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Nolan's 14, The Story

Matt Mahoney

In 1998, Fred Vance had run three of the toughest ultramarathons in the U.S., perhaps the world. First there were the relentless staircase steep hills of the Barkley fun run, 60 miles of remote, unmaintained wooded trails in Tennessee with a 40 hour cutoff and an average finish rate of 15%. Then came the Hardrock 100 miler, with 33,000 feet of climb in the Colorado Rockies, mostly above 11,000 feet, equivalent to four round trips of the Pikes Peak marathon. Although he missed the 48 hour cutoff due to a mild bout of high altitude pulmonary edema (where the lungs fill with fluid, a common affliction in this race), he recovered in time to run the Badwater 139 mile race just four days later. Badwater is simple, just run from the lowest point in the continental U.S., Death Valley at -282 ft., to the highest, Mt. Whitney, at 14,494 ft. Well, simple except for temperatures ranging from 129 F at the start to below freezing at the finish.

Now Fred was ready for a new challenge. But the only way this would happen would be for him to design the course himself. So he went to Jim Nolan, who had climbed all 54 of Colorado's mountains over 14,000 feet, and asked how many of them could be squeezed into a 100 mile run course. After a month or two of studying topo maps and various routes, he came back with his answer. 14.

Gordon Hardman and Blake Wood on Mt. Massive The course would be the Sawatch range between Salida and Leadville, Colorado. Except for the start, finish, and 14 summits in between, there would be no prescribed route. There would be a 60 hour time limit, and if nobody finished, then the one who climbed the most summits would be the winner. Aid stations would be provided between mountains where possible, though that sometimes meant that volunteers would have to hike remote trails for hours and set up camp overnight. Because much of the run would be in wilderness areas that restrict group size, only 14 runners would be invited. Runners could qualify by finishing Barkley, Hardrock, or Badwater.

The first run was held Aug. 27, 1999 with only 3 runners, Fred Vance, Blake Wood, who had won Hardrock last month in 30:11, and Gordon Hardman, who had finished Hardrock 6 times with a best time of 33:59. Nobody finished. After climbing Mt. Shavano, Tabeguache, Antero, Princeton, and Yale (at night in hail, snow, and freezing rain), the runners missed the third aid station because of confusion about where they were supposed to set up. Continuing over Columbia and Harvard, Blake and Gordon again found the aid station was missing because it had left on schedule and everyone underestimated how long it would take to get there. It was now about 40 hours into the run, and over 24 hours since the last aid. Out of food, Blake and Gordon hiked 8 miles out to the nearest road, completing only half of the course. Fred, lagging behind the others, followed the same route in the darkness of the second night.

Mt. Missouri After I finished Hardrock in 1999, I was invited to the 2000 run. To train, I made two trips to Colorado, each time allowing two weeks of altitude acclimation. At 14,000 feet, there is only 55% as much oxygen as at sea level, which makes a 10 minute mile seem like a 5:30 effort. Your body can compensate somewhat by producing extra red blood cells to carry oxygen, a process that takes 6 weeks, although it is 85% complete after 3 weeks. On both trips I used the same acclimation process as I did in 1999, stay at 9000-11,000 feet and climb to 14,000 every day. On my first trip I also ran Hardrock again as a training run, improving my time from 42:39 to 42:17.

Training in the Sawatch range, it quickly became clear why some of the best ultrarunners in the U.S. could not finish this course. Most of the popular hiking trails to the summits connected to the roads to the east, not to the other summits north and south. This meant that we would have to choose between direct off-trail routes over difficult terrain or longer routes with better footing. The terrain was often difficult, consisting of boulders, scree, and tundra so steep that running or even walking downhill was impossible. Rather, it was more like climbing with your hands and sliding on your butt. After a lot of thought, I worked out a route of 106 miles with 45,000 feet of climb and 45,000 feet of descent.

Training meant climbing every mountain in the range, once from the north and once from the south. Even though I had made a few of these climbs in previous years, it became clear that I would not have enough time. Instead, I focused on the first 11 mountains (not expecting to get any further), and routes I would be doing at night. I had a particularly difficult time with Mt. Huron, making 3 climbs trying to find the best connecting route to Mt. Missouri. Every route was steep and difficult, often taking 3 hours to pick my way down 3000 feet in about two miles.

The 2000 Run

Descending Mt. Huron The Aug. 12, 2000 run reversed directions, going north to south, starting at the Fish Hatchery in Leadville. To avoid the problems of last year, runners and aid station personnel would carry FRS two-way radios. Six runners started, Blake Wood, Gordon Hardman, Eric Robinson (who had run 306 miles in a 6 day race earlier this year), Jim Nolan, Joe Florio (who had worked an aid station last year), and me.

At 6:00 AM, we started up good trail to Mt. Massive, the second highest peak in Colorado at 14,421 ft. Blake and Gordon took the lead, climbing 4800 feet to the summit by 8:43. Eric and I were next at 9:11, with Joe and Jim well behind at 11:35. On Massive, Eric and I split up. He took a direct route, screaming down a scree chute to the west to an off trail route, while I went east, back down the trail, taking advantage of the good running where I could find it. Eric's route turned out to be faster, though. He reached the west aid station between Massive and Elbert on Halfmoon Road at 10:25, 20 minutes behind Blake and Gordon, and 27 minutes before I reached the other station 2 miles to the east. Two stations were set up to allow for these different routes.

Peak #2 was Mt. Elbert, the highest point in Colorado at 14,433 ft. Blake began pulling ahead of Gordon, summitting at 12:26 with a 9 minute lead. Eric was next at 13:08, and I had narrowed his lead on me to 17 minutes as dark clouds threatened. It began raining lightly as I left the good trail and began the difficult, rocky ridge over 13,761 ft. Bull Hill and down Echo Canyon. By the time I reached treeline at 11,800 ft. and picked up the trail, it was pouring. Meanwhile, Jim and Joe were still climbing Elbert in a violent thunderstorm. At 8:30 PM, with lightning striking the summit just 50 yards away, they turned back to Half Moon, withdrawing from the run at 11:45 PM.

Meanwhile, Gordon was chasing Blake up Mt. La Plata (#3) in the rain, which began mixing with snow near the summit. Blake summitted at 4:48 PM. Gordon was about an hour behind, though it wasn't clear exactly when since his shortwave radio was on a different frequency than everyone else's and was useless. In any case, Gordon suffered in the wet and cold, and withdrew with hypothermia after descending La Plata into the aid station in the ghost town of Winfield as darkness fell.

The run was now down to Blake, Eric, and me, with Blake already on his way to a 9:45 PM summit of Huron (#4). I was still 30 minutes behind Eric when he summitted La Plata at 7:00 PM, but he had made a wrong turn and started down the Ellingwood ridge, a difficult class 3 route that would have taken him back north. I called him on the radio and he turned around, and we agreed to stay together.

Descending the west ridge of Mt. Princeton The rain and snow was letting up, but there was a static discharge off the crags and high rock mounds near the summit, the rocks crackling and buzzing, warning of an imminent lightning strike. We made it safely off the summit, but in the gathering darkness we immediately got lost again. We made a sweeping circle around a large field of jagged, wet rocks that we had to traverse on all fours with flashlights in our teeth, taking an hour to get back to where we started. When I would stop to look at the map, I started shivering. I thought about how dangerous this was. It was only my movement that kept me warm. If I were to break a leg, it would take hours before anyone could reach us, even with radios, long enough to die of hypothermia.

We eventually found the route, descending a steep slope of loose rock to a marshy meadow, then trail, then jeep road, and reached Winfield at midnight. Meanwhile, Blake had already climbed and descended Huron. We agreed that the best strategy would be to get some sleep and make the difficult descent of Huron in daylight. The run director, Jon McManus, loaned me the front seat of his Suburban to sleep, and the keys so I could run the heater when I got cold. Eric had his brother crew for him, and slept in his truck.

We started up Huron at 4:19 AM. As the sun rose, we could see Blake's footprints in patches of frozen snow near the summit. Our decision to descend in daylight was a good one. After descending a scree slope and crossing a boulder field in the east basin, we picked up the steep trail at treeline down to Clohesy Lake at 11,000 ft., where Fred Vance had to ford an 18 inch deep river in his truck to set up aid. Blake missed the trail in the darkness and had to bushwack down a hill littered with fallen trees and boulders at 50-100% grades down to the lake at midnight.

Blake continued relentlessly, without sleep, reaching Missouri (#5) at 2:55 AM, Belford (#6) at 5:55 AM, and Oxford (#7) at 6:55 AM, tying last year's record. Then he descended 4000 ft. down a horribly steep off-trail route to the Pine Creek aid station at 8:34 AM, where Chris and Simon Shadowlight had hiked in 8 miles and camped 2 nights to supply aid for 3 runners. Blake then climbed Harvard (#8) at 12:17 PM, Columbia (#9) at 2:42 PM, and reached the North Cottonwood aid station (now correctly placed) at 4:43 PM. Eric and I were far behind, reaching Missouri at 12:20 PM, Belford at 2:39 PM, and Oxford at 3:49 PM, and taking a longer but easier northerly route to Pine Creek at 6:00 PM. At this point, a thunderstorm developed and we ate and waited under a rain fly for 75 minutes. Blake, who was two mountains ahead and climbing straight up an avalanche chute on Yale (#10), was less fortunate, and had to wait out the storm just below treeline.

13,700 ft. level on Mt. Princeton Eric and I climbed the northeast ridge of Harvard, an off-trail route that neither of us had trained on, but which turned out to be a gentle grade almost to the summit. After a short class 3 scramble holding flashlights in our teeth, we reached Colorado's third highest mountain (14,420 ft) at 10:52 PM. The traverse to Columbia was complicated in the dark, so we mistakenly did not descend far enough to avoid a rockslide area and then ended up scrambling up the steep boulders on Columbia rather than the better slopes that I had trained on in daylight.

We reached Columbia at 3:17 AM and began one of the most difficult descents in the run. In training, I had descended the west side as recommended in Roach's guide, Colorado's Fourteeners. This was 2000 vertical feet of a thin layer of scree, loose gravel, treacherously steep at nearly 45 degrees, over jagged rocks so that you couldn't just slide down it. Instead you had to pick your way down from rock to rock. Why in the world would he pick that route?

We found out why. We took the south ridge, which was not quite as steep, but still too steep to walk down. Not only that, but it descended 3500 feet instead of 2000, with the last 1500 below treeline, with no trail. We had to bushwack down a steep hillside to a marsh about 2 miles up the trail from where we intended to come out, but fortunately it was getting light out by now. At 6:15 AM, just after our third sunrise, we made it to the North Cottonwood aid station, another remote camp hiked in 2 miles from the trailhead. Eric had a badly inflamed ankle tendon that had been bothering him for the last several hours, and dropped out.

With 12 hours remaining, only Blake and I were left. Blake had climbed Mt. Yale at 9:34 last night and reached the Avalanche Gulch aid station at 1:37 AM. For some reason, he took the difficult east ridge descent rather than the Denny Creek trail to the south. He was also suffering badly from lack of sleep the previous night, and slept in his his parent's vehicle (they were crewing for him) until 6:11 AM, and started down the Colorado trail toward Princeton (#11).

I reached Yale at 11:22 AM, intending this to by my last mountain. I knew the route to Princeton, and in training it took 12 hours round trip, not including the 3 miles of road between Denny Creek and Avalanche Gulch. I didn't think I would have enough time, and even if I did, I would still get second place since Blake would get there first. In any case I was tired and just looking for an excuse to quit, so I radioed in to get picked up at Denny Creek.

Charlie Thorn and his daughter met me on the summit. He had entered the run, but withdrew because of an injury. He explained that while training on Tabeguache (#13), he slipped on some loose rocks and hyperextended his knee and broke a toe. There were a few clouds, and while we talked, some snow flurries started falling. We decided it would be a good idea to get off the mountain NOW! I ran down the trail as hard as I could, with the others behind, as the snow turned to a hailstorm and several lightning bolts struck the summit. After months of climbing, I am still astonished at how fast the weather can change in the mountains.

I reached the trailhead at 1:06 PM, 55 hours and 6 minutes, apologising that it took me longer to descend Yale than I thought. Blake reached Princeton at 12:30 PM, intending to try for Antero (#12). But after descending 5000 feet in 3.5 miles into Grouse Canyon, a difficult scramble that took me 8 hours round trip in training, he thought better of it and stopped at 3:15 PM. A few days later, Blake was hospitalized with a leg infection. I guess I was pretty lucky to come out of this run uninjured.

The Score

Blake Wood, 41, Los Alamos NM 11
Matt Mahoney, 45, Melbourne FL 10
Eric Robinson, 31, Berkeley CA 9
Gordon Hardman, 49, Boulder CO 3
Jim Nolan 1
Joe Florio 1

Complete results, photos, maps, and entry information can be found at http://mmahoney.teejay.net/nolans/

An edited version of this story, Climbing Colorado's Fourteeners, appeared in the July 2001 issue of Tailwinds, published in Tuscon.