Words by Luke Jay
I’m not exactly sure what time it is. I think it’s around 2:00 or 3:00 am? Did I just fall asleep when I sat down? Maybe a minute or two. I feel good for 10 steps, then nothing. My legs are dead and I have zero energy. I need to sit down again, oh man, here we go…puking. I’m not sure I’ve done this at 13,000 feet before? Nope, I haven’t. First time for everything. Puking hurts at this elevation; everything is worse up high. Winded and puking while laying on some cold tundra 1,000 feet short of the summit. Peak 6 of 14, this is not good. This full moon is rad; it’s lighting up all the peaks around us. I look to my left and I see my buddy Hannes, 20 feet away…what’s he doing? Crap, he is puking too! I actually chuckle and yell something I can’t remember. I’m cold. I have my puffy jacket on and wind pants, but I’m freezing. I realize things could get much worse if we don’t keep moving. So we keep moving as best we can. Neither of us complain. It’s not worth wasted energy or mental drain to dwell in the negative. I am doing this for fun, like an actual hobby. A whole three day weekend trying to complete this crazy hard route they call the “NOLANS 14”.
Nolan’s 14 was conjured up back in 90’s by some running and climber friends who figured out that they could link fourteen 14,000-foot peaks in the Sawatch Range in roughly 100 miles. The highest concentration of these “fourteener” mountains lies in a very natural line between Leadville and Salida. The rules are pretty simple: start on either ends’ Trailhead and go to the other end summiting all fourteen 14ers along the way…and do it under 60 hours for the official finish. Fourteen peaks, around 100 miles, 44k of climbing, and roughly 50% of the route is challenging off trail navigation. I decided to attempt the route South to North. I started at Blanks Cabin trailhead at the base of Mt. Shavano on Friday morning and hoped to be at the Fish Hatchery trailhead near Leadville sometime on Sunday before 6pm. I have to give a massive thanks to John Knotts who completed the route last year and helped me out with some valuable beta and route info during my scouting and training over the summer. I scouted about 60-70% of the route but just didn’t have time to scout it all, leaving lots of room for some real “adventure and unknown”.
I started right on time at 6am and the first few summits went fairly solid. Mt. Shavano, Mt. Tabaguache, done…grind up Mt. Antero. Long descent into the little town of Alpine to meet up with Becca and Dad for the first time. Normally my feet hold up pretty well in most of the ultra-races I’ve done, but here I was 6 hours in to my 60 hour adventure and was already having foot issues. I put on new socks, some tape, and swapped shoes hoping that would help. Maybe I should have skipped playing with the boys in the Mt. Princeton pool the day before? I knew with 50 hours left my feet could wreak some real havoc. I started the long climb up the backside of Mt. Princeton and my stomach wasn’t feeling great. Princeton is gnarly and long. I was still making good time and kept charging along.
Up to this point I was pretty focused on the splits and keeping a legit pace…it was too much. It was stressing me out, and I knew if I kept wracking my brain it would do me in before I even got half this monster done. I had a moment where I told myself the ONLY goal is to finish this thing sub 60 hours on my first attempt and I needed to chill out and just embrace every summit and really enjoy the beautiful moments. I knew the odds aren’t great to finish, terrible actually…85% of folks that try Nolans 14 don’t finish and even less on their first try (less than 10%). But honestly I love that pressure and knowing I was tackling something so hard that I would need to dig incredibly deep and mentally push through three days straight. It’s up to my mind and legs to get it done. Becca and all these friends came to help; if I quit it better be for a really, really good reason. What’s my limit? Knowing I will skirt with that limit as this route unfolds: I got energy from this.
After the sketchy off-trail descent off Princeton, I connected with the Colorado trail and took that to the base of Yale. I pretty much ran the entire 7-8 mile section of the CT, and had a moment when I realized that one of my mantras I wrote down before starting was going to be huge: Patient & Relentless. Avalanche trailhead was my first big stop and came around 12 hours from when I started. I rolled in and Becca was dialed (as always). Clean the feet, new socks and shoes, some pizza from BV, and a cold Coors banquet. My parents, some relatives from BV and Salida, and the boys were all there. I sat down and took about 35-45 minutes here. My stomach wasn’t ideal. Being up that high is tough on the stomach. Lack of blood makes digestion and eating hard. I left the comfort of the parking lot party and after a couple hours was almost to the summit of Yale and flipped the headlamp on for the first time and first night. I started getting super tired and planned to maybe nap when I saw Adam and Hannes around midnight at Horn Fork. As I started down the really steep off-trail descent down Yale, I could see two headlamps way below me, and I knew it was likely Hannes and Adam. I still had about 2,000 feet to descend but could hear Hannes hooting and hollering since they could see my light descending. Stoke level was high to see him and Adam at horn fork…Adam had hiked in with my supplies and re-fills. I took a few minutes here, loaded the pack for the next 13-20 hours with no crew points and tried to eat a couple things which backfired after a couple minutes when I started puking everything up. Definitely not ideal. It was 12:30ish AM when Hannes and I started the long off-trail long climb up Columbia. I felt decent and we crushed the first 2k of climbing.
I thought my body had just needed a reset. As we got just above timberline I started to really struggle. I was barely moving and feeling super tired. I stopped a few times and almost instantly fell asleep…then I started puking again. The next few hours weren’t the most fun either of us have had on a mountain. We still had over 1000 feet to climb and I’m cold, puking, and keep falling asleep. For the first time since I had started about 20 hours earlier I wondered if this Nolans 14 thing just might not happen. Hannes kept me moving, but we were really slow and I knew we already lost 3-4 hours from my target times. We joked that things always get better. The issue is, everything is slow when you’re 13-14k high…so things did not go better, it just took longer.
Things got fuzzy, we moved really slow, we threw up, I fell asleep, we got turned around and went the wrong way, but we laughed a lot. We finally got to some water after 12 hours on a couple flasks. I only consumed a few pieces of bacon and some drink mix calories…but we didn’t complain and we just kept moving and joking along. On Mt. Huron (#11) we ended up on an exposed ridge, instead of on the lower chute where we needed to be, and it sucked. We lost more time and had to drop down before hitting the saddle. It was dark right as I summited Huron and I saw a goat perched right on the summit. I know it was real because this is before the flood of hallucinations that started a few hours later. I flipped on the headlamp and started back down. Fortunately, Hannes found his way around the sketchy cliff band solo and we descended from the saddle together down toward Winfield. It was around 9pm and instead of it taking Hannes and me 12-16 hours to do the 6 peaks, it had taken about us 20-21 hours (bonus thank you for Hannes). Patrick (PG) was waiting at the road and we all jogged into Winfield.
At Winfield there was a whole crew and a bonfire (so rad!). I swapped shoes/socks and ate the best mashed potatoes made with Becca’s homemade bone broth. I think this real food at Winfield was a game changer for me, as I was in need of real calories. Next up was Mt. LaPlata with Becca. This was probably my grouchiest summit, but Becca didn’t take any of my BS and kept me moving. Mostly I was just super tired and starting to lose my balance sometimes. I knew with all the time I had lost I may be cutting it close to the 60 hour goal. It was pretty cold and windy as we hit the summit, so we quickly started down and I tried my best to run as much as possible. It felt like it took us FOR-E-VER to get down to LaPlata trailhead, and Becca convinced me I really needed a nap once we got to the crew (I think I was loopy). I sat in a chair with a sleeping bag on top of me and was instantly out. Pat woke me up ten minutes later and I ate a bit more solid food (squash and beef stew with more magic broth), and then the three of us took off down HWY 82 towards Elbert base around 2-3am. It actually felt great to run after spending so many hours hiking. Felt really good to run flat and stretch out the hips. The quick nap had worked wonders. Becca hopped back in my Dad’s truck once we got to the Echo turn.
Pat and I started the long grind up Mt. Elbert (highest point in Colorado #themoreyouknow). It was tough but I was feeling better and knew the sun would be coming up in a few hours. I finally felt like we were on the homestretch and based on my terribly slow math I figured I could make sub 60 hours without too much of an issue. As the sun came up the very entertaining hallucinations began. I saw tons of goats, a campsite with tents around 13k complete with old folks sitting in camp chairs. I saw couple jeeps parked in a boulder field. I saw cowboys and miners, which made me think there may have been something deeper in those “mountain visions”? We skied down the very steep scree chute off Elbert and made good time to halfmoon. Once there, I met up with a killer crew of my good friends as we climbed the last peak, Mt. Massive. Having Shawn, Greg, Pat, and Hannes was a very good distraction and helped distract me from the wrecked feet and sleep-deprived hallucinations. Time was going slow and somehow fast at the same time. I was in a strange world of reality and hallucinations, but it was strangely enjoyable.
My legs felt surprisingly ok and I even ran for a bit to tag the final summit just under 56 hours. As soon as I sat on top of Massive I lost it. I knew this was my last peak, but once we got there I was just overwhelmed by it all. Overwhelmed with gratitude for all my friends that came to support and help me make it happen. Overwhelmed by the support and belief that Becca has in me, and just so stoked we did it on my first try. We saw some clouds rolling in fast so we got off the summit and within a few minutes of our descent we got hammered by a gnarly hailstorm. It was quite fitting as the mountains had truly blessed me with 50+ hours of great weather…but Mother Nature decided to throw us this little humble reminder as we descended that these mountains will always be bigger than us. Once back to the trail it was a jog to the fish hatch trailhead. Becca, Ryder, Max, my parents, and the rest of the awesome crew were all there. It was a very humbling and emotional moment I get to keep with me. It was surreal. I had been moving through the mountains for 58 hours and had only slept around 30 minutes total. It felt amazing to be done and we celebrated with cold beers and donuts at the trailhead parking lot. Twenty minutes into the drive home I was out cold. Once home I realized how wrecked I really was and was honestly pretty wrecked for several days.
It took a while for the whole thing to sink in, and I believe much of the experience and highs will just stay in those mountains where they belong. It’s hard to explain something so big and so humbling. It was a profoundly deep combination of endurance, grit, spirituality, team work, and a deep respect for these big mountains.
STATS: 99.8 miles. 44,000ft of climbing. 58:11 finish. 29th person to ever complete NOLANS 14.
Ciele FRND Luke Jay is based out of Denver Colorado.