Always Connecting, Never Conquering: The Next Elite Mountain Athlete’s Rise to Fame

Ryan Kime | BackcountryBackcountry
capital massif
Another bluebird day in Michael Wirth’s “backyard” and a beautiful view of the Capitol-Snowmass Massif in Colorado’s Elk Range. pc: screenshot michaelcwirth

No Looking Back

Coming in waves, circling white sheets of snow whipped around him as he ceremoniously slowed to a stop halfway up the face of one of Colorado’s gnarliest 13,000 ft. peaks. Michael Wirth stops, not necessarily because he wants to, but rather because he has to. Storm conditions have worsened over the last few hours and now his right eyelid has frozen shut. No longer able to see and with his vision compromised, the situation demands an immediate solution if not at least a reassessment, neither of which he commits to. Instead, he readjusts his gloves, then takes another deep breath and focuses back on the climb ahead, following his well-thought-out plan. “Believe in the plan,” he says to himself, as once again he starts his march up the last half of this notoriously steep face.

How does it all turn out? That would be a great question for an ordinary person, doing ordinary activities in a safe manner. This particular situation, however, carries none of those characteristics. This isn’t a place where you just get off at the next rest stop. He’s alone, halfway up the face of one of the largest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, exposed to the elements in a blowing storm, with no immediate help of any kind. All he’s got is his wit, his wisdom, and a bevy of technical skills to help enact his plan.

Moments like these are not for the faint of heart. They are recipes for disaster. Ask any mountaineer. Occasionally, however, performing on the edge like this is necessary in order to accomplish such extraordinary feats. Thankfully, this is no ordinary person, but an elite superstar mountain athlete.

Superstar Mountain Athlete

Michael C. Wirth is a 24-year-old professional ski mountaineer, cinematographer, and mountain athlete living in Carbondale, Colorado. Basically, he spends his time perfecting his ability to travel quickly and efficiently in the mountains and then films it. He likes to connect with the mountains in ways others have not and finds happiness in what Wirth calls, “the focus and flow that comes from skiing steep alpine faces.” With a number of world-class accomplishments already under his belt, it’s possible he has already accumulated a career’s worth of work. But at the prime age of 24, let’s get serious…he’s only getting started.

Michael C. Wirth profile
Profile pic of the emerging superstar mountain athlete, Michael C. Wirth. pc: screenshot michaelcwirth

Achievements

52/13 Project

  • Skied 52 of the 13ers, and 7 of the 14ers, for a total of 59 peaks above 13,000 ft. in 61 days.
  • 525 miles traveled, 224,000 ft. vertical gain.
  • 6 First descents.
  • The first person to ski all of the 13,000-foot peaks in the Elks Range, Colorado [VIDEO].
  • Youngest person to solo ski the 3 most challenging 14ers in Colorado: Capitol Peak, North Maroon, and Pyramid Peak’s notorious Landry Line, all in one week.

Flow Like Water– (Film project where he highlights the importance of high alpine water reservoirs as he attempts to climb and ski all 31 classic lines in one season)

  • Skied all 31 classic lines in one season.
  • 2nd known descent of Comstock Couloir [VIDEO] on Mt. Dawson, Selkirk Mountains, BC.
  • Traveled 24.45 miles, 13,590 ft. ascent, 2,500 ft. couloir on 55-degree slope, time: 14 hours and 15 minutes.

Maroon Bell’s Traverse July 2022

Colorado Elk’s Traverse August 2022

Born To The Mountains

To put it simply, Michael Wirth lives and breathes with the mountains. Born in Aspen, Colorado Wirth started skiing at two years old. He quickly fell in love with the sport and like most budding stars, following a ski racing track with Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club (AVSC). Feeling confined and not always having fun, Wirth soon set out to develop his own style.

At age 14 a friend’s parents introduced him to the backcountry. Wirth was hooked immediately. Actually, it was more like the proverbial hook, line, and sinker as he jumped on any trip he could and adopted a year-round schedule of mountain activities easily adding in trail running, mountain biking, and climbing. Before long Wirth was off to college with a vast amount of backcountry experience and a great set of skills.

M. Wirth taking it one step
Wirth takes it one step at a time, somewhere deep in the rugged Rocky Mountains of Colorado. pc: michaelcwirth

College-Bound / Racing In Spain / Faces of Humanity

Academically oriented” as he modestly admits, Wirth graduated valedictorian and then attended Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. There he leveraged his aptitude for academics by studying behavioral economics and consulting. (A risk management type of training he would capitalize on later.)

Wirth spent his sophomore year abroad, after which he said he was never really the same. Having just bike raced across Spain, and traveled some 600 miles in a mere 7 days, Wirth said he felt inspired to keep going. “And with nowhere to go for another month,” he bought a cheap gravel bike and set out from the northernmost tip of Morocco eventually cycling to the southernmost town of M’humid. When I asked about how he succeeded, Wirth paused for a moment in reflection, and then gratefully replied,

At some point we may have lost touch with our humanity often because of our individual roles and hypercompetitive environments. Nevertheless, the beauty of humanity is that you can look at someone and see the kindness in their face and give it back. Sometimes all we had was a smile. But that was all that was needed.

Aspen Highlands, the mountain closed to my heart. A window from the Moroccan Sahara to its lush and generous High Atlas Mountains. Inked
Michael Wirth describes his tattoo (left to right), Aspen Highlands: the mountain closest to my heart, the lush and generous High Atlas Mountains, the Saharan desert. Island of the Gods, Bali, Indonesia.” pc: screenshot Instagram

Returning with a fresh perspective and also renovated van, Wirth lived on campus and continued to explore his freedoms, traveling, surfing, skiing, and biking in his free time. However, with COVID restrictions introducing a remote learning environment, Wirth completed his senior year back in Aspen. And it wasn’t long before Wirth reconnected with his beloved mountains, and found a source of deep inspiration and fulfillment. So, after graduation and despite working a short stint at a consulting job, a series of events landed Wirth back in his hometown of Aspen, now rested, rejuvenated, and motivated to explore.

Breaking Trail

Wasting no time, Wirth dreamed up his new project. Something he said he could “really sink his teeth into …and cut his own tracks” he explained. Yet in actuality, Wirth stumbled onto the project saying the idea only came to him after thinking about how so many climbers talked about Colorado’s 14ers but never really mentioned Colorado’s 13ers, which in his opinion were equally challenging. Wirth shared his vision with friends and others around town. Some of those who listened called him “crazy.” Others told him, “You haven’t thought about this enough…” While still others said, “You’ll never make it,” according to Wirth. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. They obviously didn’t know Michael Wirth.

In fact, he had done extensive preparations. And from March 28, 2021, through May 28, 2021, Wirth accomplished what most ordinary folks might consider impossible. He climbed and skied all 59 peaks above 13,000 ft. in the Elk Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. And he did it in only 61 days.

52/13 was a fast project that never seemed to let up. The schedule began at 2 am skinning and climbing in the dark for several hours before summiting around 8 or 9, then timing the descent and typically arriving in town by noon. Rinse. Repeat. For two months straight.

Skiing Terminal Cancer with frineds
Wirth dropped the terrifying Terminal Cancer line with friends in Spring Creek, Nevada. pc: Instagram

Without the essential help from @zipfit, @lebent, @strafeouterwear, @expedint, and @pomocaskins the project may not have gotten off the ground. Nonetheless, Wirth attributes much of his success to being mindful of his gains, an idea he calls “incrementalism.”  It’s a growth mindset where he incrementally challenges his skills and his body to respond in the mountains. On his Instagram account, he explains further,

… incrementalism. That is, incrementally increasing the difficulty of the mountains I climbed. Also, incrementally increasing the harsh weather conditions I exposed my body to throughout the winter before I began this project. That paid off. It might sound crazy, but you can train yourself to be sitting on top of a death defying cliff in the middle of a blizzard where your only thought is, “I know exactly where I am, I know exactly where I need to go, and I’m freaking stoked to get these fresh turns.”

Momentum Flows Like Water

If incrementalism helped him succeed in the Elks, then it’s also what would also help him succeed in his next project to climb and ski 31 of the classic 50 lines in North America. Wirth paired up with director Owen Dubeck and Send IT productions for this creative project in his broader attempt “to help intimately witness and share what is happening to our winters in the U.S. across a variety of landscapes.”

Wirth admits: he was motivated in part by a fear of the last descent of these classic lines as snow packs are changing. His aim is for a deeper understanding of these high alpine environments and the importance they serve as a critical reservoir for sustaining all life downstream. It’s why’s he also joined the team at @protect our winters (POW) as part of their Athletic Alliance.

Finding the focus and flow of skiing steep alpine faces, Michael Wirth gets after it
Finding his “focus and flow while skiing steep alpine faces”, Michael Wirth gets after it in the backcountry of the Elk Mountain Range, Colorado. pc Instagram

Comstock Challenge

One of the highlights involved skiing the Comstock Couloir [VIDEO], something that hasn’t been done in more than 14 years. With 2,500 ft. of descent on a 55-degree slope, it’s not surprising why. After completing Comstock Wirth discussed his experience with legendary ski mountaineer Cody Townsend about a risk management concept called “normalization of deviance.” This refers to how the brain rewires itself to hold a bias towards normalizing high-risk activities. It’s something both Townsend and Wirth are keenly aware of, and for Wirth at least, his best remedy lies in proper recovery, that is time to chill out, rest, and take a break from the hyper-focus necessary for these big projects.

Future Plans

When asked about his future, he pauses and then smiles with both contentment and excitement, before describing plans to release his 52/13 Project early this winter followed by Flow Like Water in winter 2023 on a film festival circuit. After some encouragement, Wirth finally shares he’s also expecting to do a six-week “expedition” next season. He’s hush about details, but he says it’s in areas that he can “fully immerse himself” and “find new lines to climb and ski.”

Collecting beta deep in the North Cascade Mountain Range
Wirth scoping and collecting beta while exploring deep in the North Cascade Mountain Range. pc Instagram

Backcountry Preparation

What does it take for Michael Wirth to climb and ski these big mountain classic lines? When asked about it he said it basically comes down to four variables; weather forecasting, mapping, avalanche risk, and timing. Wirth explained that in the weeks and days ahead of his attempt he closely follows Mountain Forecast because of its detailed reports. He also uses Meteoblue to fine-tune his weather forecast, especially when it comes to deciphering cloud coverages. NOAA is another reliable source he uses on a regular basis.

Wirth also takes considerable time mapping and planning his routes. He doesn’t feel comfortable using a GPS that he used to wear on his wristwatch. Instead, he likes to visualize the route after having done his own extensive preparation. FATMAP helps him with satellite images and overlays that can determine distances, gradients, and aspects. He cross-references this with Google Earth to help him evaluate seracs, glaciers, and estimations of crevasses.

His avalanche strategy is both an art and a science as Wirth expresses his deepest respect for the mountains cautioning, “The mountains are forgiving until they are not.” For a big mountain line, he says he closely follows trends, then gauges stability from direct surface observations. He also digs pits and examines snow crystals, if necessary.

Timing is key to skiing safely in the backcountry, according to Wirth.  And there have been more than several occasions where he heard slides rip, sometimes as close as 200 yards, yet because he is on a different face, he still feels confident, or at least as much as you can in that situation. His rough estimates for drop times:

  • East facing at 8 am or 9 am.
  • South facing near 10 am.
  • West facing from noon to 2 pm, depending on cloud coverages.
  • North facing anytime as less likely to wet slide. More consideration for persistent slabs.

Wirth’s Strategies for Fitness & Recovery

How does Michael Wirth stay in shape? It’s a year-round lifestyle these days and something he fully embraces. In the off-season, he works out daily trail running (thanks to @lekiusa) and also incorporates routine core and weight sessions. When he wants to up the volume, he adds two-a-day or three-a-day workouts with biking or climbing to meet his goals.

Trail running
Trail running at its finest in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, California. pc Instagram

During the season, he incrementally challenges himself as he works his way back into shape. He says there’s really no replacement for climbing and skiing in the backcountry. His nutrition centers around a vegetarian diet mostly with some occasional free-range grass-fed meats. While running he’ll use @ Skratch fuel, and for the backcountry, he prefers snacks with favorites being sardines (fat fuel), homemade granola, and rice cakes.

Recovery is vital to his routine and it is something he takes very seriously. In addition to wearing CBD-infused kinesiology tape from @summforte, he also swears by Skratch recovery drink with its 3:1 carb: protein ratio that he proportions to his efforts. Michael emphasizes rest, sleep, and cold water immersions (in spring and summer only), and has also endorsed acupuncture as well.

Regardless of how much attention he puts into his recovery there always seems to be room for an adult beverage after tackling a big mountain classic. Wirth’s preference in this celebratory situation falls beneath a glass of Port Cask Whiskey from @breckdistillery, or more recently, a RoadHouse IPA from Roadhouse Brewing Company in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Here’s to you Mr. Wirth, and a job well done!

ski backcountry elk's
Wirth peaking out in the Elk Mountain Range, Colorado. pc Instagram

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3 thoughts on “Always Connecting, Never Conquering: The Next Elite Mountain Athlete’s Rise to Fame

  1. Jeez, this is embarrassing for any ‘everyone gets a trophy, mommy says I’m best’ self-indulgent millennial. Let’s bow down to mr. Self promoting project man who’s only been driving for less than a decade, take some self promoting techniques from davenspore? I can’t stop laughing.

  2. Lol sounds like this guy wrote an article about himself. Or maybe his mom did? His dad commissioned it?

  3. What’s inspiring about a rich kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth who has never worked a day in his life; sounds like another zoomer loser who spends more money on tattoos than investing.

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