Nolan’s 14 was a learning experience for everyone involved. Everyone had a good time however, and is ready to try it again next year. – Fred Vance, Ultrarunning, November 1999
Approaching Nolan’s 14 I knew it would be difficult and to some extent crazy, but now having attempted it I can say that it’s also pretty funny, too, at least in a black comedy kind of way, like a standup show where the comic dies laughing at his own joke. Was I disappointed in myself for quitting after 10 peaks? Sure. Did I break down and cry on the Colorado Trail the morning after? Maybe. The point is, I can’t recall ever pushing myself so hard and still managing to fail so miserably, and I think that’s hilarious.
When you give everything you’ve got and it’s not enough – nowhere close to being enough, in fact – at the end of the day all you can do is collapse and laugh at yourself for even thinking this would be a good idea in the first place. For all its wild beauty and allure, Nolan’s really feels like a magnificent joke to me. But I swear I’m going to go back and finish all 14 or die laughing.
And so it was that on Friday, Sept. 2, at about 5am there were six of us who started together at the fish hatchery. Julian, John, Erik, Adam, Robbie, and me. We were trying to take advantage of the long Labor Day weekend; however, almost to the man the long Labor Day weekend instead took advantage of us.
Here is my version of the story, retold as well as I can remember.
Fish Hatchery to La Plata TH: So long, and thanks for all the pumpkin pie
The weather that Friday morning could have been better. The rain settled in well before we were even out of the trees, robbing us of the sun’s warmth and the comfort of dry feet. I was glad for my $15 Coleman rainsuit and fairly proud of myself for picking it up at Shopko the day before. What a wise decision on my part to take a rainsuit to Nolan’s. Sure, it was two sizes too big, but what am I supposed to do, check labels on things before I buy them?
“Without a doubt me and this fine rainsuit are going to finish,” I said to myself as I hiked up into a raging storm.
The weather had other plans, of course, continuing a steady downpour of rain that transmogrified into snow at about 12,900 feet. I remember the elevation because at that early point in the attempt I still genuinely appreciated my altimeter watch, and hadn’t yet entered that state of despair in which the numbers on my altimeter watch stop aligning with the effort I’ve expended in climbing, thus rendering the device an object of contempt. Also, the bottom half of my rainsuit ripped wide open after a couple hours and I lost my interest in Coleman products. What a dumb decision on my part.
With such negative attitude and worthless attire I went into the clouds up and over Colorado’s second-highest mountain, my bare legs whipped by wind and snow, a torn pair of rainsuit pants in one hand and a good deal of doubt in the other. John and I followed Julian through the fog. All we could see of Erik and Adam were footprints in the snow. Robbie was long gone, blown off the mountain I presumed, or perhaps scooped up by one of the yetis that inhabit these parts.
We thawed out while descending to Halfmoon Creek with the hope that Elbert would grant us a change in conditions. Down by the Black Hawk memorial we said hello to a couple of clearly injudicious hikers preparing to climb a mountain in a snowstorm, and then we forded the creek heading for South Halfmoon Road using a delightful little shortcut, which, if I recall correctly, John has christened Wade’s Way. This little connector lops off a bit of road and spares you some unnecessary descending and climbing in the process.
Our hope for change on Elbert was granted. This time instead of going full-on snow it simply rained, once again depriving us of a dry climb. The summit was all socked in as we began dragging ourselves up one of the western ridges, now and then catching glimpses of Erik and Adam clinging to the slope a few hundred feet above us.
“I wish I was a few hundred feet above them,” I muttered to myself. “Shut up and climb,” one of my other selves responded, and I was glad for his company.
And so once again I went into the clouds up and over a mountain. The fog isolating us from the world parted as we faced Bull Hill and crossed over to Golden Fleece mine, and then the weather lifted completely as we dropped down to the highway and La Plata trailhead. There, some of the best people in the world were waiting with refreshments, and one of them shoved a slice of homemade pumpkin pie into my hands. Long before they’d even finished telling me what it was it was gone and my body had burned it. I sat down and replaced my wet cotton socks with dry cotton socks like a true ultrarunning veteran. In hindsight, I think the next time I try Nolan’s I will not be using cotton socks, as I’d like to do a better job of avoiding trench foot in the future.
We had covered the ground between the hatchery and here in just under 10 hours. I think the distance is about 22 miles, so that should give you an idea of the terrain we were up against. The pictures show me still smiling at this point, so I must have been having fun, weather notwithstanding. Things were about to change, though, because why would you want Nolan’s to be fun? That doesn’t make any sense.
La Plata TH to Winfield: How to hate yourself and fail at running packs
Going up our third peak things were finally dry and warm for the first time, but by then I was wishing a bear would maul me so I could just be dead and done with it. Barely half a day had passed and I already wanted to not exist.
“Do you know what despair feels like, man?” La Plata was talking to me but I ignored it. “You do now, man, you do now.”
It was a beautiful, sunny day with the whole of the Sawatch sprawled out before me as a boundless beautiful rock garden, and there I was in a sad small world of pain, wishing I would die. But inside this mind of darkness I remembered reading Matt Hart’s account of his Nolan’s 14 finish four years ago and how he almost quit after only three peaks, and that story helped me keep going. So did the company of Julian and John. Each man in his own way without realizing it kept me going, and one of them I’d never even met. That is the kind of odd inspiration you often find in the darkest places, and as I continued adding peaks to my tally over the hours ahead I would find it again and again.
Three down, baby. Adam was at the summit and I’d be lying if I said he looked fine because he didn’t. But I’m sure I wasn’t exactly a poster boy for strength and vitality, either, especially after the Slough of Despond I’d just pulled myself through. Adam split toward Winfield and the rest of us took a break on top to refuel and trade accounts of how lousy we’d felt coming up. Turns out all three of us had suffered in silence together without realizing the others were also enduring their own little miseries. That’s how it goes, I guess, and that’s probably how I’ll remember La Plata every time I climb it from now on. My first time on this peak, in pain but in the company of two others attempting 14 fourteeners in a row.
After regrouping we dropped down into Winfield with light to spare, and once again a crew of the best people awaited us with good food and good cheer. I changed my cotton socks again and put a bunch of edible stuff in my mouth. Cheese quesadillas and coffee, I think, and maybe another slice or five of pumpkin pie. Let me tell you this if you’ve never tried ultrarunning – there comes a point when real food is worth its weight in diamonds. Gels and trail mix and (in my case at least) peanut butter get old pretty fast; after a while all you want is something real. A cup of joe and a lawn chair, please. If you ever find yourself not appreciating the simple things in life, go run 100 miles and then reevaluate. What’s the worst that could happen? Besides Nolan’s, I mean.
As I sat in that lawn chair I considered my shoulders, which had been killing me since shortly after leaving La Plata TH. Like an idiot, you see, I’d filled my running pack with enough junk to get me most of the way from the Sawatch to Santa Fe, so before heading out to tackle Huron I spent a few minutes lightening the load with the help of Robbie, who’d escaped the aforementioned yetis and returned to offer assistance. I can say that leaving Winfield I felt a lot less burdened and wished I’d had the foresight to realize I wasn’t footing it as far as New Mexico. Somehow I’m always either underprepared or overprepared, and I can’t seem to hit that happy medium where I’ve got just the right amount of gear and calories unless someone else is there to help me hit it.
If you’re curious, the running pack I was using was the RaidLight Ultra Vest Olmo 12L, kindly donated by RockyMountainUltra, and man was it great. It’s quite comfortable if you’re not a nitwit like me and actually pack it properly. According to this descriptive cardboard tag I’m currently reading, the vest weighs 560g (no idea what “g” stands for, sorry, most of this is in French) and has lots of zipped pockets. It also has a security whistle in case you need to let everyone within earshot know that you are being mauled. If you have any questions about this pack just ask and I’ll try to answer without sounding like an amateur.
Winfield to North Cottonwood Creek: Seeing things and forgetting stuff
Friday evening arrived as we took on Huron. I don’t remember much about the climb, except that I felt pretty great and was generally happy that I’d pushed through the first major rough spot. The night was clear and cold, but not too cold, and up higher we could see two headlamps shining with the stars above. Adam and Erik were still alive, so that was good.
By the time we summited, Erik was halfway down the boulder field above Clohesy Lake. Adam was waiting for us near the summit; he was not feeling that well and so officially rejoined us as we descended to the east. Heading into the boulder field we discovered that someone had set up a line of cairns leading straight through the area – certainly a nice guide to have in the middle of the night. Whoever did that, thanks, you’re the best.
We absolutely nailed the descent into Clohesy Lake and started the grind up Missouri without incident. All in all, it was a pretty nice night to go up Missouri. If you aren’t familiar with the climb, it’s fairly long and stupid but at least there’s a trail the whole way for turning off your brain and staring at.
Around treeline me and Julian pressed ahead of Adam and John. We were both moving pretty good so we just kept climbing together all the way to the summit. When we got up lo and behold there was Erik taking a midnight siesta, evidently suffering from a headache and the inability to take in food. Even in this adverse state, however, he was generous enough to offer me the rest of his Red Bull, which I happily drank to help stave off the insanity that had been stalking me for several hours now. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet, but the hiking poles I was using were Erik’s. This was the first event I’ve ever used poles for, and I have to say I wish I’d started using them a lot earlier. You would be amazed at how effective a hiking pole is against the more ferocious hallucinations.
Erik tagged along in traversing to Belford. We lost some time here by failing to descend far enough before striking out for Elkhead Pass, but with a little experimentation we eventually picked up the pass and the trail to Belford. This is the part where I started falling asleep on my feet. I don’t remember much of anything from Elkhead Pass over to Oxford because I dozed through most of it, but I do remember that the wind was brutal and blew right through me. So I stopped on Belford to slap on my emergency longjohns and a heavier jacket, and for my freezing hands a pair of Dachstein boiled-wool mittens. On Oxford we paused for half an hour or so to snooze, but I didn’t really snooze much because my bivvy was flapping around in the wind and the rock I was leaning against was snoring like thunder.
There was a great red gash across the eastern sky Saturday morning as we arose and made our way into Pine Creek, where Erik decided to stop for good. I was really starting to lose it. I remember taking a quick break near the creek crossing to shed some layers, and I looked around, mindlessly appreciating the beauty of such a remote valley but seriously wondering if it wasn’t all just a dream. Looking back, I realize I should have stopped here to sleep for an hour – the weather and timing were both ideal – but I didn’t stop.
Julian and I had some trouble finding the right approach to Harvard, but soon enough we were properly oriented and heading uphill. I’d only been up that way once before and had forgotten how ridiculous the climb is. There is a trail for part of the way – I suppose you can call it a trail; it’s of the mountain goat variety and as such is quite steep and loose and very dreary. At one point I looked up and caught a glimpse of someone on the summit, but as I’d been seeing all kinds of weird stuff for a few hours already, I wasn’t sure he really existed.
If he did exist, he was getting hammered with hail and lightning because there was a wild storm brewing up there, man. Clouds were dashing across the summit ridge driven by a wind that nearly froze me solid at the top. The weather remained rather irksome as we crossed to Columbia. I’ve done that section twice now, but I still don’t think I could confidently find the route by myself. As before I simply followed Julian, and somewhere down in that basin on the east side of the Harvard-Columbia ridgeline my sleep-deprived brain really started trying to undo me.
I didn’t know what I was doing out in the mountains. I remember thinking, “Well, I guess I’m having a pretty good time right now, but hell if I know who this guy I’m following is.” I couldn’t remember who Julian was. I was just out in the wilderness hiking behind some dude, you know?
People met us near Columbia’s summit. I recall Brad, Robbie, Neeraj, and Chris. Was there someone else? The day was lovely and sunny as they escorted us up that final climb and then down the gentle south ridge I love so much. I was pretty well smashed in the head by this point and was having trouble remembering people’s names and basic background information even as I spoke with them. Furthermore, my feet were starting to really hurt and I was uncertain of my ability to keep going.
Down in the valley at the bridge by the avalanche gulley we saw Wade, who said hello and gave us some Gatorade. I was seeing stuff and forgetting everything and towering over me was a titan named Yale, peak number 10.
Over Yale to Avalanche: I’m hearing voices and I’m going to die here in the woods
Brad stayed with us for the Yale ascent and it wasn’t the best. Unlike La Plata I didn’t just want to die, I thought I was going to die. I was in that crazy mental state where Sisyphus himself climbs beside you and you feel sluggish and numb. It’s the place where if you believe God exists, suddenly he doesn’t anymore; if you don’t, suddenly he does and he is angry. Fatigue eats you from the inside and the mountain grows taller, unfairly.
That Yale ascent was the most challenging thing I’ve ever put myself through but somehow I pulled it off. In the process I forgot Brad’s name and I forgot Julian’s name and I forgot my own name, too. I didn’t know where I was or who I was. I wasn’t sure what mountain I was climbing but I climbed it anyway – and then, when we finally gained the summit ridge and saw the piss-poor quality of weather bearing down upon us, I remembered everything.
I’m Brandt Ketterer and that’s Brad and that’s Julian over there and by God that’s a lot of thunder and lightning coming our way fast. Up and over the summit we went as quickly as we could, then down into Hughes Gulch with the promise of food and a campfire at Avalanche. And once again we got rained on; this time, however, I had Neeraj’s rain jacket with me and it was the most wonderful thing in the world. Screw you, thunder and lightning – I’m Brandt Ketterer and I’ve got a rain jacket.
Night fell like I wished I’d fallen seven peaks past. After our success on Yale we proceeded to get terrifically lost trying to find the Colorado Trail down into Avalanche. It was deadfall galore, folks, and I was so blasted that for a while I literally just stood there in the woods staring at a tree. I don’t remember why but it seemed reasonable at the time.
Things were moving in ways they weren’t supposed to move. I couldn’t climb over a log without it jumping around like some kind of nightmarish giant’s leg. I saw an African lion who seemed nice. There was a girl lying on the ground with her head propped up in her hands, glaring at me. I was listening to the fuzzy voices of people who didn’t exist; they said stuff I couldn’t understand but I could hear them talking and I figured it was probably about me. I truly wanted to make a contribution toward the route-finding effort but the best I could manage was the simple act of not falling over and passing out. So I did that. Julian and Brad eventually got us to the trail, no thanks to me.
Coming down into Avalanche Saturday night I wanted to quit so bad and I was mentally reciting all kinds of good reasons to excuse myself from the effort. “I can’t keep up with Julian,” I told myself matter-of-factly. “I can’t stay awake. I’m not strong enough to finish. There’s not enough time to finish. I’m an idiot.”
“How’re you doing, Brandt?” asked Brad, who already knew the answer was not good.
“Not good,” I said, hoping I sounded more alive than dead but realizing I probably didn’t.
In response, Brad slipped me a 5-hour energy shot and about 10 minutes later I snapped out of it. Oh yeah, eating and drinking is a thing you’re supposed to do.
Below Princeton: Feet on fire, shivering sleep, and leg of deer
We made it down to the campground near Avalanche where they had a fire, food, and encouragement for our dirty tired souls. I had decided to keep going – and how could I not after Brad volunteered to take his pants off for me? I had Brad’s pants and by Jove I was going to keep at it. So into the second night I marched with Julian, all the way down the road to the Colorado Trail and around to the eastern slopes and the ridge that goes up Princeton.
And then I quit.
My feet were on fire. They’d been hot for all six miles out of Avalanche and I kept telling myself it was one of those pains that would just go away if I ignored it long enough, but it was not one of those pains, and in fact it turned out to be one of the most painful pains I’ve endured in my experience with ultrarunning. Not quite as bad as 40 miles of tendonitis at Cruel Jewel, but still pretty bad, and I knew that going up another mountain, not to mention down one, would be well nigh impossible and much dumber than the level of dumb I can usually tolerate. So at about 1:15am Sunday, Sept. 4, after a good 44 hours of relentless forward progress, I wished Julian the best of luck and that was it.
I quit. It’s hard to admit or comprehend but I quit; I had to. There was no way to continue with my feet in such a miserably blistered state, so I spent a shivery night bivvied up on Princeton’s lower parts just above the Colorado Trail. I had boiled-wool mittens on my blazing-hot feet. A RaidLight running pack under my crazy head. A dead tree on my left and a cold, mad mountain on my right. The stars overhead were unpolluted by manmade light and as they twinkled oblivious to my existence I dozed, woke up frozen, dozed, woke up frozen, dozed, repeat, repeat, then a clear Sunday morning and realization setting in like the sickness unto death. Massive to Yale is 10 peaks, but 10 peaks is not the same as Nolan’s 14.
I packed up my stuff, slowly. Then down I went to the trail and turned left, the direction I wasn’t supposed to go, to trudge back in failure the way I came. I’ll never forget that hike. It took me two hours to cover four miles. I saw a severed deer leg that a mountain lion had left behind in the time since we’d passed the night before. That animal’s death meant nothing to me and I wished the lion had dined on me instead. I swore I’d try again and I swore I’d finish the next time.
They found me at South Cottonwood trailhead, sleeping like a baby in the shade.
Epilogue: Of the six who started on Friday, Sept. 2, only one of us made it all the way to Shavano trailhead – the leader of the pack, the man who of all six starters deserved to finish the most. Congratulations, Julian Smith, for completing Nolan’s 14 in an insane 72 hours. It was a pleasure to follow along for 10 peaks.
Nobody finished the inaugural Nolan’s 14 back in the summer of 1999. But not finishing it didn’t stop them from going back and trying again, and it’s not going to stop me, either. Would anyone like to join me at the end of September to give it another shot? I still can’t feel my big toes but I think they’ll be good in a couple weeks. Leave a comment if you’re interested. Thanks.