Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Nolan's 14

Nolan's 14 is a linkup of fourteen 14,000ft+ mountains in the Sawatch Range -- its about 90 miles with around 45,000ft of climbing and the challenge is to finish in under 60 hours. There are some alleged "rules" to Nolans such as no pacers, no gps, no mechanical aid (besides poles) as well as some gray area as to whether the clock stops at the last summit or the final trail-head. The "rules" are completely arbitrary and it seems like no one actually cares that much the style you choose -- even if you drove between every peak's trailhead its still really hard! The style I would pursue would be to have a supported and paced attempt going south to north but with no GPS guidance. Just the style that appealed to me the most.

The weekend started terribly with the expected Labor Day traffic. The night was salvaged with my absolute favorite pizza at Amica's in Salida with Jack, Kyle, Derek and Abby. We camped for the night at the Shavano TH; I slept about as well as you can the night before something like this. Lying awake I could here intermitent rain showers which remained when the alarm went off at 4:00AM. I had already chosen exactly the gear given the conditions while I was supposed to be sleeping. By the time I was dressed, Abby had a burrito which had an average temperature of warm, though in reality one end was burnt and the other was cold. Its hard to heat a burrito in a pot with a camp stove!
Gearing up in the rain at 4AM (Photo by Elliot)
Heading out. (Photo by Elliot)
I set off with Derek into the darkness at 4:32AM. I was a bit warm in the trees but was thankful to be "waterproofed" when we popped out of the trees an hour later. Thick clouds obscured the summit as glimmers of light poked over the horizon. The final several hundred feet to Shavano the sun lit up the surrounding clouds, the flakes in the air as well as the snow on the ground. It was magical.

Summitting Shavano (Photo by Derek)
Summit of Tabaguache (Photo by Derek)
We paused for a few seconds on the summit for a quick picture and then began the short traverse to Tabaguache (which we renamed Taba-Gucci). Another quick tag and we were on the descent. On my scouting run of this section I descended a truly miserable section of talus but noted what appeared to be much better way. We suffered only a few feet talus on route to the trees which naturally guide you in the right direction. I fell once on a wet rock, landing on and bending my right pole. Oh well, now they're both bent! I made one minor mistake here trying to shortcut a turn which lead to some willow whacking but we didn't lose much time at all grunting up the relatively short climb to Antero from Brown's Creek.
Summit of Antero. Luckily the fashion police weren't present to arrest me for this atrocious look. (Photo by Derek)

With a wall of clouds closing in we didn't waste time starting down the North ridge. A couple rumbles of thunder accompanied by hail and I picked up the pace. I have never been on the North side of Antero before, I chose an arbitrary point to drop off the ridge. The talus was quite large, quite loose and now quite wet. I stashed my poles and slipped down the rocks leaving Derek who wasn't felling comfortable on the wet loose rock. I got pretty soaked in the rain jogging down the Antero road which I joined around 10,000ft. Abby drove up right as I was getting to Alpine: I changed into dry clothes, chugged some water and ate some food.

Refueling in Alpine (Photo by Abby)
A experienced friend who shall remain nameless got a message to me saying "keep it steady, slow the f*** down!", so I took it down a notch heading up Grouse Canyon. This segment is quite enjoyable, especially considering the beast you're climbing. I marched alone to making a couple rounds through all of the Infected Mushroom songs I had on my iPod. I stopped on the summit of Princeton only to stash my poles. I tried a slightly different route down to Maxwell Gulch than I had scouted, it was a bit better but not great. I'd guess there is some gully that you could cruise down with either stable rock or unstable but smaller rock, but I never found one and my route isn't that bad. I joined the Colorado Trail, hiking anything remotely up and jogging the downs. I crossed paths with Megan Hicks and had a brief introductory conversation. I nailed one last shortcut then hopped onto the Cottonwood Pass road to find Kyle and Abby waiting for me. At Avalanche Gulch I could tell I had about 10,000ft of climbing in my legs but felt ready for more.
Marching up the road with Yale (the peak on the right) looming in the distance (Photo Abby)
Eating some soup in the parking lot. The man on the left (who was crewing for Julian Smith) made it to Harvard before quitting a couple days later, we decided we earned a "team finish"! (Photo by Abby)
I readied for the coming night and began the march up the Colorado Trail with Abby and Derek. We maintained a proper pace to where we left the trail to join the East ridge of Yale. Abby turned back here and hustled back to the trailhead -- she had no headlamp and darkness was coming soon! Derek and I marched on into the night. This climb is about 5,500ft and coupled with the darkness, cold and numerous false summits was really tough. I sat in the cold behind some rocks for a bit on the summit and then remembered I was about to do the descent alone. Crap. Derek headed back the way we came and I began down my own route. I put my music back on and stayed on the East side of the ridge to stay out of the cold wind. This descent is easy when done right, but is very easy to mess up. I did the best I could from memory but confused one ridge for another and ended up veering very far off course. I swam through willows and some very dense deadfall before finding Silver Creek. At the time I had no idea where I was; I guessed somewhere East. I yelled for Abby and Jack only accidentally wake some campers (it was maybe 3AM?). They informed me I was on the Colorado Trail and that if I hiked downhill I could get to the North Cottonwood trail. Sucks, but watchya-gonna-do. It was a long while before I joined the road, well out of water and stubbornly unwilling to eat without liquids I slowly hiked the mile and a half towards the Harvard & Columbia Trailhead.
Heading up with Abby and Derek (behind the camera)
Food pause on the Colorado Trail (Photo by Abby)
Trying to warm up my hands on Yale's summit (Photo by Derek)
Shortly before the trailhead I saw headlights coming down the road, it was Eric. He guessed pretty quickly what happened to me then got me some food and water. I feared the journey was over here but he quickly got that idea out of my head. I was on a good pace before and was still well capable of finishing under 60 hours. I took a 20 minute nap in the back of his car while he ran back up to alert my slightly worried crew that I was alright and to bring some stuff down to me. I woke up and started hiking up the road and met Kyle, Jack and Abby a few feet into the trail. The nap did wonders, I felt strong on the next couple miles to where I should have met them. To my surprise I found a whole party primarily fueled by Clare, Ginna and Dan who drowned out all others. An overwhelming amount of support sent me back out onto the trail with Jack heading for Columbia.
Overwhelming support. Truly, it was almost too much. Only because Clare was trying to put socks on my feet and check "check my pits" to see if I needed a dry shirt.
Heading off with Jack
I had some trouble breathing on the upper reaches of Yale but didn't think much of it. Now however, as we got higher and higher my breathing was short and increasingly inefficient. I couldn't inhale fully without a massive coughing fit and even then it felt like no oxygen was even getting processed. I tried sleeping one more time under my emergency blanket, I woke feeling better but it was short lived. Another mistake was not bringing more warm clothes, I was absolutely freezing head to toe and sleeping didn't help that. It was one step, five breathes for another hour. Even at the pace of a snail I was putting out an effor that felt like an all out sprint. I tried sleeping again, but woke up feeling the same. Sunrise came, my mind felt refreshed, I tried to stay positive but I still could neither breathe nor move uphill. Writing it now, it feels like such a give up, but I know Jack wouldn't have let me bail if he thought I could keep going. We made the decision to turn around 800ft below the summit, my condition was worsening severely and the next segment was very remote, getting help back there would probably require a helicopter. It was long sad walk back to the car. My decision to drop was reassured when I had to sit down and catch my breathe after an 8ft uphill roller on the way down.

I'm not sure how exactly it happened but I had most of the symptoms of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), essentially fluid in the lungs. Maybe I got too cold, or worked too hard or wasn't acclimated enough or didn't drink enough water. Whatever the cause, its serious thing and I'm confident I made the medically correct decision. I knew Nolan's was big, ambitious and hard but I have even more respect for it now. Its a journey that can take years to finish and that's the beautiful thing about it. Its hard and you'll probably fail. Failure feels even worse when even to not succeed you can do so much. I made it to 5 summits, was outside for 28 hours, covered 52 miles and ascended 23,000ft -- that's not even halfway. I learned so much and experienced more than I imagined I could. I'm so thankful for everyone who so selflessly gave their weekend to help me chase a distant dream, it really is a team effort to get a human being through this whole thing.
A beautiful moment descending Tabaguache (Photo by Derek)
Can't wait till next year.

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