Tara Warren has been a HOKA Flyer since 2015, but has been running trail ultras for much longer. With a lack of races on the calendar, though, Tara decided to make lemonade out of lemons and attempt a bucket list item befitting of a decorated ultrarunner: the Wind River High Route Fastest Known Time (FKT). We asked Tara to describe, in her own words, what brought her to this FKT, the literal and figurative highs and lows of this spectacular route, and the importance of celebrating small successes amidst disappointment.
The buzzing and flashing lights on my alarm shocked us out of our sleeping bags at 1:30am. Delusional from the early hour, it only took a few seconds to realize where I was and remember what I was doing here, what was about to take place. My husband, Bryce and I were dropped off just hours earlier at the Trail Lakes trailhead outside of Dubois, WY, for me to make an attempt at the Wind River High Route (WRHR) “supported” FKT.
The WRHR in Wyoming covers close to 100 miles with over 30,000′ in elevation gains. It’s been said that it’s the finest non-technical Alpine route in North America, as it stays close to the crest of the Continental Divide in one of the most rugged and glaciated mountain ranges in the lower 48. The route is thrilling, the scenery spectacular and 65% of the trail in’t even on trail – ZERO trail. It’s as extreme and exposed as you can imagine, and then add some. The journey takes you between 10,000 and 12,000 feet and in a north/south traverse attempt and is bookended by Downs Mountain and Wind River Peak which are both above 13k. This route also takes you up and over Europe Peak (another 13k) to complete the trifecta. Clearly this wilderness is bear country; however, it may as well be deemed as mosquito country.
My goal was to finish the route in under three days – 72 hours. Although I was going for distance and going for speed, in the research done with most other attempts, it seemed that fast packing with shelter and extra supplies made the most logical sense in order to move confidently through the glacier wilderness. Even though I was in the best hands possible with Bryce at my side, with this type of isolated adventure, we wanted to be prepared for anything and not get the helicopter ride out. We would rest/sleep when we needed to, and push though the nights until we could go no more.
We started looking into doing this FKT attempt last winter after reading about the successful attempt by Sara Aranda and Emma Mure. This range drew us in because of its remoteness, technicality and unbelievable beauty. The calendar started to fill up with races (for both of us) and other family activities, and the window to explore the Winds is really short and with that, still sketchy or potentially problematic with the warm days, cold nights in the northern glacier region. We just didn’t think timing would work do try it this year. Then came COVID-19 and races disappeared. We decided to give it another look and see if we could pull it off. Bryce and I have two sweet and crazy boys – 12 and 9 years old. Most people would get away for a beach vacation with their partners when given a 5 day break, but we decided to tackle the WRHR on the first full moon in August. Although I have eleven 100 mile finishes to date, all pretty mountainous, rugged courses ranging from Ouray to UTMB and Bighorn, this WRHR attempt would be something bigger, scarier and more extreme than anything I had ever done.
Traveling light would be the key. I kept my gear pretty simple. Starting with shoes: I brought my trusty HOKA Mafate Speed 2s. The yellow and blue actually matched so much of the glacier lichen attached to the high altitude granite slabs we bounced over for hours. I’ve trusted this particular shoe for years now in pretty rugged all-season terrain and races. The Vibram soles with lugs that grip terrain like a superhero would definitely be the most important part of my kit for this attempt. I’ve worked with HOKA ONE ONE for over 5 years now as a HOKA Flyer and appreciate the level of detail and support they provide to their athletes in their personal endeavors – including this one!
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After that early alarm, it didn’t take too long for us to pack up our camp, get our packs loaded together and head towards the trailhead. The anticipation of adventure was flowing and even though I couldn’t get my pack lighter than 18lbs, it seemed light as a feather, sort of, as we marched through the dusty camping area to get started.
2:18am – WRHR Start
We went at n easy pace ascending the first 8 miles / 2500′ up the trail towards Downs Mountain. Although we were traveling by headlamp and couldn’t see into the deeps, the smell of the pines as we continued to climb was so good. Then it was about there where the foot path ended and we began following the little blue line downloaded on my Suunto 9. We were making great time and were right where we wanted to be through Goat Flats for the sunrise. The sky lit up the glacier cut canyons with pinks, blues and oranges like a snow cone. I had never seen anything like it before. As I took it all in, the enormity of the space, I’ll be honest and say that a twinge of trepidation gave me goosebumps as I could now clearly see the mountain range carved along the sky.
10:36am Downs Mountain Peak (Mile 15ish)
We hit the summit and realized – psych – the summit was still a few hundred feet away. I dropped my sweaty pack on the scree and felt like a rockstar maneuvering through the parking lot of boulders to the top 18lbs lighter. At 13,335′, Downs is a giant lump of scree that survived the last ice age and the area is also the home of six glaciers and several permanent snowfields. Snow gear wasn’t needed to get to the top, but for me, tons of patience was necessary. For reference, jumping the boulders going 724 feet up to above 13k took me 1 hour and 45 minutes. It was tough. We paused to have a few snacks and glory in the views of this beauty, we had already gotten a few hours behind. It wasn’t spoken, but my agility in boulder hopping wasn’t as speedy as I had hoped it would be.
With every foot placement, so many questions had to be answered all at once… how am I landing my foot? Is it stable? What’s below this? Is that gonna move? Where do I go next? Which way is the rock shifting? Am I balancing my pack? Am I on the trail? Where did Bryce go? But we press on.
We knew would be slow going, but this pace was definitely messing with my mind.
I’m crossing my first snow patch and can see the gorgeous Connie Glacier in the distance. These stretches in the snow were just fine for me. Living through the generous northern Utah winters has helped me cruise around the white stuff just fine. The HOKA Mafates set up nicely with the little bit of slushy parts keeping my feet pretty dry unless I’d bend an ankle on a suncup. We would go between scree fields and suncups through these miles. Although I was watching my footing, it was hard to not gawk at Yukon and Klondike Peaks against the dark blue sky with their bright spikes lit up from the summer sunshine.
I am so grateful for Bryce. He was literally in heaven cruising around this terrain like no big deal. My slow-ness didn’t seem to bother him and we were trying really hard to work together with our navigation. Meaning: I had the Gaia and the Suunto, he had his wolf-like instincts. Sometimes I had to gently rein him in where other times his logic would create perhaps a better way than imagines. We took a break in one of the most picturesque settings imaginable. Try navigating the wilderness with your partner sometime – that could go either way and lucky for us, it was going pretty good.
When we came around and dropped into the Sourdough Glacier and Baker Lake area, I felt my life was complete. It was like each bend we’d come around something else specular. This was intense beauty and calm. There was a really positive energy here that came out through the light blue-green colors of Baker and Iceberg Lakes, the millions of micro wildflowers under our feet and also the sheer magnitude of Sourdough Glacier. This was a good place to hangout and eat for a little bit and take in the moment.
Trail math is hard. We had been up now for about 12ish hours. Stopping here, we were at 19 miles. That meant the last 10 miles we did took about 10 hours. That was not good news. Our “A” goal was to get past Alpine Lakes for a snooze so that we weren’t hitting the steep sunups that would maybe ice-up first thing in the morning. That goal was gonzo. “B” goal was to make it past Blaurock Pass. While we feasted by Baker Lake we discussed the harsh reality about the pace, lack of daylight and goals. If we really pushed until dark, we could possibly still make our “B” goal.
With no distractions except the beauty of where we were sitting, it was amazing to just feel so peaceful in this special place. As a couple, we don’t have the option for trips like this too often. When we are training, we usually train separately as a means of a release from kids or work. We don’t have access to grandparents or a ton of family that would take our kids for weekends and such. Most of our getaways over the past few years, although wonderful, have been race-related. So this time in the Winds was extra special. There was definitely a clock in mind, but soaking this time up together became pretty sweet.
Newly hydrated and tummies filled, I realized a few rookie mistakes. First, I was sporting a really bad sunburn on my legs already. Bad meaning lobster with a shorts line that looked like I had put a tourniquet on each leg. Uh-oh. Traveling for hours in the sun above 12k had really left its mark. I had plastered sunscreen on my face and neck, but never thought about my legs. They were even sizzling to the touch. I applied what little we had between us that could last potentially 3 more days and hoped for the best. Next, my mental occupation in boulder climbing, snow shuffling clogged my mind with eating enough that first part of the day. I was super calorie deficient and I knew better. I had to try hard and push the calories the next few hours.
“But, the blue line is saying we need to go HERE.” I tried being reasonable but was getting impatient.
“That’s fine, but if we go THERE, we’ll end up sliding down the entire Grasshopper Glacier into what looks like a arctic lake,” Bryce reminded me, pointing in that direction as the landscape dropped several hundred feet down the glacier slide.
“Let’s check the Gaia again. We can zoom out and check for other options where we don’t get cliffed out,” I added.
This was a constant conversation and a HUGE part of the learning curve while maneuvering off-trail. As effective as my Suunto 9 was in being a constant directive for staying on-course, we still needed to check the topo map on Gaia pretty frequently to make sure we weren’t getting ourselves in trouble. We couldn’t figure out the right way to go. Even using our foldout paper map was not helpful at all. The look Bryce had on his face really worried me and I was ready to turn around and just go back the way we came at this point rather than put ourselves in danger. Every risk taken thus far was pretty manageable, but now we were stuck and we were both a scared. Hours earlier at some point, I had some cell service. A sweet text came through from my 9 year old, “Be safe Mom and Dad.” All I could think about at this point were my sweet boys and that we were definitely NOT being safe.
Our GPX was current, but with snowmelt and just varying conditions, stopping to check on a route we were unfamiliar with really slowed us down. And this time, it would paralyze us for two hours as we decided on a re-route up a ramp filled with purple wildflowers, backtracking near the Sourdough Glacier. It was a pretty intense discussion and decision to get to that point. I may have cried a bit as I mentally knew the FKT was probably over at this point.
The re-route eventually connected us back on the planned route. We were safe, but mentally spent. Bryce and I could keep hiking for days, but the altitude paired with the emotions and maybe the sunburn were starting to get the best of me. We hugged and pushed forward still chasing daylight towards our “B” goal.
Crossing the snowfields towards the Dinwoody Glacier area was pretty cool. My legs were on fire and scooping up snow really helped take away the sting. Bryce was pretty far ahead of me, although I could still see him. I checked the route on my watch and realized that we/he was WAY off route and I couldn’t yell loud enough for him to hear me. I watched intensely for any sign of him turning around so I could wave my poles around and he would stop. When I got his attention, he had already realized the same thing. He was quickly approaching the Dinwoody Glacier from above and we needed to be miles below. I began backtracking as he eventually caught up with me and we ran down the suncup field of Upper Dinwoody together.
Off of the snowfield and paused, we checked the map wanting to figure out how long it would take to Blaurock. Seemed like it would be 2.5 to 3 miles. We were traveling around 45-60 min/miles. It could possibly take 2 or 3 more hours. We were beat, super hungry (I still hadn’t been eating enough) and had the sleepies. However, we had signed up for this and knew what it would take.
We pushed on across the jungle gym of more boulder hopping while the sun began to disappear behind Flagstone Peak. It was not even close to where we wanted to be – mile 24?
I was definitely enjoying myself and having an amazing time with Bryce, but was just baffled by the slowness – MY slowness. It was overwhelming to imagine not finishing, but for the first time, those ideas started popping up in my head.
We kept on moving as best as we could, but it was still a 45 min/mile pace. The drainage we were moving though at this point was amazing. Squishy tundra moss filled with water, little creek beds everywhere with minimal mosquitos. We walked and talked for a minute about just camping here for the night, but decided to move forward maybe an hour or 1/2 more.
Not even a walk 200 yards away the landscape changed and we found ourselves at the top of the decent into Dinwoody Glacier. We looked at each other, the magnitude of physicality and mental strength we’d need to get down that, and exchanged swear words. It was a lot to take in. All I kept thinking about was my James and his text, “Be safe Mom and Dad”. We decided to turn around and set up camp.
The tears started flowing for me as we got out the all gear. I felt like the worst partner. My stubbornness is super helpful in a lot of situations, but the feeling of “not cutting it” and wanting to just be done was hard. I went to start collecting the water for our stove and heard the pressurized leaking sound of maybe the gas? Something had happened to our gas stove and we lost 1/2 the fuel right off the bat. I cried some more.
The math added up to a few options which we were going to sleep on. Take the glacier trail out in the morning which we would hit directly in about 3 miles and loop us back about 20 miles to where we started. Choice 2: We could go a little further into the canyon and see how it was going, possibly make up some time or bail out at another junction with a much trickier chance of getting a ride out. Or choice 3, finish the WRHR with potentially a 4 day adventure. Lots to think about.
I started to realize that I was pretty messed up from sun exposure and not enough to eat. After throwing down about 2500 calories (yuck), I put on every piece of clothing I brought and curled up in my bag. Before going to sleep, I sent a message to our friends Gabe and Jenny Joyes (who had graciously dropped us off at the start) if there was any chance they could shuttle our truck back from the finish sort-of-not-really close to where they live in Lander, back to the Trail Lake start hours away. Turns out that they could! So, we considered that as our first option. As the night closed in.
The sky was filled with diamond-like stars that disappeared as the almost full-moon popped out into the evening. For the majority of the night I had constant shakes, convulsions or whatever. I couldn’t get warm, the sunburn was throwing off my body temperature, and I kept having nightmares that I was having heat stroke or COVID symptoms and had to be rescued out of the canyon (which I now know I was neither). I made my mind up through the shivers that I was done. The risks of staying the course for me weren’t safe anymore, and my nine year old’s voice kept reminding me of that.
This was as close to a DNF as I’ve ever experienced. It hurt. I questioned the decision and weighed the options over and over and over. Although I knew that Bryce would have loved to have kept going, he was sweet and supportive entirely. He did ask me, “Are you sure?” a few times, but I’m thankful that he didn’t push it. I had the best backpacking meal of my life of grits, chives, white cheddar and ham. I wasn’t at the “no regrets” phase yet, but I could feel myself accepting the resolve of our new agenda.
Taking the Glacier Trail out would still mean 25 miles ahead. With about 4 more miles of off-trail boulder travel, the remaining bit would be on a dirt ribbon through those sweet smelling pines and eventually re-connect with the original miles we came up in the dark. We decided to divide up this last chunk of miles into two days and really enjoy our time our here together.
We held hands though giant meadows of the most intensely colored wildflowers, went though re-growth sections of forests that had burned with young life popping up though the dark charred wood, puttered alongside the magnificently ancient Dinwoody Creek that roared down the canyon and waited though a knee-deep river crossing that never seemed to end. But, it did. As all hard things do. They eventually end.
There was an awesome place to camp amongst the millions of mosquitos at Double Lakes. The gas even was filled enough to cook our suppers, but ran out for the next day’s breakfast. We nervously laughed about bears and slept with each of our bear sprays beside us. It was heaven.
Just about 9 miles to go this morning to get back to our truck. Some tough uphill that felt good to push. After the climb, it was less than 8 miles mostly downhill to the trailhead. Bryce caught bug to run it out to the end. I squeaked out some 14 min/miles down the very dusty Whisky Mountain Trail that took us to the end.
Much to our surprise the good people that shuttled our truck back to the finish also left some perfect peaches as a treat for us. That got my juices flowing again as I thought about how many incredible people helped out on this experience. Yes, there was still a strange guilt about not finishing, but such an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the wonderful people that helped put all the pieces together to make this option even possible.
Yes, there will be a next time. Stay tuned…
“Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.” –Denis Waitley