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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.

Backcountry skier Michael Wirth

Photo credit: Luke Tornare

By Jessi Hackett
In the spring of 2021—as Colorado’s persistently unpredictable continental snowpack settled, warmer days stretched themselves across the Rockies, and ski mountaineers from novice to expert—ventured out to tackle multiple big mountain objectives—Michael Wirth had something a little larger in mind.

“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.
Climbing through treeline to top a 13er
Skier Michael Wirth descends a 13,000-foot peak
Looking out over the Elk Mountains
Photo credits: ©Luke Tornare (top, above left, above right); Aidan Goldie (above middle).
“Throughout the project I was just dancing around the Bells and Pyramid and Landry and I thought, ‘well these mountains are cool too,’ so I added them to the goal,” says Wirth, as if he’d casually thrown bag of potato chips into his shopping cart, not added four 14,000-foot peaks to his already-sizeable spring ski mountaineering mission.

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"

Michael Wirth climbing a 13,000+ foot mountain in the Elk Range. ©Luke Tornare

Michael Wirth climbing a 13,000+ foot mountain in the Elk Range. ©Luke Tornare

“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.”

Once he found a rhythm, he says he began to like waking up in the middle of the night.

“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.
Storytelling around big ski mountaineering projects like this are in their golden age. There’s Chris Davenport’s Ski The 14ers, about skiing all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks; Cody Townsend’s The Fifty Project, about skiing North America’s 50 most classic and challenging descents. There are also tales of deep cultural significance and reckoning, like Spirit of the Peaks, a recently-released collaboration between REI Co-Op, Wondercamps, NativeOutdoors, examining the relationship between indigenous land reciprocity and big mountain exploration. Wirth’s is a story about exploring himself through his backyard—his home. “Connecting, never conquering,” he says.

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.
Skier Michael Wirth
Skier Michael Wirth begins his descent in the Elk Mountains
Skier Michael Wirth climbs a colloir in the Elk Mountains
Photo credit: Luke Tornare (above left); Michael Wirth (above middle, above right)
“You know, a lot of things have to line up—a lot of things out of your control—the weather, the snow conditions, the avalanche danger,” says Neal Beidleman, one of Wirth’s mentors and a local ski mountaineering legend in his own right. “Moving fast in the mountains is something I understand and have practiced myself. If you can move efficiently through dangerous terrain, you minimize your exposure to the risks that the mountains hold.”

“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"

Skier Michael Wirth. ©Luke Tornare

Skier Michael Wirth. ©Luke Tornare

“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.”

“There are some incredibly special moments in the mountains, when you feel so in shape and so connected with them, making the same movement thousands of times—moving with the terrain and feeling like you know exactly what the snowpack is doing because you’ve been out there every, single day. Ice axe in, crampons in. Your mind quiets and you’re focused on what it is you’re doing,” says Wirth.

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.