At 13,710′ at 4:41AM and groping for any landmark within a 20′ margin of visibility, moments passed frantically like the winds that whipped me and my friend Kendrick Callaway from side to side. I had been moving for almost 24 hours straight at that point and had just an hour earlier collected a fifth 14,000’+ summit on an obscure mountain path in central Colorado known as Nolan’s 14. Around noon that day a cloud layer settled at 13,000′ and began dumping rain before enveloping the next three summits in a row that I would visit (the last two in the total darkness of night). It was at that moment, 4:41AM, that a small clearing in the clouds revealed a flat basin to the South where two pond-sized lakes shimmered through a muted silvery veil and above us, the summit of 14,075′ Missouri Mountain silhouetted our next steps. In that brief 25 second window, I could see that we were in for a tough night. In the shivering cold I had backed us down the wrong ridge and we now had to go up and over the summit of Missouri Mountain a second time in order to find a certain way down. We were hemmed in by a massive storm cell, which meant that even though we could navigate the correct line forward with my GPS watch, we couldn’t see more than 6-8 feet in front of us until hours away at dawn, which stifled our efforts on the slender unmarked ridge to a crawl over moisture-soaked ground.
The clock was ticking and my patient struggle neared a critical mass of moments where I was running out of time to complete the other seven summits on the 60-hour journey of Nolan’s 14 that I was living on August 25th and those early morning hours on the 26th. Nolan’s 14 is a former ultra marathon race course of near 100 miles in distance that visits 14 summits over 14,000’+ with no set path. Nolan’s 14 has only been finished by seven people a total of eight times and has but one widely accepted social rule: a set time at which all successful attempts are judged, which comes to 14 peaks in under 60 hours. There are no DNF’s on Nolan’s, so you show up and try it and you’re added to a list on website. After this summer of traversing the course and 14 years climbing peaks in and around the area, this was my final exam: part one and what I thought would be a straightforward yes or no navigating at night that turned out to be a multiple choice test of efforts.
I don’t consider myself a runner. I spent a decade pioneering several rock, ice and ski routes mostly in the Himalayas before applying a year’s worth of focus on “running only” to understand what I do about Nolan’s 14. The approach to this ambitious experience has been a long and exacting process encompassing four runs of 50 + miles and two dozen or so 20 + milers in the last 11 months. And all of this from a guy who had never entered a marathon before but ran to train for high mountains my entire life.
When daylight broke around 6:40AM, the clouds remained for another hour and a chilly remorse for missing dinner and rest lingered as fuel for forward motion. We went up the ridge, down the ridge, over sandy sections of meager trail peppered by lichen-covered rocks and clumps of wet grass and sandy patches of pebbles and rocky fins. In running shoes and a full shell top and bottom, dressed as if for skiing, we continued the hunt until finally we saw 14,203′ Mt Belford — the next summit — and made sense of what we could see on other peaks below 13,000′ to determine that our epic was over and the light of a new day arrived with two more summits to gain before dropping into a new valley and below treeline for the first time in 11 hours. It was in the gentle rays of sun that I first saw opportunity again for a resurgence and it was here that my brain rejoined my body and my friends were able to help me make a safe and rational decision in the face of my driving ambition to complete Nolan’s 14, even in what were recognizably near disastrous conditions.
Although moving decently for the situation and having a lot of reserve due to the fact that I could never go too fast in the constantly wet terrain, I knew I could not go forever without true rest and a meal — at least a bowl of pasta and 30 minutes of sleep. To sum it up, I was feeling positive about being halfway at the halfway point even with eight hours lost to weather. As we descended the last summit, 14,106′ Mt. Oxford, to friends camped below in Pine Creek, I took note of my state and the clouds still present over summits eight and nine about to receive their dousing of the day, further adding more wet off-trail terrain that would be painstakingly slow to descend without injury. It seemed a nap might be the only wise thing to do in this case and to hope that when I woke up the mountains would clear.
Having willingly climbed up into and out of three major storms with another one looming large if I continued, I realized that these were not the conditions the other seven finishers had executed in and that I respected the boundaries already being pushed. This was my first time ever moving for 32 hours constantly, I had a 1/4 inch bleeding puncture wound in my left shin, a broken pole, torn gloves and feet that had been wet for 11 hours traversing almost no dry ground in that time and amassing casualties I never took in during the many training runs I did on the course prior in safe and dry conditions. My equipment was not going to and never did fail me having already made it that far in, but I just didn’t know when I would blow up or get really hurt and how that might affect my crew who had so graciously supported me on both ends of the epic section that undid all my padding on the clock. There at treeline, the weight of the scenario lifted from my shoulders as I lay down in the tent Jon and M’lin Miller hiked 7.8 miles in and set up. I slept 26 minutes before my body snapped awake on its own at 12:22PM. I ate some pasta and stepped back into the present situation of being in the middle of a 60-hour mountain traverse and having to make a call. It was clear to me what to do with only 28 and half hours left and at least 25 hours of moving with no errors and the weather forecast more of the same. We had all done our best and for many years in the mountains preceding this, it is not likely that continuing on in those conditions would be safe that much longer.
I had to ask myself: Do I leave it all out here and potentially send these guys in to get me with a broken ankle or arm on Mt. Princeton at 3AM or do I walk out of here and come back in a few weeks with this experience that I can recover from quickly? I’d done 100K and as I write this a day later, I feel awesome for that! I could re-adjust my expectations and stay committed to the old rules of Nolan’s 14 to finish more fourteeners in up to 60 hours and just go with it, possibly fending off more weather, getting off routes of the course I mapped for myself and in the dark and just be done with it, let it go this year, do a few more but not all 14 because of the weather. Most of my friends could stay and they all supported me if I wanted to make that decision, but I’d rather make no excuses, no apologies and no mistake that a course of action like that would not be my best effort this year — or ever. I had gas in the tank and could use this experience to come back in a few weeks and do it better, maybe. I’ll still need luck but I’d rather take a chance at doing it better with all the training I have behind me now. So instead of continuing forward at all costs for a hint of “success” and the mercy of being let go from this committing goal or forever being a failure at getting all 14 in a 60 hour effort, in that little primitive camp at Pine Creek I reveled in the friendship of the amazing crew that supported this endeavor, I marveled at their commitment that every inch of the way inspired me to give every bit of attention to being safe and succeeding — something that I could never do alone. I reflected on a debt of gratitude that warms my heart each moment I realize that in this solitary experience as a human being, together we were all a spirit and together everyone kept me safe. This experience made me feel loved, disappointed, respected… and all in an odd and very unexpected way, it validated to me that I could find the time to do this again next month, that my friends have my back and I have not only the strength to carry on but the spirit of a team I could honor and a goal that I can complete — but do right and within reason.
It is a privilege and a treat to be able to make time for such a thing and it would be silly to complain about having been in this blundering state discovering all the just desserts of a feast of mountains in the middle of Colorado. Please understand, I still dearly enjoyed this time for what it was and wouldn’t change anything. These are mountains and I learned from them, but I’m not done with this. I’ve got 100K of the toughest 100-mile mountain route out there under my belt and for better or worse (no, I actually do not want to have to climb 14,433′ Mt Elbert a 5th time this summer), I plan to set foot there again in September and take one more shot at 60 hours and however many fourteeners I get and if it’s good weather bet I can get all 14. This is my goal this year. It could be just as big a gamble on the weather, but I want to know the outcome for real and not be left wondering the rest of my life what it takes. As comforting as it might be to just go on being a mountaineer, I truly appreciate the art of running and having to transform my passion into an inventive new space that never lets me get too comfortable, never lets me stop exploring. This space between pushing the envelope and sending it that has extended my boundaries further than anything I’ve ever done and shown me results more satisfying than any summit.
As we’re speeding to the close of 2010, a lot of folks are starting to think about the last year — the adventures, the people and many times what they’ve missed out on. While these memories usually fuel the New Years resolutions of the next year, why not take some time to think about your bucket list? Yep, we’re talking about that list of things you want or need to do before you die.