A Climber’s Cure for Addiction

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 Photographs by Andy Bardon


Ryan Burke emerges from his sleeping bag at 3 o’clock in the morning. After three days in Wyoming’s Teton Range, his limbs are brown with dust and marred with cuts and scrapes. He takes a few bites of a cold breakfast burrito and shoulders his pack, wincing as he picks up the 40-pound bag. “Oof,” he says. “It’s not light.” Though he’s slept only five hours, he seems energized. “Let’s do this,” he says, flicking on his headlamp to set off for the summit of 12,326-foot Teewinot Mountain.

It’s a Tuesday in late August, and Burke, who’s 34 and lives in nearby Jackson, has been climbing nearly nonstop for the past 72 hours. Teewinot will be the 18th ascent he’s made since Saturday. His goal is to climb to the top of the most prominent 50 peaks of the Teton Range — 102 miles and 112,000 feet of elevation gained and lost — in one contiguous push. It’s never been done, and Burke believes he can do it in seven days.

This is not Burke’s first feat. In 2012, he ran up and down the 13,775-foot Grand Teton in three hours and 35 minutes. (It takes most people two days.) The following year he set the record for the Picnic, an unofficial race made up of a 21-mile bike ride from Jackson to Jenny Lake, a 1.3-mile swim across the lake, then 10 miles of trail running to the top of Grand Teton — and then doing the whole course in reverse. He completed it in 11 hours and 30 minutes.

But this outing has been much more difficult. He began on the north end of the range, where the Tetons are thick with bushes and scree, loose rocks that slide beneath your feet.

“I’ve been falling five times a day he says. “I’d make it two feet up and then slide backward a foot.” On day two on Mount Moran, while unroped, he ripped a microwave-size boulder from an overhang 800 feet above the ground. He saved his life by latching on to another rock and holding on with just his fingertips. Smoke from forest fires 20 miles away is also causing Burke to cough up a “weird yellow mucus” each morning.

What makes Burke’s traverse seem even more improbable is that he’s not a professional mountaineer. During the week, he works as a drug and alcohol rehab counselor, trying to curb Jackson Hole’s growing opioid problem. The drugs have become a scourge just about everywhere in the country, but mountain towns like Jackson are uniquely affected. They’re home to oft-injured adventure athletes — skiers, climbers, and bikers — who tend to follow a similar pattern: They get hurt, have surgery, and are placed on prescription opioids; when those opioids run out, the athletes often turn to cheaper, more readily available heroin to scratch that itch.

“Adventure athletes are kind of always on a high,” says Burke. “So when they can’t jump off a cliff anymore to get that high, drugs are there to replace it.”

In 2014, local authorities reported a 30 percent increase in heroin-related seizures in Tahoe, Nevada; from 2013 to 2015, there were almost 40 deaths in Boulder, Colorado, due to heroin overdose. And in tiny Jackson, police report dozens of opioid-related incidents in the past year. This summer, Burke devised a long-term outpatient program, which he calls the Mind Strength Project, to help addicts by pairing intense exercise routines with cognitive challenges — say, tying a climber’s knot while holding your breath underwater. Burke hopes the program will “rewire drug addicts’ brains so that they’re producing a natural dopamine high.”

As we make our way up Teewinot, Burke shows no sign of fatigue. Last summer, two climbers fell to their deaths from here, but Burke strides like an Olympic speed walker. He’ll summit another six peaks today, including Grand Teton, which looms in front of him. After a final scramble to the pinpoint tip of Teewinot, I ask why he does it. “To test my limits,” he says. “To see what my potential is.”

Ryan Burke could easily have been a victim of the heroin epidemic. He grew up in Rumford, Maine, a working-class town whose primary industry — paper mills — shrouds the vicinity in a distinct odor. “It smells like shit,” Burke says. He lived with his single mother in a trailer park and spent most of his youth around family, some of whom suffered from drug and alcohol addictions. After high school, he took out a loan and enrolled at New York’s Hamilton College, where he says he was the biggest drinker in his class and saw a future in which things would get worse. “I was headed down a road of substance abuse,” he says. Instead, he turned to athletics.

When Burke graduated, in 2004, he helped start a nonprofit called Coast to Coast for Hope, which solicited money for cancer research. He raised $40,000 riding his bike across the country. He also fell in love with Jackson along the way. After the ride was over, he packed up his car and moved to the Tetons.

In 2007, he met Jarad Spackman, a Jackson native who was active in the climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry-skiing communities. Burke was anxious to learn how to do all these things. The two began spending several days a week together, and Spackman slowly taught Burke how to negotiate the mountains, encouraging him to try harder routes on climbing trips. On backcountry ski tours, Spackman would patiently wait for Burke to catch up. “Early on, he took me skiing on Teton Pass and I fell way behind,” Burke recalls. “He could’ve become irritated and never called me again, but he didn’t. He saw potential in me.”

For Burke, mountaineering was a healthy way to get his endorphin hit. And, eventually, he became good at it. “I don’t have an incredible VO2 max or anything,” he says. “But I don’t get tired.” After setting the record for the Picnic, the modified triathlon up Grand Teton, Burke played in a pickup soccer game later that day, and “that’s when I knew I hadn’t hit my limit,” he says. “I decided the only way to do that was to make up my own challenges.”

But in 2013, tragedy struck. While skiing in Grand Teton National Park, Spackman was killed in an avalanche. “It was the hardest thing that ever happened to me,” says Burke. He left Jackson for eight months, “to do some soul-searching” — and spent that time climbing mountains in Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and China. “Death makes you pretty introspective,” he says. “Athletic pursuits are often about you, and I wanted to do something that took some focus off me and put it on helping others.” Burke’s mother had been a drug counselor, and he appreciated the way she made people feel safe — no matter what they’d done in the past. It was similar to the way Spackman had made him feel in the mountains. “I decided I wanted to be a counselor,” he says.

When Burke began thinking about how he could help, he drew from his own experiences. He used the physical and mental stresses of climbing mountains — and the rush it induces — to stay off drugs. Perhaps he could devise a program that mimicked those highs, and help addicts kick their habit.

A few weeks before Burke set out on this Teton traverse, he was working with 12 of his patients at the Mountain Tactical Institute, a gym that trains pro athletes and loans him its facility. As the group ran between circuits of wall climbing, sandbag lifts, and shuttle runs, Burke challenged their mental fortitude by blowing whistles and throwing rubber balls at them. This is the testing ground for his vision. If it shows promise, the goal is it may serve as a model for other drug-ridden towns.

“I can’t say right now that this program is going to save the world,” says Trudy Funk, executive director at the Curran-Seeley Foundation, the drug and alcohol rehab clinic where Burke works. “But we’re hopeful that this helps teach them how to think clearly when faced with taking drugs. And we’ll continue to look into how well it might work to keep people off drugs.”

Danny is one of the first lab rats. Making his way up a wall climb, Danny looks down and shakes the pain out of one of his hands. “This is gonna kill me,” he says. Danny, an avid snowboarder, is 24 with short blond hair. He looks like an all-American kid — which he was. Then he broke his arm in eighth grade, was placed on opioids, and became addicted to heroin. Despite years of traditional therapy, he relapsed 10 months ago.

While Danny stands on a balance ball trying to find the differences between two pictures, I ask if he thought Burke’s unconventional therapy was working. “I think it’s exactly what I needed,” he says. “When I was active in my addiction, I avoided confrontation and problems. Now I’m able to face those things. I don’t feel scared anymore.”

On day seven of the traverse, I meet Burke at the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. He’s gaunt, having lost 10 pounds over the course of the week; his gray shorts are tattered; the rubber on the bottom of his shoes has almost completely worn off, and he’s developed a powerful stench. The past few days have been rough. He encountered a snowstorm on Static Peak and 65-mile-per-hour winds on the north face of the Grand, and he didn’t sleep one night because he was freezing. “Every step feels like I’m going up Everest,” he says as he shovels spoonfuls of  Nutella into his mouth.

But as we leave, Burke begins to jog, leaping over logs and boulders as though he’s just spent a restful night on his Sealy Posturepedic. The end is near, and thoughts of a warm shower and pizza bring a second wind. He’s also motivated by thinking about his patients. “You can see the look in their eyes in the gym, like they’ve accomplished something,” he says as he tiptoes over more scree. “Maybe this is something they can aspire to.”

Atop the knife-edge summit of Rendezvous Peak, Burke peers out and spots a few couloirs he likes to ski. “Jarad showed me all of this,” he says. “I wouldn’t be up here if it wasn’t for him.” I ask if this is it — has he found his limit? “I thought so,” he says. “But there’s still a sense of yearning.”

Seventeen miles and five peaks later, we approach the final summit, appropriately named Mount Glory. “Holy shit!” Burke shouts. He sprints to the top and spikes his pack like a football. “That’s a long fucking way.” He pulls a plastic baggie from his pocket and sits on a rock. The baggie contains ashes — Spackman’s ashes — and Burke has spread some of them on each of the peaks he’s summited. “I wanted to share the experience with him,” he says, “to show him what I’d become.”

He takes a handful from the bag, pushes a clenched fist into his lowered forehead, and whispers to himself. After a minute, he looks up and lets out a big sigh. Then he tosses the ashes into the wind.