Schemin’ and Dreamin’

I was fortunate enough to achieve many of my adventure running ambitions in 2012 (including three outings that were so good that I am determined to repeat them in 2013: the Ten Mile Range Traverse, the Glacier Gorge Traverse in Rocky Mt. Nat’l Park, and Gannet Peak IAD (in-a-day) in Wyoming), though I was just beginning to realize the potential for fun that exists when one combines running and moderate technical climbing; in 2013 I am excited to further explore this hybridization of activities and tackle some even bigger and more committing objectives.

Encountering some tech on the Ten Mile Traverse last spring. Photo: Joe Grant.

While it is difficult for me to approach a solo, high-country project with the same level of intensity and focus that I do the races on my summer event schedule, I find these adventure running objectives to be just as rewarding and usually even more inspiring.  As such, right now, smack in the middle of winter’s snow and cold—when the high country is being pounded by gale-force winds and sub-zero temps and the more lowly Flatirons are likewise encrusted in snow and ice—my mind can’t help but wander ahead to summer when it’s possible to move truly light and fast again on the high peaks.  Normally, I try to not put too much of my energy into dreaming about the future—enjoy the present moment!—but hey, if one is going to accomplishment sufficiently ambitious and challenging things in the summer, a lot of pre-planning and scheming is necessary.

These are the non-race objectives that have me the most excited about 2013:

Nolan’s 14

Heart of the Sawatch Range, looking south from La Plata Peak (#3 in the Nolan’s line-up).

  • What: continuous link-up of 14 14,000’+ peaks
  • Where: Sawatch Range, Fish Hatchery TH to Shavano TH

This is the big one. Something like 90 miles and 45,000′ of vert.  I’ve been preoccupied with this most-perfect of link-ups for a full year now. Central Colorado’s Sawatch Range is unique in North America for its concentration of 14,000’+ peaks, so enchaining all 14 of them in one push (don’t even bring up Holy Cross with me—geographically, it’s a total outlier) is an obvious if highly ambitious undertaking. Last year, I didn’t begin the summer with the requisite route-experience and never made a serious attempt, but did manage the first five peaks in 10h30 before being chased down below treeline by lightning on Elkhead Pass, only 40min from tagging the next two summits.  This summer I’m very much planning on going the full way—Massive, Elbert, La Plata, Huron, Missouri, Belford, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Antero, Tabeguache, Shavano—and I’m also planning on giving it the type of race-focus effort I think this line deserves.

Nolan’s 14 Route.

For all the enormity in scale that this link-up represents, it’s actually quite accessible.  Many of the peaks are separated by giant valleys that contain typically reasonably-maintained roads.  As such, I will tackle this effort with a fully-supported style, which will basically just mean that I plan to have a friend meet me in between mountains for a re-stocking of my gel supply and that I’ll likely pick up some company for the night portion.  The big crew-less section will occur between Winfield and the N. Cottonwood Creek TH and links up Huron, Missouri, Belford, Oxford, Harvard, and Columbia. Training runs have shown me that I can cover this section in 8hr or so…but then I will still have four more giant (like, vertical-mile giant) climbs in front of me, to be navigated mostly in the dark.

Overall, the Nolan’s route is actually pretty smooth sailing with nothing truly technical on it.  The quickest lines basically never exceed 3rd Class, but there is a lot of off-trail navigation, so nimble feet (i.e. talus-hopping for days), and a keen sense of direction are necessary. This link-up will take the place of an additional 100mi race this summer.  I’m just not sure yet if I’ll tackle it in June or August.

L.A. Freeway (Longs-to-Arapaho Traverse)

Looking north at Longs Peak on the horizon, from the summit of Arapaho Peak. The toothy ridge in the middle-ground is the final technical crux of the traverse.

  • What: Traverse of the Continental Divide from Longs Peak to Arapaho Peak
  • Where: Northern Front Range, Rocky Mt Nat’l Park & Indian Peaks Wilderness

Almost no one reading this has likely ever heard of anything called the “L.A. Freeway”.  That’s because—as far as I know—only one, maybe two, people have ever done it: Buzz Burrell (who named it) and possibly Gerry Roach.  The Freeway is a true traverse of the Continental Divide linking the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park (Longs Peak-14,255′) and the highest point in the Indian Peaks Wilderness (Arapaho Peak–13,502′) and tagging 18 named peaks along the way, 15 of those over 12,900′ and 12 of them over 13,000′.  Sticking to the Divide requires maybe half a dozen instances of low-5th Class climbing and lots and lots of 3rd and 4th Class scrambling.  This is all intermixed with endless talus-hopping and tundra-trotting, basically all above 12,000′.

Thirty-plus miles right on the most technical part of the Continental Divide.

From Longs’ East Trailhead to Arapaho’s 4th of July Trailhead is approximately a 50K with at least 18,000′ of vertical.  The traverse starts with the nearly vertical-mile ascent of Longs Peak, preferably via either the North Face (the fastest way up the peak, mandatory 5.4) or Kieners (for style points, more 5.4 terrain, and really not that much slower than the Cables). From there, he route descends a couple of 5.2-ish sections of downclimbing to tag Pagoda and traverse over to Chiefs Head before striking out south on the Divide:  Alice, Tanima, Isolation (brief 5.4 pitch), Ouzel, Ogalalla, Sawtooth, and Paiute all await.  After Paiute, things get techy once again with some 4th Class on Mt. Toll and then lots and lots of 4th Class on the traverse of the Chessmen (a series of spires) from Shoshoni to Apache to Navajo.  And then even more from Navajo over to Arapaho.

Me standing on the shoulder of Shoshini looking south, with the Chessmen, Apache, and Navajo looming ahead. Photo: Joe Grant.

The biggest thing about this line is that it is nearly 100% off trail.  I’ll utilize about 2mi of historical trails below treeline on the ascent to Longs Peak, but other than that its up to my judgment. I suspect this sustained techiness is what has deterred most folks from attempting such an obvious line, but for me, this combination of endurance and technical terrain is what makes it so enticing.

Elk Range 14ers Enchainment

Standing on the summit of Pyramid and looking north to the Bells and Snowmass.

  • What: continuous link-up of seven 14,000’+ peaks
  • Where: Elk Range, Capitol Creek TH to Castle Creek TH

This link-up starts at the Capitol Creek TH, tags the summits of Capitol, Snowmass, North and South Maroon Bells, Pyramid, Castle and Conundrum before ending at the Castle Creek TH. As far as I know, this has been accomplished only once, in a legendary 34hr (?) effort by Neal Beidleman and Jeff Hollenbaugh back in 1996. John “Homie” Prater and Max Nuttleman made a valiant effort last summer, but were stalled out by electrical storms on the Bells and retreated to Maroon Lake after summiting them. (When chatting with Homie about this about a week later, he commented that it was probably the most scared he’s ever been in the mountains—not a trivial statement from someone so experienced and committed.)

Capitol Peak as seen from the starting trailhead of the link-up.

The ridge connecting the Maroon Bells.

I’ve only climbed four of the seven peaks—Capitol, the Bells, and Pyramid—but am drawn in by the area’s unparalleled scenery and the fact that it’s the only semi-reasonable 14er range link-up in Colorado other than Nolan’s (the summits are simply too spread out in the other ranges; the Sangres come close, but are really two isolated groups–the Crestones and the Blance Group).  The Elks also have the rare 14er distinction of being technical (high 4th Class, a few moves of 5th Class), but dubiously chossy.  The Elk 14ers are largely considered to be the toughest (and most dangerous) 14ers as a result.  Capitol requires traversing its famous Knife Edge, the traverse to Snowmass is almost never done, the Bells Traverse is loose with a few 5th-Class moves, Pyramid is more mandatory 4th Class, and then Castle and Conundrum are off by themselves, separated from the rest by two giant drainages and an entire 13,000’+ ridge.  As best I can make out (with significant input from Homie), the cleanest line would be ~38 miles and at least 22,000′ vert.  Again, many many trail-less miles on this route, too. Let’s do it!

Elks 14er Enchainment route.

I haven’t completely decided on style yet, but am leaning heavily towards hitting it solo and unsupported in one big push.  The only reasonable point of access for support is in the West Maroon Creek drainage between the Bells and Pyramid, but I’m hoping I can lace it quick enough to go sans headlamp—lightning, legs, and lungs willing…

I feel a little exposed by posting such big ambitions in a public forum, but right now these projects excite me more than anything else in the mountains, so it’s hard not to share.  Of course, if my body gives out and I fail to even get to attempt them…well, hopefully you won’t have to hear about that.

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13 thoughts on “Schemin’ and Dreamin’

  1. Hey Tony, i’m keen to tag along, or even support your stint. Totally digging the idea – and great to get out into Nolan’s from Singapore.

    Let me know? – email is attached to the message.

  2. Inspired and energized by these plans. Good luck Tony! Oh and the writing and punctuation were perfect.

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  4. Great goals! Nolan’s makes sense (looks like ~60 hours is the time to beat). On the “LA Freeway”. I did the more logical version from Arap. to Audobon and then looped back (this way you can do a loop on trails) back in the early 90s. I then found out that from N. Arap to Navajo is off-limits and illegal. Are you aware of this? As a professional athlete, is there a responsibility for you to follow the law? In climbing, this has been a big issue as pro climbers (boulderers more than anything) tend to “forget” about private land/closures/etc. to nab a high profile problem. However, they do set precedence as pro climbers and it is very discouraging to see this as it teaches up and comers that if you are pro, you can break the rules. Thoughts?

  5. This is extremely thorough and good information! Aren’t you worried that someone will use it to better your times on one of these routes? 😉

  6. Brandon – Might have to take you up on that. Will let you know as summer approaches. As for Pb…I’ve already been nabbed for pacing duties, but can pay you back in beer or some such.

    Buzz – Haha, well, route-finding is only one small piece of the equation. Legs and lungs are pretty crucial, too… 😉 And, I’m always happy to share info. I’ve benefited greatly from people who’ve come before me, so am glad to pass it on.

  7. The “official” Nolans 14 rules says “no pacers” and I’m wondering how this is interpreted. Are companions allowed to trail (or be beside) the competitor?

    • Mark – Really glad you asked this question as it leads to a larger point that I feel strongly about. In my opinion, there is no official anything when it comes to Nolans. “Nolans 14”, in my mind, is simply the moniker that has come about for enchaining every 14er in the Sawatch Range, Massive to Shavano, or vice versa. If that doesn’t sit well with someone, then fine, I won’t do “Nolans” this summer, I’ll just complete the “Sawatch 14er Enchainment”. The mountains are there, they present a very logical line, and the notion of linking them up inspires me. The style that I will choose to use in linking them up is up to me. I think it is a little bit silly that there is some sort of purported 60hr “cut-off” to be an “official” finisher of Nolans. I don’t care if it takes you 100hr, I think linking up all those mountains in one push is an impressive and interesting adventure. If it took you more than, say, a week to complete the John Muir Trail, would that mean that you didn’t actually complete the trail? Of course not.

      I think that what is important is that I report my chosen style accurately and honestly and then the community of people who are interested in this sort of thing can come to its own varying judgements. As Buzz and Peter–pioneers of big mountain adventures–always say, “Just tell us what you did.” I agree whole-heartedly. For instance, I personally would not want to climb Everest using Sherpas and bottled oxygen, but it is fine that others do. Just don’t turn around and try to convince the greater community that you did it without those aids.

      Having said all that, I plan to run Nolans supported–a crew of one or two people to meet me with food and water at various points–and likely with company for at least some of the night section. Not because I’m afraid of the dark, but because route-finding is easier with another person, not to mention the extra light. I am personally comfortable with this style for this particular outing because I am interested in doing it as fast as I can and sometimes it is rewarding to share an experience with someone else. Maybe later in my life I will be interested in doing it unsupported and solo (carrying all my calories from the start with no one to meet me along the way) or self-supported (same, except that I’d make food caches before embarking instead of carrying my food from the very beginning).

      Since I plan on doing the Elks and the L.A. Freeway all in the daylight–and they are short enough to reasonably carry all my calories from the start–I will likely attempt these in the purest style I know: solo & unsupported.

  8. You think any of that will be as challenging as the 4.5 mile red trail at Percy Warner Park here in Nashville?? Ha…good luck in your 2013 outings!

  9. Mark Oveson and Gerry Roach both did a variant of LA Freeway called the Pfiffner Traverse, which was Berthoud Pass to Milner Pass. While considerably longer, they both dropped off the crest of the divide in various spots to avoid the more technical aspects.

    Here’s Mark’s write-up.

    I helped crew him for a small part, it was a great time and a really fantastic route. A combo of the two would be really stellar… Berthoud to Rollins, staying right on the divide the entire ~80 miles or so. Get some!

    – Chris

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