43° 22' 20.316'' N 109° 18' 23.868'' W

Trip Report: Into The Land of Wind River Isolation

Aaron McHugh

The first time I saw Gannett Peak, it was projected through a Kodachrome color slide onto the white backdrop projector screen. I’d never walked on a glacier nor stood in crampons, but I knew I wanted to go there and climb Wyoming’s highest point.

Twenty-six years later, I just returned from a week-long mini-expedition navigating through Wyoming’s Wind River Range, home of Gannett Peak. Although we didn’t summit Gannett’s massif, we skirted her northern flank. She was just as beautiful as I’d imagined. My fellow explorers and I traveled ninety-nine miles through forests, across glaciers, down rubble-strewn mountain chutes, over cols while threading our northward route.

The pictures we took tell a better story than I believe I can say through words.

Descending into Golden Lakes hoping there were trout in the headwaters. Oddly we didn’t see one fish. (PC @Dave Eitemiller).

The Stats from our Wind River High Route

+99 total miles
+60,000 Net vertical feet (measures both the up and down)
+59 oldest and toughest guy (Dave the Pathfinder)
+70% off trail (map and compass travel)
+27.5 lbs starting weight with seven days food and gear
+18 miles longest mileage day
+14 maps
+5 blisters
+3 glacial rivers crossed
+1 badger unique wildlife sighting
+Zero number of people we saw in the remote section over four days

Douglas Peak Pass surrounded by towering headwalls with Chris Austin passing through (PC @Dave Eitemiller).

Our inspirational quote that drove us onward and upward

“In the wilderness, we face Something Awful, both outside and within us. The result of this confrontation is our transformation.”

When people hear “Off-trail”, I think most don’t comprehend that you point towards a rocky pass and simply start going up. Most of the time, the only footsteps we find are from elk herds (PC @Dave Eitemiller).

My Epiphany

During our twelve hour days, it became clear to me that this trip was a concoction of ultra-endurance racing, mountaineering, and ultralight wilderness travel.

Just before this picture, we climbed up and over a steep 50+ degree slope guarded by snow. We chose to climb the glacial churn instead which consists of gravel and mud-the same stuff you’d use to mix cement.

My favorite movie scene

Jerry Maguire during his breakdown-breakthrough while doing headstands he said, “I was the Me, I always wanted to be.”

I had to hurry to catch Dave and Chris for photos. This late afternoon shot was taken on our way down from Europe Peak after hours of navigating rock fields.

Favorite tunes to help us lose track of the pulse of pain

+Steve Miller Band Greatest Hits
+Wake Up by The Arcade Fire
+The Wanderer by U2 & Johnny Cash
+Iron John by Jackopierce
+The Cave by Mumford & Sons
+Taylor by Jack Johnson
+I Can’t Be Satisfied by Muddy Waters
+Mrs. Robinson by Simon & Garfunkel
(Apple Music playlist here)

The scale of the landscape doesn’t translate in this picture very well. The glacier that you see is made up of massive house size blocks falling into the azul glacial tarn.

Best homemade trail meals

Skurka’s Breakfast Cheesy Potatoes and for dinner Thai Peanut Noodles.

Descending talus slopes defies your logical brain’s automatic reaction “this can’t be safe”. The earth moves and although you aren’t surfing or gliding there is a sense of rhythm to dancing through precarious places like this.

Invaluable gear

Weighing in at 60 grams for the stove, light and fast is the game.

Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri alcohol Stove. For decades, I’ve packed in fuel bottles and canisters which are heavy and bulky. For this trip, I upgraded to this ultralight setup reducing my pack weight by 1lb+ without any loss in reliability or wait time for a hot cup of coffee.

Minimalism manufactured in Maine this no-nonsense beast goes anywhere in comfort.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s Windrider pack weighing in at less than 2 lbs, this internal frame pack revolutionized my trail experience. We each had stories of carrying forty to fifty pound packs and never hiking longer than a ten mile day. Those days are gone, hello freedom!

Taken from our high camp at dawn on day six, you can imagine how grateful we were to find cover from the wind @11,800 feet (PC @Dave Eitemiller).

Favorite Wind River campsites

There are two winners. #1 For sheer beauty, the Sound of Music valley (unofficial name) was the hands down winner. #2 I love rugged inhospitable places where it appears unlikely you can find comfort, Iceberg Lakes at 11,800 feet. Ironically, we hunted around for twenty minutes looking for a flat soft place to rest our heads. I prayed and found this sandy bottomed oasis.

Unofficially dubbed the “Sound of Music” valley (North Fork of Bull Lake Creek) this was a mesmerizing pristine mountain escape. (PC @Dave Eitemiller).

Biggest Surprise

Everyday was harder than the day before. I’ve heard that the Navy Seals say, “Yesterday was the only easy day.”

Glacial river crossing after a ten hour push hoping my wet socks had dried enough during the day dangling from my pack before I tuck into my bed (PC@Dave Eitemiller).

Best Beer and Burger

The Gannett Grill downtown Lander, WY with outdoor picnic table settings underneath tall cottonwoods and tableside conversation of everyone’s recent adventure endeavours.  126 Main St, Lander, WY 82520.

The usual suspects-Dave and Chris just below Gannett Peak as we contemplate staying here over night or pushing on. On a 99 mile route, pushing usually wins.

Thank you’s

I’m told there are many great pioneers to thank for the Wind River High Route, and so we thank each of the unknown thankless journeymen who dreamed up this significant route. We personally owe a big thank you to Andrew Skurka. He’s created a set of modern resources that enable this route to be re-traced. Thank you, Andrew. Check out Andrew’s full collection of resources available on the Wind River High Route here.

So many valleys, so many giant monoliths-the Winds are a place big enough for my soul to explore spacious places.