Community profile: Carbondale resident Michael Wirth breaks the Elks Traverse record
‘I needed to keep moving’
Dehydration set in before Michael Wirth decided to temporarily abandon his running vest filled with water. The sun glared hot, furthering his urge to throw up. Yet Wirth needed to save time summiting Pyramid Peak, and his water supply simply weighed too much.
Wirth endured and kept going. Dusk eventually settled over the mountain tops. Originally beginning his journey before dawn, Wirth was on pace to break the record for completing the Elks Traverse.
“I wanted to put at least a couple hours onto the record,” he said. “I knew that I needed to keep moving.”
Jeff Colt, an Aspen-based professional mountain athlete, joined Wirth as his pacer somewhere three quarters through the journey, at Maroon Bells parking lot. They’d ascend Castle and Conundrum around the 21-hour mark.
Right around Conundrum Hot Springs is when the route makes for extremely difficult running conditions, Colt said. This is when a runner takes a hard turn off the trail and starts a 3,500- or almost 4,000-foot ascent up the west face of Castle, which is essentially an enormous scree field.
Colt ensured Wirth, having already notched 30 miles solo before linking up, maintained sustenance.
“I was trying to make sure that he was still eating calories and still drinking a good bit of water and kind of keeping his systems balanced,” Colt said.
They also shared Bluetooth portable headphones. One bud in Colt’s ear. One in Wirth’s. That way, they could fuel up on an inspirational soundtrack of Taylor Swift, ’90s rock, Kanye West and Beyonce. And since Bluetooth signals only work after a certain distance, Colt could auditorily monitor whether Wirth would physically falter or collapse.
That didn’t happen. Instead, they sprinted the final three miles.
“We were running a 7:30 pace (per mile),” Wirth said. “Which I think is pretty good considering I had already run 52 miles and accumulated 23,000 feet of elevation.”
Wirth, a 24-year-old Carbondale resident who graduated Glenwood Springs High School in 2016, would officially break the Elks Traverse fastest known time record by almost five hours. Wirth’s journey began at 4:06 a.m. Aug. 9 and ended precisely at 2:36 a.m. Aug. 10.
Total time: 22 hours, 30 minutes, 50 seconds. The record is officially logged on fastestknowntime.com.
“I was filled with endorphins, so you feel kind of high,” Wirth said. “I wasn’t particularly exhausted at the end.”
The feat can only be achieved by summiting all seven of the route’s peaks eclipsing 14,000 feet — all in one journey. This includes summiting Capitol, Snowmass, Maroon, North Maroon, Pyramid, Conundrum and Castle peaks in one massive trial of body and soul run.
About 80% of the route is also off trail, with huge chunks of class-five free solo climbing. The route begins at Capitol Creek Trailhead and ends at Castle Creek Trailhead.
“I was just trying everything I could to both be that hard ass pushing (Wirth) but also foster some self-belief so that he knew he could really do it,” Colt said.
Few athletes have acquired climber nobility via completing the Elks Traverse.
Aspen native Neal Beidleman — one of Wirth’s idols — is known for surviving imminent disaster on Mount Everest, the same 1996 tragedy that inspired the best-selling book “Into Thin Air.” After his brush with death, he ventured from the Himalayas to join American climber Jeff Hollenbaugh in Colorado’s high country.
With Hollenbaugh, noted for scaling spires in Denali National Park, the pair set an Elks Traverse record. Time: 34 hours.
Then there’s mountain runner Ricky Gates, another Aspen native who once ran 4,000 miles across the entire nation. When he completed the Elks Traverse in 2015, it set the new record at 27 hours, 25 minutes.
Wirth originally set a goal of simply completing the Elks Traverse in less than 24 hours. To do so, he’d train by running anywhere between 50-60 miles per week, also accumulating 30,000 feet of elevation gain per week. This included climbing and bouldering.
“I look up to Ricky a ton,” Wirth said. “The fact that he had the record on this? I’m a little bit of a nobody in the world, but I love these mountains.”
Wirth grew up backcountry skiing the valley and playing soccer, but he didn’t do any running-specific organized sports like cross country or track and field. His desire to traverse mountains in fact came after he graduated from Claremont McKenna College in California.
Wirth’s father, Charlie Wirth, said his son was once working remotely two years ago in Aspen when he decided he was going to summit 51 total 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks throughout the valley.
Like father, like son: Charlie himself has done the Elks range with the exception of Capitol Peak — a wise decision on his part, he said.
“He’ll go up and bag Pyramid, North and West Maroon for a morning outing,” Charlie said of his son. “He’s just wild.”
Conquering is a word some may use when it comes to climbing mountains. Not Michael. Climbing mountains, for him, is more about the connection, having fun and simply moving his body through the rocky landscape.
And the record itself isn’t the most important aspect to his most recent accomplishment, he said.
“The whole time I was thinking how cool it would be to traverse these mountains,” Wirth said. “You’re going through a geological timeline.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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