This One’s for the Ladies: Meghan Hicks’s 2020 Nolan’s 14 FKT Report

Here is my report from successfully completing the Nolan’s 14 line, a link-up of two trailheads and 14 mountains taller than 14,000 feet in Colorado’s Sawatch Range. My attempt took place from Thursday, September 3 through Saturday, September 5. My route was about 94.5 miles long and had roughly 45,000 feet of climb. I finished in 50 hours and 32 minutes, a new women’s supported fastest known time (FKT).

Mount Shavano

It’s the evening before my Nolan’s 14 attempt, and my husband Bryon Powell and I pull into a dispersed campsite near the Blanks Cabin Trailhead, the southern terminus of the Nolan’s 14 line. We spot movement in the forest undergrowth, a snowshoe hare feeding. Most of its fur is camouflaged in summer brown, but its huge back feet still bear their winter white. What luck, as I’ve seen four of these shy forest dwellers in the last couple of weeks.

I awake on the morning of my attempt feeling rested, a few minutes before my alarm. I can hardly believe my watch when it says I’ve slept through the night, rather than my usual pre-event tossing and turning. Another stroke of luck, I decide.

I head off at 5 a.m. in the dark, trailing the white beam of my headlamp. After a little more than an hour and right before the sun rises, I emerge from treeline, click off my headlamp, and take in the widening view. As the sun lifts above the east horizon, it bathes the tundra around me in orange. It is overwhelming.

I think about my family, friends, and all of the loved ones who are supporting me from near and far today. That, too, is too much. I need to process these sorts of things in smaller bites. I decide to devote each of these upcoming 14 mountains to one or a couple of these important people. For an hour or so on each mountain, can I possess their strengths as my own?

On Mount Shavano, I channel my mother and her quiet fortitude. This woman has, pardon my language, seen some shit, and she lives lovingly on with an uncommon mental strength. It’s easy to climb this mountain using her determination.

Sunrise on Mount Shavano. All photos iRunFar unless otherwise noted.

Tabeguache Peak

I recently learned that the Tabeguache Ute, now called the Uncompahgre Ute, are the original inhabitants of the Sawatch Range. Most of this band’s descendants now reside on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah. I take the mile’s worth of rock hopping between Mount Shavano and Tabeguache Peak to offer my gratitude, however intangible that is, to the people whose homelands I’ve also come to love.

Mount Antero

In what feels like no time at all, I’m up high on the white rocks of Mount Antero. While the mining of aquamarine has long been a thing on this mountain and its neighbor, the aptly named Mount White, the mining claim not far from the Mount Antero summit has recently upped its game. Much deeper quarry gouges, a couple of roads, and a trail have been carved into the rocky steeps. The miners have also physically blocked off more of their claim than in any year prior with fences, gates, and signs. To get around it all, I climb over the top of the 13,800-foot knob just above the mining claim and head downhill on open public land. It takes an extra 10 minutes, and of course this required inefficiency irks me.

At the Mount Antero summit with the mine (middle ground, center) as well as Tabeguache Peak and Mount Shavano (both in the background, at left) in view.

While I majored in geology as an undergraduate, Bryon is the real rockhound of our family. It’s easy to channel his look-for-pretty-things spirit up here. I don’t see any gemstones hidden in the rocks, but focusing on the details of this moment and place is exactly what I need.

Running down the jeep road from Mount Antero.

Mount Princeton

I find the heat of the day at the bottom of Mount Princeton. I’ve been sun kissed here before, so I have a plan this time. I dunk my shirt and hat and splash my arms with water three times, twice on the ascent and once on the descent. Each dousing has never felt better, a little luxury amongst the effort.

Cooling off before climbing Mount Princeton.

There’s another way to escape the heat and that’s to climb higher. Princeton’s southwest and northeast ridges offer a couple hours of cool breeze and temperatures. Again, I manage to waste some minutes by climbing onto the spine of the southwest ridge. The spine goes but requires some slow scrambling, while a much more efficient game trail is below at climber’s right. I take the time to shimmy down onto the trail, a five-minute time loss.

I decide to be propelled over Princeton by my brother Corey Hicks. He’s the person around me who has lived through the most life challenges, yet by his attitude you’d never know. While it’s instinct to be annoyed by a couple minutes lost to my wandering mind, I channel Corey’s cool and calm, and this helps the feelings to float away.

On the Colorado Trail after crossing Mount Princeton.

Mount Yale

Evening is arriving but I wish it would come sooner. I’m hungry but the heat at the crossing between Mounts Princeton and Yale and the low point of the Nolan’s 14 route disallows much of the big dinner I’d hoped to eat. No problem for me, though, because my Mount Yale pacer, Courtney Dauwalter, tucks two slices of pizza and other various treats into her pack and tempts me with them every 20 minutes or so.

Enjoying the company of Courtney Dauwalter and some french fries on the road before Mount Yale.

We switch our headlamps on about a quarter of the way uphill, making it through the one tricky bit of navigation before full darkness descends. The almost-full moon rises and it’s blood red. We gasp at the scene’s incredulity. Soon we hear voices and see headlamp beams above us. Other hikers on this random ridge? It’s John Danese and his pacer! John is on his way to completing the Nolan’s 14 line in the north-to-south direction, and this is his second night. Our spirits are high as we exchange a few words. The luck keeps coming our way!

I gulp down a slice of pizza, we don jackets for the breeze, and soon enough we are wandering among the black rocks of Mount Yale’s summit. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty exciting to top out on a Colorado 14er with Courtney, the queen of adventurous ultrarunning. I am inspired by her and so many other strong women in our sport. We glide and gallop and trip and stumble our way downhill, the personalities and performances of Courtney and these women moving me.

Heading out from the crew station between Mounts Yale and Columbia on the first night.

Mount Columbia

In past years, Mounts Columbia and Harvard and the nighttime traverse between the two have been my nemeses. I’ve struggled with bad weather, bad navigation, and bad fueling. With the help of a lot of time spent recce-ing, a nudge by women’s unsupported Nolan’s 14 FKT holder Sarah Hansel to try a different route between the mountains, and a largely liquid fuel plan that allows easier calorie intake, I’m stoked for this nighttime meander. Additionally, my friend Vince Heyd is pacing me and we haven’t seen each other since the COVID-19 pandemic started. We talk nonstop and I hardly notice as Columbia comes and goes.

Mount Harvard

Approaching from the east, Mount Harvard’s long summit ridge requires patience. We pick our way through the boulders, scree, and flat bits. Along the way, we glimpse a creature slinking in the night. Four-legged and long tailed, it bolts when it sees us, descending what has to be almost 1,000 vertical feet in just a minute or two. It all happens too fast to know what we’ve just seen, but we surmise it is a fox or a mountain lion.

I channel Vince on this mountain. Without him with me, I would have been pretty scared by the prospects of being alone on a mountain with a large wildcat. I also channel him because of our friendship’s incredible history. We’ve climbed so many mountains just like this together, laughing and living along the way. It’s so comfortable up here with Vince.

Mount Oxford

The second sunrise is on its way, bringing with it a sense of déjà vu from Bryon and I’s recce-ing trip here about a month ago. First I find the ChapStick I lost last time, then I spot the same three deer standing in the same two places, and after that I clamber past the same white rocks with the same gorgeous gray quartz crystals.

After a night with pacers, I’m alone again and feel content with living inside my own head for a while. Marching up the steep tundra and boulders, I settle into a familiar feeling. Very simply, I feel like I’ve done this a million times before and that I’ll do it a million times again.

This makes me think of my dad. My dad was an athlete and subscribed to the intentional-practice methodology for improvement, something in the vicinity of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule of the present day. I grew up a runner and a tennis player, and he’d drive behind me as I ran my miles in Minnesota nighttime snowstorms and take me to the park to hit a certain shot several hundred times. Big step up, big step up, big step up, I walk to the top of Oxford on the rhythm of history.

Mother Nature punctuates my summit thoughts as three ptarmigan wander in the tundra. I’ve seen them twice before in the same spot this year. The déjà vu is replete.

Mount Belford

The anticipation of arriving to Mount Belford and seeing my crew there has been building for the last few hours. The last time I saw my crew was something like 10 hours and four mountains ago. Making my way across the sprawling ridge connecting Mounts Oxford and Belford, I scan the summit for humans I know. Soon I can see friends Olivia Rissland and Adam Gerard and the full-on picnic they’ve assembled in the morning sun at 14,000 feet! I don’t have a stomach for solid food anymore, but their thermos of hot Tailwind Rebuild is magic as is the sparkle in their eyes. Honestly, what’s better than a wee hot drink and the positive energy of your friends?

Missouri Mountain

Before I started this attempt, I knew that Missouri Mountain would be my cusp. I arrived to the summit a train wreck in my failed 2017 attempt. Vince, who was pacing me on Missouri that year, and I sat among the rust-colored rocks as I decided to quit that attempt. This time, I knew that if I could surpass this 10th mountain in fair to fine form–anything better than three years ago, and barring some acute accident–I would finish this time.

While recce-ing on the backside of Missouri a month ago, Bryon and I watched two good-looking bucks run across the tundra, their powerful bodies moving with ease over the lumpy terrain. I crest a small rise and spot the same boys, this time bedded down in willows. Alright, alright, Mother Nature, I think, I’m tuned in and listening.

Heading up the final couple hundred feet to the summit, the advice of my Moroccan friend Samir Akhdar at the Marathon des Sables many years ago pops into my head. “You have to believe,” he’d said to me. It was a pep talk, and he wanted me to have greater confidence in my abilities. Samir’s personality absolutely glows, which brings out the best in the people around him, so he’s a fitting person to emulate on Missouri. I cross over the cusp of my attempt feeling better than I’d ever hoped I could. Samir, I believe.

Huron Peak

I arrive to Clohesy Lake at the base of Huron Peak a little under an hour ahead of my predicted splits. My friend Eszter Horanyi has arrived early and awaits me here. She’ll pace me over the next two mountains. We pause at the lake outlet so I can get some liquid calories in, soak my shirt with chilly lake water, and mentally prepare for the infamous Huron scree field.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing awesome about this scree field, but it’s not terrible either. With Eszter telling hilarious stories and me grunting a little bit more than I’d care to admit, we reach its top and join the standard trail for the last distance to the summit.

Grunting up the scree field on Huron Peak. Photo: Eszter Horanyi

Before I can really absorb it all, we are already back at treeline on Huron’s far side. It’s the heat of another afternoon, and I’m trying hard to not cook myself in it. I’ve been begging for better shade and the creek crossing near the bottom of the trail. Soon enough, we arrive to both.

Eszter is ideal company for this difficult stretch. She crossed over to pedestrian adventuring after a bike-racing career. That sport saw her setting multi-day records that make the 2.5-day Nolan’s 14 line look like a jog in the park. If she has done that, I reason, I will do this.

Descending the Huron Peak standard trail. Photo: Scott Morris

La Plata Peak

I know it’s going to happen a while before it does, this trailside puke. I do these a couple times in almost every long event. They aren’t ideal, but I always feel better and can get in more calories after the stomach reset they bring. Halfway up La Plata Peak, I sit in the dirt and heave. I’m almost sorry Eszter has to see this, but then I notice that she’s just snapping photos and looking amused.

A La Plata Peak puking photo. Photo: Eszter Horanyi

The evening light atop of La Plata is gorgeous, and I’ve been eating some of Eszter’s sour-gummy candy. Propelled by sugar and long light, we float downhill–sort of, except for that one lovely digger. Headlamp time arrives as we enter the trees again and I am relieved to run through this river valley’s cool air.

My mind is on my whole crew. We’re some 38 hours into this thing and I know they are exhausting themselves to help me. The selflessness of the human spirit is just awesome. I can hardly believe my eyes at the crew station when I see that everyone is assembled! Only a couple of them were scheduled to help at this spot, but all of them are here. I leave La Plata boosted by their love.

The second sunset on La Plata Peak. Photo: Eszter Horanyi

Mount Elbert

Bryon is my pacer for the final two mountains, and we jog the road section leading to Mount Elbert as the moon rises in the tree tunnel created by this road. It’s a movie scene, but real.

I’d set splits to finish in 52.5 hours, and we’re well ahead of that timing now. Early in the climb, Bryon asks, “Will this pace get you to the top in the time you need to maintain your position?” His nerves are palpable, as over the years he’s grown to care about this endeavor, too. I know this is going to work out well, but I can’t find a way to verbally communicate this. All I can manage is an, “I’m doing the best I can,” which probably inspires no confidence.

The moon rising while running the road to the base of Mount Elbert.

Since yesterday, I’d planned to think about my friend Melissa Beaury on Elbert. I knew this would likely be the hardest mountain for me, and she has more resilience than most humans I know. She’s also a human Border Collie, happy to roam no matter the conditions.

With the depths of the second night setting in, so do the sleepies. For a little while, I ponder a brief ground nap. Despite being sleepy, I’m moving at a good pace and lucidly navigating. There’s no real reason to stop, so I’ll need to shake it off and move on.

Soon enough the sleepies pass, and so does Bull Hill, as well as the bridging ridge between it and the hulking Mount Elbert. But the summit ridge takes forever, and its false summits lure me into thinking several times that I’ve made it to the top. I remember Melissa’s Border Collie tendencies, and seek joy in the simple act of moving, rather than the destination ahead. The feeling doesn’t come perfectly, but the thought helps. Eventually we pass over Elbert’s top.

Mount Massive

For almost two days, I’ve tempered everything about this attempt. I’ve used care with my level of exertion, with where I’ve placed my feet, with what and how much I’ve eaten and drunk, with not getting off route by more than a few rocks, with trying to stay calm, with it all. Always in my mind has been the goal of doing everything I can right now so that I can feel decent on the mountains ahead.

Finally, I’m on the last mountain and I can let it rip. Bryon and I blow through the last crew station in less than two minutes, and then I jog more than half of the gently uphill trail leading to Mount Massive’s base. I press my body up through the 1,500 vertical feet of rock steps, taking each step with purpose. When we reach the long switchbacks through the tundra, I hike as hard as I can. Somewhere up here, I find that weird and perfectly detached flow state where you can push and push and push without feeling pain.

Bless Bryon and his unceasingly patient pacer’s heart, as with all of my energy and attention routed to my legs, I speak only in grunts. He continues to offer encouragement, which becomes fuel for the fire. I push harder.

At the Mount Massive summit.

I think of all the women who’ve preceded me on the Nolan’s 14 line, Betsy Kalmeyer, Ginny Laforme, Anna Lauer Roy, Missy Gosney, Anna Frost, Tara Parsons, Sarah Hansel, Andrea Sansone, and Sabrina Stanley, silently reciting their names on each footfall. I push some more.

We arrive to Mount Massive’s summit. I am shocked when Bryon tells me our split is almost a half hour faster than planned. We begin the last downhill, toward the Fish Hatchery Trailhead where this journey will end in a couple hours. The eastern sky lightens and what feels like the whole world is visible from here. This one’s for the ladies, I think. I am here now because you’ve been here before. And I’ll run as hard as I can for those who are yet to come.

The third sunrise while descending Mount Massive.

Thank You

Thank you to my crew and pacers, Bryon Powell, Vince Heyd, Courtney Dauwalter, Kevin Schmidt, Olivia Rissland, Adam Gerard, and Eszter Horanyi. Thank you to Scott Morris and Trackleaders for tracking my outing. Thank you to meteorologist and runner Chris Tomer for helping to choose my weather window to attempt. All of you mean so much to me.

Summit Splits

  • Mount Shavano – 2:13
  • Tabeguache Peak – 2:48
  • Mount Antero – 5:26
  • Mount Princeton – 10:32
  • Mount Yale – 16:59
  • Mount Columbia – 21:12
  • Mount Harvard – 23:43
  • Mount Oxford – 27:00
  • Mount Belford – 27:39
  • Missouri Mountain – 29:19
  • Huron Peak – 32:41
  • La Plata Peak – 37:47
  • Mount Elbert – 44:17
  • Mount Massive – 48:40
  • Fish Hatchery Trailhead – 50:32

Gear

  • Salomon Advanced Skin 12 Set pack
  • Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Running Poles
  • Katadyn BeFree water filter
  • Aquamira water-purification chemicals
  • Petzl Nao+ headlamp
  • The North Face Flight Futurelight Jacket
  • Smartwool t-shirt
  • The North Face Merino wool long-sleeve shirt
  • Ultimate Direction Ultra Flip Glove
  • Under Armour HeatGear Shorts
  • Salomon Agile Mid Tights
  • Injinji Ultra Compression OTC socks
  • Columbia Montrail Bajada III shoes
  • Dirty Girl Gaiters

Nutrition

  • Tailwind Endurance Fuel and Caffeinated Endurance Fuel
  • Tailwind Rebuild
  • Gu Energy Stroopwafels
  • Gu Energy Roctane Energy Gels
  • Gu Energy Chews

More Information

Arriving to the Fish Hatchery Trailhead. Photo: Eszter Horanyi

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com's Managing Editor and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.

There are 24 comments

  1. John Vanderpot

    An incredible achievement, and write-up, Meghan — congratulations, A+!

    (You mention it a bit down towards the end, and I was taken with it when I read Joey’s interview — this flow thing seems to really make a difference when it comes to final results…it’s my understanding you have something to do with iRunFar? Maybe someday an article on that?)

    Locally we have something far less challenging, 5 Peaks (figure 15 miles and 4-5K in climb?), which I think I’ll go try right now — thanks!

  2. Michael Allen

    Meghan, Incredible adventure and achievement. Really enjoyed this re-cap and the pictures. Congratulations on the successful completion and FKT.

  3. Alex Peers

    You paint a wonderful picture with your words. I feel your joy and pride in accomplishing this great feat. Congratulations on the massive effort.

  4. Scott Mills

    Meghan, so inspirational. Your write up, pictures, and crew motivate us all to always do our best, and surround ourselves with friends and family who provide the extra support to accomplish great things. So happy for you!

  5. Peter G

    Reading how you channeled your friends and family on this amazing adventure and your great sense of gratitude was truly inspiring! Congratulations, and thank you!

  6. Jen Benna

    Thank you for sharing this journey with us. The mountains and love of the trail start us running, but the community keeps us coming back. Your tribute to the all the women who’ve run this route is so fitting. Amazing inspiration!

  7. Jana

    Thank you for sharing your journey with the rest of us. I loved how you dedicated each peak to a different person. How is your recovery going? xo

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