JACKSON, WY— Of the countless feats Ryan Burke has accomplished in Wyoming’s mountains—including summiting the Grand Teton three times in one day—his most recent expedition filled him with the most doubt.
Burke and expedition partner Elise Sterck, otherwise known by her Instagram handle @RoundTheWorldGirl, recently completed a 50-peak traverse of the entire Wind River Range along the continental divide—the first such documented exploration of Jackson’s neighboring mountain range. They covered 144 miles with 126,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, in 15 days. Roughly 90 percent of those miles were completely off-trail, “which takes twice as long,” Burke said. They hiked. They scrambled. They climbed. They fell. For 144 miles, over 34-36 named peaks and14-15 unnamed ones.
Burke got the idea from fellow climber David Anderson, who tried to do a similar traverse last year with his wife Szu-ting Yi. Weather cut the couple’s attempt short, but the seed had been planted in Burke’s head. He asked if the couple would mind if he tried, too.
Everything about this traverse, from the terrain to the training to the logistical planning, was new to Burke. They had to plan for two caches of food, which would wait for them at various points along the way so they didn’t have to haul 15 days worth of food with them the whole time.
Also, Burke is typically a lone wolf. He’s not used to having a partner. He and Sterck proved to be reliable parters and got along great—they didn’t kill each other, or even yell at each other, Sterck joked—but being responsible for another life “takes a lot of mental energy,” Burke said. Still, it was one of his motivations for the expedition. He wanted to know what it truly felt like to go through something with someone else. And having a partner, he learned, is like having a safe home-base.
The two endured their fair share of physical hardships, too. Sterck became severely dehydrated on the second day, and they had to set up camp at 13,000 feet in wind so strong they couldn’t even set up a tent. Then a foot of snow fell on them. They considered bailing. But there wasn’t really an exit route. Burke took a lead fall—meaning, he was climbing first and placing safety gear—and bounced off of a ledge with probably 1,000 feet of exposed air below him. Sterck’s calf flared up for the last leg of the traverse, and she limped out for the last three days.
For Sterck, who grew up in Pinedale, the traverse began as “just a goal to have fun and see more of the Winds.” By the end, she just wanted to finish. To complete the goal.`
For Burke, as in all of his mountain objectives, the goals were far-reaching. Yes, he wanted to do something no one had done before. He also wanted to challenge doubt. Doubt is a “prerequisite for any accomplishment,” he said. And when life throws stress at you, “to thrown in a voluntary stressor creates the impression that you’re in control of your life.”
Maybe it’s just an illusion, Burke said, but maybe there’s real meaning in creating control in life “when life is pretty unpredictable.”
Burke’s time in the mountains is his way of practicing for the “big game”—or, real life. Burke is an addiction counselor. It’s his job to help people through challenges. To do it well, he said, he has to know what it feels like to overcome a challenge himself.
“You’re gonna gave to know what it means to go through a challenge. To want to stop and keep going. To have people say you can’t do something, and do it. It’s kind of my way of transplanting my world into their world.”
What’s next for these adventures? Nothing, in the near future. They’re only just beginning to introduce greens back into their diet after trying to gain back the six pounds each of them lost. They have big goals for next summer, both together and on their own, but right now, they’re happy resting, recovering, and reflecting.
“I’m so glad we did it,” Sterck said, then laughed. “I’ll never do it again.”