Michael Wirth breaks FKT record for Colorado’s Elks Traverse


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“I have a high risk tolerance, but my rule is never to be afraid. You can feel so comfortable being on a safety margin if you’ve gotten used to it.

Pairing Michael Wirth’s lyrics with the idea of ​​running along the top of the Colorado Capitol requires a serious dose of cognitive dissonance. On August 8, 24-year-old Michael Wirth took to the Elks Traverse, running further than he’d ever done through some of Colorado’s most technical mountains in search of a “feel of lightness”.

The road

The Elk Mountains in western Colorado separate the mountain towns of Aspen and Crested Butte. Although they look good in photographs (like the iconic Maroon Bells), much of the range is made up of rocks and scree.

RELATED: How to hike scree safely

The Elks Traverse was created by Neil Beidleman in 1996 and connects the Seven Summits above 14,000 feet, starting at the legendary Capitol Peak trailhead and traversing approximately 60 miles of high mountains to end at the Castle trailhead Peak.

The guidelines for the traverse are minimal: connect Capitol Peak, Snowmass Peak, North and South Maroon, Pyramid Peak, Conundrum and Castle Peak (soaking in Conundrum hot springs for one hour is highly recommended.) Each peak is a challenging day hike in itself, venturing through varied terrain and managing risks such as weather, rockfall and altitude. Connecting the peaks involves 24,000 feet of climbing and requires navigating mostly off-trail, through scree moonscapes, exposed ridgelines and fourth-class scrambling.

This challenging route has seen only a handful of attempts, but gained notoriety when local legend and former Aspen resident Rickey Gates put the FKT back in 2015. For the people of the Roaring Valley Fork, ridges loom on the horizon, dominating nearly every view from the valley, and the gravitational pull has attracted some daring runners to attempt the route. The route takes you on a geological tour of the range and the terrain requires acute mental focus and explosive power, leaping from unstable rock to an uncertain landing. Wirth feeds on this 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 connection cool between mind and body which I really enjoy.

Meet Michael:

Michael Wirth grew up in Glenwood Springs and honed his skills as a mountain athlete in the elk range. After graduating from Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, he returned to the Roaring Fork Valley focusing on comfort in the mountains. Within a few years, Wirth took on riskier goals in incremental steps and established himself as a top notch mountain athlete, ticking off a proud list of ski runs across North America and trading his skis for running shoes to explore his backyard. Off-piste skiing is his main focus, but his desire to understand and be with the mountains is ever present.

Michael Wirth in the Elk Mountains (Photo: Jeff Colt)

In 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 met famed mountaineer Neil Beidleman, who offered him mentorship. Through conversations with Beidleman about adventures in the Elk Mountains, interest in traversing Elks grew in Wirth’s mind.

Beidleman first completed the project in 1996 after returning from the tragic “Into Thin Air” expedition on Everest. Wirth began to piece together the route intentionally over the past three years. “I definitely wasn’t ready to do it the last two summers,” but this summer Michael felt confident in his base fitness from off-piste skiing and the hours he spent project the links of the route.

Practice scrambling

Wirth wanted to attempt this crossing during the full moon of August 2022.

“I only started running this year in June because I was traveling to ski. I really got it going in July, running about 60 miles a week with 2500-30,000 feet of green. I was doing a lot of two or three days where I was running, climbing and mountain biking. I was bouldering three times a week, doing intervals to climb relatively easy things, working on my explosiveness, which translated into moving efficiently on the Capitol edge, the Bells Traverse, and up and down the Pyramid.

In the six weeks leading up to his attempt, Wirth threw Bells Traverse five times and Capitol Peak six or seven times. He spent long days training, going to the mountains and discovering the different routes and connection points. While Gates’ time was a potential target, Wirth thought the course could be completed in less than 24 hours. But time was not his goal. Above all, he was looking to be able to go out and discover the mountains and spend a whole day with them, from sunrise to sunset and into the night on both sides.

RELATED: Zoë Rom Puts FKT on (Scary, 14,131ft) Capitol Peak

In sports, it’s important to recognize the people who came before you, to recognize how people did things back then, and to try to build on that in any way you can,” says Wirth. “In mountain racing, finding a higher level of efficiency is important for the trajectory of the sport. I really admire Neil Beidleman. To be 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 rewarding to find inspiration in those who preceded you.

Departure time

We are grateful to our Mother, the Earth, because she gives us everything we need to live. It supports our feet when we walk on them. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has since the beginning of time. To our mother, we send our greetings and our thanks. Now our minds are one.

“I started the day by reciting this prayer to Mother Earth from a beautiful book [from the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address] I was given a few days before. I kept saying this prayer in my head, it was my preface to the itinerary.

Michael Wirth on Elks Traverse
Michael Wirth in the Elk Mountains (Photo: Jeff Colt)

Under the light of the full moon, Micheal Wirth left the Capitol Creek trailhead at 4:06 a.m. and entered the mountain realm. Wirth made it through the first four peaks of the route, but midday hydration gaps caught up with him. He was nearly an hour behind his scheduled pace, but slowed the ascent of Pyramid Peak considerably, and arrived at Maroon Lake (mile 30) half an hour behind his target time.

“Despite the frenzy over Pyramid, I had no doubts about continuing because I knew I was going to see my support team and things would get better. After doing five of those summits on my own , I was really happy to see people. When I came back on the West Maroon Trail towards my crew, I started crying because my legs were fine and I was going to see my two friends. Knowing that the support was up front meant everything to me, I thought all I had to do was make it and life would be easier.

With Jeff Colt (author of this piece) trailing him, Wirth gave a strong push into the night, over Conundrum and Castle Peaks and the final few miles of more passable terrain. He arrived the next morning at the Castle Creek trailhead at 2:36 a.m., having completed the elk traverse in 22 hours and 30 minutes and upgraded the route to a one-day effort.

He beat The old Rickey Gate FKT of 27 hours 25 minutes by a wide margin and set a new bar of less than 24 hours for a quick trip through this rugged terrain. He found the lightness he was looking for by running further than he had ever run and persevering when his body and mind wavered. With pain and discomfort like fleeting memories, what’s left is “this feeling of lightness in such a beautiful place.” With heavy legs and a full heart, Wirth texted Gates after the effort.

“I couldn’t wait to see how Ricky reacted. I didn’t text him my time or anything, I just told him I did the elk crossing and it was beautiful and told him how much I looked up to him. And his response was so amazing, he supported me and said that was awesome. He was thrilled and that’s part of the nature of FKTs, which is cool. He didn’t there is no place for guarding.

In the weeks following the erasure of the record set on Elks Traverse, Wirth won the extremely technical, steep and loose Telluride Mountain Run (40 miles, 14,600 feet of ascent) and beat the FKT on the Hat Trick, which connects the Maroon Bells Traverse and Pyramid Peak. He plans to test his legs at the Run Rabbit Run 100 on September 17. With an established love for the lightweight and moving fast through the mountains, Michael Wirth is one to watch.

Jeff Colt is a professional ultra racer based in Carbondale, Colorado and had the joy of following Michael on the last 25 miles of his Elks Traverse FKT.


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