Traverse the Wind River Range: With Purpose

Words & Photos by Dave Anderson

Most of the expeditions I have been on during my 35 years as an alpinist have involved trudging up from the foothills into the mountains under a massive pack. I was often loaded down with 75+ pounds of climbing gear, camping supplies and food for up to two weeks. However, from a basecamp or road head I had also experienced going fast and light in the mountains, especially in the Winds. And after setting the FKT speed ascent of Mt. Gannett, my eyes started looking out across the range for a bigger objective. Why not try and traverse the entire Wind River Range in a single push?

68,000′ Vertical. 33 Summits. 162 Miles along Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

Recently many people have completed the High Route in the Winds, which more or less follows the Continental Divide through the Winds. While the route is largely off trail, it also avoids technical alpine terrain, so participants do not have to carry climbing gear. As a climber, I was drawn most to the very terrain avoided by the High Route.

We followed the tapering ridge south from the summit of Mt. Washakie until it plunged out of sight. In the heart of the Wind River Range, my wife Szu-ting led forward into the unknown, navigating down steep lichen covered slabs and around coarse granite gendarmes the size of elephants. I followed behind wondering if anyone else had ever gone this way. To the northwest, a well-worn trail led down to the Washakie Creek drainage where we would camp for the night, but we had another more direct plan. We were 14 days into an attempt to traverse the length of Wyoming’s Wind River Range and summit all the named peaks on the Continental Divide. At the end of this ridge was summit number 30, Bair Peak.

Szu-ting climbed down the ridge and carefully peered into the chasm below. We knew at any moment we could get cliffed out, which would require us to back track to the trail or set up a rappel anchor and get out the rope. Both of these options would take time and the autumn sun had already sagged below the horizon. If we wanted to summit Bair Peak tonight and beat the predicted storm to the Cirque of the Towers, we needed to find a fast way down this ridge. We carried all of our equipment on our backs in Porter and Windrider Packs. Our packs weighed less than 20 lbs at this point, which made it possible to quickly down climb as the darkness seeped up from the lowlands. “It’ll go,” Szu-ting proclaimed confidently after determining the next drop was possible to descend and we moved forward toward our goal.

“If you want to win, create your own game.”

– Yvon Chouinard

My wife and I knew it would be nearly impossible to stay exactly on the Continental Divide during our traverse of the Winds, so we decided to use the summits of the 43 named peaks on the Divide as waypoints along our journey. In the spring of 2017, we received one of the FKT Grants from Ultimate Direction for the expedition and started planning for a late summer attempt.

Wind River Range, Wyoming

During the traverse of the Wind River Range we would encounter a vast range of terrain: dirt roads, trails, boulder fields, river crossings, crevassed glaciers, snow slopes and rock walls. The weather conditions in the Winds during late summer/early fall can include wild temperature fluctuations from 20-80 F, rain, hail, snow and lightning storms. In addition black bears and grizzly bears are found throughout the range.

We needed to bring appropriate clothing, camping equipment, food and climbing gear to survive in these harsh climatic conditions. We also needed to keep our packs light enough so we could safely navigate up and down snow slopes/alpine ice up to 70 degrees and rock climbing of 5.8 in difficulty.

Looking at the mileage, elevation change, terrain and my previous experience in the Winds, I calculated the traverse would take us around 15 days to complete. We quickly realized carrying all of our food would create pack weights that would be dangerous while navigating through the technical terrain. We decided to have two re-rations, one at Indian Basin and the other near the Cirque of the Towers.

We spent the summer eating a low carb high fat/protein diet and adapted our bodies to utilizing fat reserves as an energy source. As a result, we went light in terms of calories and brought roughly one pound of food per person per day.

Wind River Range, Wyoming

Szu-ting and I are by no means experts in ultralight backcountry travel and we learned a lot on our Winds Traverse. Theoretically, I have always known that ounces add up to pounds. The idea of cutting off the tags of my clothing and my toothbrush in half, was lost on me as I packed heavy ropes and metal climbing gear into my mountaineering backpacks. However, knowing that during the Winds traverse we would be climbing through large sections of “no fall” terrain with all our equipment on our backs, gave us the incentive to go light. When we left Union Pass on August 30 our packs weighted under 30 pounds, including all of the necessary climbing gear.

We didn’t make it to the top of Bair Peak that evening, deciding to stop at the flat saddle at the base. We set up our Ultamid 4 near an old snow patch that was waiting patiently for winter. A single set of fresh wolf tracks bisected the soft grey snow, possibly drawn deeper into the valley by the sound of bugling elk.

Wind River Range, Wyoming

I could feel the end of our traverse the following day as I stood on the summit of Overhanging Tower in the Cirque of the Towers. The gusting winds caused the climbing slings around my neck and shoulder to levitate weightlessly as I squinted into the storm clouds. It rained, hailed and snowed for three days leaving the Cirque looking like a vertical skating rink. A bigger storm was predicted in a few days. Winter was about to reclaim the range for the next 8 months.

Hiking down Jackass Pass, I enjoyed the wind-block my food-less Porter Pack provided against the strong gusts of wind pushing us toward the North Fork trail. The 20+ miles of trail back to Lander, WY was covered in light snow. But compared to the rest of the Traverse these trails provided easy mindless travel. In hindsight we had been overly optimistic about our anticipated travel speed. As a result our daily calorie consumption was usually less than 1,000 calories per person. We burned through almost all of our body fat reserves. I lost 17 lbs in 20 days and Szu-ting lost 14.

What allowed us to keep moving forward was our light packs carrying just enough lightweight camping and climbing gear. In the end we were 10 peaks shy of our goal. However, the challenges Szu-ting and I overcame together and the amazing wild environment we traveled are memories permanently ingrained in our souls.

The Route:

 


Traveling the globe. Guiding throughout North America and Asia. NOLS instructor for two decades. His images and words have been included in publications like National Geographic and The New York Times. When it comes to the outdoors, Dave Anderson does it all. Fast. In 2002, he completed the first car to car ascent of all the peaks in the Cirque of the Towers (solo) in less than 24 hours, and in 2006, set the FKT (fastest known time) of Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highest summit. Now he spends most of his free time planning new trips from Patagonia to Siberia, but Wyoming maintains a special pull on his heart.