Ryan Burke reached the top of Albright Peak at 2 p.m. Aug. 30 and started to cry. His body hurt everywhere. Before he coaxed his exhausted legs into the last push — the 2-hour descent to the Death Canyon trailhead — he took a moment to absorb the view.
From the summit Burke, 33, could see north to the Grand Teton, but not Mount Moran where almost four days earlier he’d started a journey that would take him up 41,000 vertical-feet, across 65 miles, to 24 summits in the Teton Range. He thought of his friend, mountaineer Jared Spackman, who died in an avalanche in 2013. Spackman had taught him that he could do so much more than he thought possible. It was all a matter of perception.
Burke saw the Grand Teton for the first time from Togwotee Pass while on a cross-country bike trip almost a decade ago. Burke grew up in Maine and played team sports, but never hiked or climbed. In college he went on his first backpacking trip solo in the small mountains of Maine, where he got lost using outdated maps.
The idea of people scaling the Grand Teton seemed impossible to Burke when he first saw it 10 years ago. But after moving to Jackson in 2004 he became fascinated with climbing and its emphasis on problem solving.
“It’s that seeing something that looks impenetrable and figuring out a way to get there,” he said.
He taught himself enough to a try to impress a girl he liked by taking her up the Grand Teton in 2008. That first trip via the Owen-Spalding route took them 21 hours. He’s since completed the Grand in about 3.5 hours. In 2012 he climbed with Nancy Stevens when she became the first blind woman to summit the peak.
He holds the record for the Picnic, a locally invented triathlon where competitors bike from Jackson, swim across Jenny Lake, solo the Grand Teton and reverse the course back to town. Burke finished it in 11.5 hours.
He also completed a circumnavigation of Jackson Hole which included running up the Grand Teton, Snow King Mountain and Jackson Peak and rafting the Snake River. Once he created a course for himself featuring a 5.5-mile swim, 42-mile run and 109-mile bike ride he finished in a day.
Spackman inspired Burke to push himself, find his limit and go beyond it. “Where is my boundary at?” Burke said. “Can I say ‘hello’ to that boundary and quietly walk past it?”
Burke, an addictions counselor at the Curran-Seeley Foundation, wanted to find a way to honor Spackman. About two years ago he started thinking about linking the peaks of the Tetons for a long traverse. He connected the dots of the peaks he’d already climbed to create the route which included 14 major peaks topping out at higher than 11,000-feet and 10 smaller peaks.
He started at 3 a.m. with Mount Moran, his favorite for its isolation and majestic look at the northern end of the range. That first day he spent 20 hours, traveled 30 miles and finished seven peaks. He climbed alone.
The second day, after four hours of sleep, he met Taylor Luneau who climbed with him for two days, including the four pitches of 5.8-rated climbing on the North Ridge of the Grand Teton where he used a rope. The rest of the trip the climbing never was more difficult than 5.6, but scrambling across scree, endless fields of crumbling rock where a careless step could lead to a nasty fall, provided the biggest mental challenge.
A thunderstorm moved in on the third night, and Burke slept under a boulder near Lake Taminah as it raged around him. “It felt very caveman like,” he said. “I never felt in danger, but during that storm I felt small.”
The mountains have a way of doing that.
Standing on the top of Albright Peak, Burke felt humbled looking across the landscape he’d traveled. He thought Spackman might be proud of him and that was more rewarding than contemplating the 24 peaks he’d just climbed.
“It’s been an evolution in following in his footsteps, and then making my own,” he said.
Burke named the trip the Perception Traverse in honor of the greatest lesson Spackman taught him. Time in the mountains can change your perception of yourself, the world and what is possible.
Burke’s not sure what the next big adventure will be. He might bike to the Wind River Mountains and then summit Gannett Peak. Wyoming offers endless opportunities for adventures and new challenges. It’s just a matter of how you look at the landscape and what you can do, Burke said. It’s all a matter of perception.
Mount Moran via the CMC route, Mount Woodring, Rockchuck Peak, Mount St. John, Symmetry Spire, Ice Point, Storm Point
Teewinot via the East Face, Peak 11,840, Mount Owen via the Koven Route, Grand Teton via the North Ridge, Enclosure, Middle Teton via the North Ridge
South Teton, Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey Tower, Spalding Peak, Cloudveil Dome, Nez Perce via the Southwest Couloirs
Mount Wister via the East face, Peak 10,696, Buck Mountain via the East face, Static Peak, Albright Peak