Sept. 4-6, 2015
71 miles, 36,000' climbing
57 hours, 7 minutes
It sounds overly dramatic, but in a way I’ve been training and preparing for the challenge of Nolan’s 14 (N14) for over a decade now. The notion of enchaining fourteen 14ers in a single continuous push of nearly 100 miles over much no-trail terrain embodies what I love most about mountains and long distance running combined. I’ve never been a fast runner nor a super talented mountaineer but I feel I’m pretty good at both disciplines so combining the two really appeals to me.
I first had done some long, multi-peak Sawatch 14er linkups in the mid-2000s with a few friends and friends-of-friends. At that time a few of them encouraged me to look into this route called “Nolan’s 14”. Being a neophyte mountain runner at that time, it sounded pretty impossible but certainly captured my interest. For the next many years, I did a few more linkups of Sawatch 14ers and crewed friends Bill, Tom and Homie in a north to south Nolan’s attempt in August 2009. Since then, I’ve had many a great day scouting more of the Nolan’s route and figuring what routes I prefer. By the time I gave my first attempt at the Nolan’s 14 route on Labor Day weekend 2014, I had been on all of the route except the north side of Mount Princeton. But that 2014 attempt was from north to south and I didn’t get over Mount Yale so I still hadn’t seen the north side of Princeton. I spent a weekend scouting it out and felt good about the entire route going into my 2015 south to north attempt with five other friends on Labor Day Weekend again.
But first, back to my 2014 attempt…Going north to south starting with eight or so other friends and I had a pretty solid first go and exceeded my expectations getting nine summits (Massive through Columbia) in 33.5 hours but as I ascended the tenth peak, Mount Yale, at the sunset on the second day, a short but intense rain storm blasted me above treeline and got so cold I couldn’t warm up. My attempt was done as continuing higher as the night came on was not a smart idea. I turned back and hiked out North Cottonwood Creek and called it good at about 60 miles and 29,000 feet of vertical ascent. I was super pleased with that outing and my effort and learned a good bit about what it takes to complete this route. The biggest lesson I learned during that effort is to dress super warm for the nights. Insulated jackets, mittens and heavy duty rain gear. None of that light duty rain gear. So for 2015 I purchased cheap but warm and dry (read: not very breathable) Frog Toggs rain gear. I was ready for the 2015 attempt.
Leading up to the 2015 attempt I spent a weekend scouting both sides of Mount Princeton and the east side of Mount Huron. These two segments are, in my opinion, the cruxes of the route so it was great to go into it knowing these well. I also spent two weekends doing long, high altitude mountain traverses in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. These two traverses were two outings I’d long wanted to do but never made the time. Both traverses were very rewarding in their own right and, as a bonus, made for great N14 training. The first traverse was the Northern Sangres Traverse in the northern-most portion of the Sangres in southern Colorado. The second traverse, a month later, was a classic traverse in the heart of the Sangres of New Mexico, the New Mexico Sangres Traverse. Both traverses served up roughly 30 miles of rugged mountain ridge running in 12 to 14 hours at a time.
When it came time to go for the 2015 attempt my goal was to better my summit count of 2014 so anything beyond nine summits would mean a successful outing for me. I still harbored no illusions of actually finishing the entire route under 60 hours…it’s just too daunting to imagine completing the entire route. So when we set off early on Friday morning I had my sights set on Clohesy Lake between Missouri Mountain and Huron Peak as that would mean I had passed over the tenth summit, Missouri Mountain. If I managed to get that far, anything beyond that would be icing on the cake and would exceed my expectations. My friend Julian had done a great job of setting up generous people giving up their holiday weekend to help support the six of us attempting N14 by establishing aid stations along the route. Additionally, my Mom and stepfather, Matt, along with friends Bill, Rebecca, Katrina and Tom, crewed for me meeting me at trailheads along the way with my supplies, food and gear. I cannot express my gratitude for volunteers, family and friends that gave up their holiday weekend to help support me in this endeavor. It’s really very touching and I hope I can return the favor for others in their endeavors in the future.
|The 2015 crew. Will, Logan, Adam, Julian, John and me (L to R).|
When the six of us set off from the Blank Cabin trailhead for Mt. Shavano on Friday morning at 5:04am I had only met one of the six, Julian. I would quickly get to know the four others; Adam, John, Logan and Will and we would spend the next many hours and miles together. It was really very nice to have the company of like-minded folks for much of the route. Our ascent of Mount Shavano went quickly and smooth with Julian setting a great pace the entire way and we reached the summit of Shavano at 7:10am. We made quick work of the jaunt over to Tabeguache Peak in 40 minutes, arriving at 7:50am. Some of the talus between the summits was frosted over making for slippery footing but otherwise it was a clear, calm day.
|Sunrise while heading up Shavano|
From the summit of Tabeguache the only descent route I had scouted was a talus ridge from near the saddle between Tabeguache and Shavano that leads down to Brown’s Creek but Julian and Will had a different idea that piqued my interest; the so-called “Hamilton route” down Tabeguache into upper Brown’s Creek basin. The Hamilton route is named after Andrew Hamilton, the current Colorado 14er speed record holder. It sounded legitimate and would likely beat a couple thousand feet of talus descending so I hitched my wagon to the gang and we all descended this route. While longer in distance, it saved some elevation loss and was really quite pleasant. I’d certainly do it again. Minimal willow bushwacking was encountered in Brown’s Creek basin and we were soon making great time to the summit of Mount Antero at 10:50am.
|Heading up out of Brown's Creek Basin towards Antero with Tabeguache in the background. Julian Smith photo.|
Clouds were building all morning and it started to look a little dark as we hung out on the summit of Antero for a bit. I could see a rain cell to the north near Mount Yale but not eminent for the Antero area. The clouds were actually quite nice all day keeping things cool but never really opening up with rain. All six of us were still together here and instead of taking the standard ascent/descent route off Antero as I had planned I stuck with the gang to check out a new-to-me line off Antero. We descended about five hundred feet to the north off Antero to a small saddle before going due west down steep talus and scree eventually leading to a very steep treed slope going straight down to the Baldwin Gulch road at about 10,900’. While this was very direct and short in distance, it was a pretty leg-intensive, steep descent. I’m not sure I’d do it again but it was fun to see a new line on Antero and I’m glad I did it.
At this point, Julian, Logan and I were a bit ahead of Adam, Will and John so we mostly walked the Baldwin Gulch road to give the others time to catch up and we all more or less rolled into the Alpine aid station at the old cemetery at the same time around 1:15pm. The Alpine aid station was extremely well setup complete with a pop-up canopy—Chris has outdone herself. We restocked with food and water. My fueling for the weekend was mostly comprised of Tailwind powdered drink and cold Dominos pizza. I supplemented the pizza with energy bars, Powerbar gummy chews and bacon, mostly. My stomach would never be a problem all weekend and I was stoked about that.
I was also excited to see the next section…the mysterious but well-defined ascending traverse trail from the cemetery up to 10,700’ in Grouse Gulch on the southwest side of Mount Princeton. I had tried to find this trail from the top down earlier in the summer and failed miserably. It’s quite easy to find and follow from down in Alpine, it turns out.
|Sweet single track up into Grouse Gulch|
All six of us more or less stuck together for the ascent of Mount Princeton as well. In upper Grouse Gulch we opted to ascend a direct scree/talus slope just south of “Blake’s Fast Scree Gully” which got us to nearly 13,900’ on Princeton’s southwest ridge. Once on the ridge it was nice talus hopping to the summit of Mount Princeton at 4:40pm. Much to my great surprise, my friend Walt from Los Alamos had been waiting on the summit for nearly an hour for us bearing freshly-cooked bacon! Yeah! It was quite an uplift to run into Walt up there after a tough ascent of Mount Princeton.
|Princeton summit bacon!|
From the summit of Mount Princeton, our merry band of six really split up. Logan was super keen to take a descent route he had scoped earlier in the summer that went northwest over to near Cottonwood Lake before descending down to the Colorado Trail and over to the Avalanche Gulch TH for Yale. Julian and Adam both wanted to join Logan. It sounded a bit complicated to me and I was really keen to try a descent into Maxwell Gulch that I had scoped earlier in the summer but hadn’t actually taken. John and Will opted for the more “standard” Nolan’s route down the NE ridge to the Colorado Trail. At about 5pm we all went our separate ways off Princeton. The evening turned out quite nice with sporadic sunbeam bursts and my descent into Maxwell Gulch turned out very good and I’d certainly do it again. Once in Maxwell Gulch I filled up with water again (I carried a Sawyer squeeze filter but never ended up filtering water, opting instead to just drink the water directly.) I had heard of an old mining road in lower Maxwell Gulch and managed to lock onto that for an easy and smooth descent down to the CO trail just before 7pm. It rained briefly, but not very hard, as I descended to the CO trail but once on the trail it dried up again.
|Will and John descend Princeton|
I was feeling quite good and it was really very nice to finally open up my legs and turn my brain off after so much tedious talus hopping for the past few hours. The running along the CO trail was glorious as the sun set. Cellular service is really good along this stretch of the CO trail so I was able to catch up a bit on text messages and even called Allison to chat with her for about 10 minutes as I trotted along the trail. I made good time running the trail and got to the Cottonwood Lake road before having to stop and bust out my headlamp. Just a couple more miles and I’d be at Avalanche.
I got into the Avalanche trailhead aid, manned by Rita and Gina, around 8:30pm and I was feeling great. All systems were “Go” and I was ready to take on the night and the trek over Mount Yale. Bill would accompany me for this section as he was looking to spend some night time on the trail with me. Since I’ve never been up Denny Creek and have enjoyed the east ridge of Yale the couple times I’ve been on it, it was route of choice for the ascent. After about 30 minutes at the aid station, I left as Julian and Logan came in. They both suggested I go for Denny Creek but I had my mind made up so Bill and I headed up.
|Suited up in the light rain to head up Yale through the night. Patty Simi photo.|
The ascent up to the east ridge proper went pretty well but as soon as we started up the ridge proper, leaving the trees behind, the wind and cold air really made itself known. However, I had learned from last year to “overdress” at night so I donned my heavy mittens, insulated jacket and warm beanie and I was in good shape. The East Ridge is steep and loose at times and I was feeling the accumulated elevation gain of the four 14ers I’d already ascended so I began to fade a bit. A number of times I chose to sit down and close my eyes for just a moment or two. Clouds rolled in giving the already cold and dark night an ominous feel for the last few hundred feet. We saw a headlamp up on top and assumed it was Logan. Turned out we were correct. Logan had reached the summit about 10 minutes before we had. On the summit I sat down only for a few minutes before getting cold again and quickly motivated for the descent. Just a few paces on the descent and we ran into Julian and his friend Steve(?) as they neared the summit.
I had done this Mount Yale descent before but in the daylight. For the most part it was easy to follow the line I had previously taken but damn did it feel much longer than it had in the past. We could see Logan’s headlamp ahead of us and behind us we saw the headlamps of Julian and Steve. Bill and I finally reached the saddle between Point 13,105’ and Point 12,619’ and it was time to descend the “airplane gully” down to North Cottonwood Creek. The airplane gully is steep, bushy and full of vegetation. There’s not really a trail either. The grass and vegetation was wet making for treacherous footing and a soaking experience. By the time we got to near the bottom of the airplane gully I was pretty frustrated, wet and super tired. Then we had to deal with the tree deadfall. That was horrendous. In the daylight it’s a bit easier to navigate the tree deadfall because you can see a good distance ahead and pick a decent line that minimizes tree hopping and ducking-under. No such luxury in the dark. I was pissed. I really felt bad for Bill because he hadn’t been through here before and I was leading him on the worst tree hopping/crawling/ducking expedition possible. Somehow I feel I managed to lead us over every single possible dead tree in this section. My CPM (curses per minute) was at an all-time high and while it embarrassed me to be blurting out so many expletives, I couldn’t stop. That deadfall brought out the worst of me. By the time we hit the North Cottonwood aid station at 4:30am where my Mom, Matt and Tom were waiting, I was a full-on asshole. I apologized for my attitude but still I shouldn’t have let it get that out of line. This was the lowest moment of the weekend for me and I had to work hard to turn my frown upside down. As it turned out, Julian and Logan also both had a devil of a time with this descent so we were all happy to spend a solid hour at the aid station to regain our composure and steel our nerves to head up into the now windy conditions above treeline.
The highlight of the night, however, had to be the awesome remote aid station that Shelby and Martin had put together in North Cottonwood. Shelby was quick to hand me a warm bowl of Deb Pero’s famous potato and bacon soup which really hit the spot. Any thoughts of calling it quits at this point slowly faded as each spoonful of soup hit my lips. However, an unfortunate mix-up meant that my cold pizza had been left back at the car, two miles away. The thought of taking on Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, Belford and Missouri without my favorite food was hard to swallow. Thankfully, the valiant Tom came to the rescue running two miles back down to the car, grabbing my pizza and running back to the aid station in short order. Julian and I had decided to wait until the sun started to come up before heading up so the wait was not a problem. In the meantime, Martin was kind enough to allow me to lay down in his tent to get out of the drizzling rain and stay a bit warmer as we waited.
Around 6am, Julian and I motivated to head up Columbia. Logan had headed out about half an hour ahead of us. As I plodded up the trail behind Julian, the wind was whipping up above us and the whistling noise was not at all motivating. We pressed on and it wasn’t long before we broke out above treeline and up what I feel is the worst route on a Colorado 14er, the west slope of Columbia. Steep, loose, braided and just not at all fun. It was made even less fun with the wind, especially once on the ridge heading north to the summit. We reached the summit around 9:30am and sat down for a snack. At this point I still hadn’t found my mojo again and mentioned to Julian I may head back down the way we came and call it a day. He gave me a puzzled look and I don’t recall if he said anything but it was clear what I said was ridiculous. I’m glad he reacted the way he did and set me straight. I was thinking nonsense and he called me on it. It was great. After a short break we got up and continued on our way towards Harvard.
|Heading up out of Frenchman Creek basin|
I’m accustomed to staying a good bit higher in elevation in upper Frenchman Creek basin but it’s a ton of talus hopping and not always much fun so when Julian headed further down in elevation to avoid the talus and stay more on grass, I was intrigued and followed along. It worked out pretty well and is certainly easier on the mind versus the talus hopping. Getting lower in elevation got us out of the wind a bit more and I finally felt like I was warming up. The warmth was nice to enjoy for a bit before we headed back up the ridge and back into the strong winds en route to Harvard’s summit at 12:40pm. I found a little nook in some boulders just below the summit to enjoy some pizza. I was able to get text messages on my phone here and received a few encouraging messages from friends which helped boost my increasingly better mood.
Julian and I made decent time on the descent of Harvard’s north ridge and slope down to Pine Creek by around 2:45pm. It was awesome to see an aid station down in Pine Creek. I believe his name was Richard and his wife’s name I have unfortunately forgotten. We enjoyed some soup, chocolate teddy grahams and pleasant conversation with Richard and his wife. Moments later, Logan and his friend Cordis came back down to the aid station after a brief false start up Oxford. At this point it started raining and there was some decent thunder further up the valley so we all opted to wait it out under the cover the trees next to the small campfire at the aid station. We ended up hanging out for about 90 minutes, all told, before motivating to head up and out around 4:45pm.
The ascent up Oxford went quite smooth. We all knew the route pretty well and despite wet grass resulting in wet feet, we enjoyed having a group of four for conversation. But again, as we got above 13,000’ the wind was pretty strong and quite cold. All four of us got pretty chilled as we reached the summit of Oxford just before 7pm. In fact, Cordis was cold enough to skip the summit of Oxford and stayed lower going directly down to the saddle between Oxford and Belford. Meanwhile, Julian, Logan and I all hunkered down in the small summit wind block area on top of Oxford. I even took my shoes and socks off to put them in the wind and hopefully dry out a bit. I’m not sure things dried out much, or at all, unfortunately.
|Julian and Logan take a load off on the summit of Oxford|
After a short bit of summit time, we headed over to Belford via the connecting ridge. I caught up to Cordis just after the low point on the saddle and he said he was quite cold. The air temperature had dropped just after the sun set and with the wind on the ridge, it was pretty frigid. I had an extra Frog Toggs rain shell jacket and pants in my pack so Cordis put the kit on. It was pretty hilarious because the rain kit was too large on me and extremely large on Cordis. But the kit did a great job of keeping the warmth in so he wasn’t complaining. All of us headed to the summit of Belford in the brutal wind and tagged the summit around 8:20pm just before it got dark enough to mandate a headlamp. Cordis continued over the summit and down to the Missouri Gulch trailhead while Julian, Logan and I headed down to Elkhead Pass. I scampered down pretty quickly to the pass and was able to lay down for a bit, maybe five minutes, and close my eyes and rest some before Julian and Logan reached the pass. The brief “doze-off” felt great.
When Julian and Logan arrived at the pass we had to decide how we wanted to tackle Missouri. Logan and I were keen to skirt around the southeast face of Missouri and Julian humored us. I’d been on this south face traverse coming down from Missouri and over to Elkhead twice in the past but both times during the day. Logan had recently scouted it too so we felt good about it. Turns out it’s pretty difficult in the dark! We ended up farting around a bit trying to decide when to head up. I think, in the end, we did not traverse far enough southwest before heading up. Eventually I found a fourth-class gully that looked good enough to me so I went for it. It worked out well and I hit the south ridge at 13,700’ around 10:40pm. I called down to Julian and Logan that the line went and they opted to follow me up. I had another chance to sit and “rest my eyes” for a bit while they two of them ascended the gully. Once we were all together we headed up the final bit to the summit and sat on top at 11:30pm. It was breezy and a bit foggy on the summit so we didn’t stay long. Julian and Logan were able to use the FRS radio to chat with crew down at Clohesy Lake. The crew had been able to see our headlamp light reflect in the clouds and it was a boost knowing they were all down there. The three of us had a short discussion about where the route down to Clohesy was from where we were at so I used my phone and Locus Pro app with a GPS track showing my route from last summer to get us set straight. We headed northwest, then west, on the ridge before dropping down to the lake.
Back when I head left the summit of Harvard, I had sent a text message to Tom and my crew suggesting I’d called it quits at Clohesy Lake. That would have gotten me through 10 summits and I would be very pleased with that. Apparently my crew was prepared to give me a pep talk and get me to continue beyond Clohesy Lake but as I rolled into Clohesy around 1:00am, I had already decided I’d continue on through at least Huron Peak and over to Winfield. I had a second wind come through and was feeling good mentally and physically. No reason to stop!
The aid station crew at Clohesy Lake was chock full of experienced ultrarunners and crew folks and the vibe was fun and very supportive. They had a massive campfire going which helped warm us all up and get us excited to press on into the overnight. I think I downed some Muscle Milk protein drink, some coffee and snacked on various foods before getting ready to head out. Julian, Logan and I spent probably close to 30 minutes around the fire enjoying its warmth and chatting with the large crew.
We chatted about our route up Huron and I was quite keen to take the route I’ve done a couple times up Huron—ascending the basin to the north of the Lois Lake Basin despite the Lois Lake basin being the more common Nolan’s route up/down Huron on the Clohesy side. Julian and Logan were both interested to see this route so we headed out from the aid station around 1:30am. A small log bridge across the outlet stream of Clohesy Lake allowed us to keep our feet dry on the crossing. After a short bit of bushwacking the route into this basin goes straight up a gully full of giant, stable blocks for about 300 vertical feet. It’s pretty engaging scrambling so it kept me mentally focused and warded off any thoughts of sleep. We did a good job of navigating and were soon bouncing across the talus of the upper basin before the steep climb to the ridge. The clouds came in and gave an eerie feel to the night as well as obscure the route for a few moments every now and then. Going through the wee hours of our second night, the three of us started to drag. At about 4:30am the three of all sat down and, without discussion, just nodded off for about 15 minutes. We all snapped awake when a short bit of drizzle passed over us. It was another few hundred feet to the 13,400’ ridge north of Huron. Right around this time, unbeknownst to me, my Delorme InReach battery died.
On the ridge a little after 5:00am we could see the headlamps of a couple of other hikers coming up the standard route from Winfield. The next bit of talus traversing from our ridge to the standard route trail is normally fun talus hopping but after the freezing cold, damp night the talus was covered in verglass and was extremely treacherous and slow-going. I found myself often using both hands for stability along this traverse. I felt pretty bad about this because I know Julian and Logan weren’t psyched on this route in these conditions and it was me who had led them this way. They were troopers to push through the conditions with no complaining. We were all pretty chilled being up in the clouds and as we got higher we encountered a bit of snow covering the last couple hundred feet to the summit of Huron. We reached Huron’s summit around 6:30am and didn’t linger in the chilly conditions. The descent was a bit slippery on the upper few hundred feet but quickly dried up and got warmer as we got lower.
|Sunrise from near the summit of Huron|
The rising sun really gave me a boost and that, along with passing by a large number of hikers heading up the trail as I descended, I was amped up. I was 49 hours into the outing and suddenly feeling the best I’d felt the entire time. It was a wild feeling but I was ready to open it up and run it into Winfield and cruise over the next 14er, La Plata. I stripped some layers as I got down to the dirt road that leads into Winfield. Coming up the road from Winfield was Steve Bremner and he was kind enough to turn around and run with me for about 10 minutes giving me some company into Winfield at around 8:20am.
My Mom, Matt, Tom, Bill, Rebecca, Katrina and a host of others were waiting at Winfield with freshly cooked bacon and breakfast burritos! I was keen to eat a bit of food, drink up a bit and get out towards La Plata summit’s as soon as possible so I made it a quick turnover of about 15 minutes in Winfield changing socks and shoes quickly. A fellow ultrarunner runner from Kansas, Sophia, had put together an amazing aid station at Winfield and I felt bad for blowing in and out of there given just how awesome it was but I did manage to enjoy some of her freshly-cooked bacon before hitting the road. Since it would be dirt road and trail from here on out, I grabbed my ultra poles for the next bit.
|Leaving Winfield amped up. Tom Stockton photo.|
Leaving Winfield by 8:45am or so, I fired up some tunes from my phone and managed to do a good bit of running up the road up the North Fork of Clear Creek and La Plata’s southwest side. My good friend Bill quickly caught up to me from Winfield to give me some company over La Plata. It was great to be back in the mountains with Bill and especially great at this point in the outing. We motivated and pushed pretty swiftly to reach the summit of La Plata at noon making it a 5.5 hour split from the summit of Huron to the summit of La Plata—something I was super, super pleased about that pace at this stage of the adventure.
|From the summit of La Plata, looking north to the remaining two 14ers, Elbert and Massive, I did not make it to.|
The day was beautiful and I was feeling great. With the InReach dead, I was still able to send a text status update to Facebook to keep friends and family updated on my progress and the comments and replies were very uplifting. I was utterly stoked!
Bill and I munched on some snacks on the summit for about ten minutes before beginning the descent down the standard route to highway 82 at La Plata gulch. It was an uneventful and enjoyable scamper down the trail and to the trailhead at 2:07pm…a total of 57:07 for 12 peaks trailhead to trailhead. I was so stoked with this effort!
I had given a good amount of thought about going on to Elbert and perhaps Massive if I could have kept feeling good even though it would easily be another 14+ hours but many factors made me decide to call it good at this point. It was a beautiful afternoon and this adventure had only been possible thanks to the support of my Mom, Matt and friends that had come up to the area for the weekend. I really wanted to enjoy the rest of the beautiful afternoon with them instead of just seeing them for brief spurts of time at various meeting points along the route. It would have been very selfish to ask for more support after everyone had given up nearly 60 hours of non-stop time to help me in my adventure. It was awesome to stop, sit in a chair and enjoy a beer with my family and friends on this gorgeous summer afternoon. Life was great and I wanted to soak it up.
I cannot adequately express how grateful I am for everyone that helped make this attempt so successful. Many people, from family to friends to people I hadn't ever met, gave up their weekend to give me the best chance at success possible. If you were one of those people please know that your help means the world to me and accept my heartfelt gratitude for what you've done. Thank you!