We’re down the last bit of summer 2017, and mountaineer Ryan Burke is making it count. The Jackson, Wyoming, addiction counselor went farther in one day than most people do in a season, lapping the 13,776-foot summit of the Grand Teton three times in 24 hours. It’s a record-setting achievement, but for Burke the personal aspects mean more. “Perceptual barriers are a huge thing to overcome, bigger than any mountain,” he says. “The people I work with every day have a huge influence on me when I’m in the mountains. If they can get through the everyday challenges of addiction then I know I can get through this day. That kind of inspiration gets rid of any hollow excuses not to try.”
This wasn’t the first time Burke attempted to run the Grand Teton three times in one day. He'd set out to complete his "Teton Trilogy" nearly three weeks prior to the successful August 4 attempt, but he turned around due to iffy-looking weather — a common and potentially deadly occurrence in the Tetons. He spent 21 hours on the route, and had to swallow his pride long enough to try again another day. But that failure, and the collective 15 years’ worth of adventures he’s had in this mountain range, allowed Burke the physical experience and mental prep he needed in order to complete his self-imposed challenges.
“This was a progression,” he says. “It took 21 hours on the first attempt and I got within 300 feet of the summit on the last lap but had to call it. That’s the perfect representation of how I’ve learned to move through these mountains. When I moved here I looked at the Grand and said to myself, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever climb that.’ It’s about getting stronger and learning in small chunks. The way I see it, this was a 15-year project.”
But when it came down to the day of reckoning, 15 years was boiled down into 17 demanding hours. The out-and-back Owen Spalding summit route of the Grand Teton measures just over miles 15 miles and boasts 7,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. The route is rated a Class 5 climb, the most technical and difficult, and requires climbers to take on a 5.4 ranked scramble. It’s a climb reserved for those with expert experience in the mountains. With his “Teton Trilogy,” Burke plowed through 42 miles and 21,000 feet of gain in between breakfast and dinner.
According to Burke, the kindness of others along the route, inspiration from his friends and clients, and a lot of Snickers bars are what gave him the power to keep moving through the miles of technical terrain. “I ate a lot of Snickers bars and then ate more Snickers bars to get through this one,” he laughs. “But I also ran into a ton of strangers along the route who would see me going up and down and cheer me on. One climber spoke of coming back for another attempt after being turned around the year before. Another offered me his last piece of chocolate as he expressed self-doubt in achieving his goals. I could feel their stories intermingling with mine. My goal then seemed to matter, not just to me, but to others as well.”
This motivation is what kept Burke going during his solo sufferfest as it got increasingly more painful and laborious with each lap. And it was the laps—not the scree fields, scrambles, and steep descents—that proved to be the biggest obstacle. “When you’re lapping something you have the opportunity to stop,” he explains. “After you ‘finish’ you have to convince yourself to get up and keep going. It’s mental torture to have to turn around twice at the car and convince yourself that ‘I can keep going, even when I have an out.’ Lapping digs deeper into not taking the easy road.”
That mental tenacity and motivation to keep going is perhaps the most impressive part of Burke’s record-setting run. He completed self-imposed challenge alone, with no official timer, sponsor, or person telling him to keep going and no official recognition, podium, or medal if he did it. That leaves one glaring question about the Teton Trilogy: Why even try it to begin with?
“On the surface, if I was asked the night before why I wanted to run up and down the Grand three times, I would have responded that I had the day off and didn’t have anything better to do,” burke says. “What got me out of bed before sunrise, however, was the memory of my dad’s voice reminding me to explore the boundaries of my potential. Completing my Teton Trilogy and always pushing myself in these mountains makes me a higher quality therapy and higher quality human. That’s worth the tough parts.”