It was 3:32 P.M. on August 4th, 2020. I was only 13 hours and 28 miles into the Wind River High Route when I started having doubts. Yes, I was making good time, but that was up until Blaurock Pass; a nearly 2,000 foot pile of loose rock that I would have to climb and descend safely before making it to more “runnable” terrain. And I couldn’t afford to rest. I had to get through the Alpine Lakes zone before dark and that was miles and miles away. My stomach had started seizing up and I kept pausing on the uphill to take deep breaths in order to keep down precious calories. I started thinking, “I’m only a quarter of the way through this route and my body is starting to turn on me. How on earth am I supposed to do 75 more miles of this when my legs feel like lead and I’m more nauseous than I’ve ever been on a run?”
For many years I have thought of running as my favorite method for exploring the wilderness. You can cover so much ground with a light running pack and a healthy sense of adventure. I also think of nature as my sanctuary; my place of pure wonder and peace. What better way to spend a day outside than running wild through wild terrain? From wildlife encounters, to weather, to finding water, the risks are real and that makes the experience all the more authentic and challenging.
I first heard of the Skurka variation of the Wind River High Route when a friend and I set out to get the speed record, also known as a Fastest Known Time, on the Wilson Dixon variation of the High Route in 2017. The Wilson Dixon version is 80 miles with 20,000 feet of elevation gain which begins and ends on the south side of the Wind River Range, while the Skurka variation is 97 miles with 30,000 feet of elevation gain and begins and ends on the north side. Both high routes traverse the range through the alpine zone and both are 65 percent off trail. How different could they be, really? I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Ever since my first high route traverse, I have wanted to return to attempt the women’s record on the 97 mile Skurka High Route. Over the past few years, I had completed a number of solo, long (sometimes multi-day) unsupported adventure runs and felt the Wind River High Route would be a true test of my cumulative knowledge and experience. Not to mention, the Winds are one of the most remote and beautiful mountains ranges in the lower 48 and I was excited to return. I sat with the idea for a number of years until spring 2020 when COVID arrived in the United States. Originally, I had planned a few international adventures, but with travel bans in place, 2020 seemed like the perfect year to finally tackle this route, a mere one hour drive away from my home in Jackson. I began to plan my adventure and set the date for early August.
I made a few trips to the Winds in July to scout various sections of the route. I knew I would be covering large portions in the dark, sometimes on difficult terrain, and learning the landmarks ahead of time would be key for navigation. This was when I began to realize how much more difficult the Skurka variation was from the Wilson Dixon route I had done years before. The Skurka variation is bookmarked by two 13,000 foot peaks, covers significantly more difficult terrain, and the northern section of the route traverses a handful of glaciers, some of which have open crevasses. On top of all of that, I was going to attempt to cover all this with just the supplies on my back and little to no sleep.
I set off on my Fastest Known Time attempt at 2:30 a.m. on August 4th at the Glacier Trailhead near Dubois, Wyoming. It was dark and beautiful. The climb up Downs Mountain, the first 13er, felt a little harder than I wanted it to, but the weather was clear and I made good time off the peak and across what I call the “glacier zone.” The first quarter of the route ends at the foot of Dinwoody Glacier in the shadow of Gannet, the tallest peak in Wyoming. From there, you boulder hop on unsettling loose rocks up the relentlessly steep Blaurock Pass. That was where the trouble began. My legs felt unusually heavy and waves of nausea had set in. What on earth was I thinking? How am I going to finish this? All the doubts flooded my mind.
After what felt like an eternity, I slowly crested the ridge. I gave myself a few luxurious minutes to sit and try to get some fuel into my body. As I sat at the top of the pass, slowly gnawing on a candy bar, I began to take stock of my surroundings. I had warm sunlight on my back and the most incredible landscape you could imagine stretching out in every direction. There were pristine milky blue streams flowing out from glaciers, green alpine fields, and jagged mountains as far as the eye could see. This was why I was here. This was wilderness.
I took a deep breath of fresh air and gratitude then stood up. All of the fatigue had vanished and in its place I felt nothing but joy. A smile spread across my face as I looked across the range. I knew I could make it through the Alpine Lakes zone before dark, and beyond to the end. Whether or not I set a record, it was enough to simply be out here.
Note: On August 6, 2020, Halpin set the unsupported female FKT on the Wind River High Route and was awarded the FKT of the Year award for her inspiring effort.