Wilderness For Sale

I hope the title of this post is catchy and might generate a bit of traffic to read it. My blog is mostly written for my kids and a handful of friends, as I have stated numerous times. I am under no illusion that I have any influence in the world of backpackers or adventurers and recognize the readership of this website is small. My hope is that I can inspire a handful of people to think about wilderness and our proper place in it, who in turn can encourage others to approach wilderness in an ethical manner. Perhaps we can create a renewed focus on Wilderness Ethics.


For those who are familiar with my perspective on wilderness, you know I disdain trail guides, especially Internet guides that encourage hordes of people to inundate areas of fragile wilderness. Over the past 3 years or so, there has been an increasingly and worrisome number of people ascending into an area of the Wind River Mountain Range of Wyoming, driven by a couple of Internet bloggers. I am not advocating for this area per se, but feel responsibility to point out what can happen when people act irresponsibly. What is happening in the Wind River Range really hit home when Carrot Quinn wrote about her trip on the “Wind River High Route.” I will get into this in more detail a bit later.

When I first ventured out into wilderness areas as a young teenager there was no such thing as a designated Wilderness Area. That concept came to fruition in 1964 with the passage of the Wilderness Act by Congress. This act finally gave Wilderness an official definition, and convention now dictates these designated areas are spelled with a capital “W” – Wilderness. The now famous passage in the Wilderness Act, written by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society defines what wilderness should be and now legally is:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Today there are over 1 million acres of designated Wilderness in the United States, “where the earth and its community of life” are supposed to be unhindered or unimpeded by man. Because the agencies that administer and protect our Wilderness do not have the resources to physically enforce the appropriate behavior of each individual who travels within the Wilderness, it is up to each of us to develop our own Wilderness Ethics to unsure that when we enter and leave a Wilderness Area, our presence has indeed left the area untrammeled by our presence. This also requires us to ensure we do not cause damage to our Wilderness or (lower case) wilderness by influencing others to travel into our wilderness who may negatively impact our wilderness intentionally or unintentionally. This ethic, should not be limited to Designated Wilderness Areas, but should be applied to any wild area. The concept of wilderness ethics, beyond the legal definitions, was elegantly presented by Guy and Laura Waterman in their classic 1993 book, Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness. Amazon.com summarizes the Waterman’s book with this statement:

In this environmental call to action, Laura and Guy Waterman look beyond preserving the ecology of the backcountry to focus on what they call its spiritual dimension–its fragile, untamed wildness. “Without some management, wildness cannot survive the number of people who seek to enjoy it,” they write. “But with too much management, or the wrong kind, we can destroy the spiritual component of wildness in our zeal to preserve its physical side.” Trailside huts and lodges, large groups seeking “wilderness experiences,” federal and state regulations, and technology such as radios, cell phones, global positioning devices, and emergency helicopters, all have an impact on our experience. With humor and insight, the Watermans explore these difficult wilderness management issues. They ask us to evaluate the impact that even “environmentally conscious” values have on the wilderness experience, and to ask the question: What are we trying to preserve?

Although 100 million acres of Designated Wilderness sounds like a large number, it is only about 5% of all the land in the US.


There was a time when our colleges and universities provided a “classical liberal” education. That is, there was a focus on the great ideas and the great books of the past 25 centuries of western civilization. A classic liberal education included an emphasis on philosophy, especially ethics and morality. Today, and over the past 100 years or so, this has been replaced with course work that churns out technicians from our system of higher education, not great philosophers or intellectuals. This in turn, has created a society that tends to ignore ethics and morals, and instead is driven by what is “legal.” In a society where too many people feel entitled, and feel that actions should only be guided by legal definitions and not ethical or moral behavior, this attitude has spilled over into how we view wilderness. “Untrammeled by man” has been replaced by the right to enjoy wilderness in “my own way” without thought to consequences.

The first sentence in Wikipedia’s article on ethics states:

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.

It is the philosopher that defines a system of ethics, and the intellectuals of a society who influence government and people to adopt ethics as to what is right or wrong. If a law is passed, each individual must decide if it is right or wrong, not blindly follow a law. Let’s take the highly volatile issue of abortion. In the US some abortions are legal; however it is up to each individual woman to make the ethical or moral decision whether or not abortion is right or wrong, irrespective of the law.

Another ethical issue might be the free packages of condiments that are available in restaurants. Many backpackers (and others) feel entitled to take extra packages of these condiments beyond what is used for the meal they purchased. Many backpackers accumulate enough of these free packages to support their meals on backpacking trips. They feel they are entitled to these “free” items; however they clandestinely procure them so the owner or manager of the restaurant cannot catch them snatching and hiding said packages. They feel they are entitled to these packages because there is no distinct law forbidding it, no posted signage at the restaurant saying otherwise, or that the restaurant might be an evil corporate entity. They have rationalized their behavior without regard to a personal system of right or wrong: personal ethics.

Although it is legal to write a Trail Guide to a wilderness area, ethics require that if a Trail Guide harms the wilderness one iota, it must not be written. The argument that encouraging more people to visit wilderness areas will create more advocates does not hold water, in fact, it usually creates the opposite effect of damage to wilderness.


I have been accused of “elitism” with my stance on keeping secret places secret. I have been accused of wanting to keep people out of my secret places so I can enjoy selfish solitude. Yes, I enjoy the solitude, but encourage others to find these places. I don’t want to keep people away, but inspire them to embrace the philosophy of Guy and Laura Waterman in their 1993 book, a book that has had a lasting influence on many outdoors people and mankind’s place in wilderness.


The fact is I have hindsight. Over more than 50 years of hiking I have seen many, many instances where wilderness has become damaged, overused, and even vandalized by the hordes of people given easy access due to written trail guides and even more damaging — Internet trail guides. I have seen the before and after effects of trail guides and Internet posts. Please, go find these special places, but do it in the manner suggested by the Watermans; learn how to read maps and determine on your own how to find the wilderness gems. Do not make the mistake of sharing these places that could become overused and damaged – possibly requiring the agencies responsible for their protection to implement more regulations, more manpower resources, more restrictions, or even closing areas to the public.


It has been over 40 years since I spent time in the Wind River Range. For me, this is more of a case study of unintended consequences rather than a crusade to further protect the area.

Recently Carrot Quinn, a popular thru-hiker/writer posted a trip report of her hike of the Wind River High Route that was created by Alan Dixon and Don Wilson. Since this route is posted on Alan Dixon’s website, I will refer to it as the Alan Dixon Route going forward.

Which Route?

Shortly after Alan Dixon posted his Wind River High Route Guide, adventurer Andrew Skurka posted his version of a Wind River High Route. In the backpacking community, the debate seems to be which route is better; not whether it is ethical to publish such detailed information. Not only have both Alan Dixon and Andrew Skurka published detailed maps of their routes, but also GPS Waypoints for key locations. Thankfully they have not posted complete GPS tracks. So let’s get to Carrot’s trip report.

I have nothing against Carrot. Actually I enjoy her writing, and she is getting better each year. I even provided a positive review one of her books here on my blog. I will state that her approach to backpacking is much different than mine, and I cannot say my way is better; only that my way is better for me. It is because I like her writing that I came to read her Wind River High Route trip report.  And this part of her trip report stood out like a sore thumb…

A man appears from below- he’s older than us, wearing wool pants and carrying a huge pack with an ice axe, crampons and what looks like an animal pelt rolled up and strapped to the bottom.


“How’s Alpine Lakes Basin?” I say, by way of making smalltalk. His mouth drops open, and he looks at us with shock and disgust. He waves his hand in the air.


“Wow,” he says. “Wow.”


“We have maps,” I say. “We have GPS. We have a route. I’m just asking, like, generally.” The man scoffs again.


“I’ve been hiking here forty years,” he says. “And I’ve never seen a single person. And then today, already, I’ve seen three!”


“There are ten people behind us,” I say.


“I guess this is a popular trail now,” the man says, with as much disgust as he can muster. He waves his hands in the air some more. Lia and I politely excuse ourselves.

Is this man, who is upset, an elitist? Perhaps. But more than likely he knows that the Wind River High Route is a combination of existing trails and much off-trail walking. The off-trail sections include some informal, and hard to find, use trails and plain cross country walking. Use trails are just that – trails created by several people using a route and not designed to reduce the impact of many people walking the same route – not designed to leave the route and surrounding areas “untrammeled by man.” Most of these two Wind River High Routes are in an alpine ecosystem; meaning above tree line, lots of boulders and talus, and small areas of fragile alpine plant life; tussock, wildflowers, lichens, etc.


Overuse of these types of wilderness areas will result in more permanent and easily located use trails and resultant soil erosion, damaged banks along streams, damage to alpine plant life that often only has a couple months of a growing season, human habituation of wildlife, and ultimately the scourge of humanity: trash, excess human waste that cannot decompose quickly in the environment, and too often – vandalism. Yes, you may say this is a dystopian view, only I have seen this repeated over and over during my lifetime of walking in wild places.

Here are a couple of interesting quotes from Alan Dixon’s High Route Guide:

There is a use trail from this unnamed lake to Camp Lake although it is easy to lose. The marked trail from Camp Lake to Lake 10,787 is not frequently traveled and is no more than a use trail in sections. We lost it a few times but easily re-found it. The route to Lake 10,787 is obvious, but the trail when you can find it is faster and is less effort. The trail from Lake 10,787 to Golden Lake is more established. For the most part it is easy to follow although it can braid into multiple trails around the Golden Lakes…


We traversed off-trail around the eastern side of Lonesome Lake and acquired the official trail to Jackass pass around 10,400 ft. The route out to Big Sandy Campground from Jackass pass is a major trail with tons of traffic and the usual deeply eroded and braided trail sections.

When too many people are driven by trail guides and overwhelm an area like this High Route the existing use trails and inevitable newly created use trails will become, as Alan eloquently describes the above official trail, “tons of traffic and the usual deeply eroded and braided trail sections.” 

Consider this reader comment from Alan Dixon’s website

Been walking the divide for 40 years now, avoiding trails and running into maybe 3 parties in 3 weeks (usually all when crossing a trail)


In those 40 years I have passed 2 groups in the Alpine Lakes/Brown Cliffs canyon (1996 and 2 years ago) until this year when I ran into 34 people in 6 groups in one day.


All were from this post.

If this what we want our wilderness areas to become?

What how about Andrew Skurka’s version of the Wind River High Route?   Consider this reader comment on Skurka’s website in Wind River High Route post, by well-known outdoorsman, Forrest McCarthy…

According to CM Moore, the crest of the Wiind [sic] River Range was regularly traveled by Sheepeater Indians in the centuries before the first whites arrived. The route provided the Sheepeaters, a shortcut as it was more efficient to travel along the crest than navigate up and down all the steep and complex valleys. They range was more glaciated back then and provided a more efficient travel surface than you find today.


The beautiful thing about traveling along the ranges crest is that there is no one best way; there are many great ways. The best route depends on the conditions as well as individual skills and preferences. Someone comfortable in glacier travel would not want to miss traveling the section that follows a major fault line from the Freemont Glaciers to the Continental Glacier. Those that like to fish and seek the prized golden trout for dinner would prefer a slightly lower route. Sometimes when traveling the crest I prefer to stay on the east side, other times the west. Neither is better, they are both fantastic.


A big part traveling the Wind Rivers (especially along the crest) is studying the maps and dreaming and scheming of your own creative route that best fits your personal desires. This is why I generally do not provide detailed information about any of my routes in the Winds. Like Joe Kelsey’s intentionally vague route descriptions in his definitive climbing and hiking guide to the Wind Rivers, it has long been the tradition in the Winds not to spell it our [out] for people. To do so is to deprive others of the opportunity for a full wilderness experience in a very special mountain range.


Yet it seems this ethic is changing. Andrew and Alan Dixon are not the first to publish these types of guides. A few years back, a former NOLS instructor Nancy Pallister published “Beyond Trails in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming: Off-Trail Routes for the Advanced Backpacker.” In her book, Pallister describes the main routes NOLS has been leading students on for 40+ years. Interested, I bought a copy, yet I did not find it as useful or inspiring as simply studying maps and thinking up my own routes.


Some are mourning the erosion of the Wind River wilderness ethic, yet likely it doesn’t matter much. A few more people will follow these published routes. Yet, those of us who prefer more of a wilderness experience that includes figuring it out for ourselves still have ample wild empty country to roam. This is similar to the Sierras, where the Muir Trail and Steve Roper’s High Route attracts some, while exploring the unlimited alternatives is more appealing to others.

And Skurka’s response:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Forrest.


I think some context is helpful, though. You have vast Winds experience, and live nearby. Thus, you don’t need route info (especially for a backpacking route that never exceeds Class 3 in difficulty), and you have the opportunity to explore the range multiple times per year.


Someone without as much experience in or access to the Winds probably looks differently at the Wind River High Route, or other capstone-type routes like the JMT or SHR. For them, a prescribed route with an accompanying body of information is a guarantee to have a better backcountry experience than they would have otherwise, i.e. higher quality, longer, and either safer or equally safe while being more ambitious.


Some may argue that this type of experience should be “earned.” This position seems unacceptably elitist to me. It also does not seem maintainable — to be consistent, one must oppose the sharing of all information, regardless of the source and the medium, e.g. Kelsey or me, book or word-of-mouth. Personally, I would not want to have to defend one guidebook over another, or to claim that Hiker A has more of a right to insider knowledge than Hiker B.

Andrew Skurka is a recognized adventurer, honored a few years ago by National Geographic Magazine as “Adventurer of the Year.” I have never met Andrew. Although it may seem I am picking on him, I have at times defended him on the forums of backpackinglight.com and even a here on popupbackpacker.com. However, in this instance, I feel he is wrong. Andrew takes McCarthy’s short comment and uses the strawman argument of wilderness ethics vs. elitism. McCarthy does mention a tradition of finding one’s own routes as a part of wilderness ethics, but he does not delve into a thorough treatment of wilderness ethics that must include the “unintended consequences” of trail guides that too often result in man trammeling earth and its community of life. Does an individual’s desire for “a prescribed route with an accompanying body of information is a guarantee to have a better backcountry experience than they would have otherwise, i.e. higher quality, longer, and either safer or equally safe while being more ambitious,” justify potential damage of a Wilderness area?


Follow the money.

Hopefully each of us, who visits wilderness, has developed or is working on our own Wilderness Ethics. Part of this work is to keep a critical eye on wilderness areas and to play our part in protection and support of the philosophy of the Wilderness Act, and again think about the famous quote

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Why do folks like Dixon and Skurka defend their trail guides? For Andrew it is an income stream, he charges for the complete trail guide and his website is a commercial endeavor. I know little about Dixon, but he is a published writer (I bought one of the backpacking books he co-wrote), and he is one of the original founders of backpackinglight.com a commercial website; so publishing these trail guides does enhance his own personal brand, although he does not charge for his online guide, nor are there any commercial aspects to his website.

Also, these are not the only guides Dixon and Skurka have published, there are others, with both promising to create more guides to other fragile and remote wilderness areas.

What about others, the non-commercial writers who publish free guides on their blogs, and often include GPS tracks; they often write for their ego; to publicize their own epic journeys. And rest assured, someone will publish detailed GPS tracks for both Dixon’s and Skurka’s Wind River High Routes in the future.

I have never published, and never will publish a trail guide. I have posted a couple trip reports with high level maps devoid of detailed information, both of which are unlikely to be visited by people after reading my reports. However, both are favorite trips I re-visit yearly and both contain ancient use trails created by Native Americans. Each year these trails have become more disused and harder to find, and there is zero evidence of increased visitation, confirming that my reports have not driven traffic to these areas. Should this change, I will delete those posts from this website.

In answer to the question, “what to do?” Each of has a right to visit our Wilderness areas, but along with that right comes the responsibility to protect these Wilderness areas, to become one of those who speaks for wilderness – in the tradition of Guy and Laura Waterman.

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