It's been over a week and I'm still trying to find a way to put the Nolan's 14 experience into words. What's easier to appreciate is the abundance of gratitude I have for the gobs of good fortune and kindness we encountered along the way. Over the past couple of days, deep fatigue has gradually given way to deeper satisfaction. And while I initially thought that 60 hours in the Sawatch would be a test of stubbornness, strength, and grit, the more salient lessons were in vulnerability and the value of accepting help from others. Ultimately, I was reminded of the powerful force that is friendship.
One of many laminated mini maps custom created for the endeavor
The notion of Nolan's bore it's way into my head at some point earlier in the year. And so for the better part of the summer, my weekends consisted of traveling west to scout the Sawatch. Success in this endeavor would require lots of homework, and I credit Julian Smith with emphasizing the importance of this. The opportunity to spend long days in the mountains made the weekly commute much more palatable. Yet once most of the preparation was complete, I realized I had some lingering reservations, namely with route finding in the dark. Because of this, I sought a partnership with Gavin (his report here) to improve both of our chances at success. Gavin's a solid friend with an AT thru-hike under his belt, tons of Nolan's knowledge, and most importantly, understands as well as dishes out loads of Seinfeld references. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
START TO MT. MASSIVE. 5:30 AM TO ~7:47 AM. 2:17 ELAPSED
When go time finally arrived Friday morning, we gathered at the Fish Hatchery in Leadville. Our intended 5:00 am start was delayed slightly by a finicky battery holster in Gavin's SPOT. Patience and MacGyvering (or MacGavining) ultimately prevailed and we were on our way at 5:30 am. Gavin's friends Anna and Nick accompanied us for the first peak, Mt. Massive. The sun welcomed us above treeline and the dusting of snow at the summit served as a good omen for what was to come.
Summit of Mt. Massive (#1)
MT. ELBERT ~11:00 AM (5:30 ELAPSED)
We trotted down to the North Halfmoon trailhead where a small, yet unexpected aid station was set up. Few things in life are better than unexpected food on the trail! After a small stream crossing, we were on our way to Mt. Elbert. Scouting this route several years ago with Sean, I remembered how miserable the mile long, 3000 ft climb had been at that time. By now though, we had settled into a bit of a rhythm and were moving well when we met up with Bob Sweeney at the top. Bob, who I learned has quite the storied running history, accompanied around Bull Hill and down to the La Plata trailhead where we would meet our crew for the first time.
MT. LA PLATA ~3:20 PM (9:50 ELAPSED)
At the trailhead, massive calorie consumption was the new objective. Reese made some SKRATCH Labs rice/almond butter portables that went down smoothly. An estimated 100 calories/minute sounds about right for the 7 minute stop before we continued towards the summit. As a hefty kid in my youth, the influx of food sat quite well and I found myself feeling rather strong. Gavin's stomach was being more rebellious however and over the next couple of miles, we settled into slightly different speeds. We never really got out of sight of one another however and Gavin made a quick recovery by the time we summited. During the descent to our next aid at Winfield, our paces once again aligned and all was right with the world!
La Plata (#3)
During a training run, Jared Hazen once described the descent to Winfield as having "enough mud to kill a baby deer!" While the trail seems to be perpetually laden with shoe stealing slop, it's one of my favorites as you wind through the labyrinth of shoulder high willow groves.
Once in Winfield, we were greeted with the best spread of the day. Peking Chicken, gummy bears, salted white and sweet potatoes, and butterscotch pudding were all consumed with great enthusiasm! We stopped for a bit longer than we initially intended but ensuring adequate food and clothing for the long night ahead was paramount.
Winfield aid where Ginna, Anna, Peking Chicken, and Gummy Bears await!
MT HURON ~7:40 PM (14:10 ELAPSED)
Onwards and upwards, Ginna and Anna accompanied us to treeline of the Mt. Huron ascent. The sun was just beginning to fade behind the mountains and I can recall few times in my life feeling more at peace. The timing couldn't have been more perfect, and though we had yet to cross the halfway point, witnessing this sunset was yet another good omen.
With the last specks of daylight we spotted our next targets, the sister lakes of Lois and Clohesy. Nocturnal route finding was a new challenge for me but Gavin executed it incredibly well. I'd spot cairns closer to the lake where I could and helped serve as a sounding board for navigational suggestions but it was clear we were in his wheelhouse now. Once we crossed Clohesy Lake, we heard from some campers that there was a group looking for us, offering aid. We himmed and hawed for a bit but since this wasn't something we had planned on and because there were too many uncertainties, we decided to press on.
Now climbing up to the 5th summit of the day, Mt. Missouri, things started to get interesting. Around what I'm assuming was treeline (it was dark) Gavin pointed out a porcupine that had started to waddle away from us just as I directed my light at it's robust hindquarters. Neither I or the GoPro got a good enough glimpse at it to offer any definitive identification. And given the growing levels of fatigue, that may or may not have actually been a porcupine. But whatever was "shaking it's bum at us" in the middle of the night was definitely not something I'd want to tango with!
MT MISSOURI ~11:49 PM (18:19 ELAPSED)
During the daylight hours our pace was never frantic but it was deliberate. Now in darkness, I didn't necessarily feel like I was slowing much, but I did feel Gavin was growing stronger. He was consistently leading the climbs and I was doing all I could to not lose sight of his light. But near the summit of Missouri (pronounced "Misery"), I noticed Gavin's light was now stationary and he was yelling at me to come "check this out." I squinted through the darkness to find an ivory shape standing motionless. Confused further by Gavin's barking (I think he was yelling actual words but it merely sounded like barking to me and probably to the goat as well), I eventually realized our path was being impeded by a stubborn horned beast. After the chiding proved ineffective, stones were gently lobbed to encourage it to move from the path so that we could continue. Again, not something I'd want to tango with!
MT BELFORD ~1:29 AM (19:59 ELAPSED)
After topping out on Missouri, Mt. Belford was our next target. At night, with the ability to only spot 10-20 ft in front of you, I became more acutely aware of the ridiculousness of this adventure. Here we were at 14,000 ft with our next objective around the same altitude. Rather than being able to follow a ridge however, I found myself following Gavin's torch down several thousand feet, only to climb back up to regain what we had lost. This wasn't an error in navigation, it was simply the way of Nolan's. And while in daylight, the beauty of the Sawatch distracted you from this process, it was simply demoralizing at night. Fortunately, Ginna and Anna had planned to hike up to Belford along the standard route to give us another carrot to look forward to. Just as Gavin and I reached the summit, we spotted their lights as they were minutes away, coming from the opposite direction. Add this spot on timing to the ongoing list of good fortune.
Mt. Belford (#6). The faces say it all
MT. OXFORD ~2:29 AM (20:59 ELAPSED)
After a quick midnight picnic at 14,000 ft, Gavin and I continued our trek to Oxford which would be our final summit before an opportunity to rest. The stretch between Belford and Oxford would be the shortest jaunt encountered between any two peaks since we began. Awareness of this, and the on-boarding of several hundred calories via Enduro Bites helped me move with purpose again. Once atop Oxford, I began looking for the grassy shelf used during scouting. Briefly grappling with the "it should be right here, but it's not," conundrum, the general direction was down and so down we went. In scouting with Julian, things had worked so perfectly. We descended the grass field, hopped some boulders, found some weathered trees for landmarks, and then popped out on the Pine Creek Trail. This time around, the descent was marked by clumsy boulder scrambling, a couple episodes of cliffing out, and short but frustrating backtracking. Finally, in the midst of thrashing through the most miserably thick jungle gym Aspen, just as we were ready to once again about-face, the trees gave way and we spotted our Pine Creek campfire.
PINE CREEK AID ~4:12 AM (23:28 ELAPSED)
At the nighttime oasis, we were greeted by Steve who quickly whipped up some chicken noodle soup. More tired than hungry, I passed on seconds and fell into the tent. Inside, I discovered that there was one sleeping pad and one sleeping bag for Gavin and myself. In this "choose your sleeping weapon" scenario, I opted for the pad, reasoning that my clothes would be enough to keep me warm. An hour of literally "not sleeping, just resting my eyes" in the low 20 degree pre-dawn proved the error in my decision making. Fortunately the creeping daylight began to defrost my bones and after a breakfast of hot soup and hot chocolate, Gavin and I set off for two more summits. 7 down. 7 to go.
MT. HARVARD ~8:47 AM (27:17 ELAPSED)
The trip up Harvard was uneventful as I recall. It wasn't fast. It wasn't slow. It just was. The mind was still waking up and the body was simply moving in rhythm.
MT. COLUMBIA ~11 AM (29:30 ELAPSED)
We opted to avoid more of the technical ridge work during the connection to Columbia. To be honest, I really don't recall many details during this stretch either, other than the fact that I missed finding the old wheel barrel ruin that I had previously found in scouting. Despite trying to be present, it's interesting how the mind has a tendency to gloss over some details. While the climb is a bit hazy, I do remember the descent and seeing friends from the Springs for the first time. Brian, James, and Harsha were close to summiting as we made our way down and Zach and Jeff were reportedly also out in the mountains, somewhere. The surge of emotional energy was incredibly uplifting and Gavin, who hadn't met any of these friends before, was so moved by their gesture of support that his eye holes began to leak. This was the first, but it wouldn't be the last.
MT. YALE ~ 3:26 PM (33:49 ELAPSED)
We opted for a more direct descent to the North Cottonwood aid location, dropping down a slope with reported grade of 50-70%. I had scouted this stretch over the summer and, though admittedly I wasn't 100% sure of our direction the entire time, I somehow managed to lead us in the right direction. Once there, we were greeted by Ginna and Anna along with some new friendly faces, including Blake Wood (one of the original Nolan's folks), Tina, Marco, and Shelby. We scarfed down several helpings of delicious rice/potato goulash and avoided the freeze dried egg concoction at Anna's recommendation. We only had one peak before we'd meet crew again and Tina would join us for the slog up Yale. The approach involved a tiny dose of forest thrashing as we followed the airplane wreckage cairns. Tina, who I had gone back and forth with throughout much of Leadville, kept the conversation ridiculous and the mood light hearted, even in the midst of the small flurry storm we encountered. Good energy was abundant and it was easy to forget that we basically hadn't slept in the last day in a half!
Rather than a prolonged road stretch, we took the ridge to join the Colorado Trail before the Avalanche Gulch aid station, where again, we were met by a strong Colorado Springs contingent. Once at the aid station, I was overwhelmed with the great food options. Unfortunately, the physical process of eating had become very tiresome and it was difficult to imagine having to eat yet again. Luckily, Zach came to the rescue with a breakfast burrito from Sancho's and a peanut butter brownie milkshake from K's in Buena Vista. Suddenly food was appealing again! I downed the burrito and took as much milkshake as I could handle. Rain was beginning to fall and so we were bracing for an eventful night ahead.
There was about a mile road stretch before we would have to officially say goodbye to crew again. Gavin and I had a small entourage joining us for this as well as a portion of the Colorado Trail before we would resume our bush bashing. As the sun began to set, I mentally prepared myself for another long night. At least we only had one peak to negotiate this night!
MT. PRINCETON ~12:12 AM (41:16 ELAPSED)
Jeff graciously accompanied us up what many consider the last crux of the route, Mt. Princeton. Gavin and I had found a relatively direct and easy route avoiding Maxwell Gulch during our scouting together. Like so much of this experience however, things looked a lot different on tired and sleep deprived legs. We made our way above treeline and were fortunate enough to not have to contend with the rain or lightning that we initially worried about. Instead, there were "knock you off your feet" gusts along the exposed ridge and I realized that despite my sleepiness, I needed to be really present to avoid calamity. All things considered, wind was a much preferred alternative to electrical activity. Just before summiting, we crossed paths with, and offered well wishes to Ginny Laforme who had just embarked on her South to North attempt. Ginny is another original Nolan's member and I was amazed at her resolve and ability to take on this nasty mountain on her own!
The miserably slow and inefficient descent from Princeton was probably the worst of the trip. There has got to be a better way down from the mountain but it eluded us that night. Loose talus fields made bipedal travel nearly impossible as we crab walked from lichen rock to lichen rock trying to find some hope of stability. Even finding the trail offered small relief however as the journey began to seem never-ending. I don't think I've ever been more tired as I was literally lifting my eyebrows to keep my eyes open. In planning, I tried to imagine what I would feel like at this point. I thought that with 11 down and 3 to go, I would want to push to complete the final three peaks, no matter how fatigued I was. In practice however, sleep couldn't come soon enough.
ALPINE AID ~4:15am (47:15) moving again @~5:45am (48:15)
Once we finally arrived at the Alpine Aid station, I ate something warm (I have no idea what), and crawled into the back of Blake's truck for some shut eye. We agreed on 30 minutes sleep with an option for more, if needed. The cumulative exertion and time above 10,000 ft had begun to wear a bit on my lungs and I recall going to sleep to the sound of my heavy, labored breathing. Fortunately, with ample warmth, falling asleep was no trouble this time around. Those 30 minutes seemed like an eternity and when the alarm went off, I was still recovering from the land of deep slumber. I recall shouting "LETS GET THE BALL ROLLING," a phrase I don't recall ever using before. Ultimately, we were granted 10 more minutes of sleep before our crew kicked us out out the truck, fed us, and sent us on our way for the final stretch.
MT. ANTERO ~8:38 AM (51:08 ELAPSED)
Anna agreed to "crack the whip" and accompany us for the final 3 summits. We warmed up along the jeep roads towards Antero before opting for the more direct boulder line to the top. Though I tried to stay in the moment, I found myself feeling very emotionally fragile as the magnitude of the adventure was starting to sink in. As we rounded a ridge, I began to weep. Tears of joy? Tears of exhaustion? Who knows. But as the sunlight hit my face for the first time on that last day, flesh and bone melted away revealing nothing more than a purely vulnerable, wild soul.
MT. TABEGUACHE ~11:48 AM (54:18 ELAPSED)
The end was near and it was becoming more tangible. There was essentially one final climb left as, relatively speaking, the ridge from Tabeguache to Shavano was little more than a formality. After some brief discussion regarding which line to take, we opted for a more direct and proven route that Gavin and Anna had previously scouted. Crawling up the mountain on hands and feet became the most efficient way to avoid the wind and maintain forward progress. Sensing our propensity for calorie neglect at this point, Anna began feeding us chews. No bonking allowed!
MT. SHAVANO ~12:18 PM (54:47 ELAPSED)
As anticipated, the ridge from Tabeguache to Shavano was rather trivial and went by exceedingly fast. Rather than slogging, we now floated over boulders. In fact, the final peak arrived almost too soon. Once at the summit, I was saddened that this did not mark the completion. Not because I wanted it to be over, but because there was some unspoken pressure to keep moving until the Blank Cabin Trailhead far below. We stayed for several minutes to savor the journey, but as I gazed North and reflected on where we came, I could have easily stayed several hours.
Mt. Shavano (#14), the final summit
BLANK CABIN TRAILHEAD ~1:51 PM (56:19 ELAPSED)
On the way down from Shavano, we decided to cut out a stretch of trail that would have added additional mileage. Unfortunately, this meant that we ended up missing a large portion of our crew who had planned to hike up to celebrate. We didn't realize this until a couple miles from the finish as Tina came sprinting up from behind. Carson soon joined and assured us that there would be more to follow. Once at the actual trailhead, Julian (who had completed 7 summits) and his wife Lisa (who had graciously supported everyone along the way) were there to welcome, feed, and congratulate us. With no more reason to move, Gavin and I sat down in the shade to share stories with the rest of our friends who trickled down from the summit.
I am so genuinely thankful for the kindness of so many. The support from old and new friends was nothing short of overwhelming and without a doubt, Gavin helped me more than I helped him. The idea of covering 14 Fourteeners on foot is an achievement I'm incredibly proud of. And while adventures like this certainly require disciplined physical training, mental preparation, and proper fueling, at the end of the day, it's the intangibles that seem to help the most. The positive emotional energy from others along the way gets me through the lowest moments and provides real value to the experience. This is something I've learned to appreciate, even when I'm not traipsing through the mountains. Hooray for friends and wild souls!