| Nolan's 14 Run - Ended by T-Storms
*edited for broken links*
I first became aware of the Nolan's 14 course in 2009, when I came across a trip report posted by thebeave7. I had been trying to put together an epic through hike of the Sawatch, along the Colorado trail – incorporating several 14ers along the way. When I came across the TR, I realized that this route had already been established more than 10 years ago by Jim Nolan, and that many had attempted the route, though few had completed it. In short, the idea is to traverse all 14ers from Shavano to Massive in less than 60 hours. For more details on the "race" check out the website:
Over Christmas dinner 2009, it was decided that my brother-in-law / adventure race teammate, Matt, and I would make an attempt in 2010. After considering many factors, such as other races, work schedules, moon cycles, and availability of a support crew, we decided on the last week of July.
On Friday, July 23, we left St. Louis en route for BV with a plan to scout trailheads and acclimate for a few days before beginning the Nolan's route on Tuesday. After an overnight stop in KS, we arrived in BV around 4:00 Saturday. Matt & I headed up to Alpine that evening to try to locate the unmapped Grouse Creek trail, which I had seen described in several trip reports. We found the trailhead at the dead end of 292B in Alpine and took an easy hike up into Grouse Canyon to begin acclimating. On Sunday we drove up Hwy 82 to locate the Echo Canyon route up Elbert. We located the trailhead easily and began our hike around 10:00 a.m. By the time we reached the first mine ( around 11,500?) we were both beginning to feel some effects from the altitude – primarily just headache and shortness of breath. Once reaching the Golden Fleece mine, the altitude effects were more noticeable, but we continued on anyway. As we climbed up and around Bull Hill to around 13,400, it was obvious that Matt was the stronger climber this day. We turned around once the route up Elbert came into view. The hike down went smoothly and quickly, but we became a little concerned at how poorly we were handling the altitude with jus t 2 days until the run. My personal goal for the race was to get us through a minimum of 5 peaks and assess our condition when we reached the North Cottonwood TH between Yale and Columbia. The way we had felt on Bull Hill started to cause me to doubt our ability to reach this goal. Did I mention that we had zero previous 14ers to our credit – combined?
We wanted to get high again on Monday, but didn't want to do anything too strenuous. So, we drove up to Independence pass with my wife, Erica, and hiked a few miles along the Continental Divide (with my 5 yr old son on my shoulders most of the way) – topping out around 12,800. It was an encouraging hike in that Matt and I felt much better than we had the day before on Bull Hill.
We had yet to set a specific start time for the run on Tuesday. The weather had been a major concern for us as the forecast had shown 50 - 60% chance for thunderstorms every day of the week, and we had watched the storms roll in around 4:00 p.m. on the previous 3 days. We contemplated whether to go with a traditional early morning start or whether to begin in the evening – which by our calculations would give us less overall time above tree-line in the afternoons. After much debate, we decided on a 6:00 a.m. start from the Blank Cabin trailhead. Our reasoning was that we would be off the peak of Antero by around 12:00 pm and heading into our first aid station in Alpine around 2:00 pm. From there – depending on weather - we could go straight for Princeton or we could wait out any afternoon storms in the aid station or in Grouse Canyon.
We left the RV park in BV around 5:00 a.m. Tuesday and pulled into the Blank Cabin trailhead just before 6:00.
Not a cloud in sight
Blank Cabin Trailhead 6:10 a.m.
After a few last minute preparations, Team Greenhorn was on the trail at 6:10. Erica and her sister, Katie, followed us up to the CT / Shavano Trail split for a couple of final pictures and well wishes.
CT / Shavano Trail Split
Though we weren't able to run once we hit the Shavano trail, we were moving at a pretty good pace – hitting tree line in about 1:20. Just before tree line we were greeted by a small herd of Bighorn Sheep, which startled me briefly as I came around a curve in the trail. Matt was feeling a little poorly as we headed up to the saddle between Shavano and point 13,630, but not enough to really cause any problems. Aside from the expected shortness of breath, I was feeling no ill effects from the altitude. We reached the summit under clear skies in 2:43 @ 8:53 a.m. and made a quick call to Erica to report our progress.
Bob on Shavano Summit - 8:53 a.m.
After a brief exchange with the one other hiker on the summit, we headed toward Tabeguache. We took a bad line across the top of the ridge and ended up doing a little more boulder hopping than necessary on our way down to the saddle, but it wasn't a big deal and we were soon slogging our way up toward Tabeguache, reaching the summit in 3:30 at 9:40 a.m. We made another quick call into our support crew to report our progress and then headed back down toward the Shavano/Tabeguache saddle.
Matt on Tab Summit - Antero in Background
From the saddle, we headed down the drainage slope to the north toward Brown's creek. This descent was unpleasant to say the least, as sections of loose scree alternated with some larger rock hopping. As we reached the steeper and narrower section about halfway down there was a lot of unstable rock as well. While descending, we were still in good weather, but could see a frontal system to the west, as well as another group of lower clouds that appeared to me moving in from the east – which seemed bizarre to me.
Looking back at approximate descent route
We were both feeling good as we reached the valley and waded across the marshy area - reaching Brown's Creek in about 4:45 @ 10:55. We continued to watch the skies as we trekked northwest up the 4x4 road and began climbing the broad chute I've seen referred to as the "Hourglass Express" by previous runners. It was easy climbing up the left side of the creek to about 12,000, and we were just above tree line @ 11:20. At this point, we watched the clouds from the east converge above our heads with the front from the west. Hesitant to proceed any higher, we waited at this spot for about 15 minutes to see what was going to happen. The clouds appeared to be settling in above us and didn't appear to be moving. Once the rain and thunder started, we descended a few hundred feet into the trees. After waiting another 45 minutes below tree line, the front still didn't appear to be moving on.
From Tab - Route taken up Antero (Stalls in Blue)
Storm that stalled us on Antero
Matt's thoughts on the storm
After an hour waiting, we ascertained that we really had only 3 options:
1.Continue above tree line on Antero to the summit or to the Baldwin Gulch jeep road that
would take us into our first aid station in Alpine.
2.Continue waiting out the storm for however long it would take to pass
3.Skip Antero, descend Brown's Creek trail and take the Colorado trail north toward Princeton
and hope for better weather to the north
The first two options did not appeal to either of us, so in rain and small hail we started back down to Brown's creek. I estimated it would be about a 10 mile hike to reach Chalk Creek on this route, but it turned out to be more like 12-13.
Brown's Creek / CT Junction
Once on the CT, we tried to reach our support crew by cell phone to move the aid station to the Chalk Creek trailhead where we could then take the standard route up Princeton if weather allowed, rather than heading up Grouse Canyon. Unfortunately, they were all in Alpine (no signal) and didn't get the message. Once we reached Chalk Creek, we took a left on CR 162 and began the long road hike up to Alpine. We came into Alpine around 5:00 to find our great support crew waiting and a little worried, since our wait on the mountain and unexpected detour had made us about 3 hours late. Unfortunately, Princeton was still buried in the storm and ATV riders were coming down from Antero with stories of their hair-raising experiences. Although our legs still felt fresh at this point, the idea of waiting out the storms for some indefinite period didn't appeal to us or our crew, so we chalked it up to bad luck and ended our attempt of Nolan's 14.
Back at the Alpine Aid Station
We owe a big thanks to Erica and the rest of the support crew for putting in the work to get ready for the run and their willingness to make the trip out just to support us. Both Matt and I were extremely disappointed that the run was cut so short that we really never had the opportunity to push ourselves to our limits. After all, that's one of the main reasons that I seek out challenges like this. I'm told every cloud has a silver lining, so I guess that must be true of those in the Sawatch as well. One positive that I can take away from the experience is that I know my body acclimated relatively quickly and I had no symptoms of AMS on race day. That means there are many more 14ers in my future and most likely, another Nolan's 14 attempt. The other positive I take away is that we didn't take any unnecessary risks, and we still had a great day hike of 25+ miles in some great scenery.
Whether either of us have the fortitude to complete Nolan's will remain to be seen, but I'm confident that our fitness could have taken us at least through Yale (5 peaks) if not for the weather. I have a healthy respect for both the course and those few who have completed it. In addition to their great skill and fitness, these individuals had to have either some better luck with the weather or a great deal of bravery in walking up some stormy peaks. Chapeau to them either way.
Edit: Map added
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):