NOTE: I know this is a long post. It was a long hike. If you’re interested in hiking and climbing Wind River Peak, you’ll find key information in this blog. If you’re not interested in details, etc., I hope you’ll at least enjoy the photos and video at bottom. Or, here’s a 7-minute video blog of the adventure.
As a gift for my 44th birthday, my husband, Jerry, agreed to join me in hiking in and climbing Wind River Peak in a day. We had climbed it before — back in 1998 — during an extended backcountry trip we made with rented llamas, who carried our loads. Wind River was our first Wind River mountain to climb, a good one at that. Wind River Peak stands 13,192 feet tall, and is the tallest mountain in the southern Wind River Range of Wyoming.
The mountain is a massive and beautiful mountain, one that stands out from the southern half of the range. We can see the snowy, rounded peak from many of our favorite “back yard” locations.
The last time Jerry and I climbed it, we ascended Wind River Peak’s south slopes, via Tayo and upper Tayo lakes. On this adventure, we would ascend its northeast ridge, above the Deep Creek and Ice Creek lakes region.
Our alarm went off at 2 a. m., which even for us early birds, was dizzying. It was more like the middle of the night than the early morning. But our insanity when we had set the alarm was rationalized by our desire to allow ourselves the biggest window of opportunity to accomplish the objective. We were going to be on a tight timeline because we wanted to make it back to Lander in time for our 10-year-old son’s last baseball game, which also happened to be a championship game, scheduled for 7:15 p.m.
We headed to Worthen Reservoir to find the trailhead, a 40-minute drive from Lander. With headlamps on and under a starry sky, we started hiking at around 3:45 a. m. I don’t mind hiking in the dark, but I prefer doing it pre-sunrise, rather than post-sunset. I like being far into the wilderness when the day is greeted by the first light of the sun.
We hiked three miles to Sheep Bridge, basically from 8,500′ to 9,000′ and back down to about 8,500′ again. As we made our way through the dark and quiet forest, the cool air was full and thick of the smell of a campfire. A fire (known as the Fontenelle Fire) was, and is burning, in southwest Wyoming, just over the range from us. The evening prior, Lander was in the thick of its smoke. We had been concerned that our hike might be smoky and that the peak may be a No Go today as a result of thick smoke. Fortunately the smell was from the smoke that had settled in the forest during the night and, by all indications, a stellar, bluebird day was ahead.
After arriving at Sheep Bridge, we joined the Middle Fork Trail and hiked up, and alongside the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River for about three miles before approaching Three Forks Park. Here, we stayed right and started up the Pinto Park Trail, which eventually leads to Pinto Park and the North Fork of the Popo Agie.
On this day, the sun began lighting up the wilderness — at least enough for us to turn off our headlamps — at around 5 am. Soon after, at exactly 5:03 a.m., something curious happened. Right at that very moment, we heard birds chirping and singing. Until that moment, except for our huffing and puffing, it had been totally quiet. Then, we watched a small herd of elk emerge about 100 feet in front of us, to our right. Like I said, the day was going to be a good one.
We reached, and took a left, on the Deep Creek Lakes Cutoff Trail. Per our GPS, we had hiked 10 miles. After starting up the Cutoff Trail we hiked near Lake 10,054′, where we paused to watch several fish jumping and cutting through the otherwise smooth-as-glass water. We hiked for 2.3 miles before reaching the first Deep Creek lake, situated at 10,500′ elevation. Our GPS indicated we had traveled about 12.5 miles, and it was only 7:40 a.m. So far so good.
Steve Bechtel, my friend, and author of Cirque of the Towers & Deep Lake. A Select Guide to the Wind Rivers’ Best Rock Climbing, had provided information for us the day before about following “The Ramp” up Wind River Peak. We hiked another half mile or so beyond the first Deep Creek Lake before spying a trail to our right. Unfortunately I suggested we ignore that trail and keep hiking, thinking we weren’t to the ramp’s base yet. Oops. As we hiked toward Ice Creek lakes, it became obvious we (I) had made the wrong decision. So we backtracked a half-mile and picked up the trail and headed (seemingly straight) up. Nothing like making an epic day hike even longer, right?
After crossing over a little snow and a boulder field, we found ourselves on the broad ridge that separates Ice Creek and Deep Creek lakes that provides a half-mile-wide “ramp.” Once at the bottom of the ramp, we set our sights on a clump of rocks to the right of Chimney Rock and started up. Wildflowers were everywhere, growing up out of the alpine tundra and gravelly terrain. At times we hiked on tundra, others over rocks and boulders and at others, through snow.
The highlight of this route to Wind River’s summit is the almost-constant view you’re afforded of Little El Capitan, which, as its name suggests, features a massive and sheer wall, along with a notch known as “Surveyor’s Notch.” Little El Capitan is the fourth-tallest mountain in the southern Wind River Range. The sight of this wall is so astounding that we stood and looked at it, our jaws dropping, for quite some time.
At this point, midway up Wind River Peak, we were sucking air. We have climbed peaks before, this one included, so we were not strangers to thinner air. But doggone it anyway. On the upside, although there was a bit of a haze below us, in the direction we had come, we still had clear and bright blue sky around us on Wind River. The views that unfolded below us and around us were nothing short of spectacular.
Soon we reached the first of several snow fields. The snow was only knee-deep in most places and melting fast. Still, we were lucky enough that for most of the snow travel during our ascent we could walk on top of the snow.
Reaching summits takes a while. Especially Wind River Peak’s. The approach is a long haul to get to the base of the mountain, and then it’s a 3.5-mile hike to its top. I think as we were finally approaching the top of Wind River, my husband was wishing I had asked for expensive jewelry for my birthday instead of this epic hike.
Finally, when our GPS indicated we had only 92 vertical feet left to go, we got a surge of energy and soon reached the rock field that is the top of Wind River Peak. We made our way across it and climbed onto the pile of rocks marking the high point.
The views were as we remembered — epic.
We enjoyed a quick lunch break and I captured some photos and video before our time at the summit was up. We remembered that the summit is only the halfway point and we had a long way to go to make it home in time for our son’s baseball game.
Due to our missing the trail up we had logged an extra mile or so. Our GPS indicated we had hiked 17 miles once we reached the summit. And, at least in this case, downhill doesn’t mean easy. Going down is not easier than going up. It’s just that it’s different; it’s more about caution than effort, and our legs were tired.
We started down. Suddenly, Jerry, with much exuberance, exclaimed: “There’s a person!” I looked and spied a person not very far from us, ascending the peak. And then, Jerry yelled “There’s a whole bunch of ’em!” Turns out a NOLS course was summiting. These were the only hikers we’d see the entire day. Even though Jerry and I both love solitude, it was nice to see other human beings. After a short visit with one of the instructors and some of the students, we continued.
When we hit the first snow field, our legs sank all the way down to our thighs. The snow was melting fast and it would be a little treacherous descending a couple of the snow fields. But on the final one, the most vertical of the snow fields, we enjoyed a long glissade. Standing on the summit with my better half was my favorite part of the day, but the glissade was a high second. It was a blast!
We got down Wind River much quicker than we got up it and before we knew it we were back on the trail. We still had 13-plus miles to go and not very many hours until game-time.
Finally, at Sheep Bridge, and only after enduring the 600-foot uphill slog it is known for, it was like horses to the barn. We made it back to Lander and to Hayden’s game right at the start of the game. As we arrived to the baseball diamond, we looked up and saw my parents, the boys’ babysitter, and our other two sons in the bleachers. At the top of the bleachers. I considered if I had another 8 steps in me. And of course, I did.
What a hike and what a day! Once again it has been confirmed that anything’s possible if you’re willing to get up early in the morning, and, oh how I love my back yard.
By the way, when I’m not hiking — and sometimes when I am — I am a life and leadership coach and consultant. Check out EPIC LIFE, my coaching business. Epic Life provides coaching, with an option for a guided epic adventure. I also have a blog there.
Thanks to our wonderful friend, Korinne Thoren, for watching the boys so we could tackle this hike!
A 7-MINUTE VIDEO BLOG OF THE ADVENTURE: