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Traversing the Tetons

Fifty peaks. One hundred and two miles. One hundred twelve thousand vertical feet – the equivalent of summiting Mount Everest from sea level three times. Seven days.

Last year Ryan Burke of Jackson became the first person to complete what he called the Perception Traverse scaling 24 of the 50 Teton peaks in four days. After recovering, the sense of loss that often follows completing a major goal set in.

“And then I thought, ‘there are still more mountains to see,’” said Burke, 34.

Last month Burke pushed himself further, summiting 50 peaks that make up the Teton skyline. What he calls the Fight or Flight Traverse included the major peaks of the range, but also lesser known summits like Ice Cream Cone, Anniversary Peak and Drizzlepuss.

The seven-day traverse started Aug. 20 on the northernmost end of Grand Teton National Park. Burke finished work at Curran-Seeley, where he’s an addiction counselor, at about 8 p.m. He kayaked across Jackson Lake in the dark, his path lit by a moon that glowed red from the smoke of a nearby wildfire. That same fire would burn close enough to where he left his kayak for the week so that he wasn’t sure it would be there when he returned. But on that night the fire was still small enough that Burke noticed only the red of the moon.

Burke moves along the Owen-Spalding route of the Grand Teton. Burke covered more than 100,000 feet of elevation during a seven-day traverse of the Teton range. (Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

Burke moves along the Owen-Spalding route of the Grand Teton. Burke covered more than 100,000 feet of elevation during a seven-day traverse of the Teton range. (Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

He almost didn’t see the bear he startled in the dense foliage along the shore as he pulled the kayak up. The bear ran away and Burke settled, unnerved, into his bivy sack for the night. He rose at sunrise to tackle Ranger Peak, the first of eight peaks for the day.

In many ways the trip was 15 years in the making, from the moment Burke first saw the silhouette of this range in the sky from Togwotee Pass while on a cross-country motorcycle trip. The mountains enamored him, but at the time he wasn’t a climber.

In the last decade he’s explored the mountains, climbing most of the peaks that made up the traverse, but there were a few, like Eagles Rest Peak, he hadn’t had time to scout before. Others like the descent from Rockchuck Peak took planning and reconnaissance work. Burke had to pick the fastest and safest route down, from among several options.

“There are all these little choose-your-own-adventure paths that can cost you two hours or three hours,” Burke said.

To do 50 peaks, Burke already was already moving constantly from sunrise to sunset each day, pushing his body to its physical limits. He didn’t have time or energy to get lost.

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About 95 percent of the 102 miles was off trail on scree fields and through dense forest and “man-eating bushes.” A friend joined Burke for two days of technical climbing and provided a much needed food resupply. Together they tackled the north ridge of the Grand Teton in 65 mph winds. When they finished Nez Perce, the technical climbing part of the trip was over and Burke was again on his own.

Except he wasn’t ever really alone.

Along with his climbing gear, food and water, Burke carried the ashes of his friend and mentor Jarad Spackman who died in an avalanche in 2013.

Burke walks along a flank of Nez Perce in the Tetons. He spent a week linking the major peaks and many of the range's minor summits in a traverse he calls Fight or Flight. (Crista Valentino)

Burke walks along a flank of Nez Perce in the Tetons. He spent a week linking the major peaks and many of the range’s minor summits in a traverse he calls Fight or Flight. (Crista Valentino)

Burke met Spackman in 2010 at an art opening. Burke remembers two things from that first meeting: Spackman had skied the Grand Teton. To Burke, who grew up in Maine and moved to Jackson in 2004, Spackman seemed like a superman.

Spackman invited Burke to go climbing with him in Lander. Burke went. He struggled to keep up, but Spackman was already teaching him that he could physically do more than he had ever imagined, that the limitations he’d always accepted were only in his mind.

On his traverse, Burke passed St. Patty’s Day Chute where he skied with Spackman, the Enclosure where Spackman’s family scattered some of his ashes and Rimrock Lake near where Spackman died.

Burke spread Spackman’s ashes on top of every peak he climbed during his traverse. He always feels Spackman’s presence in the mountains, but he liked knowing that, physically, part of him is everywhere in the range.

The weeklong adventure ended with Mount Glory. At the top Burke knew he’d seen the Tetons in a way no one else had.

Growing and losing weight

Despite eating scoops of Nutella, Snickers Bars and pasta all week, Burke never felt satiated. He’d lost 10 pounds. But that wasn’t what he felt before he descended to Teton Pass.

“It felt like growth,” he said. “To grow you have to be uncomfortable.”

He’d climbed every peak he’d attempted. The only mishaps were minor: the rope getting caught on the Grand during the windstorm; forgetting a fork so instead using a rock to spread his peanut butter…the rock later broke in his sandwich and chipped his tooth; momentarily getting lost in the woods by Mount Moran; forgetting his boxers after bathing at Lake of the Crags; having a mountain goat kick rocks down on him on Buck Mountain.

As he looked out over the valley he started to think about what might be next, after he hiked back to Lake Taminah to collect the climbing gear he’d stashed and retrieve the kayak he left at Jackson Lake on the first day.

Some people go on silent retreats, or on vacation to a beach. Burke goes to the mountains. By pushing himself to his limit, he recharges. He doesn’t have to worry that a client has relapsed or might commit suicide.

“It’s a chance to focus on what is right in front of me,” he said. “This is all I have to worry about today.”

Next year he might see how many times he can climb the Grand Teton in a day. Or he might hike the Teton Crest Trail, bike the Gros Ventre mountains and then run the Wind River mountains to connect three ranges in three days.

After all, there are still more mountains to see.

Burke poses on Nez Perce's summit. The peak was part of his week-long traverse of the Teton Range. (Crista Valentino)

Burke poses on Nez Perce’s summit. The peak was part of his week-long traverse of the Teton Range. (Crista Valentino)

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About the Author

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star-Tribune. Contact Kelsey at [email protected] Follow Kelsey on Twitter at @Kelsey_Dayton

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