There are peakbaggers, and then there are John and Alyson Kirk. While some of the couple’s achievements are more obscure, like their shared record of 2,204 consecutive days of summiting a peak every single day, others resonate on a global scale: John’s record for most summit ascents ever (11,142 as of June 2019), for example.
Last November, the pair became the youngest by nearly a decade (John was 42 and Alyson 35) to check off every Colorado peak above 11,000 feet. That’s 53 14ers, 584 13ers, 676 12ers, and 468 11ers, and they’re just getting started. If all goes according to plan, this November, the Kirks will become the second and third people ever to summit all 530 of Colorado’s 10,000-foot peaks. John started climbing a few years before Alyson, so he has 43 more 10ers to go, while Alyson has 52.
Since John works a full-time desk job at a titanium supplier and Alyson founded an auto-cleaning business, for the most part the two can only summit new peaks during weekends in their home state of Colorado. But these aren’t your average weekend warriors. A good weather window means seven to ten new peaks every week for the couple. John keeps tabs on their adventures on his mountaineering stats website, ListsOfJohn.com.
“When we get on the summit, and the sun’s shining, and it’s crystal-clear blue skies, and all the granite peaks surrounding you… it’s what keeps my heart beating and makes me feel more alive than I could ever hope for,” Alyson says.
Of course, the adventure won’t stop in November. Once the Colorado 10ers are complete, the couple will turn their focus to their ultimate ten-year plan: the Kirk Project.
The Kirk Project is the couple’s moniker for their decade-long mission to summit all of the 12,000-foot and above peaks in the lower 48. If completed, the two will be the first ever to finish this gargantuan quest. The Kirks’ current out-of-state pace is 70 peaks per year; they plan to finish Arizona and most of Utah by the end of 2019.
The couple’s obsession with peakbagging began long before they ever met. John was a casual hiker throughout high school and college and didn’t get serious about mountains until summiting Colorado’s Blanca Peak (14,344 feet) in his twenties. Alyson, a marathon runner, didn’t know what a 14er was until she bagged Mount Massive (14,429 feet) with a friend in 2003. She was an instant convert.
Though their growing list of records may beg to differ, for the Kirks, mountain climbing isn’t just about racking up numbers, it’s practice in overcoming obstacles.
In February 2010, a year before meeting John, Alyson fell on Colorado’s Rosalie Peak, slamming into talus and shattering her femur after skidding hundreds of feet down steep snow. “I’d heard that freezing and bleeding to death were the easiest ways to die. There would be numbness, and a person would simply fall asleep,” Alyson explains in her 2018 book about the incident, On My Way Up. “Whoever said that never lay on a snow-covered mountain freezing and bleeding to death.”
Gripped with pain as a storm narrowed in, Alyson and her hiking partner, Prakash Manley, called for help via a weak cellphone signal as dark clouds swirled overhead. After giving GPS coordinates to the 911 dispatcher, a flight-for-life helicopter finally landed nearby, and the crew ran toward her mangled body as the temperature began to plummet. The quickly worsening storm forced the rescuers to leave. That was when Alyson realized the gravity of the situation. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have to be dragged down this mountain on a litter with no pain medication if I want to live,’” she says.
Seven hours later, a search and rescue ground team, set off by Manley’s 911 call, located them in a whiteout blizzard. “Mountains almost took my life, but they also saved my life,” Alyson says. “It took almost dying for me to commit to myself to live authentically, no matter how hard that was going to be.”
Before they met, John and Alyson found themselves in failing marriages. They both struggled with alcoholism and experimented with drugs. Climbing gave John and Alyson something healthy to fixate on, and when the pair connected on a group hike in 2011, Alyson knew it was finally time for her to get a divorce. “John and I enjoyed living on the edge. I loved mountains because they gave me an opportunity to massage my extreme personality, and John felt the same way,” Alyson says.
While getting engaged in Arches National Park and tying the knot atop 13,767-foot Ulysses S. Grant Peak in Colorado might sound like something straight out of a fairy tale, there are conflicts when your romantic partner doubles as your mountaineering partner. “When expeditions get challenging,” John says, “It’s all too easy, at least for me, to view things as an individual endeavor that we’re both participating in. This is okay to a point, but it’s important to reframe it as a joint endeavor, especially when the going gets tough.”
When you’re a weekend warrior who works a full-time day job and routinely sprints off to the mountains to summit new peaks when you’re done at the office, the going gets tough on a regular basis. In a mad dash to complete all of Colorado’s 12ers and above in 2017, the pair, caught in a downpour with terrible visibility, roped up on a harrowing scramble up Jagged Mountain. The steep granite was “slicker than two eels in a bucket of snot,” John says. They bagged the peak, hiked back to their 4Runner, and climbed five more 13ers to finish off the weekend before completing the seven-hour drive home.
Despite the storms life has dealt them, the Kirks keep pushing. “I almost died in a mountain climbing accident, and it took something that monumental to make me change my life,” Alyson says. “I hope the Kirk Project will inspire others to find their authentic self [and remind them that] our past doesn’t define our future.”