“We need to conserve our playgrounds so that others can follow the footprints, and have their own experiences.”
In January 2023, Charli McKee quietly commenced a large-scale project: it is simply
called Every Summit. Her goal? Climb to the top of every summit in the backyard of Salt Lake City. There are 167 of them.
Via her Instagram, Charli said,
I have looked up at these mountains for years and found myself absolutely mesmerized by their grandiosity. They surround the city, practically on all sides, and boast a wealth of adventure for the mere cost of a short drive and a lot of effort on foot. I want to see what they look like, on the other side. I want to perfect a mental map of this playground and enrich the appreciation I have for the landscape closest to me.
Inspired by Ricky Gates’ Every Single Street project, Charli desired to get to know her home. In our interview, we discussed the beauty of the Wasatch Range, and its proximity to the urban area of Salt Lake City. For those who haven’t been to the Salt Lake valley, it is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. The accessibility to mountains from downtown is very unique — in most of the valley, you're just a few minutes’ drive from a trailhead.
Beyond the obvious joy of experiencing a bunch of mountains in a year, Charli was also motivated by a desire to be uncomfortable. She describes herself as a creature of habit. She typically, consistently, runs the same trails. This Every Summit project would promote exploration, and also being uncomfortable through the extended list of trails that she would inevitably rack up.
Similar to Kilian Jornet’s realization on Everest this year, Charli was motivated to
undertake a project in which she would minimize her footprint by way of world travel: Every Summit was born out of conservation. As opposed to chasing a world-wide race scene, Charli asked, “why not stay home, and explore my own backyard?” She desired to create a mental map of what her home is; she wanted to experience the local watershed physically, exploring what makes this land habitable.
Step one? Create a map.
Charli spoke (wryly) on the fact that there is no SLC map that displays all 167 peaks. She is working to create this.
Step two? Climb mountains.
In addition to trail running, Charli has done this in a variety of ways. In order to get all of the summits in, she was required to start during winter months. Her first chunk of summits were done with backcountry skis attached to her feet. A number of (melted and dried) peaks also required her to rock climb.
Speaking on the variety of output, Charli told me, “Backcountry skiing is great
cross-training. And it keeps you at altitude, so this year I hit the Spring more fit, and with a greater appreciation for what terrain I’m on. The disciplines filter into each other.”
In addition, she noted that while backcountry skiing, you’re always a visitor. “You have to pay attention, acutely, to what you’re doing. You have to read the mountains. It forces you to be aware, prepared, and also humble. You’re at the mercy of the mountain.”
Charli started running trails in the eastern United States. She attended high school in Jamestown, the first European settlement in the US. She told me that early land-grabbing across the northeast has had a large environmental impact. In comparison to the west, there is more private land, which minimizes public access. (It can, therefore, take hours of driving to get to mountains, simply due to getting around all of the privatized land.) As history moved forward from these developing settlements, there was little designation left for public land.
Charli first came to Utah in 2016, and instantly fell in love with the mountains of the
Wasatch Front. The freedom of space and land in these mountains was a sharp contrast to what she had known in the East. “People want to see, and connect to open space. It’s a beautiful feeling, being a small speck of dust in big, open land.”
This led us to discuss the gondola project in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The Department of Transportation wants to establish an eight-mile long gondola and toll stations in Little Cottonwood Canyon, one of Salt Lake's busiest outdoor destinations and home to Snowbird and Alta Resorts. The local constituency has largely opposed this massive project for a variety of reasons, but the scheme is still moving forward in spite of this local opposition. The complex battle has become very heated at times.
Charli views this gondola project as a detriment to accessibility, and thus to conservation. Oftentimes, as she leaves a trailhead, she sees families starting a hike up the trail. She posits that tolling could bar families, and also people of lower economic opportunity from access to these beautiful places. “When you add a toll, you’re decreasing accessibility. It’s a distinction on who’s allowed to access these spaces.” Once public land isn’t available to the full public, it clearly isn’t
public land. This removes the public’s ability to participate in conservation, because it removes them from the space. Thus this gondola example is applicable all over the world. “Accessibility adds diversity, improved public health, and directly augments conservation.” Regarding this gondola example, Charli advocates for attempting other avenues to alleviate the stress of cars on Little Cottonwood Canyon. “Let’s address public transit. How can we help the community develop a love for that?”
She posited the idea of public transit adding specific stops for backcountry ski spots. This is in direct opposition to the gondola, which would only stop at resorts.
Unfortunately UDOT hasn’t heeded the public’s opinion on the gondola. Feeling
helpless, Charli felt urgency to do Every Summit this year. She hopes to make her voice heard. She also wants to show what could be lost by barring mountain access. As of July 22nd, she has hit 112 summits in, and around Salt Lake.
So, while not everyone has the time, or ability to climb 167 named peaks in a year, all people have the ability to practice conservation. In asking what people can do on a regular basis, Charli said, “Vote! Pay attention to political candidates' track record regarding the environment. How do they use their influence? Where do they put their attention?” Furthermore, she recommended being a good steward. “Practice leave-no-trace.” She also recommended sharing mountain, and trail beta. “Share things! Encourage others to get into open space. Encourage them to see the things that you’ve experienced.” She thinks that the beauty around us is infectious, and that when people encounter it they’ll also be motivated by a passion for it. In addition, she noted that big companies can be our biggest ally, due to their bandwidth. It is important to be conscientious about where we put our money. She chuckled, saying, “As a measly shopper I can make a difference.”
Photos credit Rachel Ross
Reporting by Tyler Marshall