Colorado’s Burliest Backyard Mountain Adventure Tests What’s Humanly Possible

After 15 years in obscurity, Nolan’s 14, a hundred-mile traverse of 14 14,000-foot peaks in 60 hours, emerges as a new test piece for elite mountain runners. A new film on the endeavor aims to inspire viewers to simply go for a hike.

Just past dawn on September 21, 2014, Ben Clark, a professional mountain athlete and filmmaker from Telluride, Colorado, huddled in his tent atop Mount Oxford, a 14,160-foot peak in Colorado, as 60-mile-per hour winds, rain and snow pummeled his tent.

Over the previous 37 hours, Clark had traveled nearly 50 miles by foot, climbed seven 14,000-foot peaks, and racked up 24,500 feet in elevation gain. He had seven more peaks, about 50 more miles, and 20,000 feet to go in order to complete the Nolan’s 14, a grueling hundred-mile mountain traverse that links together 14 14,000-foot peaks in the Sawatch Range.

“It’s the biggest, baddest mountain line in the world,” said Clark, 35, who recently released Nolan’s 14, a 47-minute film featuring some of the world’s top ultrarunners and mountain legends sharing their experiences on the route.

Nolan’s 14 – Trailer from Pheonix and Ash Productions on Vimeo.

Combining orienteering, mountaineering, and ultrarunning, Nolan’s is an unofficial event that started in 1999 as a challenge among a couple of friends, Blake Wood and Fred Vance, two ultrarunners who were looking for a feat that would include as many fourteeners in 100 miles as possible.

They also wanted something that would be more difficult than the Hardrock 100, the infamous 100-mile ultramarathon in southwest Colorado that both men had already completed, and which Wood had won earlier in the summer. The friends turned to the acclaimed mountaineer Jim Nolan, who had climbed all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. He pointed them to a gorgeous line of 14 14ers in the Sawatch that could be linked by foot. Starting with Mount Massive in the north and running to Mount Shavano in the south, the route required a net vertical gain of 44,000 feet. (By comparison, ascending from Mount Everest’s base camp to its summit requires only an approximately 11,000-vertical-foot climb.) The men named the route after Nolan and stipulated that the climb must be completed in 60 hours.

“The idea of fourteen 14ers, it just kind of has a poetic appeal to it and the fact that you make up your own route is also very attractive,” said Wood, 56, a 19-time Hardrock finisher.

In August 1999, Wood and Vance, along with two other friends set out from Angel of Mount Shavano campground, but were only able to nab seven peaks. Wood set out again the next year, but dropped out after ten summits due to bad weather which, would have made finishing in 60 hours (and getting back to work in time) impossible. Finally in 2001, four men, including Wood, completed the first Nolan’s 14. Since then, only 11 people have finished the route in under 60 hours.

What makes Nolan’s so difficult is that, for the most part, there are no trails, route markers, or set course. Instead, it involves complicated route finding and bushwacking across miles of wilderness. There are no entry fees or aid stations. Anyone can take on the route whenever they choose. Each mountain requires at least 5,000 feet of climbing and the route’s average altitude is about 12,000 feet. There is little to no sleep and the weather is capricious—it’s difficult to hit a 60-hour window of reasonably descent weather at altitude in Colorado during the summer. Fierce thunderstorms, snow, and hail squalls are common.

“You almost always get afternoon thunderstorms, and you are spending a lot of time exposed above timberline and on the highest points for miles around. Plus, the rain can make the footing very slippery and treacherous,” said Wood.

In addition, gear and food is limited. Runners must bring enough kit to survive the elements, but not enough that it will weigh them down and zap precious energy.

“In order to travel so far so fast, the right balance of lightweight apparel and fuel is critical to dealing with mountain elements which can come out of nowhere and be gone just as fast,” said Clark, who has been stopped on Nolan’s four times by weather.

While other routes may be more challenging—Tennessee’s Barkley marathons is a notoriously difficult 100-mile foot race with 59,100 feet of ascent—few routes serve up the same treacherous combo as Nolan’s does of complicated orienteering, vertical gain, luck with the weather, a 60-hour time cap, survival skills, performance at altitude, and little, if any, logistical support.

“Nolans 14 is right at the limit of what’s humanly possible,” said Wood.

Even the most acclaimed ultra-runners have been turned around on Nolan’s.

In June 2013, Anton Krupicka, the acclaimed mountain runner who has won the Leadville 100 twice, attempted to break the Nolan’s speed record of 54:42 set in 2002 by John Robinson. Despite being on record pace, Krupicka bowed out after six peaks due to physical ailments. He considers Nolan’s one of the most difficult physical feats he’s attempted.

“What makes Nolan’s so gnarly is the concept of doing it quickly, trying to do it in a single push, trying to complete it at something approaching your best effort,” Krupicka said. “Attempt it over the course of a week, and it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but once you try doing it as fast as you can, it really starts to hurt.”

Despite its physical rigors, Nolan’s is also endlessly appealing to ultra-runners precisely because of its physicality, not to mention its beauty and accessibility. The most popular route is the north-south traverse, starting at Mount Massive, which is less than a three-hour drive from Denver. One of the U.S.’s burliest mountain adventures lies right in Colorado’s backyard.

Plus, there are few places on the planet as beautiful as the Sawatch Range, which contains eight of the twenty highest mountains in the Rockies. From the top of any of the summtis on Nolan’s, one can see all of the route’s fourteen 14,000-foot peaks.

“The Nolan’s 14 route is stunningly beautiful. It’s the biggest mouthful of Colorado high country anyone can bite off,” said Matt Hart, an endurance coach who completed the route in 2012.

Thanks to social media and some high-profile attempts in recent years, Nolan’s has surged in popularity and emerged as a test piece for elite mountain runners. While the first year saw four attempts, 2014 saw 22 bids and only four sub-sixty hour finishes by elite ultra-runners Gavin Mckenzie, Brandon Stapanowich, and Brandon Worthington, as well as Andrew Hamilton, who nabbed the record for the fastest unsupported Nolan’s traverse with his time of 57:18 in September 2014.

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According to Hart, there’s something more primal driving the growing popularity of Nolan’s.

“We long ago became collectively bored with running marathons and pounding out miles of pavement, so we looked to the mountains. After years of running ultra-marathons in the mountains, even those begin to look overly-contrived. Our species has evolved to seek novelty and adventure—it’s an evolutionary advantage,” said Hart.

“Nolan’s is next-level adventure seeking.”

This call to adventure is what led to Clark’s own journey on Nolan’s. After three previous attempts on the route, all of which had been thwarted by weather, Clark found himself on the route for the fourth time in September 2014. Atop of Mount Oxford, he waited in his tent for the storm to abate. When it didn’t, he headed down to lower ground to wait out the storm and air out his soaked gear. When it became apparent the weather wouldn’t cooperate, he called off his attempt. But instead of feeling disappointed, he felt inspired.

“There was no disappointment, no anger, no fear of failure, just the feeling that I had discovered something I was looking for rather than I had suffered another setback,” said Clark. “It’s like a fourth dimension out there—a place you go to that is so raw, so consuming, so natural and primal. That connection, that intangible firing of all senses until one’s limit is reached … it’s flow.”

As with many other adventures in life, Clark, along with several other Nolan’s participants, had discovered that the journey is as much about the process as it is about the destination. He plans to keep trying to complete Nolan’s, and will attempt it again in the summer of 2015.

In the meantime, Clark’s film offers a detailed history of Nolan’s and various accounts of what truly goes into completing one of the U.S’s most challenging adventures.

“I hope that it will give people a sense of the adventure and inspire a hike, run, 14er climb—whatever adventure means to them. That’s why I like making films, to get people to see what’s fun about the mountains and hopefully to invite them to experience the mountains for themselves.”

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