I started dreaming about returning to the Wind River Range within moments of finishing our 6 day loop in that locale last summer. Still sore and un-showered, I was already scheming on something bigger and more epic. My qualifications for an acceptable route were simple: rugged mountains, spectacular views, demoralizing physical exhaustion and formidable challenges. As an individual prone to obsessively planning and researching, it didn't take me long to discover the Wind River High Route. While this route has been completed in a variety of iterations, I was drawn to professional hiker/adventurer Andrew Skurka's interpretation of the route, and quickly purchased his detailed mapset and guide.
On Skurka's website he writes of the route, "The world-class, 97-mile Wind River High Route is bookended by the range’s southernmost and northernmost 13,000-foot peaks, and it penetrates the range’s most spectacular part, the upper headwaters of Dinwoody and Torrey Creeks, home to Wyoming’s high point and the highest concentration of glaciers in the American Rockies."
And a few of the route specs:
- 97 miles, with 63 miles (65 percent) of off-trail travel
- Two 13’ers plus a 12,259-foot mid-route summit
- Nine alpine passes; the highest, Blaurock Pass, is at 12,750 feet
- 620 vertical feet of change per mile, and a total of 30,000 feet of climbing
- Lowest elevation, besides the trailheads: 9,690 feet at Big Sandy Lake
Rugged mountains - check.
Spectacular views - check.
Physical Exhaustion and Formidable Challenges - with a low point of 9,690' and 65% off trail route-finding? Guaranteed.
And so, after 2 days of driving, Aaron and I found ourselves in Dubois, Wyoming - the end point of our proposed high route. Since this is a "through hike", we needed to drop my vehicle at the end point, and we opted to pay for a ridiculously expensive car shuttle to the starting point. Last summer we climbed Wind River Peak and visited the Cirque of the Towers, which are technically both on the High Route, so we decided to skip those portions, and instead start at the Big Sandy Trailhead to pick up where we had left off - a mere 4 hour drive from where we dropped my car. Our shuttle driver Rick led us to the Trail Lakes Trailhead in Dubois, and as we locked my car and watched it disappear into the distance, I wondered - what adventures lay between us and returning to my tiny Honda? We cruised along- watching the landscape change around us as the hours passed - my excitement growing with each passing mile. As bumped down the final rocky stretch of dirt road to the Big Sandy trailhead Rick pleasantly informed us, "Just so you know...about 1 in 4 groups decide to bail on their intended trip in the Winds... so if you need to get picked up at a different trailhead, just call. Don't be afraid to bail if you need to." And on that positive note, we were deposited at the Big Sandy Trailhead - carrying everything that we needed, at least I desperately hoped, for the next 10 days.
The plan for the first day was easy - a simple 7 mile on-trail jaunt to Marm's Lake, a familiar location, since we had camped there on our first night last summer as well. As we started hiking, we both felt GREAT. As sea-level dwellers, hiking at nearly 10,000' can be a bit of a shock, and I distinctly recall that the previous summer I felt absolutely drained and exhausted. This year we had kicked up our training regimen a notch - all of the seemingly endless HIIT workouts, weight lifting and endurance hiking were starting to pay off.
I was extremely nervous for this trip. In the weeks and days leading up to our departure, I obsessed about absolutely everything possible - the amount of food we were bringing, whether or not our quilts (instead of heavier sleeping bags) would be warm enough, whether or not the weather would hold, whether there would be forest fires, whether or not I had brought enough sunscreen. You name it, I obsessed about it. The day before the trip started I had completely morphed into, "frantically-packing-and-repacking-and-obssessing-mode." Our hotel room in Dubois was practically a disaster area - completely strewn with backpacks, gear and food. Even our shuttle driver, Rick, said, "Hey, chill out - you're on vacation." I wanted to scream, "YES, THANK YOU. I realize that. But this is the type of vacation where IF I SCREW THIS UP, WE DIE." Mercifully, I refrained.
After our trip (and without giving any of the adventure away!), I asked Aaron to describe the experience in one word. Without hesitation he replied, "Hard." My word? Committing. The months of preparation and planning and obsessing really all came down to the moment when we were dropped off at the trailhead - there was no turning back. We didn't have a vehicle, so retreating to Jackson, Wyoming for a week at the spa was not an option. Every single thing we needed was literally on our backs. I felt not only that burden weighing uncomfortably on my shoulders that first day, but also the weight of my 32lb pack - subtlety reminding me that we had a long way to go.
Prior to this trip, the two longest self-supported (i.e. no resupply point) hikes that I had ever completed were 5 nights and 6 days each, and one of those was a loop hike. There is something comforting about knowing that you are, "just making loop". There is something altogether completely un-comforting about realizing that you have to hike 80 miles (mostly off trail) through mountainous terrain, with no ability to re-supply, to get back to your vehicle. As I sat in the tent that first night before bed, I poured over the nine pages of maps spread out before me. We were currently on page one. I visualized our arrival back at my car on the final day - goosebumps tingled up my arms and tears burned in my eyes. I could see it. I could feel it. What I couldn't see was everything in between - the countless challenges that lay ahead, the unknown obstacles that we might encounter, the emotions - misery, triumph, fear, joy - that we would experience together. As hard as I looked at the topo lines on our maps, they were just lines. I wanted them to come to life and whisper to me that we could do this - that my knowledge and training and planning were enough, but that wasn't for them to tell me. The next 80 miles of hiking would give me that answer, whether I liked it or not.
As I drifted to sleep that night I felt a vulnerability that I do not experience very often - almost a combination of homesickness and emptiness. A realization that, "Most people go to the beach for vacation - what's wrong with me that I need to hike 80 miles through the mountains?" Of course I wasn't feeling homesickness in the true sense of the word - I wanted to be here. Instead, I felt more of a realization that we were pushing our comfort zone - no walls or familiarity to protect us or make us complacent - just miles upon miles of mountains waiting to be discovered. I burrowed my head under my quilt and wrapped myself tight - nestled in next to Aaron and surrounded in my down cocoon, I felt safe. For now.