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Wind River High Route- Skurka Version

Hi all,

For an overview of what this route is about see Andrew Skurka’s website:

https://andrewskurka.com/adventures/wind-river-high-route/

I bought his guide and studied it religiously for several months in preparation for this trip.

In brief, the WRHR is listed as 97 miles with 65 miles off-trail and over 30,000 feet of vertical climbing. (the general idea of a High Route is to keep the highest line of travel through a given range without requiring technical climbing)

If you know me skip this next part, but I want to give some background for those that might use this report for planning purposes as I used others reports.

My background/ trekking resume:

I’m 46 years old, and an avid backpacker; I’ve done over 8000 miles of backpacking in the last decade. I work full time but go out almost every weekend (44 trips last year out of 52 weeks). For the last 6 years, I’ve averaged about 1000 miles of backpacking per year. The majority of my experience is on-trail but over the last few years I’ve been doing solo off-trail trips in the Southern Appalachians. These types of trips often involve following old, overgrown, and faded routes (known as “manways” locally) or using creeks as hand rails and hiking in the creek while climbing falls and cascades, or bush-whacking through heinous rhododendron (my least favorite).

I live in East Tennessee and so the southern apps are my goto, but I usually go out to the western US about once a year to backpack in some new area or mountain range. Here are some of the places I’ve trekked: Sierra out of Mineral King, Grand Canyon (Rim to Rim to Rim), Grand Teton National Park , Four Passes Loop in the Elk Mountains of Colorado (Maroon Bells), Glacier National Park Montana, Weminiche Wilderness , CO .

If you want to peruse for more here are about 100 trip reports on Trailspace.com (the older ones have broken picture links). I bagged my first western peak about 6 years ago in the Sierra (Sawtooth Peak 12,343) and have since done five fourteeners in CO: Snowmass, Sunlight, Windom, Eolus, North Eolus. I’ve done occasional class 4 moves but never with a full pack. I’m not a rock climber or mountaineer.


As far as navigational skills, I’ve done years of terrain association with topo maps, I’m proficient with dead reckoning (determining distance based on rate and speed), and I’ve done quite a bit of route-finding in my home terrain. I know compass basics as far as transferring bearings from the map to the field and vice versa as well as how to triangulate but have not used these skills extensively. I did quite a bit of practicing for this trip though.

Prologue:

I partnered with an experienced backpacker that I had never met: trail name Notbad (Jerry). He had a pulled a 70 mile loop in the Winds with another group led by hiker Dune Elliott, took one day off, then met me in Lander for our High Route; super tough guy! Many thanks to Dune for providing a shuttle for us between trailheads.

At the last minute a cold front blew in from Canada and the local towns were abuzz with news that we could be hit with 4-8 inches of snow above 9000 feet (99% of our route was above that). This forecast caused us to load up with extra insulation that we had not originally planned to carry. Oh well, better to be prepared. Spoiler: the weather was perfect, never even got below freezing, I did not use my extra base layers and only even put on my puffy a few times.

Data notes:

I tracked this trip with a Suunto Ambit Peak 3 GPS watch and came up with some variance from Skurka’s data. I can only account for some of the variance through two alternate sections but I’ll just list what I have while knowing it may not be 100% accurate. I show we finished with 115.28 miles, 33817 feet of ascension and 32008 feet of descent.

Day 1 August 28th

Middle Fork Trailhead at Bruce Bridge in Sinks Canyon Wyoming to Deep Creek lakes / Iceberg Trail junction.

15.42 miles

Ascent: 4032 feet

Descent: 627 feet


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That’s me on the left. Yeah, Notbad (Jerry) is 6’4 and I’m 5’7. Mutt and Jeff with backpacks.:)


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We found the nice protected camps in the Krumholtz about over 10,000 feet in elevation per our guide. Jerry has the Duplex and I’m using a Tarptent Stratospire.


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Sunset over Deep Creek lake and the cirque silhouette.

Day 2 August 29th

Deep Creek camp to Tayo lake near the Coon Lake junction after summit, West Gulley descent, summit again, and then dscent off the south side of Wind River Peak.

6.71 miles

Ascent: 4787

Descent: 4245


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Here, we’re starting up the east side of Chimney Rock after leaving the trail behind for the first time. I took great joy in shooting our first compass bearing to follow as we ambled up the broad mountain slope.



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This is me on the summit of Wind River Peak at over 13,000 feet! What an incredible view and feeling to hit the first one!


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This is where things turned a bit in our execution. I only made a couple of navigation errors but this was a good one. In my rush of adrenaline I had trouble associating the terrain properly and led us down the West Gully too low too soon and right to this icy cliff with ball bearing rocks underneath. It was a scary moment and a total spazz out on my part. (the guide even lists that you won’t miss this traverse because cliffs will force you over, but, um, I did). Knowing this was one of the routes hardest features we decided that maybe we should use the Coon Lake alternate instead.  I did stop to map check and realized that we should have traversed to the west more before heading down but didn’t realize how far down we had dropped (maybe 1500 feet) . It was exhausting to climb all the way back up to the summit then tackle the impossibly long traverse down the south side of Wind River Peak. By the time we got near the junction of Tayo Lake and Coon Lake trails we were whipped and found an off-trail camp on a little knoll near a waterfall.

Day 3 August 30th

Tayo/Coon junction to Cirque of the Towers via Temple Pass

14.68 miles

Ascent: 4350

Descent: 4495

The route finding from Coon lake down to Little Sandy creek was a blast and we had a good time figuring it out. My second last real navigational error was here also: I could not find the trail up to Temple Pass. I saw some natural ramps on the right and even said out loud “if I were a trail I would go up that way” but didn’t trust my gut enough to investigate closely. Instead, we wound up shooting straight up the mountain on unstable talus, but luckily stepped right on the trail near the top. We could see the trail from up there and my gut was right. Live and learn.


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This is me mugging on Temple Pass (which was awesome!).


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Jackass Pass above the Cirque of the Towers

We had a nice night camped below Lonesome Lake (legally more than .25 miles away).

Day 4 August 31st

Cirque of the Towers to near Raid Peak Pass

12.26 miles

Ascent: 2936

Descent: 2448

We had decided to go over Texas Pass instead of the primary routes New York pass, not to avoid the feature but because Texas Pass had sentimental value to Jerry. A friend of his had camped at Texas Pass and shown him the photo some years before and that’s what had captured his imagination and drew his attention to the Wind Rivers in the first place.


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Pingora Peak as seen from the grassy area just below Texas Pass


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Dudes mugging at the actual pass.


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One of my favorite sections was the off-trail traverse of the East Fork river up towards Mount Bonneville and Raid Peak. It has such a great vibe to it. This picture is looking downstream towards the back of the cirque. Fantastic!


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Good tent spots were at a premium up there (see them in the lower left?); we found this cool sandy pit about a mile or so below Raid Peak Pass. Yeah, rain would have puddled us but we thought it worth the risk.

Day 5 September 1st (though really, every day was “labor day” on this trip)

Below Raid Peak to South Fork Bull Lake Creek on the Res

I had issues with hitting the pause button on my watch this day so the data is skewed a bit. I only tracked 6 miles but I’m sure it was closer to 11. I also sure there was more elevation gain than what is listed.

**11 miles

Ascent: 1916

Descent: 2028


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This pic of Jerry may be my favorite from the trip. By the way, he did this 10 day trip with a 38 liter pack!??


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Sentry Peak pass: I really liked the quick hitting combo of Raid Peak Pass, Bonneville Pass and Sentry Peak pass; super cool!


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We chose to spike-up and walk the snow field down from Sentry Peak.


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Here is Jerry getting his form just right for the descent. J


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And me with our route behind me as seen from Photo Pass.


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And finally, our camp on the Res (by permit) which was thick with elk and trout. We heard the elk bugling and one almost walked right into camp but I accidently scared it away while returning from the creek. The trout were so thick in one part of the creek you could have scooped them up with a net. I was too exhausted to fish sadly.

Day 6 September 2nd.

South Fork Bull Lake Creek to Golden Lakes

11.2 miles

Ascent: 3323 feet

Descent: 3422 feet

This day was something. One of the harder navigational exercises was finding a tarn through a dense forest; I relied on the GPS app more than I wanted, but hey I did bring it. Then we got climb Europe Peak which was really neat.


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Here is Jerry about to scramble over the knife edge to Europe Peak, our mid-route summit.


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A dual summit pose for posterity.


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I love this pic of Jerry but his wife may not.:0


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Approaching Golden lakes from the Divide.


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My camp at Golden Lakes. I cast my line four or fives times here but was just too whipped to fish still. This route was brutal.

Day 7 September 3rd

Golden Lakes to North Fork Camps

10.08 miles

Descent: 3963

Ascent:  3287

This was a big brutal day. Alpine Lakes was tough and beautiful.


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Douglas Peak Pass looks undoable (our route is the shadowed wall on the right) but it’s actually a really great route; the distance throws you off. It was a simple walk-up. The other side was much more crappacious though.


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Me, posing at the top of Douglas Peak pass.


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Look at the thickness of that ice…wild!


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Infinity pool!


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At the top of Alpine Lakes pass we met the only other Skurka Route Guy on the whole trip. I did not get his name, sorry man!

Day 8 September 4th

North Fork camps to Gannett Creek


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The next morning I waited for the sun to hit my tent. What a spot!


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An early view of our next pass: Blaurock! The monster. (the dip on the right)


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Just wow


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And wow some more.


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Groups of big horn sheep kept us well entertained on the long grind up Blaurock Pass. It helped a lot.


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Here I’m posing at Blaurock with Gannett Peaks broad snowy top visible over my shoulder.


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Here is Jerry on the Gannett Glacier after our exhausting ascent of West Sentinel.


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Check out our desperation camp at Gannet Creek. It was lower than a spot annotated on our map but worked fine.

Day 9 September 5th

Gannett Creek to Downs Mountain northern base

9.39 miles

Ascent: 3684

Descent: 2533


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Getting close to the Grasshopper Glacier


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Mmmm, glacial melt water!


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Infinity and beyond!


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Or just beyond…..


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Happy me!


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We kept joking about the Alan Dixon route and how he seems to be reclining in many of his photos. This was Jerry’s Alan Dixon impersonation.


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Our final Summit Pose: Downs Mountain!


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View from Downs

Day 10 September 6th

Dows Base to Glacier Trailhead, done!

13.88 Miles

Ascent: 646

Descent: 5203


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The long walk out across Goat Flats, looking back from whence we came.


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And finally we hit more mellow tundra as we rejoined a trail for the first time in many miles.

If you read all this, God Bless You! And good luck with your planning. O:

Like others have written, you just cannot overstate the difficulty of this route. Words fall short of the beauty, the remoteness, and also the pure, total, exhaustion. I’ve done a lot of backpacking in a lot of places in my lifetime but this was the hardest and the most incredible route I’ve ever done.

I feel like thanks are in order, lol:

Thanks to Adnrew Skurka for publishing this route and guide

Thanks to my tough-as-they come partner Jerry for suffering it with me!

And thanks to my wife for holding down the home-front while I disappeared for two weeks!

Happy Trails!

Full raw pics here: https://patricktn.smugmug.com/2018/August-28-Sept-6-Wind-River-High-Route/i-QzSMrCQ

Not bad for a 46 YO!  Not bad for a super hero either...

Long gone are the days I could pull off such toil.  The head space you were in during the trek must have been wonderful, so much time spent touching the sky.

Ed

I've been wondering how you got on. Great photos! I did read every word and enjoyed it. What an incredible trip. You saying it's the toughest trip you've done means a lot. I'm thinking something easier for my next big one!

And by the way, I wouldn't feel bad about the couple of navigational errors...knowing you went wrong and figuring out how to fix it are part of off trail navigation even when you do it a lot. You still figured out where you were although I am sure the scramble back up hurt.

thanks Ed, yes it was great place to be on all levels. It wasn't relaxing as there was so much work every day but still therapeutic for the soul somehow.

Phil,

Yeah my errors weren't about getting lost but more about causing more effort than needed which was almost worse I think. 

So how did the Stratospire behave in those conditions?

Amazing adventure there Pat. I'd say trip of a lifetime, but I know you are young enough to have a few more of those :) The numbers are impressive by themselves, but add in consideration of the elevation involved that is a lot of high altitude effort.

How do you think you'd have done without a partner now that you've done it with one? Seems it would be a very different trip solo, in all the good and bad ways that solo wilderness travel brings.

Oh and did you find the easy route for next year?

Thanks Patman. We are living vicariously through your grand adventure. Most people will never try anything half as difficult. The Winds always have a powerful effect on people. All of that verical is impressive and some severe remoteness. Great job.

For many, outdoor re-creation requires intense experiences that require our full attention. Your trip definitely qualifies. It helps explain the attraction of running rivers and packing horses too. Activities that stretch our physical, mental, and spiritual capabilities. They make for the most memorable trips.

Hey thanks all,

Phil, believe it or not the Stratospire was never tested. It was windy on the peaks and some of the passes but every night was calm. It only rained for five minutes on night 3 and it's so dry there that there was no sign of it the next day. I had to tie off to rocks a few times when stakes would not go but I could have cowboy camped the whole trip.

I wasn't going to even use the inner mesh tent until I saw the forecast for snow and opted to bring it for extra insulation. 

LS,

So good question. My partner put a lot of faith in me on this one. I navigated the entire trip without any major issues (huge boost to my confidence). Still, there was so much chance of mechanical injury that I would advise anyone to at least bring someone that can hit the SOS button if you get knocked out or get a limb trapped. I can't express how much rock hopping and unstable talus is on this route. There were times that you had to hop for hours upon hours without touching solid ground. Mentally, that wears you out as much as physically, just the constant concentration. Gotta be sharp every moment. That said, on the last day, and just a mile or so from getting back to a trail, I took a big fall. I stepped on a large rock that was a teeter-totter and flew about 12 feet in the air landing on my head. I have a few gashes on my noggin, destroyed my new glasses, but mostly just have a deep thigh bruise.  Could have been much worse.

ppine,

thanks very much! I listed to everything you said and thought of your advice to rest when needed and not push it several times. Perfect advice for this trip as it turned out. so many moments found me depleted physically and mentally where I just had to stop. Too easy to get hurt out there if you aren't totally on point with every step. 

Wildlife seen:

black tailed marmots

pika

squirrels (at lower elevation)

elk

big horn sheep

saw a bird of prey (could not tell what) get two fish at Middle Fork lake

no bear sign whatsoever but not surprising up in the alpine I guess

oh yeah, saw four naked ladies at Golden lakes who were doing the Dixon route

Absolutely amazing report and pictures. Very well done patman!

Good one Patman! Aren't the Windies something else?

I'd be curious to know your base and starting weights. I think I'd have to pare my kit down even more if -- BIG if these days -- I were to attempt such a thing.

Thanks Northwest and Red!

Red,

My food and fuel was about 17.5 lbs for 10 days. I slept with my food the entire time and only brought enough cordage to satisfy a ranger if I met one. (no bear can)

My base was initially about 16lbs (including micro spikes) but when we got the winter storm advisory it inflated to 19.5.

That warning of single digit temps and 4-8 inches of snow (which never happened) caused me to add base layer bottom, base layer top, a bag liner since I had brought a 15 F bag, high gaiters, a neck gaiter and fleece hat, expedition weight wool socks, fleece mittens, and my crocs for a dry camp shoe if needed.  I didn't wear any of it (well except the crocs each night)

So I started around 37lbs. 

Amazing Pat! Smart to do such a daunting trail with a partner...good move! What was the high and low temps you experienced? Do you have a gear-list you can cut and paste? Thanks for the great pics.

Patman,

You spent the first 45 years of your life preparing for your trip to the Winds. 

Impressive trip report! This is the kind of travel I aim. 

GregorySM said:

Impressive trip report! This is the kind of travel I aim. 

All I can say is eat your Wheaties, Greg!  Patrick won't own up to the fact he is a beast!  No gym rat I know is up to this; it requires conditioning on real hills, and LOTS of it, preferably with a 35 pound pack.  When I condition for extended High Sierra treks I try to do 2000' vertical feet with a 50 pound pack near sea level, 4X/wk, several months before the trip.  As an alternate I'll do 25 - 50 mile road cycle workouts that include 3000' elevation gain.  Yet the actual hike still kicks my butt (the altitude introduces another dimension of misery).  And the trip Pat describes herein is significantly more challenging than my usual extended trek.  Very few can deal with the rigors of a trek like Patrick's.

Ed   

the trip was so good you had to post it twice..lol

The pingora peak photo is absolutely amazing

What a great trip!  I am jealous.  Last summer I was invited to accompany a friend on a weeklong trip in the Wind River range, but lack of vacation time made it impossible.

whoops missed some activity here....

Joseph,

I don't have a detailed gear list that is accurate...

I think the highs were probably in the low 50ies F and I'd say the low was about 33 F or so. I never had any ice in my water bottle that I left out each night.

Eddie, not sure what happened with the double post....

lambertiana,

I think you would have loved this one. Too bad we could not meet-up on this. Maybe we can get together for something similar in the future...

Greg,

Like Ed says I will never claim to be any kind of athlete. But I will agree that this route is in it's own category of pain inducement. To help get ready I did in fact do countless 5000 foot ascents in a days travel, with a weighted pack, off-trail as much as possible, on very steep inclines. My pictures and writing are possibly deceiving in that they paint a happy picture that doesn't do justice to the reality of what kind of effort it entailed; every day was a big job and work, work, and then some more work. I started to name the trip report "Wind River High Route: enjoy five star views while bent over panting". But it's very much worth doing in my opinion. Get ready and go for it!

May 13, 2021
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