It started as just another training run — a way to push their bodies and to pack in more elevation gain than any single local mountain could produce. It was a grind, as all runners know hill repeats can be. But this wasn’t just a hill. And this wasn’t just any run.
In July a three-person team completed two car-to-car summit bids of the 13,775-foot Grand Teton in a single day. It is believed to be the first such feat.
Then, just two weeks later, a solo runner finished three laps in one day.
Each trip from the parking lot to the summit of the Grand and back is about 15 miles and includes about 7,400 vertical feet of elevation. There are no official records for feats like multiple ascents in a day, but these are believed to be the first on the Grand.
“I like to think of this as more of a benchmark in time that just suggests one piece of progression in what we do in the Tetons,” said Jake Urban a member of the three-person party.
Urban hatched the double-summit plan with Meredith June Edwards. Edwards is training for UTMB, an elite trail race around Mont Blanc that covers 105 miles and 33,000 vertical feet. A double Grand seemed like good preparation, and a nice change of pace. And Edwards is used to the mental stamina needed for running mountain laps. She once netted 17,000-vertical feet by climbing up and down Snow King Mountain in Jackson almost 12 times in a day.
Urban, an experienced climber who has summited the Grand more than 50 times, brought the technical skills to lead her and ultra-runner Jason Schlarb unroped through exposed sections of the Owen-Spalding route.
Everyone was capable of the mileage and the technical parts of the climb.
They left the trailhead at 5:45 a.m. on July 21. They carried extra clothes, helmets, water and energy gels. They ran most of the trail to about 9,000 feet. Then it was power-hiking as fast as they could move. When they hit the technical terrain they slowed to methodical, calculated movement.
They arrived back at the car after six hours and 55 minutes. The group spent about 25 minutes in the parking lot, eating watermelon and potato chips and changing clothes.
They weren’t really out to set a record, but the significance of doing something for the first time didn’t escape them.
“It was a little bit of an electric mixer to the brain when we left for that second lap,” Urban said. “Every step, it’s like ‘nobody’s ever done this before.’”
They were the only people on the mountain when they reached the summit the second time.
Schlarb had only been climbing a few times before that day, and had never climbed the Grand. Urban isn’t an elite runner like Schlarb and Edwards. It was the perfect group because they each brought different strengths.
“Everyone got to do something that day they didn’t know they could do, and we all did something together we couldn’t have done on our own,” Urban said.
Even as they finished the second lap in eight hours and 38 minutes, Urban knew someone else would come along and do it faster, or add his or her own twist. But holding a record wasn’t the point. It was about celebrating the mountains and seeing what they could do.
Which is good, because on Aug. 4, Ryan Burke ran the Grand Teton three times in a day. He wasn’t trying to beat the two-lap record, he said. He’d planned his triple ascent before learning of Edwards, Urban and Schlarb’s double, but had been thwarted by weather.
Burke climbed the Grand for the first time 10 years ago. It took him 21 hours. His rain jacket ripped. His rope knotted. He didn’t know exactly where to go.
“It was just a shit show,” he said.
He’s likely climbed the peak an estimated 40 times since and created personal challenges like traversing the entire range, and summiting 24 peaks in four days.
He does it to test himself mentally as much as physically.
Burke teaches mindfulness and meditation as an addiction counselor and he sees a connection between substance addiction and endurance endeavors.
“It’s a useless endeavor,” he said of climbing the Grand three times in a day, “but I find it a useful life tool.”
The hardest part of lapping something is forcing yourself to continue when you reach the bottom where you see an easy exit. It is a hard, but deliberate choice to continue, he said.
Burke left the trailhead at 4:30 a.m. and was back in four hours 22 minutes. He, too, ran most of the lower trail and soloed the Owen-Spalding route.
He stayed at the trailhead only about 10 minutes. He knew the longer he stayed, the less likely he’d be to leave.
His internal struggle began with the second lap. His brain knew his body had never climbed the Grand multiple times in a day and each step it seemed to ask why he was continuing. Burke worried about his will to return when he reached the summit the second time.
He saw a small scrap of trash, a wrapper from an energy chew. Instead of pocketing it like he normally would, he left it. Leaving litter, he knew would bother him enough to make him return to collect it.
He finished the second lap in six hours and 25 minutes and the third in seven hours 22 minutes.
Burke is drawn to these challenges because they enable him to help others. He recently supported a man with one arm who completed the Picnic, an unofficial Teton triathlon where people bike from Jackson to Grand Teton National Park, swim across Jenny Lake, summit the Grand and then complete the course in reverse.
But Burke also likes doing something others haven’t yet done.
“I want to add to the conversation,” he said. “I think it’s an insult to the people who came before me to not take it a little farther.”
Burke is likely already on his next adventure, a South-to-North speed traverse of the Wind River Mountains.
Urban, like Burke, says he trains for life. He wants to be able to move quickly and confidently across all types of terrain and have the stamina to be an effective member of Teton County Search and Rescue.
Urban returned to the top of the Grand two weeks after his double ascent, but he has no desire to attempt a double again. He now knows what his body can handle. Now he wants to attempt another objective like running from Flagg Ranch to Teton Pass in two days.
Edwards will race September 1 in the UTMB, the “Superbowl” of endurance trail running, she said.
Her goal is to finish in fewer than 28 hours and make the top 10.
As for the Grand Teton, she’ll likely lap it again.
“Well Ryan Burke went out and did three,” she said, “so probably next year I’ll shoot for three.”
In affiliation with Wyofile. Photos by Jake Urban (2), Ryan Burke