| Nolans14, A Journey Through the Sawatch
Sept 3rd-4th, 2011
First, sorry for the long winded tale, but there is a lot to tell.
It was 2005 when my love of peak bagging and hiking came together with the new (to me) world of ultramarathon running. I had not idea what a happy marriage it would end up being or to what ridiculous lengths it would take me. After about a year of living in Colorado I learned of an incredibly insane, but spectacular and challenging route known as Nolans14. The route was originally dreamt up by Jim Nolan as the most 14,000ft high peaks one could climb within a 100mile span. The route stretches from Mt Massive on the North end to Mt Shavano on the South end, traversing fourteen 14ers in the process. From 1999 to 2002 there was a race that followed the route, drawing anywhere from 4-13 participants who came out and challenged themselves on this 100mile, 44,000ft gain trek through the Sawatch Mts. To date only four people have summited all fourteen peaks within the 60h limit. Now, with the forest service shutting down the race, the number of atemptees have been reduced to a handful for whom this is a solo adventure challenge.
Over the past several years I’ve been slowly learning the routes (many off trail), preparing my body for long adventures and gaining a better appreciation for the incredible difficulty that entails completing Nolans14. In 2008 I set out from the Southern terminus (Blank Gulch) and completed the southern four peaks; Mt Shavano, Mt Tabeguache, Mt Antero and Mt Princeton. In 2009 I again started at Blank Gulch, this time adding on one more peak; Mt Yale. For all my efforts I’d only netted 5 peaks in 23hours, a small fraction of what it would take to complete Nolans14. After a 1 year hiatus I returned to the route in 2011, feeling much stronger and more confident about the route. This push would be from the Northern end, starting with Mt Massive and working my way South in hopes of picking up nine peaks over 58miles with 27,000ft elevation gain.
14ers Covered: Mt Massive, Mt Elbert, La Plata Peak, Huron Peak, Missouri Mt, Mt Belford, Mt Oxford, Mt Harvard Mt Columbia (Nine)
Total Time: 34hours 37minutes
Distance: approx 58miles (20miles off trail)
Elevation: 27,000ft of gain
Calories Consumed: 5800 (2 poptarts, 21oz Vi Fuel gel, 4.5 balance bars, 2 granola bars, 4 bags of trail mix, turkey sandwich, 4 cookies, dozen potato wedges, 5h energy)
Water Consumed: approx 12 liters (384oz)
Temperature Range: approx 28-75ºF
Training (since July 1st): 350 mountain miles mostly above 10,000ft, 100,000ft of elevation gain, five 14ers.
The Start: Mt Massive to Winfield
I set out from the N Halfmoon Creek trailhead at 6:25am along with several friends who had decided to join me for the first peak or two, a much saner endeavor. I took off at a brisk hiking pace up the flatter section of trail toward Mt Massive, jogging the few small downhills, I was soon all alone. I hit the turn for Mt Massive’s SW slope and started up the steep rocky stairs, a little quicker than I should have. I soon reigned in my pace to something that was quick by comfortable and most importantly something I felt I could maintain. I made quick methodical work of the switchbacks and soon found myself jogging from the false summit over to the true summit, topping out at 8:26am, 30min quicker than anticipated. I snapped a photo, took in the views, and then jogged off back down the way I came. I stopped quickly to chat with Pete, Michael, Stephanie and Chris on the way down, but knew there was a long day ahead so off I went.
I reached the cars at the N Halfmoon Creek TH at 9:36am, well ahead of schedule, refilled my water, grabbed another 900 calories and took off down the road toward the S Halfmoon Creek TH for Mt Elbert’s West ridge. After hopping across the river I cruised up the road to around 11,100ft where I located the cairn marking the turn and up into the trees I went. After ducking through a half mile of fairly open trees I popped out at the base of the West ridge, a 3000ft 1.5mile long ramp that puts one directly on the summit. It was going to be slow, but by keeping a steady pace it went by quickly and I soon topped out on Mt Elbert among the throngs of hikers at 12pm. The weather was looking spectacular, so I had someone take another summit photo before heading off down the South ridge on a faint trail toward Bull Hill with the hulking mass of La Plata front and center.
The route down to Bull Hill is a mix of tundra and small boulders, fairly runnable by alpine standards. I contoured around the East side of Bull Hill to avoid an extra 300ft of gain, then descended the ridge to the Golden Fleece mine. Once at the mine I picked up an old mining road that descends to the trail in Echo Canyon. Both are somewhat overgrown, but still easy to follow and enjoyable running. The trail spit me out onto Hwy 82, where I hammered through the only 2miles of pavement I would see all day, reaching the La Plata trailhead where my friends Ben and Amanda were waiting for me, 1:50pm.
In any long arduous adventure friendly faces always provide me a mental boost, so it was great to see them. I refilled my water, grabbed my food stash they had brought and downed a few of Amanda’s awesome homemade cookies. Then it was off up the trail to La Plata, 4100ft away. We maintained a brisk hiking pace uphill, though I could tell I was slowing a bit from the morning. The clouds were gathering overhead, but nothing was dark enough to give us any concern so we continued up, taking in the awesome vistas of La Plata Gulch, Ellingwood Ridge and the Sawatch stretching in every direction. We topped out on La Plata at 4:50pm, still right on schedule and moving pretty well.
The descent off La Plata toward Winfield starts off with quite a bit of nasty steep talus before easing into a gentle tundra slope where a nice trail exists. We jogged through the tundra to the saddle and stared down into the broad lush basin that would take us to the West Winfield trailhead. The initial 400ft from the saddle is on horrid hard pack dirt covered with ball bearing sized gravel, miserable. Past that the trail becomes a wonderful meandering path through the high alpine meadow with towering spires and crags surrounding you. As we dropped off the lip of the hanging valley we ran into Pete who had jogged up from Winfield to meet us. The four of us arrived at Winfield at 6:50pm, a little after my intended time, but still feeling pretty good. What I was even more excited about was that John (Homie), had made it out to join me for the entire night section.
Long Dark Road: Winfield to Mt Oxford
After refueling on potato wedges, cookies and a turkey sandwich I packed my bag for the long night ahead. The next stretch was to cover six 14ers and 30+ miles over an 18-24h span without any resupply or crew support, a long haul even when fresh. I was able to cram 4000 calories, several layers of clothing, two lights, 2L of water and all my standard emergency gear into my little Ultimate Direction Wink (see list below). We took off at 7:30pm at a brisk hike up the road to the Mt Huron trailhead chatting away. John is very much like me, a peak bagger and mountaineer by trade, who happened to fall into ultra running several years back. Despite our similar goals and sharing lots of beta we had never actually hiked or climbed together. I was very glad to have him along for this section, as I knew it was going to be tough, arduous and long and company could only help make it more enjoyable.
We chugged our way up Mt Huron, though as the temperature dipped into the 30s my breathing became very labored. I could feel the cold air constricting my lungs up high, and my pace suffered in conjunction. We finally topped out on Mt Huron at 10:18pm under partly cloudy skies, with most of the moon hidden. Since my goal for the day had been the route and not specifically each individual peak, I had not been signing summit registers. John opened up Huron’s register to sign in and told me there was a note I had to read. “It takes a Special Idiot, Eric Lee. Nolans14 9/3-9/3, Remember its just another run –Super Crew”. I had completely forgotten that my friend Andy had been up Huron earlier that day, but had to take off before I came through Winfield. It’s amazing how such little things can give you a mental boost at just the right time, thanks Andy.
We hopped our way down to the saddle and dropped off the West side of Huron into the basin above Lois Lake. I scouted this about a month prior so felt as though I could navigate us down through the mess of talus and trees. In the dark, things are a lot harder, so it took us a few tries to find the correct grassy descent gulley. At last I located familiar ground and we were able to follow the cairned use trail down past Lois Lake, continuing to follow the trail as it descended along side the cascading outlet. I’ve used two different methods of descent, following the creek and following elk paths on a descending traverse toward the outlet of Clohesy Lake. This night we opted to follow the path along the river, then to boulder hop down the drainage until dense brush forced us into the woods where we picked up intermittent game trails that finally led us to Clohesy Lake. We crossed the outlet on the log bridge I’d also found in scouting and hiked on up the little hill to rejoin the trail to Missouri Mt, 12:20am
As we crested a small knoll we were greeted by a dozen or so very jovial individuals whose camp fire we’d seen from up near Lois Lake, and they our lights. We said hello and proceeded to climb up the steep trail leading to Missouri’s NW Ridge. The trail climbs very steeply at first then finally begins to level of in the hanging valley West of Missouri Mt. This creek around 11900ft was our last chance for water for quite some time, so I refilled my camelback and we headed up the steep tundra toward the NW ridge. At first there are cairns, but those soon disappear and one is left with the simple task of heading uphill until you reach the ridge crest. The cold night air was still squeezing my lungs and it was hard for me to get much oxygen to my strong, but under utilized muscles. I did my best to keep a consistent cadence, and soon found myself atop Missouri’s broad summit, 3:10am. We had decided on the ascent that to shorten the amount of climbing and reascending I would have to do we’d drop off the Missouri/Iowa saddle and traverse over to Elkhead Pass from the backside. I took a few steps off the summit and John asked, “which way do you want to go?” I looked around and noticed I had started walking toward the East ridge, no thanks, and turned around and began the descent toward the Iowa saddle.
In the pitch black of the night it was hard to get a gauge on our surroundings, even the silhouettes of the peaks were hard to distinguish with no moon. We finally made the saddle and dropped down the steep tundra toward the bench around 12900ft where we’d start out traverse to the pass. As we traversed toward the Pass the hill began to fall away faster and faster, until John gave in and dropped down into the basin looking for the trail (12800ft). I continued my side hill traverse eventually reaching the trail and meeting up with John. We climbed the last few hundred feet to Elkhead Pass and then banked a right up the slope toward Mt Belford. For now the peaks were getting closer and easier. The grade of the trail heading up Belford was just shallow enough that I could settle into a solid hiking pace without exacerbating my constricted lungs too much. By now the temperatures had dropped into the low 30s/high 20s and I had every piece of clothing on in an attempt to stay warm. It was not very comfortable, but it would do for the night, as I kept having to scrunch my fingers up in my gloves to prevent complete numbness.
We summit Mt Belford at 5:30am (peak #6) and immediately took off for Mt Oxford, a short 1.5miles away. As we hiked across the saddle toward Oxford the first signs of the impending sun shown on the horizon, and with it hopes of warmer air and a little energy boost. As we sat down on the summit of Mt Oxford behind the wind break to eat some food, the sun slowly crept above the horizon. It’s iridescent glow lit up the surrounding peaks one by one painting everything with hues of pink and red. As I sat there contemplating where I had come from, what I had completed so far and what lay before me a true appreciation for it all came over me. Very few people will get to see and experience all I have on this journey in a lifetime let alone in the day and a half it will take me. Then I remembered the daunting task ahead, a 3000ft drop down to Pine Creek before reascending 3200ft to Mt Harvard, all in the span of 4miles, argh.
Homestretch: Mt Oxford to North Cottonwood Creek
The route from Mt Oxford drops straight off the summit down rocky tundra into a hanging valley on the South side of Mt Oxford. Our goal was to find an avalanche chute to the East of the stream that would help us negotiate the cliff bands at the end of this valley. As we dropped down we spied a nicely open gulley that looked like a good descent route down steep turndra/scree. As we dropped down the chute it began to narrow and become choked with willows and small aspens. The last 300ft to the valley floor looked hopelessly miserable, so at my urging we took off on a game trail heading through dense aspens out of the gulley, aiming for a grouping of pine trees that might provide some relief. When we finally reached the pines the terrain did indeed open up, and we were able to fairly easily pick our way down into the valley and find the trail, 8:30am.
We quickly took off up the trail in search of the stream we’d seen from above as we were both out of water and a little dehydrated. We filled our camelbaks from the side stream and headed up to the top of Bedrock falls, which was our next waypoint. We hopped across rocks over Pine Creek and began our “bushwack up to treeline”. To avoid the cliffs at the very base of Harvard’s North ridge we bushwhacked through dense brush, again on game trails around to the west side of the ridge where the tundra opened up and passage was much easier. We continued up the steep tundra until we finally reached the first sub peak along the ridge at 13400ft. With the warming air and the sun shining I was feeling good again and we hammered away up toward Harvard. The views from this ridge are nothing short of spectacular. The massive expanse of Missouri Basin is laid out several thousand feet below, stretching nearly 3miles across. A herd of mountains goats scampered out of our way as we neared the last two steep steps before the summit of Mt Harvard. I plopped down on the summit of Mt Harvard at 11:10am very satisfied with how well I’d climbed and finally realizing I was actually going to make all nine peaks I’d set out to summit almost 29hours ago. We radioed over to Pete who had just ascended Columbia that we were heading across, he said he’d meet us just above the rocky traverse.
As I stared across at Columbia it looked so close now, and a known commodity for me. We scrambled across the East ridge to the tundra and began our descent toward Frenchman Creek. When I’ve done this in the past I’ve dropped down to the lower boulderfield at 12600ft as I found the higher traverse too much of a pain and that it didn’t save me any time. As we hopped through the boulders across the basin a dark cloud rolled over and a few flakes of snow began to fall. This was our first taste of any sort of weather and it was short lived, but it hung around just long enough to send a chill through my tired and fatigued body. As I scrambled up the boulders toward Columbia a general fatigue began to settle in, and my entire body was shutting down. My legs had lost their oomph, my breathing was more labored, I was having trouble focusing and every little breeze sent shivers vibrating through my body. I pushed up the rocky tundra, knowing that I only had one more summit to crest and it was right there. As I neared the summit of Columbia I was in complete meltdown and I literally had to crawl the last 100ft. I sat down on the summit at 2:20pm; not excited, not relieved, but beat and exhausted.
Pete and John were both patient as I stumbled my way down the slippery steep Southwest slope of Columbia, sliding on my ass a few times as my legs were only partially functional, and my mental focus was waning. In this state I laid down my slowest mile of the day, a 1h21min 1mile descent off Columbia, ugh. Once we hit the trail down lower I was able to hike at a decent pace out the last few miles. The trailhead could not come soon enough, and at 5:02pm on Sunday I sat down in my car 34h 37min after leaving the Mt Massive trailhead, having completed nine 14ers, over 27,000ft of elevation gain and covering just under 60miles. Whether it was that cold cloud blowing overhead, a lapse in nutrition or hydration, my mind simply giving up at the end of a long journey, or 35hours of sleepless fatigue catching up with me I was beat both mentally and physically, but still very satisfied with what I’d accomplished.
Recovery and Reflection
After dropping off John in Buena Vista with his family I took Pete back to Leadville to get his car. I drove back to my campsite along Halfmoon Rd, just me, sponged off in the river, ate a little food, had a beer, and passed out at 7pm not to awaken until 730am the next morning. In just under 35hours I had completed 9 of the 14 peaks along Nolans14, while I had the time to continue I did not have the energy. This was by far the longest time I’d ever been on my feet continuously, the most elevation I’d ever gained in one push, and the toughest challenge I’ve undertaken to date, even more so than my 100milers. I’m in complete awe of the four who have completed the entire Nolans14 route; Mike Tilden, Blake Wood, Jim Nelson and John Robinson are in a different league.
Despite the pain and meltdown at the end, it was a spectacular journey through a portion of the Colorado Rockies that has become special to me. Not because they are the most spectacular, not because they have the best peak bagging routes, not because they are the most remote but because the time I have spent in them has allowed me to learn so much about myself, what I am capable of and because this route known as Nolans14 has reminded me that every mountain has so much beauty and serenity to offer, no matter how many people are standing on the summit when you arrive, the summit is just a small portion of the journey up a mountain. For now I am very satisfied to have completed nine peaks along Nolans14 in just under 35 hours. This combined with my 2009 run of the five southern mountains in just under 23 hours means I’ve connected all 14 peaks over two different trips (under 60hours no less). This is a far cry from actually completing Nolans14, but there is no doubt in my mind I will be back again, though next time the end goal may be Blank Gulch and nothing in between.
Entire Day: Ultimate Direction Wink pack, 2L camelback bladder, 1L collapsible platypus bag, emergency kit (space blanket, garbage bag, band aids, gauze, antiseptic wipes, whistle, lighter, 2.5” pocket knife, small headlamp, chlorine tablets), spare shoe laces, toilet paper, 2 extra zip locks, Black diamond Z-poles, arm warmers, liner gloves, Golite Virga jacket, fleece cap, Panasonic Lumix FH1 camera, Garmin Foretrex 101 with 4 extra AAA batteries, hand warmers, various medications.
Night Time: Wool cap, Powerstretch fleece jacket, heavy fleece gloves, under armor tights, Petzel Myo headlamp, Gerber LX3 flashlight, 6 caffeine pills, 5h energy.
A few notes about my trek. I started at the Mt Massive N Halfmoon creek, because logistically it was going to be too hard to try and start at Fish Hatchery. Also for 7 of the 9 peaks I had people accompany me, partly for safety, partly for personal enjoyment. Since no pacers are allowed for Nolans14 I led most of the time and did almost all the navigating and route finding to stay true to idea of Nolans as a personal endurance and mountaineering challenge. I feel that these small exceptions that I took were far outweighed by the fact that I had no other “runners” on route with me and I climbed six peaks over 21 hours without any support or aid stations.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):