A Philly cheesesteak, french fries and three orders of ice cream is probably not the recommended post-exercise meal. But after he had trekked 65 miles up and down 82,000 vertical feet along 22 Teton peaks, a hearty meal of grease and sugar was just what the doctor ordered for mountaineer Ryan Burke.
Burke’s journey took him from Mount Moran south to Albright Peak along the spine of the Tetons. He hit each of the 14 major peaks along the way in addition to eight subpeaks. And he did it in just four days.
“Someone had talked to me about doing the Grand Traverse, and that was kind of the first impetus,” Burke said. “Then I started looking around the range and being like, ‘How could I connect this dot to this dot?’”
The Grand Traverse, a 13.5-mile trip covering over 20,000 feet of elevation gain and loss that encompasses 10 of the range’s most iconic summits, is known as the pinnacle of mountaineering expeditions in the Tetons.
The traverse is something ambitious climbers do each summer. But Burke, 33, wanted to create a route that had never been done before.
The only help he had was from a friend who belayed him on the north ridge of the Grand. And another friend who motivated him to believe that anything is possible.
“I really wanted to do it in honor of my friend Jarad Spackman,” Burke said. “He died in the mountains two years ago and he really changed my perception of what was possible in the hills.”
Spackman, a world-class mountain athlete, died in an avalanche in the Tetons in March 2013. Burke wanted to honor his friend while pushing himself further than he ever had. He titled the trek “Perception Traverse” in honor of Spackman.
But for Burke, pushing himself harder and further than ever took as much creativity as it did physical and mental will.
He had been planning the endeavor for more than a year, spending many of his off days the last two summers scouting the traverse and collecting data.
He prepared both his body and mind by making up endurance missions off the top of his head. One day he’d climb both the Grand and Mount Moran back to back. Another day he’d complete one of the many mountain triathlons knows as “Picnics,” in which Burke holds many of the speed records. Another day he decided to climb the Grand, Snow King, Jackson Peak and Sleeping Indian, all before hopping in a raft and completing both the whitewater and scenic sections of the Snake River.
“I tried to basically pack two weeks of a Jackson vacation into one day,” Burke said. “Just doing a 36-hour mission like that kind of prepared me mentally to know that my body could keep going over long periods of time.”
In the early morning hours of Aug. 27, Burke climbed 12,605-foot Mount Moran during the first-ever attempt of Perception Traverse.
Day one sent Burke up and down seven peaks over a span of 30 miles and 20 hours. He had to touch the valley floor three times. He wouldn’t set foot below 6,800 feet again until he was clobbering ice cream cones at Dornan’s restaurant three days later.
“That was probably the hardest day,” he said.
His final summit of day one was Storm Point; day two began with Teewinot.
Burke was met on day two by friend Taylor Luneau, who helped him along the only roped portion of the climb. After completing the Cathedral Traverse, which encompasses the summits of Teewinot, Mount Owen and the north ridge of the Grand Teton, he made his way up the Middle Teton before heading down Garnet Canyon to grab food from one of his two cache points along the route.
The worst of the route was behind him, but Burke still had 11 peaks ahead of him.
Day three had him summiting the South Teton right out of bed and ending his day with Nez Perce.
Five more summits on day four, starting with Mount Whistler and finishing with Albright Peak, had Burke eating a well-deserved lunch at 3 p.m.
He averaged roughly four hours of sleep during his three nights. One night dealt him lightning, 60 mph wind gusts and rain that soaked his sleeping bag as he cramped underneath a boulder.
He said, though, even after 65 miles of climbing up and down granite, that physically he felt fine. The trip was more about the mental challenge than it ever was about his physical capabilities.
“I would say it was majority mental,” Burke said. “It’s all kind of thinking you can do it. With each peak I went across my perception of what is possible expanded. I hope it carries over to my everyday life.”