounds as well. I came to realize that all the noise was coming from rushing water—every moving creek either played country music or was chattering with voices. The voices were always distant, like if you’ve stepped away from a party for a moment, but they were always there. I tried to keep it together, and to keep myself fueled by rationing out a gel by putting pea sized drops of it on my tongue one at a time. I could feel my self sway back and forth as I ran, and the whole world tilted from side to side. I became frustrated with the music and voices. I asked the voices to change the music for me, and to my amazement they did, but always to a different twangy country song. As I ran along the Middle Fork Trail through golden aspen leaves I tried to take back control of my brain, and I yelled at the the voices “It’s time to go to sleep! Don’t you understand?! You have to go to sleep now, it’s late!” It dawned on me that maybe I wasn’t yelling at the voices, but maybe just at myself.
I ran 90% of the trail to Sinks Canyon, only stopping several times to sit on a rock and close my eyes for 10-seconds, or so. That swaying from side to side on the trail worried me as I really did not want to crash and burn this close to the finish. However, I really livened up as I heard Popo Agie Falls—now I was really on my home turf. The voices and music finally stopped as I pushed hard and felt like I was flying towards Bruce’s Parking Area in Sinks Canyon. I started letting out yeeeeeeehaws and wooooohoooos knowing that Jenny and my girls were waiting for me there. I cannot describe how happy I was to see their headlamps in the distance. They met me shortly up the trail, and all four of us ran into Bruce’s together, where I completed the Wind River High Route in 1 day, 23 hours, and 7 minutes for a new Fastest Known Time.
Special thanks to my wife Jenny and my lovely daughters for their never ending support and stoke, but also thank you to Josh Fuller for helping me scout the route, Kelly Halpin for all the trail beta, my coach Hillary Allen at CTS for getting me fit, and the kind folks at La Sportiva, Ultimate Direction, Spring Energy, Garmin, Julbo Eyewear, and Petzl for the goods to make this trip possible.
Gear used and/or carried:
Shoes – La Sportiva Bushido II
Short sleeve shirt – La Sportiva Wave
Long sleeve shirt – La Sportiva Tour
Wind Jacket – La Sportiva Zeal
Rain Jacket – La Sportiva Odyssey GTX
Puffy Coat – La Sportiva Krush
Shorts – La Sportiva Tempo
Pants – Ultimate Direction Ultra Pants
Gloves – Ultimate Direction Ultra Flip
Hat – La Sportiva Traverse Trucker
Sunglasses – Julbo Rush
Watch – Garmin Fenix 6+
GPS – Garmin InReach Mini
Headlamp – Petzl Iko Core and Bindi
Pack – Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest
Food – Mostly Spring Gels, Bobo’s Bars, and various crackers and chips, ~9,500 calories