The Wind River Mountains, seen here in the distance from the banks of the Green River, present myriad challenges and opportunities for adventurers. The Drift, a new 28-mile winter race, will send runners, skiers and cyclists into the mountains, near Pinedale. (Tom Koerner/USFWS)

Snow blindness is a real thing. On a cold winter day, sunlight bouncing off the snow can burn not only your skin, but also your eyes, leaving you unable to see. Then there’s the risks of frostbite and hypothermia. And don’t forget to watch out for wildlife — moose frequent the area and its home to bears, mountain lions and even wolves.  

Winter makes the already wild Wind River Mountains extreme.

That’s why The Drift, a new 28-mile race, is unique, said Laura Hattan, one of the race directors.

“People need to be self-sufficient or they are going to get snow-machined out,” she said.

Drift racers can choose to run, bike or ski the course which starts on the Green River Lakes Road near Pinedale and climbs to 9,200-feet. Regardless of method, they’ll head out at 8 a.m., March 3.

The race will be formidable, but it may also be just a warm-up for what’s to come.

Hattan and the other race directors hope next year to receive permitting for a 100-mile ultra loop course that will climb up to the Continental Divide at more than 9,000-feet. If they’re successful, it will be the highest elevation ultramarathon course in the country.

“The highest elevation winter ultra will attract its own crowd,” Hattan said.

Competitors will need to be prepared for dynamic, often challenging winter conditions. Photo courtesy Laura Hattan

The race team also wants to make the Drift 100, as they plan to call it, a qualifying run for the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska, where racers follow the historic Iditarod Trail on skis, foot or bike. There are currently only eight ITI qualifying races worldwide and just three of them are in the United States, Hattan said.

“The ultramarathon realm is on the verge of rapid growth,” Hattan said. “It’s exciting to be on the front edge of something like that.”

More athletes are pushing themselves in the mountains on ultramarathon trail courses, said Hattan, who is also an owner of the Great Outdoor Shop and Two Rivers Fishing Company in Pinedale. Winter ultra-races are still relatively rare and this offers Pinedale a chance to make a name for itself by establishing a premier event ahead of industry expansion.

It also offers a chance to showcase the area and attract visitors to Pinedale and the mountains.

“The Wind River Mountains are a paradise for athletes,” Hattan said.

Hattan is director of the Wind River Mountain Festival, designed to celebrate Pinedale as a continental divide gateway community. Last summer, she and the other Drift founders launched the Surly Pika Adventure Race, where teams biked, trekked and paddled off-trail with only a map and compass to guide them to various checkpoints for up to eight hours.

Its sister race, The Drift, is a way to introduce visitors to, and remind locals of, the adventure possibilities the Winds offer even in the winter.

“By introducing more of this class of athletes to the area in the winter time, I think they will come back in the summer,” she said. “The Winds are made for people who want to do big things.”

In 2018 The Drift will follow a 28-mile course near Pinedale. Next year, race directors hope to include a 100-mile course that would be the highest-elevation winter ultramarathon race in the country. Map courtesy The Drift

The Drift is not an adventure race. It follows a well-marked course of groomed snowmobile trails that for a long section follow the scenic Green River. It’s a rolling course with flat stretches, aid stations and a total elevation gain and loss of about 2,600-feet. Competitors will have nine hours to complete the course.

It is, however, a serious endeavor, with the potential for rapidly changing weather, Hattan said. She expects race directors will have to turn some people away who come prepared for a “different definition of winter,” she said.  

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Competitors can decide day-of if they want to race on skis, foot or bike.

So far about 10 people have signed up, most from Wyoming but not Pinedale. Locals seem to be watching the weather before they decide whether to commit, she said.

The race permit caps participants at 50 people. The registration deadline is Sunday.

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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