How does it feel summiting Colorado’s 1,781 peaks above 11,000 feet?
“Disappointing,” Alyson Kirk said. “I like working on the goal. I don’t like the finished product. There’s less new stuff in the state now.”
“Yeah, the higher the better,” added her husband, John, who along with Alyson last weekend trudged through knee-high snow to reach the final, 468th “11er” on their radar. Last year, with all 637 points above 13,000 feet secured, they checked off the last of their 676 “12ers.” That was still at the altitude they prefer.
Any lower, and it gets to be “more bushwhacking, less views,” said John, the creator of listofjohn.com, the detailed catalog of mountain information in Colorado and beyond. “In a way, it gets to be scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
But the Morrison couple was all smiles Sunday atop an unnamed peak on the Grand Mesa, where they claimed becoming the third and fourth people to complete the 1,781-peak list. That is a list defined by summits with 300 feet of prominence, a widely accepted standard among alpinists.
Making the Kirks’ conquest all the more staggering is the short time they took to accomplish it. She is 35, he 42, and it was less than 10 years ago when they started mountaineering together.
Alyson got hooked on fourteeners and soon after, in 2011, met John, whom she found to be an encyclopedia of mountain knowledge. The two connected on a deeper level, both having turned to the wilds in an escape from addiction.
“This is our addictive personality trying to put it into something healthier than drugs and alcohol,” Alyson told The Gazette in the summer, amid her dominant ultrarunning career. (Her latest victory came last month at Virginia’s Cloudsplitter.)
Ever since their first encounter in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, the Kirks have taken the term “weekend warrior” to another level. Soon after John finishes work as a financial manager on Friday evenings, the two take off in their Toyota 4Runner — they’ve burned through multiple 4Runners while racking up an estimated 50,000 miles a year on the road.
They have slept little on weekends, backpacking their way through forests and fields of rock and snow, following planned courses that net them multiple summits in two- or three-day spans, granting them access to heaven and hell on Earth, as they like to say.
But as they’ve also learned: “It’s way better to suffer with somebody else than to suffer alone,” Alyson said.
Last month, they spent a short weekend snowshoeing about 40 miles to tag six 11,000-foot peaks. They were set on finishing their mission before winter took hold, explaining why they embarked to the Western Slope last weekend despite the unfavorable forecast.
After the last “11er,” snow still blowing, they traversed to the top of Priest Mountain at 10,991 feet — coincidentally the 1,800th on their checklist of the state’s highest summits.
“This is really kind of a sunset for our peak bagging in Colorado,” John said.
Now, the Kirks have bigger and bolder plans.
In what they’re calling the Kirk Project, the two will set out to be the first to summit the 2,122 mountains above 12,000 feet in the contiguous U.S.
They estimate they’re 67 percent complete, with lots to do in California. They expect that state’s technically demanding Palisades and jagged Minarets to be most trying. Also daunting is Wyoming’s Wind River Range, the sheer terrain combined with the threat of grizzly bears in the Absarokas.
“My No. 1 goal is for people to know me and John’s history and to kind of relate to it, and know that your path does not define who you can be in the future, and any goal is achievable, no matter how big it is,” Alyson said. “We don’t know how feasible this goal is, if it’s even possible, but we won’t know if we don’t try.”