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.
Six hours into our “run,” Rhonda Claridge and I arrived on pace to the summit of Colorado’s 14,425′ Mt Harvard. Climbing to the fourth 14,000’+ summit of the day, we had played our hand in a limited window of time — it has been a tricky wet summer and multiple dry summits were a rare treat. But soon, while crouched in the nook of two frozen boulders harboring snow from the previous day and checking my GPS track, waves of frozen and mixed rain would plummet from the sky and to the southwest a hulking cloud front would devour the mountain a thousand feet at a time and rapidly envelope our position. I could tell you exactly where we were but nothing of where we were to go as we traversed shortsighted through complicated terrain led by the occasional stack of rocks 80′ in front of us. Fear and weather advanced upon us and here on Harvard’s airy summit ridge in an August winter storm, the certainty that we were high and wild sunk in. “I am not this type of adrenaline junkie,” I thought. These days I am looking for challenges and not all-out battles… but stopping to question philosophy gets you nowhere when it’s time to navigate a mountain, so I returned to primal instincts, we groped our way down and resumed course toward the target of this training day — the last day in my schedule for such an epic.
We had gone fast and carried light equipment to cover this ground in the heart of Colorado’s Sawatch mountain range. Rhonda and I were searching for the most direct way to climb these five “14’ers” — the affectionate term for 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado of which there are 54 official 14’er summits. As Walden-esque as traipsing through meadows and rugged forests may sound, we were now lost in an alpine world with no visibility and frozen hands, being suckered into the lore of an obscure challenge longer on ambition even than our present day’s objective. The challenge is Nolan’s 14, an unofficial race course born out of a conversation between two Hardrock runners, Matt Mahoney and Fred Vance, who ran together during the late stages of a 100-mile mountain run in Southwest Colorado in the late 90s, and their acquaintance, Jim Nolan, who coined the line of 14 14’ers in one stretch “Nolan’s 14.” Since 1999, only seven finishers have found that Nolan’s 14 is a mountain path that can be reasonably traveled on foot in a time of slightly less than 60 hours. If you’re one of them, then Matt Mahoney will put your name on a website. To understand how on earth anyone could possibly see a point to this, I have traveled 104 miles, 50,863′ of vertical gain and 52,251 in loss in these mountains in seven weeks, searching for the most efficient path between 14’ers Mt. Massive and Mt. Shavano — the beginning and end of this mountain oddity/odyssey.
I spent a dedicated year running in the mountains and enlisted Nolan’s 14 finisher and coach Matt Hart to fine tune my body in the hopes that I could be a finisher. I slowly ran five Ultra Marathons in nine months, followed by a busy summer collecting 32 summits in less than 50 days. There were weeks totaling 90+ miles and 30,000’+ of vertical in training where ambition became tempered by respect for the mountains and the balance of being a dad, husband and business owner. I showed up to the mountains as a working minimalist, carrying everything I need for precisely the moments we encountered but with the expectation that at all times I can and must continue moving.
Things can slow to a grinding halt while you’re lost in a boulder field, acrobatically navigating move after move between teetering rocks and precipices. Usually, though, you’re still moving forward, like when I got us lost descending off the summit of Harvard. The same will to succeed heading in a lost direction we negotiated that day would come in handy during the attempt. Carefully and cautiously, four hours and 46 minutes from the summit of Harvard, we managed to emerge out of the mountains in the bed of a black truck that let us hitch a ride into the valley after coming in four hours after our expected exit. We had descended cold and damp from two more summits — a 13,506′ peak and our final objective — 14,073′ Mt Columbia totaling 11,600′ of vertical gain for the day and soaked by a second storm on Columbia that reduced us to walking with great hesitation through muck and mire, sharpened stone and roots before running 3.7 miles out to a trailhead. This was August 8th, my last long training day on Nolan’s 14. I’m happy we stayed committed to grabbing the final summit, we’ll have to do the whole thing over again in the dark in a few weeks!
Since June 25th, I have explored the informal race course of Nolan’s 14 first hand, peice by peice in 5 “20 mile”sections and several smaller ones. Following pre-established routes set when up to 15 people at at time attempted this path from 1999-2001 in an unofficial race, I discovered a roughly 86 mile route with 44,000 vertical gain and some room for the unavoidable errors that will occur to finish in under the 60 hour cutoff time. All in, my “moving time only” projections are that it can be done in 41 hours, but not by this guy. I have put in eight days this year, five with over 6:30 hours of run time, and 29 more since 1999 when I discovered my first 14’ers in this range — starting with the formidable Mt. Princeton and wandering onto the 13’ers before attempting this. In 37 days on and around these peaks, I hope that with a few more, I can tell you that this line is possible to do safely in an amount of time closer to 60 hours.
I want to complete the course and observe the rules of the former race concept even though it is a daunting logistical support effort for one person running, hiking and climbing a continuous line up and down 14,000′ mountains that spans a highway that starts in Leadville, Co. and takes vehicles an hour and half to drive to Poncha Springs. I want to do it because far from that highway and far from any elevation profiles or historical stipulations, Nolan’s 14 is a journey that explores the heart of Colorado’s fourteeners and pushes an individual backed by a support team to meet the odds. Unlike the unofficial runs from 1999-2001, while the remoteness and fatigue set in, the runner must also be directing a moveable expedition. It is here that a group of friends will meet me in valleys and high summits and help me along the way as I wind my way North to South on a journey unlike any I’ve taken.
On August 25th, 2013 I plan to begin running from Leadville, Co. and to head south on foot only for two and half days with rest if the weather is good. If there is bad weather, I’ll adjust expectations accordingly. I’m not doing it to prove anything, raise money for charity or set the world on fire with an amazing time under 60 hours (who knows if I’ll even come close). I’m doing it because I’m curious If I can, if luck will be my side. I did the training and I learned that if I found time to visit so many places in the high mountains I otherwise would never have gone, then I’d be a fool not to take a look and at least see what I might learn from the last step. I’m 34 years old today and it has been a privilege, I may not have a chance like this again. I look forward to the attempt because I have truly enjoyed seeing what is out there and believe it is possible, and that the guys who finish might be nuts, a claim I may not be able to back if I haven’t been there myself! Either way, a whole group of us will be getting outside and enjoying Colorado’s 14’ers for a few days!