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Nolan’s 14

Nolan’s 14 has been something I have thought about attempting for 2 years. The timing was never really right, but maybe it never really is. So 18 hours before crossing a trail to the fish hatchery and the start of Nolan’s, I decided to go for it this year. Nolan’s 14 is a concept created by a group trying to summit as many 14,000’ peaks in 100 miles. The route is made up of trails, cross country travel, scrambling and roads with slight variations available along the way. After deciding to attempt Nolan’s 14, I went into Leadville and purchased some food for the attempt. I would be doing Nolan’s 14 with my full 40 liter backpack and everything I am carrying on the 7,000 mile Great Western Loop. A pack with food and water that is about 25 pounds. Here is how Nolan’s 14 went for me.

Upon waking up I had 3 miles to the Fish Hatchey. I took it slow, studying the upcoming route with marginal maps I had downloaded in Leadville. About a mile from the trailhead I rolled my ankle and fell on my face. It was a terrible start to the day. Luckily the roll was not as bad as it initially seemed and I was soon at the fish hatchery. I reorganized things, filled my pockets with snacks and as my watch read 8:47am I took my first steps.

The highline trail was relatively easy most of the way up Mt Massive (14,421 ft) and then I turned right to begin bushwhacking to the top. I had done this route before so it was largely straightforward and I didn’t have too much trouble until the top. My eyes were up, trying to pick out the correct spot on the ridge to gain and a rock shifted under me. I fell hard on my right hand and a sharp rock cut through the skin leaving a bloody mess. I hadn’t even got one summit and I was bleeding. I gained the ridge and walked a few hundred feet to the summit, waving to the other people approaching. Then I left, setting off for the second peak of the route and the tallest in Colorado.

The drop down from Mt Massive to the Halfmoon Trail was long, finally ending at a road. From the road after a short distance I took a Jeep road up a gentle valley. My goal during this first day was to control both my breathing and heart rate. It was not a race and I was not going to set any records. My only goal was to make it trailhead to trailhead in under 60 hours. I picked a drainage to follow up Mt Elbert(14,433 ft) and was soon climbing a frozen waterfall. It was easy to skirt around, but made me think how cold the night would be. From the road to the summit was about 3,000’ elevation and although hard, it went smoothly and I stood atop Colorado. A couple walking down from the summit glanced back up at the peak and I saw the surprise in their faces, wondering where I had come from. With the two tallest peaks of the traverse done, it was on to La Plata.

I left Mt Elbert towards Bull Hill, but I dropped too low on the cross country path and had to gain a few hundred feet of elevation back to get over a steep cliff. Once back on track and above the cliff, I dropped down by Golden Fleece mine and all the way down to the paved road 82. I walked this road for 2.5 miles to the La Plata Peak trailhead. Still feeling good, but not wanting to hurt or rush anything, I stopped and had a pepperoni and cheese tortilla wrap. I planned to have one of these every five miles and snack in between. I changed my socks and charged up La Plata Peak (14,336 ft) as it got dark. Near the summit, the moon shone bright and I hopped over the boulders on the way to my third summit. The backside was a bit of a mess, but I was three peaks in through about 14 hours.

Headed down La Plata I ran out of water and had terrible cottonmouth. My route was all over the place because I couldn’t find the trail and seemingly followed random cairns. It took about a mile before I found a good trail to follow. I began to run towards the lower elevations and the promise of water. I finally quenched. But, while hiking down to a Jeep trail I smacked my head on a thick low hanging branch. It’s the type of headbutt that makes the eyes water. It would be the only crying during the trip. I followed a series of roads through Winfield and to the Huron Peak trailhead. I hiked about 2.5 miles up the trail and at 1:30am, I took my first nap. After 45 minutes of sleep, I flew up Huron Peak (14,003 ft) and then descended a few hundred feet the way I had come. Next up was a largely cross country trail to a group of 3 14ers.

It was a steep rock chute, down from Huron and I carefully navigated it in the moonlight. I didn’t want to have a fall like on Mt Massive. At the bottom I followed a circuitous route around to Clohesy Lake where I took a 45 minute break until sunrise. Then I headed up Missouri Mountain (14,067 ft). It was a straightforward climb and then a bit of ridge walking before I was on the extremely windy summit. Five peaks down.

Things went awry on my way over to Mt. Belford (14,197 ft). I got cliffed out multiple times on my attempt to drop to Elkshead Pass. It was supposed to be class 4 scrambling, but through my series of blunders, it was much harder. My adrenaline surged and I felt as if I were over my head. My body shook as I stared at the steep scree below me, ending at a cliff. I was in a bad spot. With four points of contact and back tracking slowly, I dropped down far enough to find a bit of comfortable footing and slowly made my way across the weathered rock. My poor route choices cost me nearly an hour but I was still in one piece and eventually gained the pass. It was a scary hour. From the Pass I climbed the windy trail to Mt Belford.

Mt Belford to Mt Oxford (14,153 ft) was one of the easiest parts of the whole route. They are only separated by about a mile and the saddle between them sits at 13,500’. It was a good section to regain my wits and calm down after the nearly catestrophic blunder on the Elkshead Pass traverse attempt.

From Mt Oxford I looked across the valley toward Mt Harvard (14,420 ft) and was overwhelmed. It was so close, yet had such a deep valley separating it from me. My spirits sunk. I was tired and barely halfway. On the descent to Pine Creek I took two twenty minute breaks in the attempt to find motivation. That’s when I started talking to myself. I went third person, acting like a spectator cheering on a runner in a marathon. Between the talking and chugging a liter of caffeinated water, I charged up Mt Harvard with renewed motivation. It turned into quite a fun climb. Finishing peak number 8 felt good.

I was in familiar territory, I had done the traverse between Mt Harvard and Columbia Peak (14,073 ft) before so my route was pretty decent. Most my problems on Nolan’s came in areas I was unfamiliar with or at night. It was rocky with about half trail and half rock hopping but went very smoothly. After peak 9 is where my problems really started.

The descent from Columbia was steep but manageable. At the bottom I found the Horn Fork trail and mindlessly walked it. But, I missed my junction. My mind was becoming cloudy and my sense of direction was not like it usually is. Over half a mile beyond my miss junction I realized my mistake and sat down in despair. Not only was I upset about the missed turn, but I was worried I was losing my most important tool of this attempt, my mind. I had another pepperoni wrap, changed my socks and forced out positivity by talking to myself. I retraced my steps, took my junction and turned off onto the cross country route. My senses were broken. I didn’t know which way was south. Something I usually lean so heavily on was clouded by exhaustion. Finally, when the moon came up I had some bearing, but it wasn’t until I tripped over rotted logs and walked through marshy meadows that I climbed above tree line and had some idea where I was in relation to Mt Yale (14,196 ft). At the top of the Avalanche chute, I followed a collection of ridges in the dark towards the mountain. Multiple times a peak lay high ahead and I climbed it, only to see a higher peak a few hundred yards further. It was a frustrating pattern and I yelled words into the wind I will not repeat. I finally gained the summit and shivered uncontrollably. I started to move quickly down but continually lost the trail in the dark. I ended up in the middle of a scree field and was sliding down. My shoes were full of rocks, my judgement was clouded and I didn’t know where I was going. I carefully walked, slid and fell my way across the steep, loose rocks, eventually finding my trail. I followed it to the Colorado trail junction and was relieved to find a perfectly manicured section of the route. After a couple miles and in the middle of night 2, I was exhausted. I took an hour nap.

I woke up and felt confused. I wasn’t really sure what was going on. My brain felt like mush. As I slowly packed up and looked at my maps, I had a direction I needed to go, but my eyes wouldn’t stay open. I walked down to County Road 306 and caught myself drifting off to sleep while hiking multiple times. I just had to make it until the sun came out and then I would be fine. I walked the paved road and turned my music way up to keep my eyes open when finally the sun rose. I immediately sharpened and prepared for the crux of the route. Time was now of the essence and I pushed hard while climbing up Maxwell gulch. I got to the North East Ridge of Mt Princeton (14,197 ft) and charged up the loose rock. At the top I realized I had gained the wrong ridge. So with a series of mountain goat like traverses across scary, steep rock terrain I worked across the face toward the trail. Rocks crashed down below me with each step and I had to stop, sit and calm down or I would lose my concentration to nerves. With some carefully planted steps applied with great patience, I joined a more acceptable route. From here it was just rock hopping to the summit. Standing on top, I couldn’t imagine how to descend on the route my maps indicated, everything looked so steep.

I followed the high rocky ridges of Princeton around to just below Point 13971 (elevation named peak) and began scouting my descent. I found what looked like a steep but manageable route down and slid through the loose rock, filling my shoes with pebbles and my heart with anxiety. I finally hit grass at the bottom of the relentless rock field, emptied my shoes and opened my food bag to eat. I was finished with one bag of tortillas, and when I opened the second bag and made a pepperoni wrap it made me want to puke. They were gluten free tortillas (purchased on accident) and tasted awful. I forced some food down and then ran the few miles to Alpine. I was nervous about the 60 hour cutoff now. From Alpine I slowly climbed a Jeep road. There were too options, a more efficient but steeper cross country route to the top of Mt. Antero (14,269 ft) or a road to near the top and a short trail to the summit. I planned on the cross country route, but I felt the beginnings of cramps in my legs and decided to save them for the ascent on the final two peaks. So I took the winding road and scrambled quickly to the top. Now time was very short.

Descending Antero I dropped my gloves. I knew it was only a few hundred feet back when I realized it, as that is where I took them off. I back tracked and looked all over for them because I needed them for the rest of my hike. It cost me a few minutes and made me anxious but I found them. I didn’t want to miss the 60 hour mark so the sprint down the mountain began, hurdling logs and rocks all the way to Browns Lake. I ended up going too far and to get back on track I fought through thick brush, cutting up my legs. My shins were a bloody mess. I didn’t care, I was on a timeline. Under 4 hours left to make it. I was panicking. I wasn’t sure which drainage to climb up to Tabeguache Peak(14,155 ft). I had never been in this valley and didn’t know what the back side of the peak looked like. I was so stressed and mad at myself for depending on these poor maps I considered crying and/or breaking a trekking pole over my leg. But I just knew I could still do it. I yelled at myself, “Jeff, you will f*#%ing climb this peak,” forcing my mind to accept I was going to give this my best shot. I picked a ridge and climbed the loose rock faster than I ever have before. I adopted the mantra “Jeff, you got this” and kept yelling it. I climbed 2,500 feet without a trail in record time. At the top I turned right and ran to the top of Tabeguache Peak.

At the peak I turned around and sprinted down the boulder field to a saddle. From there I sprinted up Mt. Shavano (14,229 ft), yelling positive things at myself the whole time. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins. The countdown was at two hours. Not knowing if the cutoff for time was at the peak or the trailhead, I told myself I had to make it to the trailhead at Blank Cabin. I cranked up the music and began to run. My legs had little left and it was more of a shuffle, but I forced them on. At 8:20pm, 59 hours and 33 minutes after starting, I had completed Nolan’s 14.


My route and knowledge of it was terrible. I would have taken better maps and studied them better. I onsighted most scrambles and ended up in the wrong place or on the wrong ridge. These mistakes all contributed to hours and loads of wasted energy. But it did make it more of an adventure. Carrying a tent and a full backpacking pack was another thing that was not helpful. Throughout the route I had back spasms and struggled with the weight. To keep it lighter, I tried to carry minimal water, which led to a couple bouts of minor dehydration. There are so many variables in something like this, I am just happy it went well, I am in one piece and had an amazing experience accomplishing my goal. I saw my body do things I didn’t know it could, and I broke down barriers and doubts in my mind!

Miles 104 (over 59 hours)

Total miles 5052

Here is the breakdown by peak and location:

Fish Hatchery trailhead 8:47am

Massive 11:32am

Elbert 3:37pm

La Plata 8:52pm

Huron 3:12am

Missouri 8:34am

Belford 10:23am

Oxford 11:14am

Harvard 2:54pm

Columbia 5:09pm

Yale 11:28 pm

Princeton 10:47am

Antero 3:29pm

Tabeguache 6:20pm

Shavano 6:51pm

Blanks cabin trailhead 8:20pm

Jeff Garmire completing Nolans 14 as part of the great western loop.
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