Skip to main content
The official hub for news and stories from Colorado Mesa University
Ultra Positivity

CMU outdoor recreation student Carter Burnham gives back while pushing past his perceived limits

Mount Garfield, an icon of the Grand Valley, rises 2,000 feet from the valley floor and the standard route of ascent covers that elevation gain in only two miles. For years athletes have tested themselves on the trail and the fastest recorded ascents are currently held by Joseph DeMoor, 23 minutes and 50 seconds, and Kim Dobson, 27 minutes and 23 seconds. A new record was set earlier this year by Colorado Mesa University Outdoor Recreation Industry Studies student Carter Burnham when he completed 15 round-trip ascents in under 24 hours. 24-hour challenges have long been popular in the ultrarunning community, but this marks the first recorded 24-hour effort on Mount Garfield. This feat required Burnham to cover more than 50 miles and climb over 28,000 feet of elevation gain during his fastest known time (FKT). Up next? Burnham will be attempting his first 100-mile race, the Canyonlands 100 on Oct. 28. 

Burnham is quick to point out that he is not a runner. He will tell you that he isn’t really that fit. He just loves spending time in the mountains and trying to do things that at first glance appear impossible.

“I always get super nervous before starting something big. Like is this even possible? Is this really who I am? And then at the end of the journey you look back and it’s always like, I did that! And it’s such an incredible feeling to understand that as small of a person as you are, you were able to do something big for yourself,” said Burnham.

To understand how Burnham got to this point, where signing up for a 100-mile race feels perfectly poised on the edge of what he believes is possible, you have to travel back a few years to his struggles in high school and his introduction to mountaineering. 

“There is probably a version of me somewhere that never got into the mountains, never found how to have found joy in anything. I just would have continued going through life with a pretty crappy attitude and being sad all the time. When I found the mountains, I found so much more and I just became obsessed with going places I’d never been both physically and mentally — it’s just the most beautiful thing,” said Burnham.

Fly fishing, from an early age, has always been a favorite pastime for Burnham, and in eighth grade he met a friend while attending a Trout Unlimited summer camp during which he scaled his first 14,000 foot peak, his first ‘Fourteener’, in Colorado.

“It all started on Uncompaghre Peak, my first Fourteener, when I saw the sunrise. It was a life-changing experience. I mean it completely changed my entire outlook and after that hike I was like, I want to do this. I need to do this. My friend was starting to climb all 58 of the Fourteeners in Colorado and after that experience, this was all I wanted to do. Every weekend that I could, I’d go out and I’d climb one peak — and I wasn’t really fit for it, I wasn’t really fit at all,” said Burnham.

Burnham on the summit of Capitol Peak en route to climbing all of Colorado's Fourteeners.

Burnham went on to complete his quest to climb all 58 Fourteeners in two years and after that, he heard about the Highest 100 challenge of climbing all the 100 highest peaks in Colorado and immediately started to scale classic peaks like Vestal in the San Juans along with much more obscure peaks that eschew official names. He is currently working on climbing the Bicentennials, the 200 highest peaks in Colorado, but is in no rush to get through them.

Inspired by the freedom he found in the hills, Burnham started dreaming of climbing some of the biggest and most iconic peaks in the country. Denali, the highest summit in the United States was at the top of his list. He started running twice a week as part of a Denali training program, but the financial burden of putting together an expedition to Alaska kept him from making Denali a reality. At the same time, one of his friends mentioned that they were going to run the Dead Horse Ultra in Utah, and despite his distaste for running at the time, Burnham decided to sign up for the 50-mile race distance.

He found a basic training plan online, which culminated in a 31-mile training run, and for that session Burnham ran from his hometown of Palisade to Fruita, ending the day by eating copious amounts of pizza at the Hot Tomato.

During his first ultramarathon at the Dead Horse 50-mile, Burnham cruised through the first 35 miles and then hit a huge low patch. He explained that he felt like he was dying, but then pushed through and felt like he had gone somewhere else.

“I hit this place where I felt like I was just like not even here anymore, I felt like I'd gone somewhere else. Mentally, it's like I could still see what was in front of me, but somehow, I was like looking at the universe, I know it sounds ridiculous. It's just really beautiful what we can do with our minds. The distances that we can go and the things we can do that seem impossible,” said Burnham.

A few days after finishing his first ultra, as the memories of the pain and suffering began to fade, he heard about the Triple Crown that involves running three 50 milers in the span of only a couple of months on different courses in Utah. Hungry to continue transcending his own perceived limitations, Burnham signed up. When one of the races in the series was canceled, he decided to complete a solo 50-mile run from Palisade to the Utah state line and when the third race arrived, despite his intense fatigue, he courageously lined up and worked his way through the beautiful desert landscape one mile at a time to complete another ‘impossible’ objective.

While recovering during the spring, Burnham started thinking about what might be next. Having grown up in Palisade and training frequently on Mount Garfield as he was preparing for his Denali attempt, he started to narrow his focus on a 24-hour effort on the main Mount Garfield trail.

“I didn’t really feel like I had any business doing the Garfield FKT, but I didn’t feel like I had any business doing any of the other stuff I did before either, so it felt even better. I love being in that position, feeling like I don’t have any business doing something and then just going and doing exactly what I don’t think I can,” said Burnham.

Early on May 6, 2023, Burnham set out a plastic bin filled with gummy worms, some cookies and some water by the fence that marks the beginning of the trail and started his first ascent. He aimed to reach the summit within 40-50 minutes and would then jog down. He had never climbed Mount Garfield more than twice in a row before but had a goal of ‘Everesting’, climbing the equivalent elevation above sea level of Mount Everest (29,032 feet) and seeing how many times he could summit within 24 hours along the way.

Burnham completing another ascent of Mount Garfield during his 24-hour record.

“The worst part of it? I made myself run all the way back to the fence because I wanted it to be legit and then walking back towards Mount Garfield on the flat section, and looking up at it again…you just do not want to do it again,” said Burnham.

When he reached his ninth climb some friends came out to support and as the temperatures started to cool off at sunset, Burnham was joined by CMU Instructor of Outdoor Recreation Industry Studies Adam Bavier.

“The ninth and tenth climbs were the hardest, and then right before morning, I started hallucinating and all the little grass patches were crabs and crayfish. This was the first time I pulled an all-nighter during college. After I finished my 15th rep I wanted to keep going to meet my goal of Everesting, but it’s kind of like the mountain had chosen to only give me 24 hours because as soon as I started up again it started pouring, and you can’t do Garfield when it's muddy,” said Burnham.

To give back to the organization that played such a pivotal role in shaping the course of his life, Burnham set up an online fundraiser for Trout Unlimited, the group that first exposed him to the joys of mountaineering, and encouraged people to donate a few dollars for each lap he completed. In the end, he raised over $700 for the organization from friends, family and the community he is enmeshed in at CMU.

When thinking about where to go to college, Burnham explained that he did look at other schools but after taking a couple of classes as a concurrent student and learning about everything offered on campus, he saw no reason to leave the Grand Valley. Above all, he loves CMU’s proximity to world-class outdoor recreation, robust outdoor recreation programming and the welcoming faculty and classmates.

“I mean, basically every outdoor activity and every hobby that you could want to do is right here. We’re just a couple hours from the Mount Sneffels trailhead, so you can go climb a Fourteener or we’re just over an hour from Moab where you can go rock climbing and canyoneering. There’s whitewater here, mountain biking, trail running…there are endless opportunities for different things to do just within a few hours from here. CMU is the perfect place to do the things I love, and the faculty and other students are amazing,” explained Burnham.

Reflecting on his FKT a couple of months later, Burnham realizes that maybe doing 15 repeats on Mount Garfield is a questionable activity for a lot of people, but he isn’t doing this for the fame or the clout. For him, it’s about finding something that brings him joy and finding a community of support while doing it. To everyone reading this article and to everyone he encounters in the outdoors, he hopes that they can find something that is personally challenging to them, that spreads positivity throughout their own life and the lives of those they are surrounded by, and then go for it.

“Everybody can find something for themselves that’s going to be an incredible experience outdoors, and it doesn’t have to be expensive! That’s the message I want to spread in the outdoor world. Just go out and push your own limits in your own world. Find your own joy in it and enjoy living. Stop comparing yourself with everyone on Strava or whatever. I’m just out there, exercising, trying to stay fit, trying to stay healthy and that’s how you’re going to live a long, happy life — by being fit and staying healthy,” said Burnham.

To prepare for the Canyonlands 100, Burnham has increased his training load substantially and has incorporated attempts on some of the oldest and most notorious FKT routes in Colorado into his training. In the late summer, Burnham attempted Nolan’s 14 which involves climbing 14 Fourteeners in under 60 hours with extensive off-trail travel in the Sawatch mountain range as well as the rugged Mosquito-Tenmile Traverse outside of Breckenridge. Burnham did not complete either of the FKT routes but succeeded in exploring his limits while developing both his physical and mental fitness.

Photos and videos of inspiring mountain adventures can be found on Burnham’s Instagram and information and forthcoming results from the Canyonlands 100 can be found on UltraSignup.


Written by Giff Walters