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!