| Sleepless in the Sawatch; Nolans14
Below is a shorter version of my Nolans14 Trip Report. If you are interested in seeing the more detailed play by play with all the training info, stats, splits, see my long trip report linked here.
New 12/30/12, a video compilation of my Nolans 14 journey.
Sleepless in the Sawatch; Nolans14
August 31st to September 2nd, 2012
By Eric J Lee
What is Nolans14? http://mattmahoney.net/nolans14/
My journey on Nolans14 started five years ago, when I first learned of the route and then in 2008 completed the southern four peaks. Having only completed a fraction of the route in 2008, I knew that I had a lot of work to do if I was ever going to make an attempt at the entire route. I’ve spent the past four years scouting, planning and training for an eventual attempt at Nolans14. After being denied from UTMB and Hardrock, 2012 seemed like the perfect storm for a full go at the route.
After over 1,800miles and 500,000ft of elevation gain in training (Jan 1st-Aug 5th) my legs were feeling ready, I had a fantastic crew of friends lined up to help me out and the weather looked like it was going to cooperate. At 6am on August 31st, 2012 I stepped onto the nature trail at the Leadville Fish Hatchery with only Chris G and Kari as witness to the start of my Nolans14 attempt. My goal was to keep my excitement and effort under control for the first few mountains, knowing I was in it for the long haul. I cruised up Mt Massive (8:22am) at a nice solid effort then went bombing down the SW slope toward Elbert a little faster than I should have. After my first backpack swap along Halfmoon Rd I was able to settle in to a nice rhythm heading up and over Mt Elbert (11:25am) and soon found myself making my way up Hwy82 to the La Plata trailhead.
I was excited by the surprise that Chris F had driven up to join me for La Plata and Huron. As we hiked our way up La Plata Peak, my energy began to fade as I wasn’t getting enough calories and fluids in. I pushed on in a depleted state for almost an hour before my body finally balanced out, and at 13400ft I felt like a new man and we charged our way to the top of La Plata Peak (3:58pm). The decent off La Plata to Winfield is one of my favorite sections of the route, smooth single track through an alpine valley then open pine forest, finally dropping us at the Winfield townsite (5:27pm). My entire crew and group of friends had assembled in the afternoon sun at Winfield, and I definitely fed off the energy emanating from the crowd awaiting me. I downed a massive cup of soup, a pumpkin cookie and headed off to Mt Huron; now with Ben, Amanda, Preston and Chris F in tow.
The First Night
As we ascended Mt Huron the sun sunk below the horizon giving way to the full moon rising in the east. After summiting Huron (8:18pm) we bid farewell to Amanda and Preston, while the rest of us; myself, Ben and Chris F, slid our way down the steep scree of Huron’s East slope past Lake Lois and into the trees before popping out at Clohesy Lake (9:55pm). We were greeted by a raging bonfire and piping hot tater tots (thanks Basit and Adelaide)! I bid Chris F and Ben farewell, and Pete and I cruised off into the night. When we crested treeline the full moon soaked the landscape with its light, so we switched off our headlamps and continued our ascent of Missouri Mt solely by moon light. A cold wind blew across the summit of Missouri Mt (12:15am), so we didn’t dwell long, jogging our way down to the Iowa/Missouri saddle, catching the Elkhead Pass trail at 12600ft and then back up to Elkhead Pass.
At the pass we met up with Barry and Cindy who had backpacked in and camped out on the pass to provide us with some much needed aid during the long haul from Clohesy Lake to North Cottonwood Creek. The night sky was crystal clear and cold and the landscape was fully illuminated by the full moon rising overhead. We made quick work for Belford (2:23am) and Oxford (3:15am), then began the descent down to Pine Creek. Without my GPS (which I had forgotten at Winfield, doh!), we would have to rely on the topography and my map reading to get us down the avalanche chute at the bottom of Oxford’s SW slope. We slowly picked our way down the frost covered tundra, eventually making it into the trees, and then hacking our way down to Pine Creek (4:53am). Pete and I exchanged some beta and an update for the crew then off up Pine Creek I went toward Mt Harvard’s North slope.
Now I really began to miss my GPS, as I was faced with the choice of blindly heading off into the dense forest in search of the proper ascent gulley on the west edge of Mt Harvard’s North slope or to bed down for a nap in the cold damp air of Pine Creek awaiting sunrise. I opted to head into the woods with my only reference points being the shadow of the mountains and ridgelines behind me. After thrashing through the deadfall and bypassing a few low cliff bands I nailed the open tundra chute that led to the upper slopes of Mt Harvard. About halfway up the ridge I paused to watch a herd of mountain goats bound off across the tundra, their shaggy white silhouettes set against the sky, all the while the light of the rising sun was casting its rays on Belford behind me as the moon slowly descended. This is why Nolans14 is so special, unique routes, unique scenes and complete peace.
Here Comes the Sun
I scrambled the last short bit to the summit of Mt Harvard (7:26am) and took a seat atop the peak, once again all alone. Ahead loomed the traverse to Mt Columbia, the scene of last year’s unraveling. My downhill legs were still strong, so I jogged off down to Frenchman Creek, crossing the basin at 12600ft before beginning my slow ascent through the talus back up toward Columbia. Progress was slow, but I finally summited Mt Columbia at 9:38am, ahead of schedule. I was very excited to see Justin on top of Columbia, as company was just what I needed to help energize me for the long descent to North Cottonwood Creek. The trail never seemed to end, but eventually we reached the bridge over North Cottonwood Creek (10:50am), but no crew was in sight. I laid down for a short nap while Justin ran ahead to find the others. I’d just closed my eyes when up the trail came Pete, Chris, Ben, Amanda and Justin.
I sprawled out my resupply gear in my grassy bed and prepared for the long haul up and over Mt Yale. At last off Ben, Amanda and I went up the steep North side of Mt Yale, slowly plodding our way up the 60degree forest, marveling at how dirt could hang on to such a steep slope. When we hit 12500ft my pace began to slow dramatically as my lungs felt like they were being placed in a vice grip. I worked a slow but continuous pace up to the summit of Mt Yale (2:35pm), but my breathing was extraordinarily labored. At the same time the fatigue of being awake for nearly 36hours was starting to settle in, so I plodded my way down the East ridge and to the Avalanche Gulch trailhead (4:45pm), where a very excited crew of friends awaited me. Their energy brought a smile to my face, but it couldn’t extinguish the fatigue, a nap was definitely in order.
A Long Night on Mt Princeton
I crawled into my sleeping bag and was apparently snoring within minutes. 45 minutes later Chris and Kari woke me, I groggily staggered over to the crew vehicles, downed two bowls of bacon potato leak soup, and prepped myself for the daunting massive of Mt Princeton. Pete and I set off down Cottonwood Pass Rd (6:00pm), past Rainbow lakes and onto the CT. We methodically made our way to the base of Mt Princeton’s NE ridge, where we promptly turned into the forest for the long trail-less haul over Mt Princeton. We zig zagged our way through the forest up the ridge, through one dense stand of aspens, finally reaching treeline. The last 1.5mi of rocky ridgeline to the summit was a death march, and I watched any hope of an FKT evaporate in the thin night air. I could only manage two staggering steps before pausing for 4-5 shallow wheezing inhales. As I crawled up the ridge the wind began to pickup and both Pete and I struggled to keep our hands warm, I began to contemplate whether I’d even finish Nolan14 at this rate. I finally crawled my way onto the rocky summit of Mt Princeton (12:35am), feeling very pathetic, but glad to have mostly downhill ahead.
We slowly made our way across the ridge to Pt13971 before heading south down the ridgeline above Grouse Gulch. At 13500ft we hit a steep class 3 downclimb, and while my map said to continue down the ridge to 13000ft, the scramble ahead did not look familiar. I opted to take us down a steep talus filled chute into the upper reaches of Grouse Gulch. I soon realized we were about a mile off route, and slowly navigated us back down to the ‘trail’ and river. We descended good trail on the east side of the canyon, finally reaching the road to Alpine and eventually the bridge across the river. In my semi-delirious state I accidentally turned us east down Chalk Creek Rd, only realizing my error half a mile later. We finally reached Chris, Kari and Dana at 4:50am, over 4hours after they had been expecting us. Pete was understandably frustrated by the many errors on Princeton and both of us had been out of food and water for several hours.
A New Day Dawns
After refueling, Kari and I set off up the Baldwin Gulch jeep road for a mellow power hike to Antero. Still fairly awake and alert, I retold the story of Mt Princeton to Kari, hoping that with the sunrise my pulmonary problems would be a thing of the past. We made good time up the mellow jeep road, hitting treeline just as the sun’s first rays glowed red on the thin layer of clouds above Mt Antero. At 12900ft we met up with Basit and Adelaide who refilled our water and gave us a little pep talk as we left the road for the direct ascent to Mt Antero. The peaceful scene of my third sunrise and the calming effect Kari has served me well and helped to settle me down after being a little flustered by the debacle on Mt Princeton. We made our way to the top of the large pile of scree that is Mt Antero (9:25am) and paused for a moment to take in the calm clear morning.
We made our way down to Browns Creek, where we again met Basit and Adelaide, dumped off some excess clothing and bid them farewell until the finish. When we hit the bottom of the gulley that leads to the Shavano/Tabeguache saddle I took a few deep breaths and began the slow trudge up what would be my last big climb. My legs were strong, I was awake, but my lungs were still struggling above 12500ft. We finally worked our way to the top of Tabeguache Peak (1:20pm). I sat down to grab a quick bite and only then did it finally settle in that I was going to complete Nolans14. Kari clicked on the HAM radio and informed Chris that we only had one summit to go and we’d be seeing them soon.
I pushed across the final ridgeline up and over the false summits reaching the rocky out cropping that marked the summit of Mt Shavano (2:05pm). In my sleep deprived state it was hard to comprehend what I had done in the past 56hours. A wave of relief came over me that it was literally all downhill from there. Kari and I snapped a few photos, shared an embrace, upon which it was time to go ‘home’. As we jogged down from the summit we slowly began to pass friendly faces who had hiked up to see us down to the end. Amanda and Pete joined us for the final few miles down to the Blank Gulch trailhead. As we neared the trailhead we were greeted by several comical and inspiration signs that helped to spur me on. The adrenaline of summiting Shavano was wearing off and the fatigue was slowly taking over as a light rain began to fall, our first sustained rain of the entire weekend.
At 3:27pm on Sunday September 2nd, 57hours27minutes14seconds after leaving the Leadville Fish Hatchery I stepped foot onto the gravel that marked the Blank Gulch parking lot. I was too tired to be excited and was merely relieved; relieved that I could sit down, relieved that there were no more mountains in front of me, relieved that I could soon sleep. I was conscious enough to thank all those who were present, to scarf down some delicious Collegiate Peaks cake made by Dana and to sponge off. Within an hour of finishing I had crawled into the back of my Subaru and was passed out, enjoying some needed sleep.
Even after a week it is still hard to comprehend and properly reflect on the magnitude of what I had accomplished. The entire 57hours is a blur, even though I remember every moment it seems more like a dream than a reality. While I had not broken the Nolans14 FKT, I had summited fourteen of Colorado’s highest mountains in the 2nd fastest recorded time, being only the 6th person to complete the entire route in under 60hours. My legs had held up amazingly well, my planning had been great, my route finding (except the Princeton descent) had been spot on, the weather had cooperated and it was only my lungs that had failed me late in the game. People have asked if I will attempt to break the FKT on Nolans14 next year, my response has been “maybe some day, but not next year”, for now there are other new challenges to take on, other mountains to climb and new trails to see. As Kari pointed out, the tough thing with Nolans14 is that 50+ hours is a long time and most likely something will go wrong; your legs can give you, your lungs can give out, route finding issues, sleep deprivation, altitude sickness, physical bonks, bad weather, missed crew resupplies. To break the FKT would take not only a very strong mountain runner, but a little luck to avoid most of the issues listed above, I have no doubt it can definitely be done. Nolans14 and the Sawatch Mts will always hold a very special set of memories for me, a unique experience and one of the most challenging mountain routes around.
A special thanks to Vi Endurance for fueling both my 2011 and 2012 Nolans14 attempts. Also to Cindy Stonesmith of Ultrarunner Training for all the training advice. Most importantly a huge thank you to my crew Chris G, Karri, Pete, Chris F, Ben, Amanda, Basit, Adelaide, Cindy, Barry, Justin, Dana and everyone else who supported me at some point during my training or during my long hike over Labor Day weekend 2012.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):