Sunday, September 8, 2013

Nolan’s 14… Well Nolan’s 12 - After Action Report

Friday morning, 5:03 AM, August 30th, 2013,
I began my 1st serious effort at completing the Nolan’s 14 course from south to north. I say “1st real attempt” because I gave it a half-baked south to north effort over Labor Day Weekend 2012, but that was pretty short lived, with me throwing in the towel after reaching the Grouse Canyon trail head; only 3 peaks into the traverse. So, after having spent most weekends this summer researching and rehearsing the course, and GPS tracking pretty much every inch of it from Grouse Canyon northwards to Fish Hatchery, I set off this year to give it a very determined effort. Before diving into the trip report itself, first it might be better to provide just a bit of background information. Nolan’s 14, what is it? It describes a course which comprises the most possible 14’000 summits that can be packed into the shortest possible distance, most closely which resembles a 100 mile ultra-marathon or thereabouts. There is quite a bit of history behind the naming and development of the course, which I won’t go into here (take a look at the following link if you are interested – Nolan’s 14). Why south to north, especially if there has been more success for people going north to south? Well, after having spent parts of the last 2 summers trying to figure the course out, it seems to me like there are more steep climbs from north to south, and it’s a shorter distance to the 1st summit going from south to north. For example, going north to south it’s something like 8 miles to the summit of Mt. Massive as compared to the 4.85 miles up to Mt. Shavano. From north to south, the really nasty uphill climbs are the west face of Mt. Elbert, the north face of Mt. Harvard, the avalanche gully on Mt. Yale, Maxwell Gulch on Mt.Princeton, and up to Tabagauche Peak from Brown’s Creek (5 pretty stout, steep, and loose climbs, except for Mt. Harvard, which is mostly on grassy slopes). From south to north, the really nasty uphill climbs are Mt. Princeton from Grouse Canyon, up to the Oxford/Belford Saddle from Pine Creek, the east face of Huron Peak from Clohesy Lake, and the southwest ridge of Mt. Elbert (4 as opposed to 5 going from north to south). Of course there are other steep climbs I have not mentioned, but the climbs above are the ones which are mainly off-trail and sometimes over extremely technical and loose terrain. So, that is what influenced my choice of direction. Perhaps someone will try to convince me otherwise or I may try north to south myself, but that is why I did what I did, when everyone else this summer tried north to south. OK; after leaving Lisa at the Shavano/Tabagauche trail head, everything went really well over the 1st 3 peaks (Shavano, Tabaguache, and Antero). Coming down the gully from Tabagauche to Brown’s Creek, it seems like there has been quite a bit of erosion since I was through there last year. I wonder if staying a little to the west of the gully would not be a little easier in the future. Last year I made a terrible choice in descending Mt. Antero directly north in an attempt to reach Grouse Canyon, only to encounter extremely loose terrain that funneled itself into a gully that ended in a waterfall going over a cliff, which I had to down-climb in a rainstorm. This year I took the use trail from the saddle between Mt. Antero and Point 13,800. It was a pretty direct, steep descent with which I was able to bisect most of the switchbacks on the Baldwin Gulch jeep road too, which got me back down to tree line rather quickly and with little fuss. I combined running and walking down to the town of Alpine and the Grouse Canyon trail head to meet Lisa at 1:45 PM, almost 1 ½ hours ahead of my schedule. At Grouse Canyon trail head I met Lisa and my 1st pacer, Shelby Berg. I immediately lost almost all of the time I had gained coming down from Antero while waiting out a thunderstorm at the trailhead, but it was nice to see Lisa and get some grub and rest too.
Let me diverge here for a moment and briefly discuss the topic of pacers on Nolan’s 14 because there was so much controversy generated by my use of them on the website. During the original running of the Nolan’s 14 course, back when it was a semi-formally organized fun run type of event, pacers weren’t allowed. I had originally wanted to stick to this same type of format. However, seeing as how the only 2 successful completions of the course since the original Nolan’s fun run was shut-down in 2003 involved either a party of 2 who stayed together the whole way (Jared Campbell and Matt Hart) and Eric Lee’s prolific use of pacers, both of which occurred during last summer (2012); I thought this should be an OK strategy for me to adopt too. Normally I do not use pacers in an ultra-marathon. I am OK spending time by myself and I feed off of the other participant’s energy well enough to keep myself going to the finish line. However, due to the extremely isolated and sustained nature of the Nolan’s course, I figured that pacers would serve me well as anti-quit insurance. In other words, I would so over-extend myself towards the generous nature of other people who were willing to come out and spend their time on my behalf, I would be too embarrassed to weenie out on them or myself; that is it, no “mule-ing”, no navigational help, or whatever other dependency that someone can dream up with which I was trying to gain some type of unfair advantage; it was only to try and guarantee that I would not give up (as you will see, it was pretty touch and go even at that). Shelby Berg was very generous, brave, and stout-hearted to consider going over Mt. Princeton with me. She had no idea what I was getting her into, but I did, and I really deserve some criticism for having made this decision. I am really thankful that in the process I did not cause her to sustain any kind of season ending or otherwise life threatening injury during our time together. Being impatient to wait for the rain to end, but being pretty sure the lightning had passed, we began up Grouse Canyon at about 2:30 PM.
It took us 4 hours to summit Mt. Princeton, which didn’t leave us much time to begin descending down Maxwell Gulch before darkness would overtake us.
Eventually we had dropped to a point on Princeton’s northeast ridge where I thought we could drop straight down into Maxwell Gulch (not my intended route, which was much further down the ridge, but one which I thought might drop us down as fast as possible). What I didn’t know at the time was that we had dropped further down the ridge than I realized and were now poised at the top of the steepest, loosest gully that I could possibly have chosen to get down into Maxwell Gulch. Poor Shelby, instead of the steep, loose slope I wanted to take her down, which lay unbeknownst a little to our west, I took her down a super gnarly, steep, block-filled nightmare of a gully, and in the dark too! She put the best face possible on the situation, and I commend and deeply respect her for her spirit and ability to carry on through what must have been extremely trying circumstances. Finally we got to the bottom of Maxwell Gulch and back on the Colorado Trail. We walked and ran the 4 miles back down the Colorado Trail to reach Highway 306. From there we stuck to the highway instead of the Colorado Trail to reach the Avalanche Creek trail head at almost midnight. Sheila Huss was my second pacer who was going to keep me company over Mt. Yale.
Our traverse of the east ridge of Mt. Yale with a descent of the avalanche gully down to North Cottonwood Creek was relatively uneventful, but it took us a whole lot longer than I anticipated. What was pretty easy to figure out in the daytime was totally foreign at night, even with my GPS unit helping guide the way. We were originally supposed to take 6 hours to get over Yale, but I think it took us more like 8 hours instead. We finally reached my son Jubal and his wife Autumn at the trail junction and North Cottonwood Creek at 8:00 AM Saturday morning. Though I am sure they were cold for how long they had to wait for me, Jubal took super good care of me, fixing me some hot chow and giving me a back massage. Pretty much this was the low point of my trip. Knowing I was now outside of my time window to complete the course in 60 hours, and being worried about how over-due I was going to be for meeting my other pacer’s (Steve Bremner in Missouri Basin at 4:30 PM that afternoon and Will Carlton in Winfield at 11:00 PM that night); I tried to quit. Right then and there my “anti-quit insurance” kicked in just like it was supposed to and both Jubal and Sheila started trying to kick me out of the crew spot and get my butt going over the top of Mt. Columbia. Though I was reluctant and took some persuading, I am extremely grateful to the both of them. It is not for me to take any credit for getting over 12 summits, but theirs entirely for keeping me going. Leaving Jubal, Autumn, and Sheila, I took off by myself to get over the next section of peaks to meet Steve Bremner in Missouri Basin. Jubal and Autumn were also going to hike in to crew me there. I was a little concerned about how the timing of everything was going to work out, but everyone assured me that it would take care of itself. Mt. Columbia was pretty uneventful. I even regained my climbing legs a little bit after refueling and resting a little at North Cottonwood Creek. By the time I was on top of Mt. Columbia and heading down into the basin between Columbia and Mt. Harvard, another thunderstorm was fast approaching. I met a couple coming up towards the summit of Columbia from Harvard, and they begged me to turn around and go back with them saying, “We will give you a ride wherever you want to go”. They were convinced that I had totally lost it, heading into the storm rather than away from it. I explained that sometimes things were a little more complicated than they seemed, but I could tell they didn’t buy any of my argument. At the bottom of the basin between Mt. Columbia and Mt. Harvard (12,600’) I found a beautiful boulder with a significant overhang on its east side where I could perfectly hide myself and keep totally dry just as the heavens let loose with rain, thunder, and lightning. Here I stayed, trying to rest for a bit, for about an hour, until the storm passed. The climb from the basin back up Mt. Harvard was pretty uneventful too. Descending Mt. Harvard’s north face, I decided to deviate from my planned course of going straight down the north ridge/face to cross Pine Creek. This occurred to me after having a conversation with Steve Bremner about how I thought the valley at the base of Mt. Harvard was pretty miserable, involving navigating lots of blown down trees and such (very similar to the bottom of the avalanche gully on Mt. Yale). Steve told me that he thought folks had originally been taking a route more to the west side of the ridge. So, instead of sticking to the ridge itself, I chose a nice avenue of steep grass going off the west side of the ridge, thinking I might make better time traversing the basin at foot of the ridge rather than following the ridge itself all the way down to Pine Creek. Things went pretty well. The terrain was Ok for the most part, i.e. not involving anything too loose or technical, though it did began to rain heavily once again, mixed in with a few ice pellets, but it didn’t last for long. I finally reached the valley floor, and now faced the prospect of getting across a marshy section of the Pine Creek valley in order to gain Matt’s Avenue on the ascent back up to the Oxford/Belford Saddle. Little did I know this was going to be my 2nd crux of the course (Mt. Princeton was the 1st), as I soon found myself totally stuck in shoe sucking mud and entangled in willows that were densely packed together, soaking wet, and growing taller than my head so I totally lost all sight of any surroundings with which to navigate. Back tracking to the bottom of the slopes coming down from Mt. Harvard, I made my way down stream until I could figure a better place to cross Pine Creek. The climb up Matt’s Avenue from Pine Creek to the saddle between Mt. Oxford and Mt. Belford was pretty straightforward. I ended up going through someone’s camp site just as I was leaving the valley floor. They were pretty amazed that I was actually taking off straight up the mountain side, but I assured them a reasonable route to the top really did exist. Daylight stuck with me until I reached the saddle.
In the last moments of day light I turned east from the saddle and made my way over to the summit of Mt. Oxford. Through the fading light I could barely make out a figure lurking near Oxford’s summit, and I swore to myself that I could also make out some sort of racket, like the person was yelling or carrying on in some fashion. It turned out to be my friend Steve Bremner, so kindly waiting for me on the summit of Oxford, who was practicing his yodeling too! Just as quickly as we could we tagged the summit of Oxford and then the top of Mt. Belford too, and made our way down into the basin between Mt. Belford and Missouri Mountain.
From the summit of Mt. Belford I could just make out Jubal’s and Autumn’s head lamps way down in the basin. We contacted them by radio and then made our way straight down the slopes beneath Belford’s summit to a junction with the trail up Missouri Mountain and the trail that continued to Elk Head Pass. That was where we were supposed to meet Jubal and Autumn for the crew spot. As we waited for them at the trail junction it began to rain again. Jubal and Autumn were quite heroic in their efforts to hike up Missouri Basin to crew for me. It being their 1st time together in the high mountains, I probably talked them into more than they could handle, especially considering the weight of the loads they were trying to hump up there. I am very grateful that they gave it a try. I eventually met them a little lower in the basin, in more or less of a driving rain storm, where I refilled on water and got some more energy gels and such before Steve and I took off up the east face of Missouri Mountain. I felt so bad for Jubal, and especially for Autumn too. They were so great to come up there, we didn’t get to spend any time together, and then they had to hike back out in the rain too. Things were stating to run together by then, but I am thinking that Steve and I got to the summit of Missouri Mountain by 1:00 AM or so. I called and chatted briefly with Jubal on the radio. By 3:00 AM Steve and I had had made our way down the extremely steep west face of Missouri Mountain to cross the outlet of Clohesy Lake. There are only 2 spots on the Nolan’s course where you are in close proximity to significant concentrations of rednecks. These occur wherever motorized vehicles are mistakenly allowed in the back country, one of which is the jeep trail from Baldwin Gulch to Mt. Antero’s summit, and the other is at Clohesy Lake, where for whatever insane reason rednecks can drive their vehicles right into the center of a wilderness area. Case in point was that as we made our way around the north shore of Clohesy Lake the ground was littered with spent shot gun shells and broken skeet targets, and even a poor dead bird which had fallen victim to the rednecks. Whoever it is that feels so strongly about gun ownership rights, and I count myself among you, please take some time to get off your rears where you preach so loudly in the flat lands and come out into the back country to see what poor gun owners we so often make! Trying to hike back up the east face of Huron Peak from Clohesy Lake things broke down into a state of total confusion. Quickly I lost track of what little bit of a trail exists, which I had previously followed twice in the daytime. Steve and I struggled to climb up to Lois Lake, measuring our progress in terms of hours per mile rather than the other way around. Finally we had to stop at the boulder field beneath the actual east face of Huron Peak itself, where there is a gully that ascends to a saddle between Huron and Brown’s Peak, waiting for daylight to arrive; for what exact path to follow was escaping us. Daylight revealed some cairns and a path through the boulders so we could ascend the loose slopes up to the saddle. Anyone familiar with the Hard Rock course will attest, I think, to the fact that this climb is like Grant/Swamp Pass on steroids and then some.
From the saddle between Brown’s Peak and Huron Peak, we ate a snack, gathered ourselves, and continued to the top of Huron Peak, being the 1st among the hoards to reach the summit that day. On our descent back down to the trail head and south Winfield, everyone kept commenting at how quickly we had reached the summit of Huron and were now on our way back down; little did they really know. In my mind I had done all I was going to do; dreaming more of hot chow in Buena Vista and the hot springs than continuing on for more peaks. Imagine my surprise when we met my next pacer, Will Carlton, at the trail head for Huron Peak. He had run up from Winfield to look for us. I was so far behind schedule at this point that I was thinking surely he had given up on me! However, I began to feed off his energy and thought perhaps I had one more peak left in me. In Winfield, we met Lisa, who was napping in a chair in the peaceful sunshine of a Sunday morning. By this time I had been going over 48 hours and was starting to feel it just a bit; more in terms of feeling like my head was a little foggy. Lisa made us some hot food, and I took my socks off to look at my feet. Steve had given me a dry pair of socks the previous evening when I met him on Oxford. Now when I took my socks off, they looked horrible; all of the skin on the soles of my feet was very shriveled and heading towards beginning to crack, like I was getting trench foot or something. Steve was shaking his head, saying that I should probably call it a day with the state my feet were in; Will felt otherwise. Not having any foot powder, I just changed into a dry pair of socks, took some Aleve, and we headed back out again. I think it was 11:00 AM. In pretty quick fashion we were able to power hike up to the west Winfield trail head for La Plata Peak. As we started up the trail to the southwest ridge for La Plata, we met lots of people coming back down the mountain, some of whom questioned our judgment for heading up the mountain so late in the day, obviously while the weather was beginning to turn once again. Driving on, we were able to negotiate the marshy section at the foot of the ridge, get up to the ridge itself and head over to the summit of La Plata keeping our feet dry while the bad weather held itself at bay. I started to get a little emotional with myself realizing the scope of what I had completed so far, and just how indebted I was to everyone who was helping me get through this. Admittedly, I was going pretty slowly uphill at this point, needing a lot of breaks to catch my breath and regain strength in my legs to continue upwards, but we eventually made the summit at 3:00 PM. I was pretty ecstatic, taking a moment to look southwards and drink in the view of all the summits I had just come across in the past 3 days. This lasted for only a moment though before lighting cracked through the air, reminding us that our time on the summit was to be short lived as the weather was not going to continue holding itself off.
We descended uneventfully to the Lake Creek trail head, arriving there at 5:00 PM Sunday evening, the 1st of September, just as 60 hours for my official Nolan’s 14 course finish expired. Will and I chatted with some folks at the trail head, and Lisa showed up just a few minutes later. Getting in the truck we began driving down Highway 82, instead of running down it towards the Echo Canyon trail head and Mt. Elbert. The heavens let loose now with an especially intense storm, and I was thankful my attempt was at an end. Tonight would be with friends and family in town rather than another night out in the mountains. No bad feelings; I don’t feel at all like I failed. Instead I gained a tremendous amount. I gained a tremendous amount of friendship and fellowship with some very special people in the mountains. I felt very humbled that such a great group of people decided to spend their time hauling this body over the mountains. I also gained a lot more experience of how to get this thing right so I can get myself over all 14 peaks on my next try; I need to find a better way up Mt. Yale, and I need to find a better way up Huron Peak. These will be the time cruxes for night navigation. Next summer I can practice a little bit more and dial in a better plan. Without the help of Shelby Berg, Sheila and John Huss, Steve Bremner, Jubal and Autumn Smith, and most of all, my ever patient and long suffering wife Lisa, I could never have made it over the 12 peaks that I did; I owe everything to them and not so much credit to myself. Thanks to all of you!


  1. It's a mighty achievement, Julian! Hats off to you and thanks for the "rest of the story."

  2. Julian, you are such a rock star... my hero! I can't hardly wrap my mind around what you did Labor Day weekend. I feel I gained so much from going over Princeton with you and believe in my heart that I was meant to be there. Yes, I was in over my head and had to dig deeper than ever before, but I'm better because of it. Thanks for letting me join you on your epic adventure.