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“52/13” film documents a massive feat of mountaineering in the Elks

A skier climbs up a mountain slope covered in snow.
Luke Tornare
Courtesy of Michael Wirth
After summiting 59 peaks over 13,000 feet in just 61 days, adventurer and filmmaker Michael Wirth hopes to inspire others to explore the outdoors in new and unique ways. His new film “52/13” screens at The Arts Campus at Willits on Dec. 14.

In a footnote in “Into Thin Air,” author Jon Krakauer acknowledges that it may well be harder to climb the second-tallest mountains in the world than it is to climb the tallest ones.

“More than one critic of the seven summits concept has pointed out that a considerably more difficult challenge than ascending the highest peak on each continent would be to climb the second-highest peak on each continent, a couple of which happen to be very demanding climbs,” Krakauer writes in the account of a 1996 disaster on Mount Everest.

Roaring Fork Valley endurance athlete Michael Wirth knows the statement well. And he could probably say something similar about ski mountaineering in Colorado, given the feat he accomplished in the spring of 2021.

Last year, the 24-year-old who grew up in Glenwood Springs summited and skied down 52 named and unnamed peaks over 13,000 feet in the Elk Mountains and West Elk Mountains in just 60 days.

His new film “52/13” with Send It Productions documents the successful endeavor that Wirth said he pursued in part because he wanted to fully immerse himself in his home mountain range.

Wirth sought to explore the 13,000-foot summits he says are often overlooked as people turn toward the Elk’s more popular 14,000-foot peaks, though he climbed and skied down all seven of those, too, during the two-month project. (He sprinkled fourteener summits throughout the endeavor and completed the final two of those on day 61 of his mountaineering effort.)

“People know about the fourteeners. They love them, and I love them too,” Wirth said in a Zoom interview on Nov. 30. “But I think thirteeners get the short end of the stick because they're just a little bit shorter, but just as magnificent.”

Six first descents, hundreds of miles, more than 200,000 feet of vertical gain and 344 hours in ski boots later, Wirth hopes others will be inspired to explore their own backyards in new and different ways, too.

“There are just so many mountains out there, and so many beautiful public spaces that have been protected for us,” Wirth said. “And I just hope that people kind of take my journey that is portrayed in the film and try to do their own unique things.”

Wirth said he didn’t even know if the feat was possible when he began the project, because written reports about skiing thirteeners are limited compared to the Elk Range’s ever-popular fourteeners.

That could very well be part of the allure of the endeavor for Wirth, who said he strives for big objectives in ultrarunning and mountaineering for the simple love of a challenge and the opportunity to test the limits of possibility. The beauty of the mountains is certainly a factor too, he said.

“It felt like, instead of just following in the footsteps of someone else, I was kind of paving my own path a little bit, paying super close attention to the mountains, and respecting them as much as possible because of the fact that I was looking for new ways to enter into them,” Wirth said.

Wirth’s film screens Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. The Arts Campus at Willits, followed by a Q-and-A with Wirth and Aspen mountaineer and guide Neal Beidleman, who is known for surviving that Mt. Everest disaster recounted in “Into Thin Air.”

Beidleman said in a Zoom interview on Dec. 7 that he appreciates seeing the progression of ambitious outdoor adventures in a new generation.

“Everything builds on everything else,” Beidleman said, acknowledging the “magnitude” of recent achievements by Wirth and other young mountaineers.

“It was really cool to know that I was doing a few of those things earlier on when not too many people were thinking about them, and that they were worthwhile enough for people like Michael … to go out and repeat them and then build on them as well,” Beidleman said.

Wirth didn’t stop at the “52/13” endeavor. In the past year, he has run the fastest known time on the seven-summit Elks Traverse, skied 31 of the 50 classic ski descents in North America in a single season and set the 40-mile course record for the Telluride Mountain Run.

But for Wirth, it’s not the glory of the achievement that keeps driving him toward massive accomplishments in the outdoors.

“It all stemmed from a … gratitude for place, and just being thankful that I get to go adventure in these areas and just witness really amazing days or witness variations in weather,” Wirth said. “And I think just honing in on that gratitude and love for a place is something that I've realized is like a core value within myself, and really what keeps my gears turning.”

When audiences watch the film documenting his “52/13” project, Wirth is hoping people pick up on the sentiment from that Krakauer quote that he believes is in alignment with the spirit of exploration.

“Maybe not just looking at the highest thing, or the grandest thing that you can do, but looking at how you can find something unique for yourself, that means something to you,” Wirth said.

The screening tomorrow night starts at 7:30 p.m. As of Monday evening, tickets for the film were still available through TACAW.


Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.