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“I have a high risk tolerance, but my rule is to never feel scared. You can feel so dang comfortable being on a margin of safety if you’ve accustomed yourself to that.”
Pairing Michael Wirth’s words with the thought of running along the knife-edge of Colorado’s Capitol Peak requires a serious dose of cognitive dissonance. On August 8, 24-year-old Michael Wirth set out on the Elks Traverse, running farther than he ever had across some of the most technical mountains in Colorado searching for “a sense of lightness.”
The Elk Mountains in western Colorado separate the mountain towns of Aspen and Crested Butte. While they look beautiful in photographs (like the iconic Maroon Bells), much of the range is comprised of loose rock and scree.
The Elks Traverse was established by Neil Beidleman in 1996 and links up the seven peaks above 14,000 feet, starting at the trailhead for legendary Capitol Peak and crossing ~60 miles of mountainous high country to end at the trailhead for Castle Peak.
Guidelines for the traverse are minimal: connect Capitol Peak, Snowmass Peak, North and South Maroon, Pyramid Peak, Conundrum, and Castle Peak (soaking in the Conundrum Hot Springs for an hour is strongly encouraged.) Each summit is a challenging day hike in itself, venturing through varied terrain and managing risks like weather, rockfall, and altitude. Linking the summits includes 24,000 feet of climbing and requires navigating mostly off trail, across moonscapes of scree, exposed ridge lines, and fourth-class scrambling.
This challenging route has only seen a handful of attempts but gained notoriety when local legend and former Aspen resident Rickey Gates set the FKT back in 2015. For locals to the Roaring Fork Valley, the ridgelines loom on the horizon, dominating most every view from the valley, and the gravitational pull has lured in some daring runners to attempt the route. The route takes you on a geologic tour of the range and the terrain requires acute mental focus and explosive power, leaping from unstable rock to uncertain landing. Wirth feeds off of that feeling. “It’s not just trusting your next step, it’s trusting your next five steps. You have to commit and see the move you’re going to make ten moves from now, which creates a cool mind and body connection that I really enjoy.”
Michael Wirth grew up in Glenwood Springs and has honed his chops as a mountain athlete in the Elks Range. After graduating from Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, he returned to the Roaring Fork Valley with his focus on finding comfort in the mountains. In a few short years, Wirth approached riskier objectives in incremental steps and established himself as a first-rate mountain athlete, checking off a proud list of ski descents across North America and has traded his skis for running shoes to explore his backyard. Backcountry skiing is his primary focus, but his desire to understand and be with the mountains is ever present.
During the spring of 2021, Wirth set out to ski all 59 mountains over 13,000 feet in the Elks Range in just two months. Along the way, he connected with famed mountaineer Neil Beidleman, who offered him mentorship. Through conversations with Beidleman about adventuring in the Elk Mountains, interest in the Elks Traverse grew in Wirth’s mind.
Beidleman first completed the project in 1996 after returning from the tragic “Into Thin Air” expedition on Everest. Wirth started piecing the route together intentionally over the last three years. “I definitely was not ready to do it over the past two summers,” but this summer, Michael felt confident in his baseline fitness from backcountry skiing and the hours he spent projecting the route’s link ups.
Training to Scramble
Wirth wanted to attempt this traverse during the August 2022 full moon.
“I didn’t start running this year until June because I was traveling for skiing. I really kicked it into gear in July, running around 60 miles a week with 25,00- 30,000 feet of vert. I was doing lots of two or three a-days where I would run, climb, and mountain bike. I was bouldering three times a week, doing intervals on moving up relatively easy things, working on my explosiveness, which translated to moving efficiently on Capitol’s knife edge, the Bells Traverse, and up and down Pyramid.”
In the six weeks leading up to his attempt, Wirth projected the Bells Traverse five times and Capitol Peak six or seven times. He put in long days of training, going into the mountains and sussing out the different routes and connection points. While Gates’s time stood as a potential goal, Wirth believed that the route could be completed in under 24 hours. But time was not his focus. Mostly he sought being able to go out and experience the mountains and spend a full day with them, from sunrise to sunset and into the night on both ends.
“In sport, it’s important to acknowledge the people who have come before you, to acknowledge how people did things back in the day and try to build upon that in the ways that you can,” says Wirth. “In mountain running, finding a higher level of efficiency is important for the trajectory of the sport. I really look up to Neil Beidleman. Being able to do something that he did in a very contrasting way – both spiritually, mentally, and also physically in terms of going faster – feels great. I was walking in the same place as him 26 years later, but those emotions and curiosities can be very similar. It’s fulfilling to find inspiration in those who came before you.”
We are thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.
“I started the day reciting this Prayer to the Earth Mother from a lovely book [from the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address] I was given a few days prior. I kept saying that prayer in my mind, that was my preface to the route.”
Under the light of the full moon, Micheal Wirth left the Capitol Creek trailhead at 4:06 a.m. and entered the realm of the mountains. Wirth cruised across the first four summits of the route, but gaps in his hydration midday caught up with him. He was close to an hour up on his anticipated pace, but slowed dramatically climbing Pyramid Peak, and he came into Maroon Lake (mile 30) half an hour behind his target time.
“Despite bonking on Pyramid, I didn’t have any doubts about continuing on because I knew I was going to see my support crew and things would get better. After having done five of these peaks by myself, I was really stoked to see some people. When I got back on the West Maroon Trail heading down to my crew, I started crying because my legs were feeling good and I was going to get to see my two friends. Knowing that support was ahead meant everything to me. I thought all I have to do is get there and life will be easier.”
With Jeff Colt (author of this piece) pacing him, Wirth gave a hard push through the night, over Conundrum and Castle Peaks and the final miles of more runnable terrain. He arrived the following morning at the Castle Creek trailhead at 2:36 a.m., having completed the Elks Traverse in 22 hours and 30 minutes and reclassifying the route as a single day effort.
He bested Rickey Gate’s previous FKT of 27 hours 25 minutes by a wide margin and established a new sub-24 hours bar for speedy travel through this rugged terrain. He found the lightness he was searching for by running farther than he ever had and persevering when his body and mind faltered. With pain and discomfort as fleeting memories, what remains is “that sensation of lightness in such a beautiful place.” With heavy legs and a full heart, Wirth texted Gates after the effort.
“I was anxious to see how Ricky responded. I didn’t text him my time or anything, I just told him I did the Elks Traverse and it was beautiful and told him how much I looked up to him. And his response was so amazing, he was supportive and said that’s awesome. He was stoked and that’s part of the nature of FKTs which is cool. There’s no place for gatekeeping.”
In the weeks since Wirth obliterated the established record on the Elks Traverse, he won the extremely technical, steep, and loose Telluride Mountain Run (40 miles, 14,600 feet of elevation gain) and broke the FKT on the Hat Trick, which links up the Maroon Bells Traverse and Pyramid Peak. He plans to test his legs out at Run Rabbit Run 100 on September 17th. With an established love for lightness and moving swiftly through the mountains, Michael wirth is one to keep an eye on.
Jeff Colt is a professional ultra runner based in Carbondale, Colorado, and had the joy of pacing Michael for the last 25 miles of his Elks Traverse FKT.