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  • Writer's pictureEd Sherline

About: Wind River Range

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

Last updated: 20 August, 2021

The land of glaciers past. The eastern escarpment of the north-central Wind River Range. From left to right: Gannett Peak, Mount Koven, Bastion Peak (center) and Flagstone Peak. 2015.

In writing this post, I have two readers in mind. One knows little or nothing about the Winds and needs context. For them I’ve avoided merely repeating information easily found online, and instead, emphasized themes important to this blog. Others already know the range, and could themselves write an introduction to the Winds. For them, I dig deeper.

The Indigenous presence. The more reading I've done about the Winds, or for that matter the Arctic, post war Germany, the southern United States, the more I've come to appreciate the presence of the past: that the past has a powerful yet often unnoticed influence on the way we think and feel about places. For the Winds, the greatest influence might be the name itself, which comes from the Crow (Absaroka) people and their name for the river. "Wind River" is the English translation of the Crow "Hucháashe," which, in Washington Irving's recounting, "bears its peculiar name of the Wind River, from being subject in the winter season to a continued blast which sweeps its banks and prevents the snow from lying on them. This blast is said to be caused by a narrow gap or funnel in the mountains, through which the river forces its way between perpendicular precipices, resembling cut rocks." Astoria. (That narrow gap must be Wind River Canyon.)

Although the Eastern Shoshone people are most closely associated with the Wind River Mountains, and have lived in the area for many centuries, the Crow were dominant in the basin, especially north-east of the range, during most of the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, when European-American trappers and explorers would have encountered them. When did this transmission of the name become official? It probably wasn't through John Colter, the first explorer of the area for the U.S., who came upon the northern tip of the range during his 1807 expedition. For in the William Clark map of 1814 (of Lewis and Clark fame), which Colter contributed to and that indicates his route in the area, the range goes unnamed and the Wind River is labelled the Big Horn (that name is now limited to the portion of the river that flows north).

Clark map of 1814 with Colter's route highlighted.

Perhaps the Astorians adopted and promoted the name during their expedition of 1811-1813. The Astorians were a group of sixty-five, most of them partners or employees of the New York mogul John Jacob Astor. They set out from St. Lewis in 1811 to find a commercial route to the Pacific coast to trade furs. On their way out they went through Union Pass in the northern Winds, and on their return a splinter group went through South Pass. Washington Irving, the famous author of "Rip Van Winkle," was commissioned by Astor to write the official history of the expedition, Astoria, and he refers to the range as ‘Wind River.’ Astoria was published in 1836 and was quickly a bestseller that appears to have established the name.[1] Captain Benjamin Bonneville's 1837 map of the region also uses this name, sealing the deal.[2] After you have travelled within the range in all seasons, you see that the name is deeply accurate, and brings with it not only the literal association to a specific river, but poetic truths of strong winds and many rivers.

Bonneville's 1837 map. The Wind River Mountains figure prominently at the center.

The story of how the boundaries of the Winds were drawn is more about the mass movement of people than the contact between different cultures. On the east and west sides nature was definitive, since the mountains fall off into expanses of basins and plains. But the northern and southern boundaries are more ambiguous, and can be drawn tighter or looser. The indigenous people developed important trade and hunting routes over passes north and south of the Winds. These passes were then used by European-American explorers and mountain men, relying on native guides and traditional knowledge. European-Americans called the most northern pass Togwotee, in memory of a great Shoshone guide from the Sheep-eater clan, To-got-e ('Spear'). The southern pass, with the more literal name South Pass, was later used by European-American settlers expanding west on the Oregon trail. Both now have U.S. highways over them, and define the top and bottom of the Winds.

The place of the Winds.

To understand the unique place of the Winds in the Lower-48 states, you need only look to details about the mountains themselves. It is the highest range of mountains in Wyoming, and no other range in the Lower 48 has as much area over 13,000 feet except for Colorado and the Sierras. The Winds also includes one of the largest swaths of pristine, legally protected wilderness in the continental U.S. Although the Wilderness Act wasn't enacted until 1964, the Winds gained this protection much earlier, through "primitive" designations, beginning in 1931 for most of the Bridger Wilderness (one of the first in the country), 1936 for the Wind River Roadless Area (on the reservation), and 1937 for the remaining wilderness areas. Because of this early protection, no roads, logging, mining, ranching, cabins, homesteads, helicopter resupplies, mountain resorts, drones. These laws combine to protect over 1.2 million acres. This puts the Wind River contiguous wilderness in the top five Roadless areas within the Lower 48.

And…the glaciers

When it comes to high and pristine mountain ranges in the Lower 48, the Winds are only rivalled by the great Sierras. But that doesn't account for the glaciers. The Sierras have (as of 2006) over 19 square miles of glaciers, and the Winds (as of 1990) a little less, around 17 square miles. Nonetheless, the Winds contains a much larger concentration of glaciers, second only to the North Cascades. Seven of the ten largest glaciers in the Lower 48 are in the Winds, the biggest three in the North Cascades. The Winds has the largest glaciers of any area in the U.S. Rockies, including Glacier National Park. Gannett glacier, the largest single glacier in the Rockies, anchors the core area of glaciers in the north-central mountains, with a combined surface area of about 15 square miles (measured in 1931).

Mark Meier's beautiful line drawn map of the glaciers (in blue) of the Gannett Peak-Fremont Peak area in 1950. Fig. (c), p. 140 of his M.S.

Why such a large, concentrated area of glaciers?

The rock. One factor is the height of the range. Along this crest, there are 48 peaks higher than 12,500 feet. With altitude comes cooler air, needed for glaciers. Another factor is past glaciation. On the western side, the land gradually builds up to the summits; on their eastern side glaciation has carved steep bowls and valleys, perfect homes for glaciers.

The gorgeous East Fork Valley, Wind River Range, 2016. The three major peaks are Ambush (far left), Raid (center right) and Mt. Bonneville (far right). Though there are no longer glaciers in this valley, they created it and the steep walls and bowls carved into the east side of the range.

The wind. Most of the precipitation in the Winds is the result of the westerly and southwesterly winds originating from the Pacific Ocean. This moist air, blowing across the range means “orographic precipitation.” As the winds flow over the high mountaintops and gain nearly 6,000' of elevation, they cool and can't hold as much water, which they drop as rain and snow.

So, the western side is lusher, the eastern side drier. Offsetting the eastern rain shadow is a “lee side eddy effect” occurring during the winter and spring. Snow laden wind blowing over the crest swirls in place, depositing large amounts of snow on the eastern side of the crest in the steep bowls and valleys. There is a lovely feedback loop between the eddy effect and the shape of the eastern escarpment: the eddy effect helped create the early glaciers that in turn shaped the escarpment, and the shape of the escarpment helps capture the eddy effect snow and process it into glacial ice. That's in part why most of the remaining sizeable glaciers in the Winds are east of the divide, and wind-blown snow their essential food group.

The range is not perfectly north-south, but tilts to about 11 o'clock in the north and five o'clock in the south. Bart Geerts, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wyoming, explained to me the effect of the tilt on the climate. The tilt encourages the westerly winds that hit the southern section of the range to flow around South Pass rather than climbing over the range. Most likely the southern Winds are windier and there is more cornice and snow build up on their crests in spring. In contrast, the winds that hit the northern crest cannot easily escape around the northern tip because of its prow-like angle, which forces them to climb over the crest, creating greater orographic precipitation and lee side snow. The northern area has measurably more precipitation than the southern area. Glaciers need precipitation, so the northern section is more hospitable to glaciers.

The Wind River Range is circled. The darker the red, the greater the precipitation. The darkest red is in the northern portion of the range. From the WRF Research Group, University of Wyoming Atmospheric Science.

What will be the most significant impact as these glaciers "melt"?

The popular press writes about global warming causing alpine glaciers to melt, as if they are ice cubes in an oven. Glaciologists, however, don't fixate on melting, since this is but one process of "ablation" (loss of snow and ice) and is an expected occurrence each summer. Increased melting wouldn't be so bad if it were compensated for by increased accumulation of snow and ice in winter. The problem, then, is increased melting without increased accumulation. Glaciologists talk about this result on the entire glacier as a negative "mass balance," the "change in the mass of all or part of a glacier over some specified time period."[3]

What makes me cringe is knowing that the annual net mass balance of the Wind River glaciers has been negative for over seventy years, since Mark Meier measured it in 1950, with no end in sight.

The rivers. Meier's glaciological work emphasized the connection between glaciers and water. The Winds is a land of two watersheds, the Green River west of the Continental Divide, and the Wind River east of the Divide. The Green's headwaters are sourced by glaciers west of Gannett Peak. These glaciers are losing mass like all the others in the Winds. But since glacial meltwater isn't a significant source for the Green, a decrease in the mass of its glaciers won't have much effect on the river.

This optimistic picture doesn't hold true for the eastern side of the divide. The Wind River gains most of its water from glaciers. As these glaciers continue to lose mass, the result will not necessarily be a total decrease in the water flowing out of the Winds (if precipitation remains the same), but a change in its flow pattern. These glaciers store the winter's snow as ice. They release water later in the spring, and extend the release over a longer period of the summer.

Without this glacial storage system, the snow to water conversion will be earlier and faster.[4] There will be too much water too soon, not enough later. Scott Miller, a professor in watershed hydrology at the University of Wyoming, told me that one way to address this problem will be to artificially do what the glaciers no longer do, constructing hugely expensive water storage systems such as underground reservoirs. Of course, these water storage systems aren't understudies for the ailing glaciers, and nothing we create can play their geological, ecological and aesthetic roles.


  1. Though Astoria uses the name, this doesn't conclusively show that the Astorians were the first European-Americans to adopt the name from the Crow People. It might have been the fur trapper and explorer Jedediah Smith, who was in contact with the Crow in 1823-24 (Kelsey, p. 45).

  2. Speaking of names, his full name is Benjamin Louis Eulalie du Bonneville.

  3. Benn and Evans, p. 37

  4. Benn and Evans, p. 85

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