When I left the Leadville Fish Hatchery at 2am on Monday morning—setting out on the Nolan’s 14 link-up—I suspect I thought I would have a much longer and more interesting story to tell about my journey than the tale I have in my head right now. The short of it is that I started out stupidly early in the morning, felt crappy already by the second peak (Mt. Elbert), and kept going for four more peaks and 10 more hours, but instead of things getting better they just kept getting worse and worse so I ultimately bailed after Mt. Belford (#6) and descended to the Missouri Gulch trailhead, in relief.
All photos: Matt Trappe.
Last summer, I did extensive scouting of the largely off-trail route and did three long runs on the course, culminating in an enchainment of the first five peaks in mid-July (more on that later). This year, I spent the month-plus before my attempt scouting and re-scouting, summiting a 14er basically every day, covering the entire course in three different long runs, and arriving at the day of my attempt feeling as fit and prepared as I ever have. More fit than last year, according to times on several different ascents.
This accumulation of experience on the route, inevitably, shaped a vision and spawned a constellation of intentions and personal expectations for what I could accomplish in this unique mountain range. This is human nature. In the 18th Century, philosopher David Hume famously questioned such induction and empiricism—the notion that we can accurately base future expectations on past experience—first giving voice to the classic “problem of induction”. The main issue, however, with being skeptical about induction is that doing so doesn’t leave much else to go on beyond imagination and instinct (Hume’s solution), which are generally considered to be a little less reliable. Obviously, this leaves plenty of room for us to be wrong about things, expectations be damned.
Every long run I’d done on the course in the past year had gone very well, feeling as if I had plenty of vert left in the tank, even after completing three to five peaks (and 13-22k’ of climbing). My longest previous outing on the line last July—a link-up of the first five monster northern peaks (Massive, Elbert, La Plata, Huron, and Missouri)—had been particularly encouraging. On that day, I reached the summit of Missouri in 10:33 and after traversing down to 13,200′ Elkhead Pass in 22min, had been only 45min away from tagging the next two mountains (Belford and Oxford) but was forced off the high ridges by a particularly hair-raising (literally) and violent electrical storm. I encountered no physical issues that day and was only disappointed by the fact that the weather had aborted my outing before my planned stopping point of Mt. Columbia (#9).
This effort (and subsequent long runs), combined with the fact that for the past six weeks of scouting I’ve felt the best I ever have at high altitude, caused me to formulate the ambitious—some might say arrogant—time goal of 30hrs for a route that all previous finishers had taken 55-60hr to complete. Although I was initially inspired to attempt this massive link-up because of the vision that Jim Nolan and Fred Vance originally articulated, as I deepened my experience in climbing and mountaineering I began to be turned off by the largely arbitrary “rules” that allegedly must accompany an “official” Nolan’s 14 finish, namely, finishing in less than 60hrs and not using pacers. Personally, I don’t care how long it takes someone to finish all of the peaks; the line is audacious enough that simply trying to do it in a single push is impressive to me. And if you want to share the experience with someone along the way, by all means.
Ultimately, for me, “Nolans” became nothing more than the most widely-recognized term for what I simply see as a very logical link-up of the Sawatch Range 14ers (save Mount of the Holy Cross, which lies so far to the north as to not be logical to include in the line). Much like Blake Wood apparently initially argued, for me the challenge and the inspiration is defined by the geography and the terrain, not an arbitrary distance or trail on a map. Many, many people have asked me how many miles Nolan’s is…I don’t know what my scouted route adds up to, because I think it’s irrelevant. Instead, the focus is on starting from the valley, hitting all the summits under my own power, and finishing back in the valley. The speed aspect naturally comes into play for me because moving quickly and efficiently (relative to one’s ability) is not only satisfying in the moment but in order to do so, requires a deep knowledge of the place.
Based on my recce’s of the course, 18hrs to do the first 10 peaks seemed like a reasonable goal (yep, using some induction there), and because peak 10 is a basically entirely off-trail traverse of Mt. Yale, I decided that timing my start so that I could do Yale with the last bits of daylight was a good idea. However, even during the longest days of the year, this would mean a 2am departure from the Fish Hatchery at the base of Mt. Massive. So that’s what I did, even if it meant waking up at 12:30am and getting only ~90min of rest before what was a sure-to-be-epic endeavor.
Of course, I felt great running the trail up through the forest on Massive’s eastern slopes, and soon abandoned the path to cut straight to the summit via the mountain’s east ridge. Once I popped out above treeline the supermoon illuminated everything in a brilliant sheen and my throat didn’t burn as much from all the wildfire smoke settled in the valley. I kept a deliberately casual effort to the summit, which I reached in 1:48, and without pause headed down the technical trail on Massive’s southwestern slopes into the Halfmoon Creek drainage. From my training, I knew that I seemed to burn more calories at altitude, so I concentrated on eating a gel every 20min or so, and my stomach obliged without issue. Nevertheless, by the time I waded across Halfmoon Creek at ~10,400′ (and 2:36 into the run), I was already feeling drowsy and foggy in the head.
I suppose that was expected at 4:30am, but it soon required deliberate focus to just keep running. Maybe partly because of this, I bungled the off-trail approach to Mt. Elbert’s west ridge for the first time in approximately a dozen ascents of it and ended up wasting maybe 5min wading through steep, loose scree and cobbles at its base. I again, however, kept the effort deliberately easy on the steep slope, trying to conserve energy, but I could tell that I was lacking my usual punch on this terrain. I also noticed that my hands were starting to get swollen and puffy, only 4hrs into the run.
I thought I’d gain a boost from seeing some familiar faces (photographers and videographers) on the summit of Elbert (4:04 elapsed), but I was still uncoordinated, bumbly, and strangely lethargic/unmotivated on the descent over to the Golden Fleece Mine and Echo Canyon, having to remind myself several times to actually run the downhill instead of settling into a lazy hike. Twice on this descent I even just sat down and sort of gazed around absent-mindedly. Though such leisure is in and of itself no big deal on such a long effort, this kind of behavior was severely out of character for me. A four hour run at an easy effort where I’m consistently eating is usually truly trivial for me—even when it involves climbing two 14ers—so the fact that I was so out of it mentally and physically so early in the day seemed to be a very bad sign indeed.
I hit Highway 82 in 4:59 and jogged the 2mi of pavement west to the La Plata Gulch TH where I would meet my crew for the first time. Joe had posted himself a short ways down the road to look for me and as he ran me in to the trailhead I commented on my foggy brain and general lethargy and puffy hands. It was still extremely early, though (literally and figuratively), so I was happy to just jog along, eat a bunch of food, and hike anything that wasn’t flat. As I headed up La Plata things were okay for a while, but the last 1500′ or so were absolutely terrible. Despite pounding many calories, I was just staggering around, stumbling over things, sitting on rocks, head on the knees, etc…the summit (7:06) was such a relief.
By the time I made it down to Winfield (8:08), I knew that I was going to have to take some time to try and figure out what was going on, except that since I was eating a ton and regularly peeing clear I didn’t really know what else I could do, other than go back to sleep, which is what I really felt like doing. But, my decision to not do that at Winfield—at only 10am—was directly linked to what I wanted to do in the Sawatch Range in the first place.
I could’ve literally crawled in the back of Joe’s truck here, gone to sleep for several hours, woken up, had him and Mauricio cook me a meal, and soldiered on with plenty of time left to tackle the rest of the route. But—and this is the part that will probably be hard for some to understand—that is simply not the style in which I was or am interested in doing this. I know from prior experience that, at the very least, I shouldn’t have to resort to such disaster-prevention tactics until much, much later in the day and farther along the route. If I’m feeling so terrible so early on that a sleep and a feed is the only thing to set me right, I’m completely comfortable with admitting that it clearly isn’t my day and that there will be other chances to try again. I know that attitude really rubs some people the wrong way. There seems to exist this somewhat odd notion that not going until the point of collapse somehow disrespects the mountains or one’s crew or the people following along online, as if not soldiering on even when something has been out-of-the-ordinary for quite some time is a moral affront to the summits and the community. Personally, when I know my body isn’t in proper working order, it seems more than a little arrogant and ego-centric to think that “oh, if you’re just tough enough you’ll get the job done.” No. I completely agree that an athlete owes it to his or her immediate supporters—crew and sponsors and such—to give it his or her all. But, after that, forget it.
So, with exactly those intentions—to honor the time, money, energy, and effort various people had invested in seeing me try my level best; to see if I could have one of those irrational yet magical turnarounds in energy and attitude that defines the ultra-endurance experience, and which I have experienced, against what seems to be all odds, many times before (it really does work sometimes)—I marched out of Winfield with Joe with a bunch of food in my pockets to see if I could just get through this extended low point.
We walked along the mostly flat 4WD road not because my legs hurt (they felt basically fine) or my stomach was off (I was able to eat all I wanted) but because my strength and energy was at a rock-bottom low. Just super-weak and sleepy. Finally, Joe suggested I take a short nap in the sun. It was 10:52am and he would wake me at 11am. With a water bottle for a pillow, I was out within a couple of minutes and when we started going again, it seemed to help a little.
At the trailhead, Joe turned back and I continued on alone. The rest of my day wasn’t very interesting. Going uphill was hard. Going uphill above treeline was really hard, blah, blah, blah, complain, complain. Except that I would like to submit here that the combination of vertical and altitude and navigation and sheer intimidating scale of the Sawatch mountain range changes the tenor of things just a little from what one might normally experience in, well, any standard trail ultra in North America or anywhere really. It’s something that I’ll gently suggest really might need to be experienced first-hand in order to be fully understood. Hardrock pales in comparison. And that it very well might be worth possessing such an understanding before passing any judgment.
I made the top of Huron at 10:20 elapsed time, Clohesy Lake at 10:55, the summit of Missouri at 12:30, Elkhead Pass at 13:06, and finally stumbled to the summit of Belford at 13:34, where Joe was waiting for me with photographer Matt Trappe and his assistant Dan. The pertinent things were that A) after 10 hours of stumbling things had only not gotten better, they’d gotten markedly worse, and B) leaving the summit of Belford essentially committed me to climbing and descending at least three more mountains before the next feasible bail point at North Cottonwood Creek. In the end, it wasn’t a hard decision for me to stop and it’s one that I don’t regret one bit, even days later. Things were bad enough on Belford that some sort of complicated, protracted rescue effort seemed entirely probable were I to descend into the Pine Creek drainage, and that was certainly something I had no interest in, especially since it had already been a monumental struggle to come as far as I had. Continuing not only seemed stupid but entirely irresponsible, given the lack of access to the next few mountains.
It would be easy to think here, “Well, duh, Nolan’s is tough, what did you expect? Be a little tougher and get back out there.” My answer is that when I’m obviously operating in some sort of compromised condition from the start, I don’t find any value in continuing to slog on. There are good days and bad days. I’ve had enough good days—heck, even just average days—in the mountains to know when I’m having a bad one and that continuing to force it serves no purpose worthwhile to me.
I’ll be back to give the Sawatch 14ers another shot in the future, but most likely not this summer season. I learned some tactical lessons this go-round that I’ll definitely keep in mind for the future, but amongst them is not any fundamental change in the vision I have for what I can do on this route. And if Hume is to be believed, that’s fine. Long pushes of physical and mental endurance—especially in the unpredictable, rugged environs of the high mountains—are, at their core, wildly irrational, instinctual actions based on vision, imagination and hubristic faith. And I like it that way.
Finally, a sincere thank you to all who supported me this past week. I’ll be attempting to reciprocate for Joe at the Hardrock 100 in two weeks’ time, but everyone else—you know who you are, you were there—I can only say that I was inspired by your willingness to help a brother out, no questions asked. There’s a lot of unadulterated good in the world.