The Elks Traverse — a route which connects every 14er in the Elk Range — extends approximately 54 miles and totals over 23,000 feet of elevation gain. From north to south, that’s Capitol, Snowmass, North Maroon, Pyramid, Maroon, Conundrum and Castle. On Tuesday, Aug. 9 — at about 4 a.m. — Valley local Michael Wirth set off at Snowmass; at about 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 10, he found himself below Castle, a record holder. The whole traverse had been completed in a blazing 22 hours, 30 minutes and 50 seconds, smashing the previous record by nearly five hours.
The Elks Traverse has a rather famous history of records. In 1996, Jeff Hollenbaugh and Neil Beidleman — the latter a guide on the disastrous Everest climb documented in John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” — were the first to complete the route in one go, taking about 34 hours to do so. The previous record was set in 2015 by Aspenite Rickey Gates — ultrarunning author of the acclaimed “Cross Country: A 3,700-Mile Run to Explore Unseen America” — his time totaling 27 hours and 25 minutes exactly. Now, Wirth is among those famous names as the fastest one of all to best the trailhead-to-trailhead challenge. What’s more is that the traverse was the longest single-push Wirth had run at the time he set the record.
Raised in Glenwood Springs, Wirth has been trail running recreationally since around age 13, but says that only in the past three years has he gotten serious about long-distance runs. He’d been across the whole Elk Range in bits and pieces, “in every single drainage and on top of every mountain above 13,000 feet,” he said, “but never from one side to another.” Previously, he’d been ski-mountaineering on all 59 peaks above 13,000 feet within the span of 61 days. Between that and the Elks Traverse, Wirth has experienced the range at both seasonal extremes, and over these past few years, he made the Elks Traverse his goal.
Besides summiting all seven 14ers, the only requirements for the traverse are going trailhead to trailhead between the Capitol Creek Ditch and Castle Creek. Otherwise, any runner is free to make their own route. The fastest routes through the Elks, however, will find you off-trail for a vast majority of the time (in Wirth’s words, about 80% of the way) and very often jumping from rock to rock on technical terrain.
“A traverse like this… is not just running, it’s also sort of climbing around, so you need to be able to do both of those things… really efficiently,” he cautioned.
Wirth was not alone in completing the traverse. Fourteen hours in at Maroon Lake, Wirth met with Carbondale local Jeff Colt and fellow high-intensity endurance athlete Carly Valerious. Colt helped finish the last eight hours, and the three met back up at Castle to celebrate with Oreos and croissants: “We were just like, kicking it, and I was stoked and we were stoked, and I wasn’t just wrecked.”
Wirth was quick to recover from such an ordeal. After only a few days, he was preparing for a bike race, and after five days “back to normal training.” That training paid off. On Saturday, Aug. 27, Wirth also broke the record for the 40-mile Telluride Mountain Run, completing the highly-technical and greatly-exposed race in eight hours, three minutes and 39 seconds, breaking the previous record by about 43 minutes. What’s more, he plans for a 100-mile race this fall.
Some of the “highly technical” terrain one might find themselves crossing on the route to Castle. Courtesy photo
With regards to the Elks Traverse, Wirth feels positive about his new record. “I think it’s pretty good… taking five hours off the previous record is fun for sure. I think that there are some points where time could be made up and someone could do it faster… but I think it was cool, and it’s definitely a record that will stand for a little while.”
Despite the grueling appearance of the traverse, Wirth said that while trail running: “A sense of weightlessness arises… when you can move up and down the mountains and find that sense of flying.”
Furthermore, the high peaks of the Elk Range are more than just a series of challenges to be beaten. For him, they’re like home. “The closest connection to any mountains that I have is here in the Elks, just cause they’re kind of like my backyard training ground, and the place I grew up adventuring as a kiddo. So it’s always a really beautiful experience to be able to go in them, and I often find myself crying just because of the beauty of it all and the simplicity of it all, and also the sensation of being rather unimportant, but feeling very unique in a contradictory way.”