“The first two weeks sucked. I was like ‘screw this,’ but then I got used to it. I started to slowly check each peak off.”
Going Big in Our Own Backyard
How one Roaring Fork Valley local skied all 52 thirteeners in the Elk Range—and then some—in 61 days.
“I climbed Capitol Peak over ten times the summer before, and was just like ‘I don’t know the names of all the peaks around here, but man it would be pretty cool to check them out,’” says Wirth. “Thirteeners are marginally shorter than the fourteeners and they don’t have beta on them. There was mystery.”
So, each morning from March 28 through May 28, long before there was even a whisper of twilight, Wirth set out into the mountains that cradle the Roaring Fork Valley to solo climb and ski all of the 52 13,000-foot peaks in the Elk’s Range. He added all 14,000-foot peaks of the Elks for good measure, and over the course of 61 days, ascended and descended a total of 59 peaks.
Within the larger objective, Wirth bagged six first descents and became the youngest person to solo ski the three most challenging 14ers in Colorado, which include Capitol Peak, North Maroon, and Pyramid Peak’s technical, notorious Landry Line—all of which he tackled within a single week.
Twenty-four-year-old Wirth grew up in Aspen’s Roaring Fork Valley as a passionate, local kid skiing at Aspen Snowmass with Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC) and playing in the Elk Mountains, one of Colorado’s most rugged mountain ranges, in the west-central section of the state. The heart of Ute territory, these are the same mountains that inspired John Denver to pen “Rocky Mountain High,” that have raised Olympians like Gretchen Bleiler and Alex Ferreira, and that are to home to ski gangs stacked with freeride pros and legends like century-old Klaus Obermeyer.
This endurance feat Wirth embarked on was one that challenged him in every way—waking up day after day, taking step after step, sending summit after summit. He’ll admit, the first couple weeks of the project were rough, especially when he thought about how many peaks he had to climb.
"Dancing Around the Bells and Pyramid"
“When you ride your snowmobile or trudge up Maroon Creek Road in the middle of the night, you really have time to think about things. And then the sun comes out, and the world turns a magnificent blue. And then the snow-covered peaks transform to orange and you’re really glad you’re not in bed.”
Wirth secured permits, and along with the help of friends and filmmaker Luke Tornare, captured some of his objectives on film. In January, 2022, he released a teaser for a final film edit, 52/13 Project, which he hopes to show along the film festival circuit and potentially distribute on a larger platform to reach a wider audience.
And the skiing itself? Wirth has no complaints. “Two ski lines that come to mind that I liked are Golden Tops on the Crested Butte side—the north couloir on that is so fun if you catch it in good conditions, which I was able to do.” He reminisces about opening up his turns into Rustler Gulch, leaning into the speed and returning to that younger version of himself who grew up lapping runs at Snowmass before graduating to the hardier terrain over at Aspen Highlands.
“I also loved Sleeping Sexton, it offered the best views of North Maroon ever. I skied the Northwest face down to a pinner couloir which combined some really nice snow with a crazy beautiful, steep, constant-width couloir.”
Many may shudder at the concept of a young man speedily knocking out peak after high peak, due to the inherent risks associated with high alpine adventures. But Wirth, an experienced backcountry skier, said his day-after-day consistency allowed him to dial in his understanding of the snowpack, the weather, and his own body.
“I think the Elks are special for so many reasons,” says Chris Davenport, ski mountaineer and long-time Roaring Fork Valley local who, along with Neal Beidleman, was part of the second crew to ski Pyramid Peak’s Landry Line in 2006; 28 years after Chris Landry made his first descent in 1978, and 15 years before Wirth accomplished the same feat. “We typically have a good snowpack come late March, April, and May when snow gets safer. We have great access to trailheads, which makes it easier. And in general, we just have a great, supportive backcountry community. So many great backcountry skiers, boarders, and ski mountaineers have come out of the Roaring Fork Valley, partly because of our history, and then because of the incredible mountains that surround us.”
Time in his home mountains also gave Wirth a chance to process the impacts of the pandemic and the recent, sudden death of his friend and girlfriend’s brother, Miles.
“There is a lot of research about how bipedal movements are good for processing things and taking a more simplified, wider perspective on what is going on in your life,” he says. And he was skiing, which was something Miles loved to do in this very valley. Wirth’s time in the mountains allowed him to process.
“There would be moments where the sun would be rising, the snow would glisten, and I could feel Miles with me,” he recalls. “I remember I had built Thunder Pyramid up in my mind and I thought it may be the one I wouldn’t be able to ski. I was on the ridge and it was a beautiful day. I had an older brother, Charles, that I lost when I was really young—and then there were these two golden eagles, and I don’t always give meaning to things like that, but I did feel like it was the two of them.”
For many skiers and riders who have lost someone, it can be cathartic to feel like you’re taking your loved one with you out on the hill. “It was so nice to get to know Miles in the mountains that spring. I discovered new places and parts within myself that needed to be found. It was nice to know that if I couldn’t complete the objectives, it didn’t matter, because so much personal amazement and fulfillment had already come out of it.”
"Certainly Not an Easy Project"
“It’s a popular thing to set a project goal and come up with something no one has ever done nowadays, and Michael did that creatively,” says Davenport. “I love that he had the vision to say ‘forget the fourteeners, let’s go ski the thirteeners in my own backyard.’ It was certainly not an easy project. Congratulations to him for pulling it off.”
The day after he completed the last of his 59 peaks, Wirth laced up his running shoes and ran back up Conundrum and Castle Peak. Back out into the Elks, into the place he calls home.