Nolan’s 14: 50 Miles of Winter
[Editor’s Note: Coloradan ultrarunner, mountaineer, skier, and filmmaker Ben Clark has twice attempted the fabled Nolan’s 14 line in the Sawatch Range of Colorado. Though Ben’s made it to the top of Mount Everest, he’s yet to complete Nolan’s 14. In this article, Ben walks/climbs/crawls us peak-by-peak through his second attempt.]
Somewhere deep inside all of us is a person we rarely meet, several people perhaps. Inside me is a dreamer that wants to be actualized into flesh and blood, but born from ideas only. I have spent my adult life conjuring up that person and then, suddenly, I see him in the most outlandish of places. Only in passing, like in a reflection on a puddle, while swiping snot from my sunglasses, in brief moments on my way through epic struggles that almost always come with a price of losing everything trying to reach for them. Places where I give 100 percent. For that reason, I cannot hold onto that person, I cannot sustain him for much length. He challenges me beyond acceptable terms, gets under my skin in a way no other living being could. But he is me and I am bound to him. I am forced by a deep drive to find him again and again and again. I keep reacting to the provocation to let him out, to allow the person I am to become the person I dream I could be.
As I set out at 6 a.m. on September 25 from the Fish Hatchery in Leadville, I knew I would meet myself. I wanted to stretch my imagination to its limit. Even though snow-covered and windswept slopes awaited me, I had a goal of reaching 14 separate 14,000-foot summits in a continuous push, a journey through Colorado’s Sawatch range called ‘Nolan’s 14’. How long it would take, I didn’t know. I had already attempted this a month before, reaching seven summits in 29 hours, 30 minutes. I quit after getting lost for three hours in a whiteout, in the middle of the night. Thinking I could do it faster and better in perfect weather, I returned. This second time, I had prepared to give it up to 65 hours and keep adjusting if conditions dictated. I was ready to irreversibly put my foot on the pedal until I ran out of gas on a ride so significantly out there that coming mentally back from it, back to the valleys, groceries, and thank-you notes, might not be possible for a stretch of days or weeks. For now, I would live, breathe, and eat mountains. I would only focus on that. Traversing nearly 100 miles of snow-covered mountain terrain and constantly climbing and descending does not leave much else for the mind to do.
Plunging shin deep off trail in fresh snow as I approached treeline on Colorado’s second-highest peak, Mount Massive, I knew the day’s commitment was escalating to a higher order, a mountaineering trip and no longer the trail run my shorts-clad legs and t-shirt-covered trunk were armed for. I would greet the summit in approaching wind at 2 hours, 39 minutes elapsed, 6.7 miles, and 4,821 feet of climbing into the day and right on pace as if the snow was never there. But it was. Four hours and only eight miles later, I would crawl through winds gusting to 55 miles per hour to top out on the second, 3,933-foot climb, share a summit briefly with a tattered and struggling U.S. flag, and depart through knee-deep snow. Postholing my way across Colorado’s highest summit, 14,433-foot Mount Elbert, it would be two more hours before I saw grass slopes again and 20 more minutes after that before I would intersect an old, rocky mining trail.
This section, a two-mile stretch at 14,000 feet, was the slowest, slickest, and trickiest of them all, the snow waist deep in spots. For some, this may sound miserable. For the person deep inside of me, the mountaineer that I am at my core, this was nothing to be overwhelmed by yet. This was Wednesday and, if I moved slow and steady, Thursday would come and it could get better. I had to forget about the clock. I had to only continue forward, safely. Up and down and up and down and up and down, 12 more times.
Nolan’s 14 is a route completed by only seven people in the last 12 years. Conceived by ultramarathon runner Fred Vance, as the legend goes, when he approached Jim Nolan, a mountaineer who had climbed all 54 of Colorado’s recognized 14,000-foot summits. Said Vance in a story he wrote on how the Nolan’s concept was born, which is published on Matt Mahoney’s website, “I asked how many 14ers he could put in a point-to-point 100-mile course. It took him about a week to give me his answer, ’14,’…” Of the 54 recognized 14,000-foot summits in the state, the Sawatch range west of Leadville has the most 14,000-foot summits that can be climbed and traversed on foot in the shortest span of distance, roughly 100 miles. Perplexed on how to fit the mind-boggling enormity of the terrain into a name, Vance quipped in that same article, “The name ‘Nolans 14’ is stuck in my mind, though ‘Fourteen Fourteeners’ might be a good alternative. What does Jim Nolan call it? He refers to it as ‘the Death Run’.”
In 1998, a group including Vance, Gordon Hardman, and Blake Wood hatched plans to attempt the line supported in 1999. They told their friends and set a 60-hour time limit, simply stating that a Nolan’s finish was however many summits of the 14 one reached in 60 hours. Between 1999 and 2003, with vital crew and aid points staffed by friends and in place the week following the Leadville 100, runners kept in touch using Family Radio Service radios amidst frequent solo entrances and exits into the pain cave, through valley, forest, and alpine, touching 14,000 feet as often as they could while the hours dwindled like their own reserves in the middle of the night. Even though it was so extreme for its time, Nolan’s struck a verdant chord in those who attempted it. Mahoney, a three-time participant, shared in this report written in 2002 on the SummitPost website:
But we were fortunate to have good weather, only one brief snowstorm on Belford. The stars on Harvard were brilliant, and you could see the clear, crisp outline of the Milky Way. There was nobody for miles. About 11 p.m. the sky was lit by a brilliant fireball falling to the south and leaving a vapor trail. A few minutes later I heard a faint sonic boom. They never did find the meteorite that fell about 80 miles away.
Four, 14-summit finishers emerged from efforts like this, the fastest time in 54:57. It was impossibly hard and vanished as quickly as it appeared under threat of becoming too organized. But nine years later, there were three finishers in one summer, in 2012. And seven attempted the line in 2013. The line and the challenge of Nolan’s 14 would never disappear and, as trail and mountain-running endurance events grew, the desire of some endurance runners slowly left the race course and turned to Nolan’s 14 for inspiration. The path between each of these 14 summits requires nearly 45,000 feet of elevation gain and the same in loss as runners navigate frequently off trail, in overgrown forests, over rocky and uneven terrain, and through two nights, even if you’re fast. There are no route markers and the penalty of getting off route often means negotiating steep, big-mountain terrain, the kind that will break you and devour time. “It’s just an ambitious line,” said Anton Krupicka to my filming crew, who was documenting his Nolan’s outing, following his 13:34 attempt over six summits in 2013.
I came to Nolan’s as a mountaineer with 16 years of experience, 10 alone pioneering climbing and skiing routes in the Himalayas. I discovered ultramarathons along the way and got hooked on how far I could go and how simply. Having never entered a marathon before but no stranger to long days on my feet and trail running, I hired a coach to re-tune my endurance base. Under Matt Hart’s direction, I safely gained fitness without major injuries and finished five 50-plus mile runs in less than 12 months, learning a lot, mostly about restraint. Although there are many 100-mile races available to participants today, far more than in 1999 when Nolan’s 14 was first run, I only wanted to do Nolan’s. So that is what I specifically trained for. One hundred miles is an incredibly long way, a distance that demands true respect but that is also attainable in steps. For me to achieve something like that, to run 100 miles, it had to be something I was incredibly driven to do. This was an excuse to explore the heart of beautiful mountain terrain and its secrets. Little did I know how deep and transcendent a journey it would become. It would mean something to me, become something dear and personal. I appreciate why and how any 100-mile runner does what they do.
On my first attempt on August 25 of this year, I was shut down by summer rainstorms where visibility through clouds resting on summits became the biggest challenge to completing the route in a 60-hour, single-push effort. The worst moment came when disoriented on Missouri Mountain’s 14,000-foot summit ridge, when I could not see more than six or eight feet through fast-moving clouds in the dark and lost hours moving to stay warm with nothing gained until daybreak when the skies cleared. I learned the line would require equal parts skill, route experience, ambition, and luck. No one had made a fall attempt on Nolan’s 14 and of the seven who have finished in summer, only three made it their first time. The others tried three times on average, all in separate summers.
When I dropped 32 hours in and still feeling fresh on the first effort in August, I knew I ran the risk of pushing the next attempt too late. The weather could worsen but, at the time, having been absolutely soaked and confused several times, it just seemed reasonable. Now, here, on this effort exactly one month later, delayed until the forecast dwindled to partly cloudy, the sky was clear and the clouds benign. This time I would negotiate extreme winds, cold, and my body’s own governor. I had hoped for Indian Summer’s crisp air and dry, radiant valleys, but hope will not carry you across Nolan’s.
In the freezing cold, five feet from the 14,009-foot summit of Huron Peak, at 12:38 a.m., I was 19 hours, 38 miles, and 17,500 feet of gain into Nolan’s. If the wind had not been enough of a threat to demoralize me, I was arriving three hours and 20 minutes later than my previous attempt and had been firing on all cylinders, all day. There I lay on the summit, crumpled over, derelict, and dry heaving so hard that I thought my spine might eject. A moment like this is where the vital component to this endeavor, having a crew to protect me from my weaknesses, truly shone. Erik Dalton was there and knew I could finish what I had started and would not let me stop and skip this summit, the last one before some rest. Erik witnessed my body, having been through such an extreme day of winds, snow, and winter weather averaging nine degrees Fahrenheit with windchill wanting me to go home, to stop, to give up. But it’s that person inside, it’s that driver, that will-er, that wily bastard that I cannot tame, it was him that made me stand up, tag that summit, and get down.
On the dawn of the second day at 7:10 a.m. after a 2 hour, 30 minute nap and timely rest for my nervous system, Jon Miller joined me and we began our way up the west ridge of Missouri Mountain, charging through snow, ice, and a couple ‘no fall’ zones that would have stopped us in our tracks at night, we summited the fifth mountain of the traverse 2:16 later. It was windy again and my hopes for better weather would just have to wait. The peaks to the south looked promising but for now there was more snow and ice. Having Jon share this section with me was incredibly confidence inspiring, as we had skied the Himalayas together on four different trips. There was only one moment in that day where things felt out of control, just around a corner on an exposed ridge as we approached the seventh summit, Mount Oxford, a powerful gust tunneled alongside a small outcropping and struck us in the face with shards of snow and rocks. Rocks flying through the air and painfully pelting us while a gust temporarily lifted us and set us down set the tone for Jon about how epic this mysterious journey had been for me the day before. That, my friends, is a strong wind, mighty, masterful, and mountainous. Jon had enough in that 10 miles to last him until next summer.
At 2:34 p.m., I bid adieu to Jon and was more afraid than I have ever been, alone and going on hour 32. I began the ascent of 14,420-foot Mount Harvard’s north ridge. This is an imposing proposition. The ridge is steep, 3,000 feet tall, and off trail. I had not seen a good trail I could use in 14 miles and did not want to bonk hard and navigate in the dark to reach the summit of Mount Columbia, which followed Harvard. I settled my nerves and confidently assured myself that I would give it my best effort and keep everything in check. Harvard turned out to be the most pleasant and easy climb of the trip.
On its top, I sat in a wind-less cove formed by the summit rocks and reflected for a brief moment on how far I had come and how awesome and spectacular it was to be eight summits in on a 14-summit push and finally, finally out of the snow. The southern peaks of the traverse were clear and I had the will to continue forward. At that time, I was living the present moment that I had hoped would be in my future for nearly a year. It was here that I met that person I wanted to be. At this moment, I could do anything and this was exactly what I wanted to be doing and in the conditions I needed. I was finally free of the constraints of a limiting environment. It really had passed and I had persevered and received a truly god-given opportunity. I ran six peaks that day for a negative split over the first two thirds of the course, sharing a final summit on Mount Yale, navigating in a sleeping stupor, joined by my patient friend Chris Horton, and descending through another round of hellish winds. When I lay down, warm, tired and more than 70 miles and 33,000 feet of vertical climbed at 4:08 a.m., I knew I would finish in the next 16 hours and planned for a 64-hour total. All I had to do was wake up, run a little, and pull off less than a 30-mile day on dry peaks, totally doable in that time.
Erik woke me at 5:30 a.m. and I changed clothes, reoriented myself, and began asking questions. Slowly I ate some pesto pasta, had a protein shake, and familiar voices starting encouraging me to get out of the tent and get on the three-mile stretch of road that led to the trail to Mount Princeton. As I began to process getting out of the tent and moving, a dull pattern began to speckle its fly. It was raining. I never anticipated rain.
The forecast, a detail of great importance that I watched like a hawk leading into the attempt, had been spot on each day and called for cold, windy weather getting better as the week wore on, not worse. After hitting my stride on the previous summits before putting my head on a pillow, I believed that I had overcome the crux and was now going to be treated to a pleasant and well-earned last day. I got out of the tent, looked up, and the sky was a mysterious blanket of clouds. There is only one thing that occurs to you when you have come this far into an adventure so committing and a battle so hard won, you just kinda’ got to get it together, you know, and run, man. It is not over until it is over. Things change.
I jogged down the highway, joined my friend Max Orcutt, and onto the soft and sandy Colorado Trail we went, headed toward Mount Princeton’s burly northeast ridge and a cloud system that was dropping rain and inching down the mountain. I went all the way to the last place to make the call, to leave no shadow of doubt. There, in the golden leaves of autumn’s aspens, Max and I laughed away the morning while fury unleashed above us, covering us in pellets of rain and washing over me the drenching veneer of another failure to time a highly committing execution correctly. Another failure, sigh. But this time, well, this time, I couldn’t have been happier.
I deal with a life driven by insatiable ambition, for better or worse, all the time. Even if I didn’t get all 14 summits, I actually reached what I believed to be my full potential during the hours climbing on Mount Harvard. I was 100 percent the best I could be, alone, tired, in the high mountains, achieving my wildest dreams, and led there by friends who believed in me and faithfully plodded forward through all conditions and terms to support me. Yeah, it wasn’t comfortable most of the time but I’d rather hurl, lose my way, get cold, and put up with failing than to silence that part of me, the driver, the will-er, the curious mountain man. There is something to it. Every day I give that person within me a chance to come out. The more he stays, the richer my life becomes in some areas, the more complex in others.
No other experience has ever made it as clear as this one that, if I put my mind to something, I may damn well really accomplish it as long as I have the right team, the right goal, and carry forward an indomitable will that I will not waste a moment of the opportunity in appreciation of those who supported it. I’m willing to give it 100 percent again to finish it. When I do, it will only be because I was willing to try and that meant willing to meet that person I always wanted to be, if only temporarily, to draw him up from the basement of my soul for a few hours on the roof of America.