Our line on Nolan’s 14 (PC Ilana Jesse)

To go on… or not to go on? I had been turning the question over in my mind for hours as I walked alone along the Colorado trail. I glanced at my watch over and over again, surprised and frustrated by how fast time seemed to be going. Ten 14,000 ft peaks lay behind me, the one I was on (Mt Princeton- the only peak I had scouted ahead of time) felt like an old familiar friend but it was still big and hard and had ridge lines that seemed to go on and on insultingly. Three more 14,000 ft peaks lay beyond it- the “easy ones” comparatively but still dozens of miles and thousands of feet of vertical gain and loss over rough rocky trails, tricky route-finding through maddening stands of willows, and the endless frustration of scree and talus that characterize nearly all the 14,000 ft mountains of the Sawatch range. Nolan’s 14: a beautiful and rather absurd route connecting fourteen 14,000ft mountains. It’s been described as the worlds longest continuous mountain climb and to be considered an official finisher you had to complete the distance in 60 hours or less. My clock was ticking…

Our amazing team and crew all smiles at the start line!

Fifty-four or so hours earlier our little team of three: Sunny Stroeer, Ilana Jesse, and myself set off cheerfully from the northern end of Nolan’s at the Leadville Fish Hatchery. We left at 7:00am August 30th to little fanfare except for my long-suffering husband Juan, two of Ilana’s friends Dana and Andrew, and a kind- hearted local runner and Nolan’s finisher named Gavin who came out just to cheer us on. It was the first of many instances of a stranger’s kindness that proved to be a key factor in our Nolan’s attempt. Sunny and Ilana are accomplished mountaineers and ultra-runners who had spent months scouting the route and practically living above 10,000 feet. I was the girl from California who trained a lot but lived at sea level and would be essentially relying on my two teammates to guide me through the 50% of Nolan’s that is off-trail. They were so very generous to me- and I will not forget their kindness and sacrifice.

We had a beautiful first day and were ahead of pace for the first couple of peaks before Ilana’s terribly unlucky lung infection from a couple days earlier started to take its toll. Our first aid station after the first two peaks, Massive and Elbert, was such a boost- as we found not only our expected crew but our friend Jaime (who had spent several days on scouting missions with Sunny) and her awesome mom (who came out from Alabama to spend vacation time helping us!). 

Aid Station one with our surprise visitors

Over the next two peaks, La Plata and Huron, Ilana battled but at high altitude her lungs couldn’t keep up and as we labored up the switchbacks to Mt Huron in the middle of our first night, she made the difficult decision to drop from the effort. We kept on until reaching the summit after midnight and at the top said an emotional goodbye to her as Sunny and I continued down toward Clohesy lake- an awful and technical descent off trail through vicious scree and rough bushwhacking. Picking our way down Huron as the mountain literally slid down around us and climbing over pine trees and fighting through the densest forest meant I earned many cuts and bruises that night. Only Sunny’s excellent navigating got us through to our next climb up Mt. Missouri. We found a “trail” up, but it was a mess of loose gravel with an incline so steep you could practically reach out and touched the mountain in front of you while standing. We crawled our way to the top and reached the peak shortly after sunrise on day two. 

“Thus began the hardest day of my life.”

Breakfast on Belford

Thus, began the hardest day of my life. We had covered 5 peaks but it took us over 24 hrs. Already tens of thousands of vertical feet had been gained and lost- it seemed impossible to me that we had done so much and I was so tired and there was still SO FAR to go. Already I was in the slightly uncomfortable, floating, disjointed state of sleep deprivation. A challenging descent off Missouri to avoid a class 5 ridge before rejoining a trail (I LOVE trails!!!) to start the climb to Belford had me near a breakdown. As Sunny and I were taking a quick break to gather ourselves true trail magic happened- Andrew came running down the trail toward us! We both thought he and Dana had left once Ilana had to drop. Instead they woke well before dawn and hiked through the night to have breakfast waiting for us at the top of Belford. I nearly cried a dozen times on the climb up Belford. I couldn’t believe they went to all that trouble - big shout out to their friend Lindsey as well. Arriving at Belford mid- morning we found them cooking bacon and ramen for us!!  The mental and emotional boost they provided was game changing. I rode the high (and the one easy section on the whole route) across the pass to Mt. Oxford. We topped out at the summit before noon. FINALLY, we had hit the halfway point. 

The descent from Oxford to a beautiful but trail less and densely forested valley called Pine creek was… best not to talk about. While the scenery was fabulous, our next peak Mt Harvard looked huge and hard and so far away. I couldn’t seem to shake the brain fog and lack of energy. I ate: salty, sweet, savory. I drank (electrolytes, water, soda); yet nothing seemed to help. I almost quit a hundred times but there was no road access until up and over Mt Yale, 3 peaks away, and thus there was nowhere to go but onward. Sunny was equally miserable and we walked for hours speaking only when necessary and focusing all our efforts on continual forward progress toward Mt Harvard. A brief 15 min “nap” in the dirt spurred us on and we reached Harvard’s summit mid-afternoon. It felt like a victory.

Crossing Pine Creek

From Harvard Mt. Colombia was tantalizingly close and connected by a beautiful ridge line that unfortunately contains class 5 climbing. This forced us to drop down and around the ridge and then regain it to make the summit. The extra effort over big boulder fields felt daunting at first but it was on the climb back up to Colombia that a miracle happened. Suddenly and for no apparent reason the relentless fatigue that slowed my brain and made my limbs heavy just… went away. I felt my energy and alertness increase, my pace increased, my mood lifted. Soon I was jumping across the boulder field and almost enjoying it. I was tired yes, but it was like I had my brain and body back after 10 hours of them being… elsewhere. 

“It was like I had my brain and body back after 10 hours of them being… elsewhere.” 

We were buoyed further by Sunny’s friends, Emma and Jordan, who had hiked into the trail coming down from Colombia to bring us ramen and snacks. They had waited hours for us as we were now running a little behind schedule. Still super positive and encouraging even after their long boring wait battling mosquitos I was once again struck by the kindness of people who spent hours or even days just to help us along. It was nice to see their friendly faces before heading up the nightmare bushwhack that is the entrance to Mt. Yale. By now it was past sunset on our second day, and we thwacked our way through the forest in the dark. Sunny had not scouted this mountain- Ilana had and though we had her GPS track the line proved frustratingly hard to follow. Although we didn’t get lost per say we didn’t nail the line and it cost us at least an hour or more through the night. Yale’s summit came at great effort since Sunny was still lost in a fog of fatigue and though I was feeling stronger it was a laborious process trying to find a good line in the dark on a mountain we couldn’t see. Sunny’s amazing navigation skills pulled us through again- my gratitude to her knows no bounds. From the summit of Yale, a trail leads 5.5 miles down to the nearest road access point. By this time, we were far behind pace and Sunny was fading- completing Nolan’s now looked improbable but maybe possible if we could pick up the pace. Since I had a mysterious resurrection of energy and the best chance of completion, she sent me ahead up the trail. I fell asleep walking and stumbled many times. A mile or two from the trailhead I thought I saw a headlamp up ahead. Thinking it was yet another hallucination I trudged on and found, to my surprise and joy, Juan and Sunny’s husband Paul coming up the trail to meet us. Hurray!!! I almost cried again with joy at seeing Juan and gratefully followed him and his headlamp to the car. Paul continued up the trail to get Sunny and eventually found her sleeping on the side of the path. 

By the time we reached the trail head and the car it was after 4 am and Sunny was done. After setting a new FKT on a route in China only a few weeks before and a nonstop travel schedule she had finally hit the wall and could not get going again. I spent a long time at this aid station taping my terribly blistered feet and taking a 15 min nap as well as trying to refuel. To my surprise Dana and Andrew were STILL THERE sleeping in the back of their car awaiting my arrival. Amazing.  At near 5 am I continued to peak #11 - Mt Princeton - alone. The 5 miles of road connecting the two peaks should have been a runnable section- but my blistered feet couldn’t handle running and so I power walked while Juan drove the car slowly alongside to keep me company. Dana and Andrew had moved to the next trailhead to see me off on my own up Princeton and once again their positivity buoyed my spirits. Princeton went well all things considered- my chosen line was efficient and the scree mess on the descent only cost me a little time. But Princeton is big, and long, and hard no matter how you slice it. When I reached the trail on the other side of the mountain around 2:30pm I was once again overjoyed to find Juan waiting for me. What a guy! We walked together to the tiny town of Alpine to the others and the aid station they had set up at the cars. Should I continue or not? Juan and I went back and forth. We knew I couldn’t make the cut off (7pm) but should I try to continue? What was the point if I wasn’t going to be an official finisher anyways? I could go into town and have a shower and beer and SLEEP. Still, overall, I felt good, if exhausted. My feet hurt but it wasn’t debilitating. I wasn’t sick, hadn’t puked and was still coherent in thought and speech. Why not go on? I was only 3 peaks away…. The back and forth tore at my mind the whole way down the burning hot trail- I figured I couldn’t ask everyone to support me through a third night. And I didn’t know the way- could I navigate so sleep deprived? I had made my decision to throw in the towel when we arrived at the final aid station.

“The back and forth tore at my mind the whole way down the burning hot trail- I figured I couldn’t ask everyone to support me through a third night. And I didn’t know the way- could I navigate so sleep deprived? I had made my decision to throw in the towel when we arrived at the final aid station.”

Wow… I found a small village set up to help me as Andrew and Dana filled up my water plied me with soda and electrolytes and loaded up my pack with snacks. Ilana appeared and even with a lung infection and a two-year-old in tow had driven hours to cheer me on. Sunny and Paul were there and Sunny was looking much better after sleeping and resting for several hours. And in a display of selflessness few would show Gavin Mackenzie (from our morning start 2 days before) had shown up and volunteered to guide me to the finish. And Sunny was going to join us! I was speechless. Tears welled again and my decision was made- I was going to finish Nolan’s, time cap be damned. Let’s do this.

“My decision was made- I was going to finish Nolan’s, time cap be damned. Let’s do this.”

We left the aid station at about 4:30pm and set off up the long and winding jeep road that leads to Mt Antero. This jeep road was a wonderfully simple if rocky path to walk and went all the way to above 13,000 ft. From the end of the road it was just a short rocky scramble to the top of peak 12- “easy.” The road was steep and rough but having company that was coherent and talkative made the miles go by pleasantly. We were treated to the longest most beautiful golden sunset I have ever seen, and I was upbeat and moving well in the final hours of day three.

Staring off into the sunset climbing Antero (PC Sunny Stroeer)

Sunsets that last forever (PC Sunny Stroeer)

With the setting of the sun my spirits sank little lower too but apart from bouts with the sleepies we still made fairly good time and were up on top of Antero around 9pm. It was after Antero that I really started to fall apart. I walked on until I was sleeping walking and stumbling down the road- no amount of food seemed to help. Finally, I called it and took a 5 min nap in the dirt. There are rumors I was snoring within 10 seconds of laying in the dirt (editor’s note: these rumors are 100% true). Five minutes is a perfect nap time at night in the open because about the time the alarm goes off you’ve woken up already from the shivering and cold. The nap helped but the long and winding route to Tabeguache was a blurry suffer fest of willows that continually shredded the open cuts on my legs and bogs that soaked my shoes and froze my feet. Still, Sunny’s amazing navigation saved us from a scree field of death and kept us from losing more vert, so I somewhat happily soldiered slowly through the brush. Once past tree line the climb became quite “pleasant” in that the insanely steep scree was relatively stable and led to a rather lovely if insulting long ridge line.

Battling Willows (PC Sunny Stroeer)

From Tabeguache to Shavano (peak #14) is a blissfully short pass that only drops about 500 feet before climbing back up to the final peak on the Nolan’s line. Or it would normally be blissfully short- to my sleep deprived brain each rock was another hiker or backpack or Juan waiting for me on a rock. But even slow progress is progress and in the wee hours of the morning 68 hours and 45 min after leaving the fish hatchery we summited Mt Shavano. The original method of counting a finish on Nolan’s 14 was from first trail head to top of last summit. Now it is usually trail head to trail head but as my watch died that is my only accurate count. And I’m not an official finisher anyway so who cares about rules? 😊

High fives on Shavano summit (PC Sunny Stroeer)

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The final miles down the Shavano trail were a blur of the deepest fatigue I have ever felt. I had to take another 5-minute dirt nap shortly below the summit and my primary memory is one of supreme irritation at the endless slippery gravel and a constant mental refrain of “are we there yet?????” Multiple falls and near misses later we neared the trail head and at last I could start to marvel at what we had just accomplished. And it was a “we.” I completed the distance, but it was only because of amazing friends old and new. It was truly a team effort. Shortly after 6 am on Tuesday morning September 3rd we stumbled into the trailhead parking lot to welcoming cheers of our amazing crew. We did it!

“The selflessness of my new friends (strangers no longer) infused meaning into an arbitrary if valiant goal.”

Nolan’s 14 will stand out as one of the pivotal experiences of my life. It taught me so much that even though technically our effort was a failure, at least we failed while “daring greatly.” The most cherished part of this experience for me was to see what lengths people will go to help others, even someone they don’t know, even to do something essentially useless. The selflessness of my new friends (strangers no longer) infused meaning into an arbitrary if valiant goal. The limits of what I thought I was capable of have been expanded yet again. And now in the future when things get hard and I feel I cannot go on I will remember Day 2 of fatigue on Nolan’s and my seemingly miraculous turnaround. However, you feel at the moment- it won’t last… a truism in ultra -running and in life. To the wonderful people who shared this journey with me- it truly was my privilege.

The Crew (PC Sunny Stroeer)

My number one and best pit support ever

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