Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Nolan's 14 Pacing

When Logan asked if I wanted to help pace him during his Nolan's 14 attempt several weeks ago I was honored. If what I regularly do can be effective at preparing me for anything its marching up and down vert. I've never quite fully embraced the ultra long mindset like Logan has, so I figure I'd maybe do 10 to 15 hours (I've only been over 10 hours twice before) and then follow along from the sidelines.

Getting some calories in the trees below Yale.
A group of 8 or so, including Logan and his partner Adam started up Mt Shavano, the southernmost Sawatch 14er, Friday morning at 5AM. As I anxiously made it through my classes, they made it over Shavano, Tabaguache, Antero and Princeton. I was very thankful my schedule didn't allow me to start on Princeton, it is a very big mountain with lots loose rock. Its not uncommon to see refrigerator sized rock fall. The plan was to begin with him on Columbia in the middle of the night at the N. Cottonwood trailhead. Adam had to drop after Princeton though, so rather than sending Logan up Yale -- a 5,000ft climb on trail with a 5,000ft off trail descent with plenty of bush whacking -- alone, I threw together a pack. Logan refueled in the parking lot at Avalanche Gulch then we were daintily jogging the 3 miles of road up the Denny Creek trailhead.

The pace felt slow, but I had to remember that he had already been out for 16 hours. We moved steadily through the trees, but at treeline it was becoming obvious that he wasn't feeling well. He primarily was complaining that his headlamp was too tight and that his head was "one thousand degrees" even in the 40 degree air. I told him I had a pocket knife and I'd be okay cutting off his dreadlocks to cool his head down, that have surprised the crew at N. Cottonwood for sure! Halfway, up I turn around to look for him, and don't see his lamp, crap. I jog down a bit and find him resting head on hands on poles, we found a large boulder to get out of the wind and sit down for bit. Eventually, he decides to not nap and we finish up to the summit, gradually feeling better. The summit is completely entrenched in a cloud, occasional flakes of snow and drops rain are falling. We pass Julian and Jason (maybe) heading down a long descent over the northeastern ridge. Eventually back in the trees, we found ourselves on some absurdly steep dirt, 40-50 degrees I would say. "Heads up there is a rock coming your way!", Logan shouts. Unfortunately the long preface to the word "rock" mean that by the time I had processed it, the rock had already hit me in the back of the calf. There was a long bushwhack until we crossed a couple of creeks and found a trail. On the 2nd try, we headed the right direction and made it to the crew at North Cottonwood.
An unbelievably beautiful morning trudging up Columbia. Yale (covered in clouds) looks about how it felt a few hours before.
The long night's toll was then tabulated. Being suddenly sedintary left us shivering in a steady rain. Logan decided he wanted a quick nap, so I laid my head down too. I was instantly asleep. I was awoken 15 minutes later and with minimum motivation assembled our packs and stumbled out of camp. As if on cue, the rain faded away and the black sky began to lighten. By the time we had turned off the trail to Columbia's southwest slope the sky was blue and we were watching clouds pour over Mt Yale into Horn Fork Basin below us. Columbia is steep, looks like about 2,000ft in a mile to gain the ridge. Here we met a solo hiker who accompanied us to the summit. The traverse to Harvard started with a very long (longer than necessary perhaps?) into the drainage on the east side. We slowly made our way along to gain Harvard's southwest ridge which surprisingly very far away from the summit. Logan met me on the summit 6 hours after leaving N. Cottonwood.
Clouds gathering in Horn Fork Basin, Logan a few feet from gaining his 6th summit
Descending Harvard, our route finding went perfectly and Logan finally accepted the need to push downhills a bit. We made our way to Pine Creek in 90 minutes successful weaving through the swampland almost dry. The aid station at Pine Creek was next level cool -- it a 10 mile hike in there -- they had hot soup, chips, coke, candy, etc. We stayed just long enough to refuel then started up Oxford, but here was the beginning of the end for me. We set off up a scree field where Logan was sure we would quickly find a game trail and then some unmistakable lightning rod trees. Well, after a long bit of wandering, we found nothing and Logan was really against just wingin' it and heading up, so I obliged, it was his day. We made contact with Pine Creek over radio and found out that Julian and Jason were just getting into camp. Julian knew the route perfectly so we planned to team up with him. This time delay was exacerbated when we then had to wait out a subsequent storm, a hour later, we were marching up the Oxford, on route. About 600ft below the summit, by breathing started to get intensely labored and my heart rate quickened. Over the next 200ft I could tell things were going south fast instead of grabbing the easy summit of Oxford, I cut straight to the saddle and slowly ascended Belford. I laid down for a couple minutes behind natural talus wall which calmed my breathing but cooled my down.
Slowly making our way up Harvard, Rabbit Ridge can easily be seen on the ridgeline.
I was at a junction here, my pace had slowed to a crawl and I couldn't bare the thought of thwarting the great feats accompanying me so I made the tough decision to head down Missouri Gulch rather than over Missouri (the next summit) to the aid at Clohesy Lake. This did mean however, that from here on out, I would probably be alone. The switchbacks down Belford seemed to never end, this was compounded with what seemed to now be the cold/sickness Logan had 6 days before. I had to walk, even downhills. I would take 200 steps, then sit down and calm my heart rate and resist with everything I could not to fall asleep alone in the darkness. This pattern went on for maybe 2 hours, but it could have been far more or less, my clocks were all out of battery and time seemed to have lost all meaning. I reached the parking lot and collapsed behind the bathroom and fell asleep. I made sure to leave my headlamp on, just in case some crew came by, they wouldn't see me for a while though. I woke up "later", unsure of what time it was but certain sunrise must be soon. I made the uncalculated and irrational decision to trek and hitch-hike back to my car, 30 miles away.
Logan negotiating the talus a few feet below the summit of Harvard.
The only quantifiable progress I made walking was the 6 miles of dirt road out towards the highway. Emotions had huge pendulum swings from, "this is crazy fun" to honest crying and self pity. I finally got one of few (I saw maybe 5 over 3-4 hours) to stop, he was an ultra-runner and immediately understood what I was going through. He kindly got me to the Highway 24, but he had to meet people soon, so I let him on his way. His clock read 4:20AM, two hours to sunrise. The highway, that stupid god-damned highway from hell was a depressing few hours (I've tried hard to avoid cursing on this blog, but this situation is as deserving as any I can think of) . Cars were few and far between and in the massively oversized rain pants/coat Jason had generously given to me and my uncoordinated stumbling down the road I must have looked either insane, drunk or more likely, both. Just when the emotion was reaching a tipping point (more self pity and crying, not proud of it, but it happened), a car stopped for me. This ride brought me to the light in Buena Vista, I could almost taste the jar of Nutella in my car. I walked 2 miles up Cottonwood Pass, the sun now fully risen and my body finally warming up. A single lady stopped for me (didn't expect that to happen), her husband had run Hardrock -- and she used to work at Avalanche Pizza in Silverton! -- so she was really understanding and we had some good conversation on the remaining 5-6 miles to my car.

I happily unlocked the car, almost in disbelief at what had happened. Something I think is so cool is at the end of the day, no matter if it was a 4 mile walk or 36 hours of hell, you just get back to your car and your back in the civilized world like nothing happened. I charged my phone and texted my mom, hoping she hadn't filed a missing person report quite yet. I checked Logan's SPOT and saw he just made it up Huron, it was a tough night for those guys. After enough lounging I set off for Winfield to see him up La Plata, but after 20 minutes of driving I had to pull over and sleep for a bit. At 10AM Sunday, I had not slept aside from 15-20 minute naps since Friday morning at 7. I only slept for a couple hours before I felt rested enough to head to La Plata, he was past Winfield now and I would only be meeting him for the inevitable end at N. La Plata TH. I met up with the crew at the TH and shared my story and listened the stories of others who had started and dropped or crewed, it was fun. Jason came it first looking like he had just finished an easy 5K, followed an hour later by Logan who was mentally beat but physically alright. Julian came in happy to be done a few minutes later, all 3 finished 12 peaks in 60 hours, that is amazing.

Now days later, time away has dulled the pain. Was I just being a wimp on Oxford/Belford? Maybe I should have just hardened up and dealt, but maybe it was the right choice, I'll never know for sure. I do know that I should have hike to Clohesy Lake not back to my car, that would have spared me one the worst things I've ever experienced. What I did do was learn -- a lot. First, I'm trying all 14 next year. I learned a ton of the route this year, but I strongly believe there is better route in some spots. Aside from Princeton, Yale and Huron, the route is pretty easy to understand. I'm likening the experience to trying heroine, its not something you can just try and forget about. I want more, and I doubt I'll be able to push Nolans from my thoughts for a very long time. Labor Day 2016, I'll be ready at Fish Hatchery or Blanks Cabin, that my promise to myself.

Note: I haven't proofread this yet, and just wanted to publish it, sorry for any stupid remarks or grammatical errors, I'm still catching up on sleep!

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