LOCAL VIRTUE: Mettle and Modesty

By on August 9, 2017

A local alpinist sets a Grand record but insists other victors are worthier of the spotlight.

Ryan Burke on the summit of the Grand Teton during lap No. 2.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – To climb the 13,775-foot Grand Teton—Jackson Hole’s crown jewel—is counted among the greatest honors in a valley whose lifeblood is derived from the mountains. Rising from fields of silver-green sagebrush, the Grand and its jagged counterparts draw millions of visitors to Jackson Hole each year, etching a landscape into the minds of visitors and those who never leave. It’s a scene that morphs and sharpens depending on your position—at the base of the mountains, in the foothills, or standing on the summit, where one man recently set a herculean record.

Ryan Burke climbed and descended the Grand Teton three times in less than 18 hours—the time it typically takes one to ascend and descend the peak once. Indeed, the first time he climbed the Grand in 2007 it was a 21-hour endeavor. But what is most noteworthy about Burke’s conquest is not his progress as an endurance athlete. Instead it is how he digests major feats and how the lessons he gleans in the mountains cascade into other people’s lives.

The 35-year-old mountaineer, addictions counselor and PJH scribe ticked off what he has coined the “Teton Trilogy” on August 4. He wasn’t the only one, though, itching to lap the Grand. His victory came only two weeks after a trio of climbers set a record for climbing and descending the same peak twice in one day. Endurance athletes Meredith Edwards and Jason Schlarb and mountaineer Jake Urban climbed the Grand two times in 16 hours. Afterward, the alpinists told one media outlet they wouldn’t be surprised if someone bested them this summer. After all, Jackson Hole athletes are an insatiable breed.

But for Burke, outshining the trio wasn’t a part of the blueprint. He first attempted the Teton Trilogy about a month before the crew set its record and was forced to turn around due to weather. But after the trio’s triumph, he was “certainly inspired by them.”

“They created this cool path and I wanted to follow it … now I hope someone does it four times, and faster than me,” he said.

When asked how he prepares for a 42-mile mission clocking 21,000 feet of vertical gain, Burke said he summons “mind strength.” This happens to be the name of a program he launched in the valley that helps people overcome addiction. Pushing themselves mentally and physically in the mountains, his clients rock climb blindfolded, solve complicated logic problems while their heartrate is racing and hold their breaths under icy waters in high altitude lakes. The idea, Burke explained during a recent CBS interview, is to prepare folks to respond to high risk situations, whether in the mountains or at a party, with prudence.

Indeed, discussing Burke’s myriad mountain accomplishments—he has traversed all 50 Teton peaks in one outing, completed several Teton triathlons and ran up and down the Grand in three hours and 35 minutes—the conversation ultimately shifts back to his clients and his work as an addictions counselor. It is a career path he carved after watching his mother’s work in the same field. He was stunned at “the respect and awe” people had for her and the support she provided her clients, people whose trials and tribulations are often overlooked by society.

“Survivors of addiction are incredible people and overcoming addiction is harder than climbing the Grand three times or climbing Everest,” Burke told PJH. “I think it’s important to recognize these valuable members of the community.”

As someone who once teetered on the edge of alcohol addiction until he found an outlet in the mountains, Burke draws from his experiences and the adversity he faces today as an alpinist to help his clients. “A large part of what I do is listen to people discuss overcoming challenges,” he said. “I don’t have those hardships in my life today, but I think the human species wants to find things to overcome and this allows me to relate to my clients—to call upon the mental fortitude. Climbing has become a conduit for me to connect with them.”

On Saturday, Burke said he will attempt something that far surpasses anything he’s accomplished in the mountains to date. As a volunteer for the nonprofit Teton Adaptive Sports, which helps folks with disabilities chase physical pursuits, he is accompanying athlete Lucus Oran, who has one functional arm, on the Grand Teton Triathlon (the so-called “Picnic”). It involves biking from the town of Jackson to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park (20.5 miles), a swim across the lake, a climb up the Grand Teton, then all of it in reverse.

“Lucus approached me and I was amazed at his confidence,” Burke said. “He said, ‘I want to do this and you can help me or I will figure out how to do it on my own.’”

While Burke is inspired by the tenacity of many Jackson athletes, he said it’s people like Oran who offer him perspective. “To see someone who overcomes daily challenges—I think that’s something that should receive more attention than anything I’ve done.” PJH

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole Weekly and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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