4/17/2023 Not to Touch the Earth: A Ski Traverse of the Wind River Range
By Spencer Dillon, Photos by Spencer Dillon and Calum Johnson
It is always hard to imagine skiing in the depths of summer. I sat in my car at a mountain biking trailhead this week, summoning the gumption to peel my sweat-melted pants off and replace them with riding shorts. My hands sweat, my face sweat, my feet sweat. It only took a moment once I turned off the car for the heat to return, pervasive. Opening the windows just allows blasts of fresh, hot air in.
And the dust. The dust is everywhere. It coats all surfaces. Everything it touches, it claims, fine grained and inextricable. As I grab gear from the back and drop a backpack on the ground, the dust envelopes me. I cannot touch the ground without consequence. My contacts hurt. Sure. Summer is fun.
As I spit the dust off of my hydration pack nipple, my brain begins to wax on a ski adventure from this spring. It was only weeks ago but is already so far away from this. For what was supposed to be two weeks but turned out to only be one this spring, I stood on nothing but snow and saw no one but my partner, walking across the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
The Winds are not famous for their skiing. They hold amazing wilderness alpine climbing and spectacular off-trail hiking. But not skiing. It doesn’t snow much, even though the weather is chronically unsettled. Access to skiing is regularly over 10-15 undulating miles from any road. Basins are guarded by imposing faces and slabs that make travel difficult. There are no snowpack observations, and the range is famous for wet and isothermic spring seasons as its thin, faceted snowpack collapses. Sounds like a great place to go skiing and super similar to the Wasatch.
We ended up camping at the Dutch Joe ranger station on the south side of the range waiting for the sun to rise on the first day of our ‘end to end’ traverse of the Winds for a couple reasons. The first of which is a summer love of the place. I spent several of my first alpine climbing trips more intent on the beautiful hanging couloirs on Temple Peak than the soaring granite faces and ridges of the Cirque of the Towers. My mind began to play tricks: ‘if this is what it looks like in July…’ and after a Labor Day snow storm one year the hook was set. Once I began to snoop around for beta, I immediately encountered Forrest McCarthy’s visionary Lander to Jackson traverse from 1992 and there was no turning back. My partner Calum and I committed to enter this range and receive what it gave us, wisdom and otherwise.
From the moment we got my truck stuck in snow at the Dutch Joe meadow until we stood at the bottom of the Wind River Return run at White Pine Ski Area, we were on snow. In the first and last miles the occasional dirt patch appeared, but for the intervening ~70 miles there was only snow. Not a dry tent spot to be found, which is kind of surprising because we never found a snow depth over about four feet. But it was everywhere. A thin veneer over everything, broken granite sprinkled throughout. No dust in sight.
From Dutch Joe we could barely see the Winds. Bunion Mountain, aptly named for both of us, was barely visible above the forest as we pulled into the snow bank at dusk. An intimidating approach when you can’t see the mountain range you’re headed to. Darkness drained the heat from the mush below us, and I felt far from everything, miles from the road but miles too from the mountains. The significance of the undertaking sunk in. This would be real wilderness skiing. No tracks, no quick rescues, no sight of roads, no snowpack forecasting. On the traditional lands of the Shoshone people and with Forrest’s bravery in our hearts, we set off to walk the Winds and hopefully ski Gannett along the way. We would be on our own, minus the satellite communicator of course.
May 1st: Made it to camp! Having fun, though Calum is looking at me kinda weird. SKIED FROM THE CAR!!
One of the great ironies of our trip was that we barely saw Temple Peak. We left Big Sandy Opening for the Cirque of the Towers on our way north. A brief glimpse amidst falling snow, characteristic of the trip, was all we got of the peak that spurred the adventure to begin with, but it filled me with joyous, nervous energy. We were there! Amongst it all! That first day we never ripped skins, craning our necks all day for views of granite.
We had been told before we left that a Winds traverse would not be possible without suitably cold temperatures. The thin snowpack doesn’t tolerate heat well and is capable of La Brea tar pit style isothermic collapsing. Thigh deep trailbreaking would be an obvious show stopper. Unfortunately, the forecast for our trip was dour. The first day had a decent slice of sun and the fifth day was supposed to be sunny. Otherwise, it was supposed to snow and blow every day with overnight lows in the upper 20’s. We were there, sleeping at Big Sandy Lake that first night, to give it a punt.
May 2nd: Having fun but calum is being whiny about his stupid dime sized blisters. Having great fun and the weather has been more supportive than forecast.
And the forecast delivered. Day after day of superficial freezes with ping pong ball visibility, new snow and significant wind transport made travel incredibly difficult. We couldn’t stay along the crest of the range as planned because of the instability and visibility. Instead, we were pushed into the basins, slogging through new snow over wet facets, watching towering ridges and couloirs pass us by at our snail’s pace. Detour after detour around high passes added soggy miles and modest progress kept us on the coattails of possible day after day, clinging on.
We joked many times that we’ve never skied by so much boundless, inspiring terrain. We saw incredible skiing, but that wasn’t our goal. We were there to walk deeply in a mountain wilderness, to see it from end to end. To be alone among peaks that are the archetypes of mountains. And this, despite the detours, we were accomplishing. The gravity of standing, slogging below huge faces, looking into basins ringed with proud face after proud face was immense. The Winds are far from the Greater Ranges. Pakistan is 7,000 miles from Wyoming. But these mountains were big to us. And, more importantly, we were alone.
Our hope was May 5th. The only day our brandless satellite communicator forecast had the sun symbol without clouds or precipitation. Not terribly hot, it could be our chance to go fast and get close to Gannett. Heading north, if we could reach Gannett and escape the Dinwoody Glacier to the north, only moderate, down-trending glaciers stood between us and our northern terminus. So we needed that day to position us to make it.
May 3rd: Having SO MUCH FUN and Calum's blisters are getting better with superglue. They are upgraded to quarters though.. snazzy boy.
Miles south and looking forward to our future sunny day, we slogged into another subalpine lake as the gray clouds above us began to darken. Another day of bleeding blisters, deep trailbreaking, zero-vis breakable crust downhill ‘skiing’ and substantial downhill skinning. Another day where we fell just one pass short of our goals but reached the limit of our ability. Another day where I listened to more of my ‘good’ podcast episodes than I wanted to. Not much Ira Glass left to go around. We found, as most nights, a modestly sheltered spot near a few saplings and pulled out our shovels to dig a platform. And, as most nights, we fell in to the hip at every other step, the platform repeatedly collapsing. Isothermic facets are not the best foundation for a stable tent.
May 4th: 1' of new snow which turned into isothermic mush today. Hard going but plugging along. Calum has STOPPED complaining about his feet because the skinning sucked so hard.
Once the platform stopped sinking under our feet and the tent went up, we settled in for dinner under a darkening, brooding sky. Snow fell slowly in large, clumped flakes from the darkness. Snow sat in the pot, slowly becoming slush. I pumped the stove again, but our whisperlite wasn’t making its characteristic roar. I felt a nerve of fear. Gravity seemed to increase as those same clumps fell faster, accumulating on the tent, on my hood, on the lid of the pot. Looking west into the coming storm, pumping the spluttering stove, our only stove, I felt fear. We were at least 20 miles of skinning from a trailhead. And it would be mank the whole way. We were thirsty as it was. If the stove didn’t kick it into gear and start pullings its weight on this team, we would have a long, wet, cold, and thirsty exit.
So I did everything to the stove I knew how to do: regreasing, cleaning, tightening, replacing and shaking violently, and it spluttered a little louder. We melted water for dinner, eventually. Inches of snow stood dense and fluffy on my visor. But we had, in the growing gloom, water.
Of course, we awoke to our tarp sagging onto us, a full body hug of thick, wind-drifted snow. There was maybe a foot of creamy new awaiting our skis. Waking up to our fourth day with aching muscles and raw feet, morale was high. We spent the day trudging across lake after lake, scraping our sodden skins and thwacking the icing on our bindings every few minutes. My calves ached from the icing. It felt like I was on my highest risers under my enormous backpack, cramps always a few steps away. It was all I could do to stay in Calum’s deep track. At least it wasn’t easy to lose among the endless creeks, pines and ponds rolling on in flatness for hours.
We trudged and trudged and trudged, working our way over a gentle 1,000’ saddle that nipped above treeline. I was burning through This American Life at this point, episode after charming episode, because we knew that the other side of the saddle was a modest 1,500’ descent to a lake. We would at least glide a bit. We had been skinning for eight hours at that point.
The problem with expectations, of course, is that they can be met or unmet. There wasn’t much gliding to be found. Only trudging in manky new snow, skin failures, and binding icing on a long downhill walk. Lake Victor felt far. But then we met a new friend! Fresh animal tracks in the endless, wet snow. A hangry bear had decided this storm cycle was the time to break their fast. We, of course, did not bring bear spray, given the weather and the time of year. Plus, we didn’t want to look like dorks skiing with bear spray in a snowstorm. So our slog turned into a faster slog.
As we reached that uninspiring lake thankfully unaccompanied, I laid down in the isothermic slop and asked Calum if we could stop among the boulders and rotten snow for the evening. It was a great idea, but Calum, in his deep thru-hiker wisdom, said, “This is a bailing camp. If we stop here, this will be our finish.” So he and Ira Glass dragged me another mile to a pleasant meadow, and just as we stopped, the sun shone as the generic sat device told us it would for THE WHOLE NEXT DAY. That was nice, but I was still stressed about the bear.
May 5th: Made UGE progress today and got above 12000' for the first time on our only forecast sunny day. Looking like things are within reach if we don't shit the bed.
We woke up to three small miracles. The snow had frozen deeper than we had yet seen it, perhaps 6”. Our intestines remained in their respective abdominal cavities. And we saw a lithe, red fox ghosting north along that frozen snow towards Gannett. I can’t speak to what this event might have meant to the Shoshone people who have lived with this land for millenia, but the tracks cracked open my cold skeptic’s heart. The fox reminded me of the joy and sanctitute of this trip. It put the smile back on the face that I had let slip the day before. We were in the Winds, in the moment we had strove so hard to create. So we followed the fox up and out of our dismal basin. We followed its faint prints for miles and thousands of feet up to the Continental Divide for the first time in days, into the joy of the alpine.
And once there we flew, gliding up and down contours and basins. It had been days since we felt enthusiasm for our project, continuing forward only to not fall irretrievably behind. But now we were surging, pasted in sunscreen, reaching towards the high peaks of the range on the haze of the horizon, dark and ragged. And the sky was blue until our final, rocky descent, when we were reminded that one can only really ski downhill in the Winds equipped with a pingpong ball helmet, ideally buffeted by gusts of blowing snow. We both ate shit and in that moment Calum decided that Scarpa F1’s were too light a boot for our endeavor.
Though, of course, it wasn’t our last pass. We sat at a less dismal lake. Pleasant certainly. No bears in sight. A long, moderate ramp of skinning above us, one of only four between us and Gannett Peak’s Dinwoody Glacier. If we could get to the Dinwoody, it was ‘mostly downhill’ and ‘benign terrain’ to the north end of the range and our car. But four more passes. So we made it three for the next day. Charging up as evening thunderheads put the quake back in our boots that the forgotten bear had given us the day before. We burst over the top to some of the best legitimate skiing of our trip in a gorgeous alpine basin, the huge peaks closer than ever. The crust was even supportable! I whooped and hollered, swinging my 40 pound pack back and forth as I skied with abandon on the steep and soft snow. Calum still, I think, thought his boots were too soft.
We pulled up next to a boulder as our sunny day set in full color, breaking the monotony of the mostly white palate we had been working with up to that point. We sat across an alpine pond from the steep 2,000’ face of Harrower peak, the top half socked in and the apron full of huge wet loose debris. The clouds gave us glimpses of an enormous hallway splitting the face. I fell in to my hips probably a dozen times while shoveling our platform because I picked a stupid spot to sleep. But I was tired. Leave me alone.
We were 5 days and 60 miles in and we hadn’t really stepped off snow after the first 500 yards. Sure, some boulders protruded. And sure, pretty much everything we skied down looked like a rough Christmas in Park City, but we hadn’t traveled or slept on anything but the thing we spend years of our lives chasing. Our shared frustration with the stupid rotten snow was understandable, but we had become innured to the absolute magic of our living situation. We were floating upon or wallowing within it, depending on the mood. In a moment of rare real-life literary devices, clouds gathered on the darkening horizon.
To be honest, I hadn’t really looked at the forecast for after our nice sunny day. Why bring that kind of negativity into the tournament? I think sometimes to play the long game you have to play the short game, but our sunny day was over so we had to again consult our battery-powered oracle. It said, in confusing symbols, abbreviated words and disheartening percentages, that the sun was definitely setting on our only sunny day of the trip. Lots of water to come down. Daytime highs in the single digits. Those things we were relatively ready for. We had all the warm clothes and extra fuel for our stupid stove. But what we didn’t have was a way to fix my sleeping pad.
We had slept exceptionally warm on the trip, sometimes entirely out of our sleeping bags from the waist up, which tells you something about the freezes we were getting. But this night I was cold because my pad wasn’t holding air. It was deflating in a ~30 minute timeframe, which is just long enough to give you hope as you fall asleep that you finally got it to hold air, only to wake up with cold cheeks a few minutes later. We spent a frantic, gusty hour looking for the pinprick hole, patch kit in hand. I used all of our patches on what I thought were the holes, but it just kept leaking.
May 6th: Unfortunately we shit the bed. Calum's girlfriend picked us up after a 15 mile ski out. Everyone's fine, but we knew we didn't have the spuds for the hardest part.
Sometimes, when I’m trying to make a risk decision, I try explaining the context and the decision to my dad and try to imagine if he will roll his eyes at me. Being supportive of my endeavors, it feels like a good barometer. ‘So we decided it, Dad. We are going to keep going and head into the steepest, snowiest part of the range, tired from a week of slog and without much extra food, into a bitingly cold multi-day storm with a stove that limps along and a popped sleeping pad. The drainages we are traveling to have no avalanche-safe escapes and if the storm delivers forecasted quantities into this strange, thin snowpack, we could be pinned for several days.’
Eye roll for sure. A bridge too far for our first ski traverse. So we bailed just before we got to the goods.
Our bail, to the cute-as-a-button White Pine Ski Area outside Pinedale, took a full 12 hours, 9 skin rips, and fifteen miles of the worst, wet-facet skinning I’ve ever done, but it ended skiing a mountain bike trail into a groomer down to the parking lot and Calum’s charitably waiting girlfriend, Julieana. And there were bear tracks the whole way. Like, almost everywhere, leading us like the fox did over and around and over again. But this time I didn’t like it. Perhaps it was my repeated, top of my lungs cursing about our trip that kept them from getting too curious. Calum, a self described chocolate lab, was predictably more sanguine and supportive of my frustration even though it was far from his fault. What a compassionate and amazing friend. I couldn’t imagine a better partner to suffer, bail, and succeed with.
I was pissed. This had been my dream. And of all things, my sleeping pad popped while camping on snow? A pretty lame way to throw it all away from my perspective. Two week trips are hard to organize. When could we do this again? Probably next spring, but how could I know that? What I knew is that we had lost the chance to even push ourselves to that end, to emerging haggard and successful at Trail Lake because I had a total equipment failure of possibly the least sexy piece of gear I was carrying. I wanted to break things, but I had to focus that energy on skinning away from the bear tracks towards the endless foothills of the Winds. Looking back towards Gannett and the high peaks, the weather looked bad, but not bad bad. But it was over. We were walking, finally, towards the wilderness boundary and corn dogs and beer and beds and dirt.
We skied out on that groomer into the sunset. We got within 50 feet of the parking lot and laid our stinking selves down for a rest and regroup until next year. Everything will be different next year. It won’t, but we will know what to expect, that the trip will be on our shoulders. We must be prepared to carry it from end to end, floating on whatever we find.
Land Acknowledgement: This trip took place on the ancestral lands of the Eastern Shoshone people. The Shoshone people have traveled and lived in these mountains for thousands of years, and we are honored with the privilege to stand amongst their history.
On a side note with Wildsnow recently selling out there is a void in well written ski touring content online. It would be awesome to see Skimo keep posting this kind of content with more regularity (trip reports, gear mods, avalanche content, photo essays etc..)
Skimo already has a huge reader base judging by the comments section of every piece of gear they sell. The touring community would love it. Just a thought...