Wind River High Route
Posted on November 13, 2023
I have a number of idiot backpacking acquaintances, but as I stood on a Volkswagen-sized boulder halfway up the gully we were climbing towards Blaurock Pass I couldn’t imagine hiking this route with any other group of friends. For the past week, we had been following the Wind River High Route as it cuts its way across the continental divide of the Wind River Range in western Wyoming. An uncompromising 97-mile route with 65 miles of off-trail travel, two 13,000-foot summits, and nine alpine passes, the high route is not only a physical challenge but also a navigational test.
Our group met while thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail years ago. Perfect strangers who found commonality in our hometowns, shared interests, and a love for the wilderness. After the trail ended, we stayed in one another’s lives and continued to stoke the fires of adventure. Something like the Wind River High Route appeared as a natural progression for our outdoor pursuits. Its greatest feature is its remote wilderness and the promise of hard-to-reach places. You’re on your own in the Winds. The wilderness is isolated and help is very far away. Hikers can conceivably be devoured by bears or, more likely, suffer from debilitating altitude sickness. Summer days are 75 degrees at noon but can drop below freezing at night. It can snow on you any day of the year and don’t even try to use your cell phone.
Imagine this for a moment: you are standing beside an alpine lake, the day is overcast and rain seems like a certainty. A cold wind is blowing out of the north and the vertical granite walls that shape the valley you are in force the wind straight toward you. As you make your way further up the valley, you find yourself approaching the end of the line, or so it would seem. Mountains rise up to 13,000 feet around you until you notice the pass nestled between two peaks. At 12,300 feet, it towers above the valley floor. Below this pass lies a great boulder field, 2 miles long and 2000 vertical feet. There are no trails to its summit, and the elevator is out of commission. Slowly, you pick your way up the rocks, hopping from one boulder-sized stone to another. In places, you climb on all fours. The guidebook says to keep to the left near the top as the scree field grows especially loose and unsupportive to the right. Finally, one hour after leaving the valley floor you reach the pass and can appreciate what’s on the other side. Below you lies another rock field you must now descend, however, be careful as it has started to rain.
The nature of off-trail travel means you are forced to slow down and pick your way carefully up and down steep mountain passes, across boulder fields, and 35-degree ice slopes. Here, 20 miles from the nearest trailhead, it becomes imperative that you trust everyone in your group to make safe and reliable decisions.
We spent nine days traversing the range, each morning finding ourselves in a new and somehow more beautiful basin than the day before. At one point, we went three days without seeing another human outside of our group. As we approached the final 20 miles of the route, one member of our team injured his knee while descending a particularly steep scree field and we made the hard decision to bail towards the nearest trailhead and abandon the route. Abandoning those miles of snow and glacier travel was not an easy decision, however, hard decisions are necessary when traveling through these mountains.
Those final 20 miles are considered the most remote and exposed of the entire high route. Here, you stay above 12,000 feet for 18 miles as you traverse below Gannett Peak, the highest peak in Wyoming at 13,810 feet, and across the many glaciers and snow fields that cover the northern slopes of the Winds. As we made our way down the valley and away from the high peaks, we all knew those 20 miles would need to be accounted for one day.
In the years that followed our initial attempt, I found myself drawn to the range in unexpected ways. It was as though the mountains were determined to remind us of the adventure we had left incomplete. Every few months, whether peering through the small window of an airplane or gazing at the jagged peaks while pedaling along the Great Divide on my bikepacking journeys, I couldn’t escape the magnetic pull of those untouched miles.
Life brought many changes to each of our lives over the coming years. Babies were born, jobs changed, houses sold and bought—yet we each held onto the idea of finishing what we started. Our group text slowly became just a series of photos of the Wind River as seen from window seats and through car windshields as our lives moved around the range. Each new image re- igniting the spark of conversation to return and complete those final miles.
It wasn’t until summer, three years later, that we finally made our plans to return. Life had opened a window of time for each of us to step away from our work and family routines, and so we jumped at the chance, booking our tickets and digging our gear out of the closet.
We settled on a 70-mile loop that would lead us through previously unexplored valleys and river basins before rejoining the high route, including the 20 we so eagerly wanted to complete. As we made our way up the Green River valley we saw moose feeding in the river and otters playing by the banks. That first night we camped above tree line and were encircled by towering granite peaks. The wilderness has a way of sharpening the mind so that colors take on a deeper hue, food tastes more rich, and time itself seems to stretch. Over the next five days we climbed over mountains, swam in icy waters, and embraced the breathtaking wilderness that lay before us.
If I were honest with my friends and they were honest with me, we might all agree those 20 miles didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. None of us need a blue ribbon of having completed each and every mile of a given route to validate our experience. Those miles did, however, possess the power of imagination and gave each of us a reason to dream about returning to a range unlike anywhere else.
In the end, it wasn’t about checking off every mile; it was about the camaraderie, the shared laughter, the challenges we faced together, and the profound connection we forged with the wild and untamed beauty of the Wind River Range. The wilderness called us, and we came together to answer—a group of idiots trying to spend time outside with one another.
Samuel Martin is a commercial & editorial photographer based out of western North Carolina with a focus on human powered movement and outdoor lifestyle. Learn more at www.spmartin.com or follow Samuel on Instagram (@spmartin_).