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  • Writer's pictureEd Sherline

So you want to see a Wind River glacier?

Updated: Jul 29, 2022


Dinwoody and Gooseneck Glaciers flanking Gannett Peak


Last update: 6.21.22


As an introduction to the Winds, I want to provide suggestions for viewing a Wind River glacier in person, mainly about pathways to the glaciers. For my own backpacking, mountaineering and climbing, I've always valued a do-it-yourself attitude (though there is much to be said for seeking professional instruction and guidance when needed!) and want to encourage your adventures and explorations of the Winds and their glaciers.


You can't see any of the Winds' glaciers from a car since they are too far away and hidden by natural barriers. You won't come close to seeing a glacier even from the most deeply embedded trailhead. You'll need to back/horse/goat/lama pack.


Here's the obligatory caution. This isn't intended as a guide to any of the routes mentioned. I'm assuming you are an experienced backpacker. And depending on what glacier you are visiting and how far onto the glacier you venture, and the time of year, you might encounter life threatening dangers, including avalanche, significant crevasses, steep ice, moulins (drain holes), and rock fall.


Why visit one of these glaciers in person when there are plenty of photos out there on the web (see the websites Glaciers of the American West, and the National Snow and Ice Data Center)? Nothing in my answer will be more than clichéd truisms. Photos don't do justice to the real thing. Looking at a photo, you can't experience a glacier with all five senses. You can't hear the water rushing or the crunch of footsteps, taste the glacier meltwater, feel the cool rising off the surface, smell the sulfurous odor when you stumble on the moraine and knock rocks together. Photos also don't do justice to a glacier's scale. Granted the Wind River glaciers are not large when compared to others across the world. Still, few of them can be called "cute," and even those that might be, such as Heap Steep, are imposing. Being awed by a glacier is a wonderful feeling, and the feeling is most powerful when you're in the glacier's presence. It's hard for a photo to transmit that awe. Being in the immediate presence of a glacier is a bucket list worthy adventure, especially when coupled with traveling through the Wind River backcountry. And to be alarmist, within the inner continent of the lower 48 states, glaciers are scarce, and the decent sized ones are quickly melting/receding/dying/becoming snow patches. You're almost out of time. The most popular months for visiting the Winds are July and August. I've been into Titcomb Basin a few times in late June-early July and it called for snowshoes and a patient attitude, since you'll be constantly putting them on/taking them off until you hit continuous snow above tree-line. The payoff for an early season trudge will be that you will have solitude, see the glaciers still wearing their winter coats of snow, and should you venture on any of the steeper, crevassed areas, snow bridges are at their strongest. Nonetheless the standard time to view these glaciers is later August through mid-September, when the trails are dry, the streams low, the mosquitoes lessened, the glaciers differentiated, and the crevasses mostly opened. There are major downsides of visiting the glaciers later in the season. Because the snow cover will have melted off and the snow bridges thinned or melted out, travel on the glaciers will be more difficult and treacherous. You'll be able to see the crevasses better, but getting across them will be more difficult. And climbing on bullet ice is much more serious than on snow. The other downside is that the glaciers will appear more emaciated than in early season, when they are still flush with snow.


Now to talk routes and get technical. You might want to pull out, or pull up, your maps (I love gaiagps.com and caltopo.com online U.S.G.S. map sets!) I'll start with some simpler and easier trips, turn to more advanced routes, and finish by examining Mark F. Meier's routes.


What's the easiest backpacking route to see a major Wind River glacier up close? There is no doubt that it is to visit Dinwoody Glacier, the fourth largest glacier, from the Cold Springs trailhead by the Ink Wells Trail on the eastern side of the range. This is only 14 miles to the terminus of Dinwoody Glacier (all distances are from Kelsey's Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains) and is the classic way that climbers, backpackers and east coast summer campers accessed the Dinwoody Glacier area from the 1920s through the 50's. By the time of the Bonneys' 1977 edition of the Field Book: The Wind River Range, it had fallen out of favor due to the permitting process and costs. I want to encourage its use, as an acknowledgment of the indigenous land and people, to contribute to the economy of the Wind River Tribal Reservation and to support conservation efforts. There is a very helpful summitpost.org entry on this trailhead, with trail notes, directions, camping and logistics, and information about the required tribal permit and guide. Here is up to date information (as of June 2021) on the permit and guide. A permit, more fully known as a fishing permit or trespassing permit, is required for every day you are in the boundaries of the Wind River Reservation. For the Cold Springs trailhead, you can purchase a permit at the Crowheart Store (307-486-2285). In addition, you'll need to purchase a recreation stamp. For up to date information on prices, see windriveroutdoorcompany.com. You will also need to contract with a tribal guide and driver to take you to and from Crowheart to the Cold Springs trailhead. Contact Ramona (Mone) O'Neil at 307-486-2318 for transportation. As of June 2021, the cost was $150/person/each way, with a two-person minimum. Her guide service operates from June 1st through October 1st. Call Ramona in advance to determine a price and schedule a time. Full disclosure: I have yet to go in through Cold Springs, though I've lusted after this direct route for many years, since I always go in solo and am reluctant to pay the price of two people.


Follow up. When driving by the Crowheart Store in August of 2022, there were a surprising number of behiclesparked around the guide's location next to the store, suggestion no lack of clients at that time of year. Later that trip, while in the Dinwoody Glacier and Creek basin, I ran into a number of "highpointers" whose overall goal is to reach the 50 highest points in each of the U.S. states. The typical high pointer trying to climb Gannett has a partner and the means but little technical climbing experience, and so they wisely hire a mountain guide (often from the excellent Jackson Hole Mountain Guides) to guide their climb up Gannett. The guide will (should) have impeccable climbing and safety skills, and will be able to insure a safe climb up and descent (which is the more dangerous), even in the very risky conditions of bullet ice on Gooseneck Glacier that develop in August. To insure the highest probability of success, they are often willing to pay the big bucks to use the Cold Springs trailhead and its access to Gannett. Since highpointing has become a very popular endeavor, my guess is that it has significantly increased the use of Cold Springs and the guide service.

The second-best route to Dinwoody Glacier is not the most obvious route, the Glacier Trail from Trail Lakes, as the Bonneys recommended in their guidebook. Instead, it is to shift over to the west side of the range, and go in from Elkhart Park trailhead. It is 15.8 miles from Elkhart Park to the upper Titcomb Lake's north end, where you will see Twins Glacier, and another 2.2 miles to the top of Bonney Pass (total of 17.8 miles), where you have an incredible view of Dinwoody and Gooseneck Glaciers. (Digression: This is where I took the photo that leads this post. I bivouacked on the top of a collapsed-my-tent-windy Bonney Pass to ensure that I'd be up and in position at first light). The Elkhart Park route is SEVEN miles shorter than the Trail Lakes route on the east side of the divide, so they are not comparable. Finally, unless you are super adventurous, have more advanced backpacking skills, and lots of energy, avoid approaching the west side of Gannett from the Green River Lakes trailhead and then up Tourist Creek. When Joe Kelsey and Mark Jenkins both say that a route inspires cursing, you should believe them!


A shorter trip from Elkhart Park trailhead to see glaciers, and just two miles longer than going in from Cold Springs, but much less expensive, is to branch off at Island Lake, hike through Indian Basin, and climb to the top of Indian Pass on the Continental Divide. On the west side of the divide you will have a great view of Harrower Glacier, and on the east side of the divide a wonderful view of Knife Point glacier, the second largest in the range. This is just over 16 miles.

Nearly the opposite of a beginner's-backpacking-minimize-trail-miles-out-and-back visit to a glacier is a thru route. The best spine of the range thru route for seeing glaciers is Skurka's High Route. From north to south, this will take you by Downs, Grasshopper, Gannett, Dinwoody, Heap Steep, Helen, and Knife Point glaciers. Sweet nirvana! Personal story: When I was doing this section of the route, I was not prepared for amount of rock hopping it required, nor some of the route-finding challenges. Between moving very slowly and wandering around off route due to my own carelessness, I got way behind schedule. I was resting on a grassy basin below Blaurock Pass, next to the stream flowing from Heap Steep glacier and taking stock on how to salvage the trip, when I saw two backpackers descending the pass at a good clip. After greetings, just talking to them cheered me up and re-motivated me. They had nearly completed the Skurka high route but their fast pace worked them, and they were considering bailing out and finishing on the Glacier trail. I encouraged them to complete the last section, since they'd see some of the largest glaciers in the range up close and personal, time is running out, and the glacier crossings can be done without micro spikes or crampons once the surface melts a bit. Then they took off down to the valley. Through a quirk of fate, I found out that they ended up completing the high route and loved the glacier part of it. The most familiar east-west thru route, with end points at Trail Lakes trailhead near Dubois and Elkhart Park near Pinedale, crosses Dinwoody glacier along its length, and you'll also catch views of the Gooseneck glacier on Gannett, as well as Twins glacier on the other side of the crest.

The most advanced, and the absolute best, way to see many glaciers is to do a circumnavigation. Where Nancy Pallister's guidebook counts moving on a glacier against a route, a circumnavigation tries to link them up. The East Glacier Route (Bonney and Bonney, p. 412) (also known as the Bull Lake Glaciers Route in Kelsey), pioneered by the great Winds backpacker and mountaineer Finis Mitchell circumnavigates Fremont Peak. Depending on the specifics of the route, you will cross between six and seven glaciers! Since this is a circle you can start and finish anywhere you like, though the standard entry/exit points are either Island Lake on the west side of the divide, or up above Floyd Wilson Meadows on the east side of the divide. Describing the route from Island Lake counterclockwise, head through Indian Basin and up Indian Pass, where you see Harrower glacier. Then descend the east side of the pass onto Knife Point glacier, and go north. You'll then cross Bull Lake, Lower Fremont, Upper Fremont, Sacagawea, and Helen.


At this point you'll need to make a choice of how to get back to the other side of the divide to Island Lake. The most direct and bold option is to ascend Helen glacier to reach the saddle north of Helen Peak, and then descend the very steep col into upper Titcomb Basin. I wanted to do this option a few years ago but got scared away by worries over the uber steep descent. If you've done this route, I'd love to hear how it went! The second and third options will take you to Dinwoody Glacier, and then you'll need to cross Bonney Pass back to Island Lake. The second option is to go over Elsie Col, but this involves crossing crevasses and a potentially huge bergschrund. The third option is to go over the so called "Backpacker's Pass." This is the option I took, assuming its name signals that it is backpacker-friendly. I learned that hardly anyone takes this pass because its name is a sick joke; the scree on the Dinwoody side is indeed "formidable" as Kelsey describes it: a narrow and steep couloir filled with rocks from pea to 50-gallon bag sized, all perched at the angle of repose. You do have a spectacular view of Gannett from the top of the pass, but that consolation is short lived. Nearly every downward step triggers a rock slide. I quickly gave up trying to descend face forward leaned far over my trekking poles, and resorted to down climbing on all fours. It wasn't dignified, it was slow going, the slope seemed much steeper than it really was when looked at through my legs, and my hands were rubbed raw, but I was low to the ground, stable, and didn't dislodge many rocks. The last option, which is longest but would be the choice I'd take if I had a do over, is the well-developed trail over Blaurock Pass, where you'll see Heap Steep glacier before crossing Dinwoody back to Titcomb basin.


Update June 2022. What seems to be overlooked in the guidebooks is a companion glacier route, which circumnavigates Gannett rather than Fremont Peak, and crosses five glaciers. It has certainly been done many times, among those by Mark Meier and Charles Darling during their expedition in 1950 to study the glaciers of the area. This spectacular and challenging route idea needs a good name. During the time of early mountaineering exploration in the Winds, many had high though ultimately disappointed hopes that the range would turn out to be comparable to the Alps in terms of the overall quality and difficulty of the alpine climbing. Where the Alps has the famous Tour du Mont Blanc ("tour" meaning circuit in French), the Winds has "Tour du Gannett," or less pretentiously, the Gannett Peak Tour (GPT). There are different variants of the GPT, of tighter or looser circumference, depending on your ambition, skill level, whether you have a partner, are bringing ropes and technical gear, etc. It is more of an intention than a specific route.


I must admit that I have 't done the GPT yet, though will be attempting it in August of 2022. My plan is to go in from the Elkhart Park trailhead on the west side, and begin the circumnavigation in the upper Titcomb basin, since reaching it involves one of the shorter approaches. I'll do the route clockwise. A major criterion is that the route should be safe for one person to do, and so not require roping up, and that it not involve any Class-4 or Class-5 climbing. In other words, I'm trying to develop a route for backpackers rather than climbers (still, you should have crampons and an ice axe). Go from upper Titcomb basin over Twins Glacier and Knapsack Col into the lovely Peak Lake basin. From there climb over Split Mountain Pass. Descend onto Mammoth Glacier. Pallister warns that there are serious crevasses and moulins on this part of the route, and gives it an "R" rating, and this worries me, being by myself; on the other hand, neither Bonney nor Kelsey provide any caution about this pass, suggesting that it isn't as serious. Move over onto Minor Glacier, camping at its terminus. From here the major challenge of the route is to get over the Continental Divide immediately to the north of Gannett, which lacks anything like a pass. I've been struggling to figure out the safest way over, since I'll be by myself and want to minimize exposure--again, no class-4 climbing or descending!


The route I'm going to try is based on studying the topo map, guide books, and peakbaggers.com. The first step is to gain the Rampart-Bastion plateau. The easiest and safest way seems to proceed north from the terminus of Minor Glacier to the col between Rampart and Desolation Peaks, then ascend Rampart's west face to its west peak (13435). No guide book talks about climbs up Rampart's west face, suggesting it is a "mere" scramble, unworthy of being listed as a climbing route, and the information on peakbaggers.com supports the idea that this is a non-technical scramble. From the top of the plateau proceed to Bastion Peak's west summit (13494) and continue to traverse the ridge north towards Flagstone Peak. Descend an eastern plateau where it meets the ridge, and contour around Bastion onto Gannett Glacier, joining the Wind River High Route. Go south over West Sentinel Pass, descend to Dinwoody Glacier and the climber's camp. Proceed across Dinwoody Glacier over Bonney Pass, and down to your starting point on upper Titcomb Basin. Sounds so simple and straightforward! Yeah right. I'll let you know how it goes!

Mark Meier and Charles Darling, when creating their GPT, made a much tighter circle than the more cautious alternative just sketched. They began from their base camp at Floyd Wilson Meadow to Dinwoody Glacier. From there they climbed over Glacier Pass (rope required due to crevasses), which put them directly onto Mammoth Glacier. They crossed the divide north of Gannett by completing the first ascent of Rampart's Southwest Ridge (class 4, occasional use of rope). They descended onto Gannett Glacier via its ice arm between Rampart and Bastion (rope required due to crevasses). Finally, they probably proceeded back to Wilson Meadow via Gannett Creek. I would love to trace this route, but I judge it to be too risky when going solo. As I've aged and seen and heard about tragic deaths in the mountains, my risk tolerance has gone way down.

Do your homework, be safe, and have fun!


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Bernhard Dietz
Bernhard Dietz
25 февр.

INTERESTING I'D LOVE TO GO. BDIETZ 731-225-8409 Humboldt TN I spent 6 weeks in the 1980s in Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation

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