Carrying Joy: Meghan Hicks’s Nolan’s 14 Report

Monday, September 5, 10 a.m., Mount Yale summit
I top out on Mount Yale. The sky is cloudless and the sun is already high on its daily trajectory, the bright light making the dark rocks of Yale’s blocky, broad top look black. A stiff wind blows from just slightly west of north. It’s Labor Day, and there’s a crowd strewn about. I duck over the edge of the summit’s east side, mostly trying to escape the wind but also to avoid humanity. You spend so many hours alone in the Sawatch Range and these 14er summit parties remain a shock, even though they are never a surprise. I find that the dark rocks are warm, and so, like a lizard, I splay out across a couple of them.

Today’s weather is the antithesis of the prior five days. I arrived back to the Sawatch from working for a week at UTMB on Wednesday, August 31, and planned to use the following several days for practicing the parts of my Nolan’s 14 route that I would encounter in the dark. I’d seen all this terrain before, in some cases several times in 2016 already, but I felt compelled to practice again. I’d been chased off mountain after mountain by bad weather and the timing was getting tight. Today was my last chance to practice my off-trail descent from Yale before I really, really needed to rest.

From my black-rock perch, much of the Sawatch spreads to the north and south. In previous years, when I’ve sat in the Sawatch’s high places and let the literal scope of the Nolan’s 14 line sink in, I’ve been overcome by a feeling of terror. This year, it’s so different. I operate with levity and joy in my practice sessions. I am at peace with attempting the line this week.

I stand up and begin my decent. My proficiency on Sawatch terrain is perhaps as good as it will ever get. I can basically maintain the running motion from the summit of Yale until the brush of the avalanche chute above North Cottonwood Creek gets thick. Big boulders, hummocky tundra, scree. I don’t nail the navigation at the very bottom—my line is probably 10 minutes slow because I get into it with some downfall. But this is a good reminder: the shortest line is not always the most efficient in the Sawatch.

My car is on the other side of Yale, at the Avalanche Gulch Trailhead, where I started this morning. It’s an extra three-ish hours back from here via the Colorado Trail. When I roll back to my car, I’ve accumulated something along the lines of seven grand of vert in 20-ish miles, and I feel untouched. After 12 days or so of taper crazies and feeling bad on most of my runs, things have physically fallen into place. I am ready for the Nolan’s 14 line.

Friday, September 9, 4 a.m., Blank Cabin Trailhead
My alarm goes off, but I’ve been awake. An early bedtime meant I got something like four hours of sleep before a nightmare starring my mother awoke me sometime after midnight. I can’t recall what it was about, but I remember that my mom and her duress about me featured prominently. I suppose this is to be expected. I spent a lot of yesterday thinking about her—like I always do before I undertake something big. And we talked in the evening, just as the sun fell below the horizon and the mellow blues of approaching night settled into the sky around our campsite near the Blank Cabin Trailhead. She has a love-hate relationship with the adventurous side of her daughter. She knows that I was meant to do things like this, and that asking me not to do them would be like asking me to not be me. It’s just that we have a family story of losing my dad during an adventure, and so she’ll always fear mine.

Inside the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag, I slither out of my pajamas and into my running clothes before crawling out of the tent and into the black-as-pitch morning. Coffee first. Always coffee first. Everything else in life can wait for coffee.

I await the boiling water on my camp stove and observe Nick Pedatella’s campsite about 100 feet away whir to life. As I watch his headlamp flicker about, I think about this weekend two years ago, when we both started (and later finished) the Tor des Géants in Italy. Lordy, did we both suffer at that race, but it was a shared experience that serves as a foundation of our friendship. Nick is faster than me and I’m sure the lines we take this weekend will be different, so, like Tor des Géants, I don’t suspect I’ll actually see him. But knowing that a friend will be out there, doing the same thing, is already warming me from the inside out.

Coffee in hand, I fuss with the last details. It’s mechanical, this process. I’ve awoken early to start so many races and adventures over the years that I can tie my shoes, shove food in my face—this time it’s three quarters of a breakfast burrito that I bought from City on a Hill coffee shop in Leadville yesterday—brush my teeth, and lather sunscreen on the back of my neck without really thinking about it. There is comfort in the familiar movements.

At 4:50 a.m., I wander the quarter mile from our campsite to the actual trailhead where three people are already gathered, Nick, Bryon Powell, who is one of my crew members and pacers, and Rush Combs, part of Nick’s crew team. We stand around Nick’s car chatting while Nick’s neck-deep sorting something inside of it. I look at my watch and realize it’s already 4:59. I pull out my phone so that I can start at 5 a.m. on the dot. When the digits roll over, I walk up the trail. A walking start: that is a first.

Bryon is hiking with me. He’s not much of a morning person, but my years here have taught me that sunrises are worth waking up early for, so I asked him to accompany me to the summit of Mount Shavano. It was with hesitation that he agreed, but now that we’re on the trail, I sense how eager he is to be here. We wander about the forest, our conversation leaping among topics. Nick soon rolls up behind us, having started a few minutes later, and as a group of three we clear tree line. The eastern horizon possesses several shades of orange that’s starting to alight the landscape, but we’ve got time before the sun will officially rise. We spot a herd of mountain goats and bighorn sheep spread across the hillside, above and below the trail. I’ve never seen such inter-species comingling in the alpine. I decide, this is the best of all possible omens. After about 30 minutes of chatting our way up the mountain, Nick picks up his pace and moves on.

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Nick Pedatella and Meghan Hicks ascending Mount Shavano. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

We can tell that we’re about to be pummeled by an icy wind, so Bryon and I stop to don another layer before we crest the pass below the summit. From there it’s 30 minutes or so until we’re on the highest rocks in the pile that make Mount Shavano’s top. We spend a minute or so taking photos, and, then, Bryon goes one way while I go the other. Our good-bye is short and sweet, as I’ll see him in only six hours or so when he crews me between Mounts Antero and Princeton.

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Bighorn sheep on Mount Shavano. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Friday, September 9, 10:20 a.m., near the Mount Antero summit
I’m approaching the final pitch of Mount Antero. It’s a fun little ridge and, then, a boulder hop to the summit. As I look up at the final 20 minutes or so of ascent terrain, I see the bright green shirt of Nick weaving his way through the rocky junk, on his way back down. We stop for a minute’s chat—my goodness, Nick’s spirits are high! He can’t believe how fast he’s going or how good the weather is. Intuition tells me that Nick is going to have a mighty fine two-and-a-half days. His smile and energy are infectious and our exchange motors me up to the summit.

Friday, September 9, about 3:15 p.m., Mount Princeton’s ascent
I’m less than 100 vertical feet from gaining Princeton’s notorious southwest ridge. On the line I’m taking, alpine tundra has just yielded to big boulders settled steeply atop each other. It’s not as bad as it sounds. This is close-to-ideal terrain at 13,000 feet in the Sawatch, really, given the other options.

I step up with my left foot, onto the boulder in front and above me. I’ve stepped onto boulders like this one probably thousands of times this year, with no issue. But this one moves. Not much, but enough to dislodge the boulder above it. The boulder at eye height makes what looks like a quarter turn downward and comes to rest on top of my left foot. It’s over so quickly that the rush of adrenaline that accompanies such moments happens afterward. My foot isn’t crushed, but it’s lodged between the two boulders. I crank my foot this way and that, but it doesn’t budge.

I understand that I need to lift the boulder that’s atop my foot up in order to get it out, but I sense some danger in doing so. My entire body is basically below it on this steep slope. I don’t contemplate this for more than a few seconds. Pressing up on the boulder is awkward because my left leg is in the way. Shoulder-press-style, I heave the boulder up, a couple of inches. With this little gap, my left knee swings to the left and I wiggle my foot backward. Regaining two feet beneath me, I immediately shimmy left while trying to hold pressure on the boulder. With my body weight no longer under the boulder, it releases and cranks down the slope, puffing up white rock dust as it hits other rocks. The boulder’s several hundred feet of trundling makes me shiver—nature is infinitely powerful.

I notice, in the press-right-step-left shenanigans, I’ve tweaked my low right back. A half hour later, as I muck around on the southwest ridge, I stop and swallow two ibuprofen to take the edge off. And 90 minutes or so after that, when I drop off Princeton’s northeast ridge and into Maxwell Gulch on the real steeps, my back really squeals. Once I’m down on the Colorado Trail, I stop to stretch a few times, downward dog-like on some rocks. Luckily, the muscle loosens and stays loose—at least until this crazy thing is all over.

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Selfie on Mount Princeton’s summit. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

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Eating a cheeseburger while walking toward the Mount Yale trailhead. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Friday, September 9, about 10:00 p.m., Mount Yale’s ascent
Kristin Zosel, my pacer for this mountain, and I have just turned onto the east ridge of Mount Yale. We’ve chatted our way up the mountain so far, talking about anything and everything—her little boy growing up so fast, farting, what’s in our packs, my hopeful splits for Mount Yale, and more. We skip from serious subjects to laughter and back again—I don’t see Kristin very often, but it goes like this every time.

We’ve ascended from tree line and, for the moment, the wind is calm and the sky cloudless. The darkness is replete, and brilliant. Over on the other side of Yale, we spot a bright headlamp.

“Oh wow, there’s Nick!” we exclaim.

He’s probably only a mile and a quarter away as the raven would fly, but something like two-and-a-half hours of travel time from here to there. It still feels like he’s nearly with us. We watch his headlamp bob up and over the bumps of the ridgeline for the next 30 minutes or so. Occasionally, the headlamp turns our direction. If I knew the Morse code, I’d spell out: “N-I-C-K-Y-O-U-F-U-C-K-I-NG-R-O-C-K-!” Instead, I flash my headlamp a couple times. Soon his light disappears from our view as he drops into the North Cottonwood Creek drainage.

As we continue up Yale’s east ridge, we listen to the quiet exchanges of elk in the basin below us—it’s the sound that elk cows make with each other or with their calves to keep in auditory contact if they are visually separated. The animals are probably 500 vertical feet below us, but courtesy of this quiet night we are privy to their intimacy.

This whole scene is positively buoyant, comforting. I mean, I can’t possibly try to explain why I feel this way on a scrambly ridge at 13,000 feet in the middle of the night—it doesn’t make logical sense. But sometimes, in the most unexpected and foreign of circumstances, you still feel right at home.

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Nighttime selfie on Mount Yale. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Saturday, September 10, about 5:00 a.m., near the Mount Columbia summit
I am ascending the west side of Mount Columbia—maybe it’s a half hour to the top. It’s still completely dark beyond the reach of my headlamp. The wind is whipping, and I’ve got a couple layers on my head, covering my ears. I keep swinging my head left and right as I walk. I know something or someone else is out there—I can feel but not see them.

Ker-thunk.

I whip my head uphill, in the direction of the noise. I am prepared to meet a cryptid. About 30 feet away is a big-daddy mountain goat. He’s just dropped off the perch on which he was probably sleeping, and is now standing there, watching me.

“Hi,” I say, instinctually.

The mountain goat turns his head away from me and disappears from view.

Saturday, September 10, 8:50 a.m., Mount Harvard summit
I spider up to the highest spot of Mount Harvard, and take a seat on a boulder. A man has arrived from the standard route at the same time, and he sits, too. We make eye contact, exchange half smiles–the best we’ve both got at the moment, it seems–and fist bump. Then, we each just sit there, silently.

Up high, I’m having a mental low point. I really mucked up my traverse between Columbia and Harvard, farted around in there until it got light enough that I could see where I was going. This was the only night section I didn’t practice one last time before this outing. Twice I climbed Columbia in the 10 days before my attempt, but twice got chased down by bad weather. By daylight, it’s a tedious traverse that benefits from sightlines—a close sightline so you can plan which boulders to jump among, and a more far-off sightline so you don’t climb too high or drop too low or just head off the wrong way altogether in the lumpy terrain. Without the benefits of recent practice or daylight until about halfway through the traverse, I lost around 30 minutes.

To make matters worse, I’m also physically worried about myself. I’m fine for the moment, but am plowing through my food supply at record pace. At the top of the chute that leads to Harvard’s east shoulder, about a half hour ago, I took off my pack to pull out more food from its main compartment. I did the math on my food reserves and realized: I’m about one third of the way through this 14-hour crew-less section but I’ve consumed half my calories. There’s no way I’m going to make it over four more 14ers without more food. I brought about 250 calories per hour, but my body is begging for more. I pulled out my cell phone and sent crew-boss Bryon a text message, telling him I’ll need more food before our planned crew point at Clohesy Lake. With my phone off to preserve the battery, I won’t know if he gets the message and responds. I have to just hope.

Saturday, September 10, about 10:30 a.m., Pine Creek crossing
I sit on a gravel bar next to Pine Creek, the watercourse separating Mounts Harvard and Oxford, and allot myself a 10-minute break. I have 450 calories worth of instant-potato mix that I’ve been lusting over for hours. Pine Creek is the only water access since before Columbia, and I know I won’t find water again until after Belford. But here there is boundless water and so I rehydrate my potatoes and dig in. I try to be patient, to eat slowly, but this is an impossible ask. Like a toddler presented with cake on a birthday, I devour them. I’ve never been happier.

Saturday, September 10, about 2 p.m., between Mount Belford and Missouri Mountain
I can see the spot where I asked Bryon to send someone with extra food, high in Missouri Gulch. No one is there.

I tell myself as I descend Mount Belford, My text message to Bryon from Harvard didn’t get out. I’ve got one gel left and it’s three hours to my next crew point. I’ll just have to stay at that crew point for a while to refuel. How many times have you run for three hours without food? No big deal.

“Meghan! Meghan!”

Out of the corner of my eye I see someone in bright colors and with long hair flapping in the wind, calling my name and running in my direction. I turn my head toward them, and then back to the ground in front of me. This is my friend, Vince Heyd, who I would normally recognize from a mile off, but I am deep in the zone.

“Meghan! I have grilled cheese! Meghan!”

The mention of food breaks the spell. I screech to a halt, hold out my hands out for his offering, and inhale the sandwich. Pine Creek potatoes and, then, Missouri Gulch grilled cheese, I have officially found heaven.

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Meghan on Missouri Mountain, after the grilled cheese. Photo: Vince Heyd

Saturday, September 10, about 7:15 p.m., near Huron Peak’s summit
In my mental preparation for Nolan’s 14, I spent a lot of time visualizing my ascent of Huron Peak. In the south-to-north direction, I consider this ascent the last terrain hitch because of the scree field you have to wiggle up. But I’ve also learned that the bark of this scree field can be far worse than its bite. I was last here just a few weeks ago, and in competing with deteriorating weather, I was able to get up and down the scree slope and through the giant field of rocks at the bottom of it in an hour. That said, it looks imposing as hell from, say, the top of Missouri Mountain, and it is actually quite steep. I knew that getting over Huron in good shape would be a turning point for my attempt.

At Clohesy Lake, between Missouri and Huron, I wasn’t able to eat as much as I wanted. I got in about 400 calories, but the afternoon sun cooked me in coming down Missouri’s west ridge. I took a lot of food on the outbound, though, mostly easily digestible carbohydrates, and hoped to catch up more on Huron’s lower flanks. This strategy has worked. We’re in the shade now and as we climb it gets even cooler. I am able to get in food.

The old trail above Clohesy Lake, which passes by the remnants of a log cabin, is one of my favorite parts of my Nolan’s 14 route. It’s a bit of history almost swallowed up by the tempests. Who lived here? What did they do? Why this drainage and not another? What did they live through? Vince, who is pacing me in this section, and I make up an entire story about the people we imagine lived here.

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Ascending toward Huron Peak. Photo: Vince Heyd

Without much thought, with lots of distractions, and, frankly, way faster than I expected, we are at the top of the scree field.

“That was it?” Vince says, summarizing my thoughts exactly.

My watch reads 7:15 p.m. The sky and rocks and pretty much everything in my present universe are pastel pink, the sun one finger above the horizon but emitting light everywhere. We begin the final approach to the summit, which takes about 15 minutes. In that time, the sky brightens to the color of watermelon, then fuchsia, and, finally, a rusty crimson. Everything else follows suit and, as we hit the summit, there is nothing but brightness and light and color everywhere.

I drop off the summit, tears cascading from my eyes. Plain and simple, it is all too much. The air temperature is cold and the wind is fierce and I’m not generating much of my own body heat by jogging downhill but, for a few minutes, I’m burning up. I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in the interconnectivity of nature and the creatures within it. This sunset is surely a gift to me from the universe—a gift of energy and strength at a time when I am in need.

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Huron Peak sunset. Photo: Vince Heyd

Sunday, September 11, about 12:15 a.m., La Plata Peak ascent
“It’s going to happen,” I say.

Bryon, my pacer here, replies, “Good. Let it out.”

“I want it to happen.”

“Yep. You need this.”

“I wish it would happen.”

“Uh hnuh.”

“Blllllllllllerch. Bllllllllerch. Blllllllllllllllllllerch. Oh man! I feel like a million bucks. I really needed that.”

At the crew station in the historic mining site of Winfield, between Huron and La Plata Peaks, I ate some ramen. My belly felt empty and the night was cold and it went down decently. But nausea set in soon after, and my belly has become unusually distended. The ramen won’t digest. It takes a couple episodes of puking, this time when we are quite high on La Plata. I lower my head down into the boulders, and hope it all comes out.

“Solid food is done,” I say to Bryon, when I finally lift my head out of the rocks.

“Solid food is done,” Bryon confirms, and we both laugh and keep moving.

Sunday, September 11, 1:45 a.m., near La Plata Peak’s summit
We’ve just tagged the top of La Plata and the wind is pretty nasty now. I have to lean into it and brace myself with my hiking poles.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Bryon yells, his voice cutting through it.

“Yep!” I shout back. “Follow me.”

“Is that where we go down?” Bryon yells a few minutes later, pointing to a social trail in the talus below us.

“Nope! That leads to some nasty rocks and a bad way off the mountain. Just follow me!”

We cannot possibly know this right now, and we won’t find out until a couple hours later at the next crew point where Vince awaits, but there’s a sad and somewhat comical coincidence in our exchange. This is about the place where Nick accidentally went off the trail, taking a bad route off the mountain something like four hours before us. He made it down safely, but had a several-hour misadventure in doing so. Vince would report Nick’s energy and spirits good despite all this.

Sunday, September 11, about 6 a.m., Mount Elbert ascent
The lower part of the Mount Elbert approach is a simple walk up. Jeep road, mining trail, good tundra. Without navigation or terrain challenges to engage my mind, an overpowering desire to sleep creeps in. And my digestive system is officially in its dying days. I can intake simple carbs, but only if my heart rate is low. Every 20 or 30 minutes, I have to stand or sit still for about a minute and, then, suck down some sort of food.

“I’m going to lay down and you can’t stop me,” I say, impetuously. I had asked to lay down a couple of times previously and Bryon urged me not to.

“For how long?” Bryon answers, trying to sound as neutral and polite as possible.

“Five minutes.”

Laying there, I think about what it’s going to take to get over these last couple mountains, how uncomfortable it will be. I think about all that I’ve surpassed to get as far as I have. I think about how my goal of getting to the ending trailhead in 60 hours is actually within my grasp. The fire relights within me. I sit up. I’m back in the game. It is always the darkest before dawn.

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Ascending Mount Elbert. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Sunday, September 11, about 9:30 a.m., Mount Elbert descent
“Holy shit. Holy shit! Holy shit!”

It’s a playful exclamation as I let it rip on the rough descent from Mount Elbert, down the mountain’s western prow. This is really not a good way off the mountain, even when you’re fresh. The first 1,500 vertical feet or so are ankle-breaker rocks, and there are only a few good lines where the rocks behave underfoot in a somewhat predictable manner. The rest of it, you never know when a rock will roll over beneath your foot. It’s not that I’m taking greater risks in moving faster than my usual careful putter here. It’s that, for some reason, I keep finding all the best lines through the garbage rock. I’m surely trading in all my mountain karma for the next decade for this descent.

Once on the jeep road below, I check my watch to see that, indeed, I have lost that 3,000 vertical feet a lot faster than I expected to. But the timing for finishing in 60 hours remains so tight. Back in more benign terrain, out of the howling wind up high, and under the warm morning sun, the sleepies return.

I see objects in the woods that aren’t supposed to be there, like army supplies. I see little creatures, squirrels that look like black bears. One even flops over in the road, stomach up like it wants a belly rub, but it runs away when I approach. I rub my eyes and shake my head.

You just tried to pet an imagined animal. Say something. Say anything, I tell myself.

“The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah! The ants go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah!” I sing and jog down the road. This works for a while, but I get sleepy again. I need another tactic.

“I want this. I want this. I want this. I want this,” I shout into the morning. It’s a sudden, unplanned mantra, but I say it a couple hundred times in the last stretch of jeep road.

Sunday, September 11, about 11:05 a.m., Halfmoon Creek crew station
“Woohoo!” Vince cheers for me as I splash through Halfmoon Creek toward him.

“This has to be the fastest stop ever. I’m cutting it so close. Four minutes. That’s all I have,” I say, rushing in.

Vince doesn’t respond, but the look on his face is of the kindly “No shit, Sherlock” variety.

I sit in the chair, yanking stuff out of my pack. It’s all coming out. A windbreaker, buff, and gloves, that’s all I’m taking for the last summit. And two bottles of soda–one root beer and one Coca Cola. I don’t have time to stand still and eat gels. The only calories I can get in on the move are from soda. Soda it is.

I head up Halfmoon Road toward the trail up Mount Massive. I have maybe two miles of nearly flat terrain before the trail pitches way up. I’m powerwalking first, and, then, I try running. I’m running. I’m sure it’s a pitiful movement to observe, but I can distinctively see myself passing by rocks and flowers at a faster pace if I do the running motion. So I keep at it, and take walking breaks when I need to.

I’m doing the math, running the scenario in my head: I left the crew point at about 11:10 a.m. That leaves me 5 hours and 50 minutes. I really need two hours and 30 minutes to get off Massive, minimum. I don’t know if I can do it any faster today. Ideally, three hours is what I really want. That leaves a few minutes of wiggle room. Remember Andrew Hamilton and how he took a wrong turn after Massive? You have to leave yourself room for one error.

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About 15 minutes from the summit of Mount Massive. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Sunday, September 11, 2:19 p.m., Mount Massive summit
Go. Go. Go. Move it, girl, you gotta’ move it. It’s way past 2 p.m. You have to hammer.

First the summit block. Then, the scree and tundra that’s kind of steep. Then, a mile or so of rolling tundra—all runnable but you have to be reactive if you’re running because it’s hummocky and gives this way and that. I haven’t got much proprioception left in me, but I’m moving. I keep thinking, Fifteen-minute miles, Meghan. Try for 15-minute miles. Next comes the little boulder-and-scree chute. Then, some more tundra.

We’re running across the tundra and Bryon says, “You have to believe, Meghan. Believe.”

At last, we arrive to tree line. We drop north off this ridge, steeply through the woods. It’s a good woods, though. Nothing heinous, even a nice bed of pine needles that feels soft underfoot. Drop at a northeast angle. Drop until you reach the bottom, at the edge of a watercourse. Hit it more west and it’s a tiny creek. Hit it further east and it’s a marsh. We hit it a bit west and there’s no water, which incites temporary panic. There’s nowhere else that we could be, but the absence of water is new for me—late season and all, I guess.

“Meghan, come on, believe.”

We motor east, bound for the Highline Trail. We reach the marsh, and stay on the dry ground to its south. I suddenly love this marsh with all my heart—I know it and know precisely where we are. If I needed to swim in the black mush of this marsh right now, I would. I’d do anything for this marsh. The old wooden post comes into view, the one perched at the east end of the marsh where the Highline Trail crosses it.

I look at my watch, and it’s been one hour and 10 minutes since we left the summit. Relief rushes through me. I have one hour and 30 minutes to travel three-and-a-half miles on good trail. Of course, I’m so tired that I can’t remember the actual mileage. But I remember that, whatever the distance is, I have practiced a brisk powerhike/slow jog from here to the trailhead and it took an hour.

There are four trail intersections in the remaining miles, and each one makes me nervous. I babble about their details incessantly.

“The first intersection. That’s the Continental Divide Trail. Earlier this summer there wasn’t a sign. Or it was knocked down. I can’t quite remember. It’s a little confusing, but we go straight through it,” I explain to Bryon.

“Got it, Meghan,” he answers.

Ten minutes pass.

“Okay, we’ll be at the CDT junction any minute. We have to go straight. Okay?”

“Still got it, Meghan.”

“Yes, it’s the CDT. We go straight! We go straight! There’s left. That’s right. Now straight!”

Some more minutes pass.

“First we’re going to see big bridge. Like a huge wooden bridge over a tiny creek. Then there’s a bench. After that, there will be three intersections in the last bit.”

“Sure, Meghan.”

Two minutes pass.

“Where is that bridge? It has to be here.”

One minute passes.

“The bridge. I really thought we’d see it by now.”

One minute passes.

“There’s the bridge! It’s the bridge! Yes! Next there will be a bench, and, then, the three intersections…”

It goes like this until the finish.

Sunday, September 11, 4:36 p.m., Fish Hatchery Trailhead
Bryon runs ahead, leaving me to run the final few hundred feet alone. I jog into the trailhead, through a line of toilet paper that’s been strung between two signs as my finishing tape by Nick’s crew. I don’t actually realize that it’s a finishing tape, though, so I run around it at first. The little group of people gathered yells at me to break my tape, and so I do. I complete the Nolan’s 14 line in 59 hours and 36 minutes.

Nick finished in 57 hours and 31 minutes and he’s now got a sleeping bag closed around him and is laying on an air mattress while drinking a beer right next to the trailhead. He looks like an absolute king, a deserving role. He did it. I did it. We did it. I hobble over to him and we give each other a big hug.

I wish I could tell you that I feel something or think something—something big and meaningful. I don’t feel a lot of things right now. Two-and-a-half days non-stop in the mountains numbs you and dumbs you, for sure. To be honest, two-and-a-half days in the mountains is enough time to have had all the feels already, anyway. But if there’s anything I still feel, that cuts through everything else, that was present all along, it is joy. I carried joy, and joy carried me.

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Meghan at the Fish Hatchery Trailhead after finishing. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Thank You
Bryon Powell, Vince Heyd, Shelby Berg, and Kristin Zosel were my rocks during my Nolan’s 14 attempt as crew and pacers. Thank you to Nick Pedatella and his crew for the gentle support along the way, too. Thanks to my mom for putting up with this nonsense.

More Information

My Summit Splits

  • Mount Shavano – 2:21
  • Mount Tabeguache – 2:56
  • Mount Antero – 5:44
  • Mount Princeton – 11:15
  • Mount Yale – 18:56
  • Mount Columbia – 24:30
  • Mount Harvard – 27:50
  • Mount Oxford – 31:38
  • Mount Belford – 32:27
  • Missouri Mountain – 34:31
  • Huron Peak – 38:33
  • La Plata Peak – 44:41
  • Mount Elbert – 52:04
  • Mount Massive – 57:19:19
  • Fish Hatchery Trailhead – 59:36:48

Gear

Here I list some of the key gear and clothing that I relied upon:

Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 3.0 – A fantastic pack for this sort of outing. Perfect capacity for a crewed, fall Nolan’s 14 adventure as I can store loads of layers, food, a headlamp, etc. Lots of pocket options for organizing your gear, though I’d love to see UD make the openings on the side pockets a bit bigger and the zipper a little easier to use on the move–the pockets are good sized but a small opening and stiff zipper impedes access. I stripped a few things off to cut its weight by about two ounces. Front pole-stow loops are a great update, but they aren’t adjustable so poles do sometimes fall out, both when you are running and scrambling around.

Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Pole – Yep, carbon poles do just great off trail. I think they are fully capable of long lives on burly terrain. You don’t have to baby them, just respect the flex limits of carbon. Rubber tips are best for Nolan’s-type terrain.

Katadin BeFree Water Filtration System – Worth its weight in gold, this 20-ounce collapsible water bottle with a filter. Perfect for when you have frequent access to creeks/lakes/springs/water sources in races/adventures. Flow rate is insane–no sucking is required. When the flow rate does decrease, you simply shake the bottle with water in it to clean the filter’s membranes. You can do this while moving even. The cap that you have to undo each time you want to drink isn’t fabulous, but you get used to it. And the cap seems fairly durable–no breakage for me yet, since July. If you need more than 20 ounces to get you between sources, use this bottle to filter water into another empty water bottle. It weighs a teensy bit more than 2 ounces. Game changer for fast-and-light adventures where water is frequently present.

Petzl NAO – If there was ever a circumstance that this headlamp was designed for, it is a Nolan’s 14-type adventure. So, I’ve heard a lot of criticism for the NAO. Lots of people complain about poor battery life. If you use the NAO on its highest setting, absolutely its battery chucks itself in about two hours as you’ve got a beautiful clear beam casting itself in front of you and into your peripheral vision for over 100 meters. But I can think of only one sort of scenario where you need that kind of light–you are mountain or road biking at decent speeds. There are bike lights made for that! Your average headlamp, if you turn it on its highest setting and just go and not think about it, you’re gonna’ get tons more hours out of it because it’s casting a less clear/complete beam over a much shorter distance. But if you understand how the NAO works and program it to do what you need it to do, it’s in incredible performer with a strong battery. I’ve also heard people complain about the reactive technology and it flickering around when presented with light sources/reflective materials in its beam. Um yeah, sorry, that’s why the headlamp offers reactive and non-reactive settings that you can switch in between moment to moment! The reactive setting is incredible if you are, say, scrambling a ridgeline, and you are looking close for your next couple movements, and then looking farther off at the longer view. Or if you are trail running at night and want to look close at what’s immediately in front of you and then look out and see what terrain is 20 seconds ahead. Reactive-lighting technology is not appropriate (or needed) for hanging out in camp where campfires, other headlamps, reflective stuff on tents, and more is going to mess with the beam. And, yes, reactive technology does not perform well on the trail in heavy snowfall (absolute downpours of rain have been just fine for me, though) or if Beth, who’s there right in front of you, has a bunch of reflective stuff on her gear and clothes. Or if you have a wisp of hair that keeps falling right in front of it–speaking from experience. ;) But that’s why the headlamp offers non-reactive technology… I digress. It’s a heavy headlamp and it’s wicked expensive–now this is legit constructive commentary. That said, I can get through eight hours of pacing someone at an ultramarathon on one NAO battery if I pre-program it correctly. I went through 1.5 batteries per night on each of my nights out on Nolan’s, because I occasionally switched to the brightest setting to see the longest view; I used the reactive settings for when I was looking close, looking long, and looking close again; and because I had about 10.5 hours of headlamp time each night.

Montrail Bajada IIs – I’m as surprised as you! Their Gryptonite outsole is great on lots of off-trail terrain. Sticky on rock, which was crucial on the Nolan’s 14 line. It has decent heel-toe drop which I think is good when you are traveling terrain with wicked vertical offset–why not support your kinetic chain just a bit? Good ground feel and outsole flexibility, which requires decent foot strength/toughness given Nolan’s 14-type terrain, but allows you to know exactly what’s under your foot and flex around it when needed. And, they are a true trail running shoe so they feel great to run in when the terrain is runnable. That said, these shoes are not designed for off-trail, technical activities, and the outsole breaks down way faster than the outsole of shoes that are. One hundred miles on Nolan’s 14-type terrain and the outsole is donesies–but it’s a great 100 miles.

Various wool base layer shirts – In mountain terrain, wool is always going to be my bottom layer. It wicks sweat and you still feel warm if you/the shirt gets wet from sweat or bad weather, and it reacts well to the always changing weather of the mountains (and your changing position in them–shaded north slopes, high on the mountain, low on the mountain, sun-exposed gullies, etc.).

Patagonia Merino Air Hoody – If I could marry a piece of gear right now, it would be this. This sweater fell into my life one year ago and I have not been the same. It’s a wool/poly blend and marketed as a base layer but it functions more like a mid-layer/insulating layer to me. It’s super light, doesn’t freak out and stop working or stretch when wet, and has an amazing stretchy hood that you can bring up over your neck, chin, and mouth. Be careful when scrambling rock or moving around in brush because its fairly open weave does catch on stuff. That said, I’ve beat the crap out of my hoody already and it has years of life left.

The North Face Thermoball Hooded Jacket – I have sung the Thermoball’s praises since they came out a little over two years ago, and have taken Thermoballs on so many adventures. A solid degree of insulation for the jacket’s weight, and it doesn’t lose form or performance when wet. Great stretchy hood. I carried a Thermoball during the days of my Nolan’s 14 attempt, and switched to a warmer down puffy for nights because there was no chance of rain and this gave me the most warmth for the jacket’s weight. Had rain been in the forecast, I would have doubled up and carried two Thermoballs for the nights, however.

Older model Opedix 3/4-length tights – I wanted to wear compression from the waist down for muscle support. Honestly, I chose these tights among my kit because I ripped a hole in them on a willow when off trail earlier in the summer, and I didn’t want to ruin a second pair of tights if I got caught on rock or brush again. Compression all the way for a 2.5-day adventure with loads of vert.

Injinji 2.0 Over-the-Calf Compression Socks – Compression and toe socks in one place. I am convinced that below-the-waist compression helps in long-haul events. Just that little bit of support you get with each foot strike adds up over multiple days. The muscles of the calves and shins get incredibly worked on Nolan’s 14-type terrain. Not only the effort of all the vertical offset, but the incredible stabilizing work needed for tundra, rocks, etc. And either you are a toe sock person or you aren’t–if you get toe blisters, you are a person who could benefit from them. Love these socks.

nick-pedatella-and-meghan-hicks-nolans-14

Nick Pedatella and Meghan Hicks at the Fish Hatchery Trailhead post-Nolan’s 14 line success. Photo: Vince Heyd

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 24 comments

  1. Dave Van Wicklin

    Sweet report & what a great adventure! I nailed a few of the summits this summer & enjoy seeing them again thru your eyes….

  2. Quigley

    Awesome accomplishment!One quick gear question – it looks like you were running with a coke bottle at least on Elbert through to the end? Why a coke bottle, and what type of bottle were you using before then?

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Quigley,

      I used the Katadin BeFree collapsible bottle (with the filter) for most of my effort–I love this new product, BTW. For Elbert, I left it behind and only carried two bottles of soda, one root beer and one coke. The only calories my stomach could tolerate at that point while still moving were liquid calories, so I only drank soda that last mountain!

  3. lori Enlow

    So wonderful to hear your experience. I remember your TDG experience as I had planned to be at the tor this year. Life took a turn and I was not able to go. I can’t wait to spend days and nights in the mountains, whatever that will look like. Ya jis rekindled the fire. Thanks. So glad for your amazing experience.

  4. Roger J

    Meghan, congratulations on one impressive accomplishment!
    Thank you for sharing, Your account leaves me wanting to hear more. Will you be publishing a longer article? Have you considered writing a book about your many adventures?

  5. Andrew

    Awesome!! Thank you for sharing your experience, that was a really great read.

    I was wondering if you would be willing to share a gear list and any thoughts you had on stuff that worked really well for you and stuff that didn’t.

    An adventure like this seems to be right in the middle of the blurry lines between ultra running and fast packing.

    Huge congrats! thanks for your time,
    Andrew

  6. Jen

    Great report, and awesome job on completing a huge goal. As a female runner who ventures out on her own, I’d like to hear more of your encounter with the man who made you question his intentions. I think the more we talk about this issue, the more awareness we can bring, and hopefully save someone’s life.

    Thanks!

  7. Andy Good

    Wow, what a read… I can only imagine what the preparation for an adventure like this must have been like. Well done isn’t enough… FUCKING WELL DONE and a virtual high five! :D

  8. Betina Mattesen

    I don’t care what your naval gazing accomplishments are. I care about the impacts of this new fad of traveling off trail, pounding up the tundra and disturbing animals, as this account shows. The damage to 14ers is great, even keeping on trail, as the 14ers Initiative keeps telling us. A new group out of Jackson Hole, SHIFT, seeks to improve the ethics and environmental literacy of ever growing recreationists. It’s time. Nature is not an outdoor gymnasium.It’s something more and alpine ecosystems are delicate and finite. Something’s off with Nolan’s 14. Environmentalists need to confront it.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Betina,

      I am glad you commented with these thoughts. I feel identically to you and many others that the overuse of Colorado’s 14ers is an issue that must be addressed. And I do feel that off-trail travel (whether in the alpine or elsewhere) has the potential to/in some instances does cause negative environmental impact. Finally, in the years I have been spending on the Nolan’s 14 terrain, I have noticed an increase in negative environmental impact on it. I spoke about my specific feelings on the issue in an interview with Trail Runner magazine, http://trailrunnermag.com/people/q-and-a/article/2290-meghan-hicks-nolans-14-interview. I hope you’ll read that. I sincerely agree with you that the behavior of many recreationists on Colorado’s 14ers needs to change, and that trail runners are a part of that.

      That said, I find your aggressive tone toward me unkindly and likely based in a lack of knowledge about me and my intent. I have been traveling in off-trail terrain around the world for 17 or 18 years, and while I believe it’s impossible to decrease one’s impact to zero, I believe it’s possible to travel (on trail and off trail) in many different kinds of environments with very little impact. My behavior/movements aren’t informed by what I want to do, but by what I need to do to minimize my impact. I follow Leave No Trace’s ethics 100% in my (on trail and off trail) recreation. For instance, I sometimes choose not to travel off trail when I know my impact will be negative–like early season in the alpine when it’s very wet, I don’t travel then. I choose where I walk/camp/do anything (on trail and off trail) based upon the durability of surfaces. My chosen route through the Nolan’s 14 line, for example, was guided by where I could travel with very little impact–in many cases I took longer routes to get to trails and other durable terrain. My personal ethic is such that I would not have undertaken the Nolan’s 14 line if I didn’t think I could accomplish it with minimal impact–and I sincerely wish you would have framed your thoughts here as questions/a discussion rather than as an aggression toward me without knowledge of my ethic and specific choices in this outing.

      On a larger scale, I consider myself an advocate among trail runners for sustainable trail running–I write/speak about it often. I hope you’ll consider looking at the book I coauthored called “Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,” which was written with the intent of helping trail runners go out onto the trail with the knowledge and skills they need to be safe and treat the people and places they encounter with respect and which contains a chapter on how to be sustainable in the sport. Finally, I plan to continue advocating for the use of Leave No Trace principles by trail runners and other outdoor users, and using my Nolan’s 14 experience as a platform to help do so. As LNT says, it’s not about getting people to NOT go to the mountains, it’s about getting them to take the right knowledge, skills, and ethic with them.

      I do feel bad for disturbing that mountain goat on Columbia, though based on the facts that mountain goats are nocturnal and often move several times each night and that high winds from the southwest were increasingly making the southwest side of that mountain uncomfortable, I kind of think he would have moved on his own sooner than later. The elk that I wrote about on Yale, I’m certain that they were clueless to our passage. Their squeaks continued unmodified from before we passed over them, to when we passed over them, to after we passed over them. The other animals that I knowingly affected in my outing were an owl and a couple ptarmigans, which all were flushed out when I passed by. And what were my other impacts? I had a small crew of people supporting me by driving around in cars–this was quite easily the largest negative impact–though I intentionally kept my crew small to keep the effort’s footprint small. And, well, I vomited ramen on the side of La Plata, which likely became meals for some rodents or maybe birds.

      Thank you again for commenting. I believe we are essentially on the same page of wanting to advocate for the environment among recreationists. I have known about SHIFT for the last two events and have wanted to attend, but my schedule hasn’t allowed me to. I hope to someday.

      Meghan

    2. Emerson Thoreau

      Nature is indeed an outdoor gymnasium, not a museum as you would have it. And those animals likely do not need therapy from their “run in” with Ms. Hicks; they likely had a good laugh at our human follies. Consider taking a cue from the animals: lighten up. Apologies in advance for my anthropomorphism.

  9. Delia

    Great report. I especially like that you shared some of the preparation you did and the feelings that it generated, in actually practicing the different segments.
    I’m curious – how did you learn to navigate for adventures like this, and are there particular resources you’d recommend for learning? (Is this something you included in the book?)

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