“I’ve scouted the whole route except for the North side of La Plata, but that should be easy enough since it is all trail”
Some 40+ hours later as I was enjoying a midnight walk along the banks of Lake Creek – which is more of a river than a creek – my comment to Meghan Hicks as we started our respective Nolan’s 14 journeys seemed rather laughable. Clearly I had underestimated the difficulty of the challenge, especially in terms of nighttime navigation while at altitude and sleep deprived. After descending a rather questionable scree slope from the the summit of La Plata I was rather frustrated with my inability to find what is reportedly one of the best sections of trail along the entire route. However, my immediate concern was figuring out how to reach my crew at the La Plata trailhead who were probably wondering where I was since I should have arrived a few hours ago.
The first 11 peaks up to that point had been almost too easy, and I was beginning to think that all the talk about the difficulty of finishing Nolan’s was a bit of a farce. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t exactly easy up to that point but it wasn’t that hard. Perhaps it was just a classical case of ultrarunners over exaggerating the difficulty of the route?
I’ll spare you the mundane details of the first 40ish hours. Suffice it to say that the weather was nearly perfect, my crew (Rush Combs, Julia German, Silke Koester and Ryan Smith) was efficient and took care of the necessities (including making homemade pizza in Winfield!), and mentally and physically I was in good shape. As I left Winfield to head up La Plata it seemed like finishing was almost going to be easy!
Of course once you start thinking that something that is actually difficult is going to be easy it usually means that things are about to reverse course and become really really hard. After an uneventful sunset climb up the Southwest ridge of La Plata and my aforementioned horrendous descent down to the river I was left with two options:
- Find a spot where I could safely wade across the river and then run the road to my crew.
- Bushwhack to the trail and then cross the bridge to the trailhead where my crew was waiting.
The first option wasn’t particularly attractive given that I was looking at crossing 20-30 feet of cold water of unknown depth that looked to be moving pretty fast. Though this option became more and more attractive as time ticked by. The second option seemed preferable, but my sleep deprived brain thought that the trail was East of my location instead of the correct direction of West. Not being too keen to try my luck crossing the river, I decided to start making my way East along the river with hopes of eventually finding the trail. This proved to be a rather tedious exercise that consisted of alternating periods of relatively fast moving, good, terrain with sections of overgrown trail and/or willows that drastically slowed my pace. After what seemed like an extremely long time – but was in reality only about 45 minutes – I was getting desperately close to throwing caution to the wind and heading straight across the river. As I continued heading East my frustration grew until finally I stumbled upon what seemed to be a trail, and there were even some lights not too far off in the distance. My spirit was instantly buoyed thinking that I had at last found the trailhead and was finally back on route. Of course, if you have been paying attention you’ll recall that I was heading in the completely wrong direction of the trail and by this point was a good 2-3 miles from the trailhead. This fact was quickly realized upon seeing that I was in fact in someone’s front yard and not at the La Plata trailhead (note that I in no way encourage travel on private property, but in this case it was considered necessary for safety reasons). Though not at the trailhead, the two cars parked in the driveway could only mean one thing – that there had to be a bridge across the river nearby. After jogging down the road there was a nice wide bridge across the river that led to the main highway and it was just a few mile jog/walk along the road to the main trailhead.
After a rather interesting encounter with a tow truck driver (who repeatedly insisted that I get no closer than approximately 20 feet) along the road who I waived down to make sure I was heading in the correct direction, I finally reached the the La Plata trailhead around 1:30 in the morning. On arrival, my crew seemed a bit confused (perhaps due to being half asleep) as to why it took something like 8 hours to go over La Plata and why I arrived from the completely wrong direction. Though frustrated with my navigational ineptitude – especially since I as ~30-40 minutes ahead of the FKT pace at the top of La Plata – I figured there was no need to dwell over what was in the past since there was nothing that could be done about it at this point. Instead of concerning myself with what had happened I set to work doing what needed to be done to get over Mount Elbert and Massive in the next 15 and a half hours to finish under the (arbitrary) 60 hour cutoff for Nolan’s.
After a some pierogis, pizza, coffee, and a casual retelling of my La Plata disaster in an effort to make light of the situation I set off to finish the route. 13 uneventful hours later I arrived at the Leadville Fish Hatchery to a toilet paper finish line, a handful of friends, food, beer, and a rather luxurious bed setup. 57 and a half hours after I had started, the journey was finally finished.
In the couple weeks since I finished I have had time to reflect on the nearly two and a half days that I was out in the Sawatch Mountains. Though doing the route fast is an objective, and I would be lying to say I wasn’t at least slightly disappointed that my navigation error cost me a shot at the FKT for the route, doing something like Nolan’s is more about the experience and not just seeing how fast you can go. Something like Nolan’s also requires a much greater ‘skill-set’ to finish. The arbitrariness of it all further turns it into much more of a mental and personal challenge. In the end this makes for a completely different experience compared to conventional races, and is one that is perhaps even more personally fulfilling.