For the past few years an attempt of Nolanís 14 has alluded me due to injury or just bad timing. This year everything came together for an early season attempt with a strong group. Going at the end of June gave us longer days and more stable weather, but the potential of more snow/water and being under-trained. Though can you ever be fully trained for something like this?!
The weeks before involved the usual obsessing over packing, fighting with downloading routes/waypoints into my GPS (thank goodness for our old XP laptop!) and trying out new drink mixes. Jason, Steve, and I met at Eddyline brewery in Buena Vista on Thursday evening to combine vehicles. We would leave Steveís there, we piled our aid-station stuff in Jasonís for Tom/Margie to pick up, and we piled in my truck to go to the trailhead. Bill/Rebecca met us there also, as Bill would join us for a couple peaks while Rebecca hiked up Mt Massive. We parked off of Halfmoon Rd around 10pm and tried to get some sleep before the 4:30am alarm. Of course solid rest was hard to come by and before long it was time to get up. Last minute preparations and we were at the Fish Hatchery at 5:30am. Andrew Hamiltonís crew vehicle was there as he left a few hours before us as part of his ďHoly NolansĒ quest.
We were in good spirits and catching up on each otherís lives while navigating the many short trails and turns in the area, even jogging a bit. Once at the Colorado Trail junction we turned instead of going straight, not realizing it until 15mins later. We bushwhacked back towards our route and around a swamp. It wasnít long until we were getting slashed and bloodied by willows. Just above treeline we were back on our ridge and making good time. The views around were spectacular with bright blue skies and plenty of snow remaining. After 2hrs and 45mins (8:30am) we topped out on Mt Massive. I remember that just back in August, Jean and I spread some of Denaliís ashes up here. It was nice to spend time on another summit with him. We took a short break for snacks and pictures then headed south along the ridge towards our descent down the SW Slopes route. This went quickly once we found the trail and we jogged a good portion of it. Slamming my toes into rocks was a good reminder to pick up my feet. Fortunately there was just a bit of snow to easily cross and we saw Rebecca as she was hiking up. We all refilled water and kept motoring along. At the trailhead we continued down the road to our turnoff along South Halfmoon Creek. The river crossing was instantly numbing and painful, but felt refreshing in an odd way.
Around 11,400ft we turned off the road for a short stint of bushwhacking before seeing the steep and direct route up the west ridge of Mt Elbert. There was one cliff band that we found the path of least resistance through and the wind picked up above. There was quite a chill to the breeze and we all layered up. One foot in front of the over ticked off the elevation as we all conceded into our own little worlds. Soon enough I saw the summit crowds and hunkered down behind some rocks, arriving at the summit after 7hrs (12:45pm). Jason and Bill soon joined me and we took the obligatory pictures and sent our ďIím okayĒ messages. Bill headed down the standard route to meet Rebecca and Jason started towards Bull Hill to warm up. Steve arrived soon and we followed Jason, catching up while he filtered water. Steve twisted his ankle through this part then slammed his knee into a rock. We tried to contour around Bull Hill to save a bit of elevation, but in hindsight we shouldíve gone right over the top of it. Instead we encountered some snowfields. Jason kicked some steps across. I didnít feel comfortable doing the same without any poles, so I went up and around. Steve was heading towards the snow, then contoured across the snow. I was above the snow waiting for him while Jason continued down. Steve never showed up so I went on a rock outcrop where I could see him. He was coming up a pretty steep part. I was starting to get a bit frustrated and went back to where he would top out. After several more minutes when I didnít show up I went back to the rock outcrop and saw a small slide/glissade spot. I shouted his name several times and didnít hear anything and couldnít see him anywhere. Go down? Go up? Hit the SOS button? Wait? I was starting to get worried and running through the different scenarios. After what seemed like an eternity I looked down towards the mine and saw a lone figure walking down. I jogged down there mad as hell but glad he was okay. We exchanged some words, apologized to each other, and made our way down the mining road. Of course we lost the road and were bushwhacking down steep and loose terrain while holding onto skinny aspens to preventing falling. I split my hand open on a sharp branch and Steve tried to protect his sore knee/ankle. Once back on the trail we weighed our options for continuing before dumping out onto highway 82. Steve walked and I jogged up to the LaPlata trailhead where Tom and Margie were waiting with an awesome spread of snacks and our sag bags around 3:10pm. I was pleased to hear that Jason just left 10 minutes ago, so I quickly transitioned with the hopes of catching him before the summit of LaPlata.
Itís always fun seeing hikerís looks while youíre heading up a 14er in late afternoon. I was motoring along sweating my ass off and wishing that I hadnít ate/drank so much. I was trying every trick I could think of to get rid of side-stitches and cramps. Above treeline I eventually saw Jason and we reconnected around 13k. He said he was having a hard time breathing about 12k and was really slowing down. This slower pace was fine by me and it was nice to have company again. We topped out after 12.5hrs (6pm) and both decided that we were likely going to quit at Winfield. Fortunately the cold wind had stopped and it was actually quite pleasant on the summit. We eventually got our butts moving down the SW ridge. On each summit it was interesting to see how far away the previous summit was, and how far away the next summit is! The immensity of this route started setting in. The evening light was beautiful and I was feeling pretty darn good with Sayres BM staring us down. We hung a left at the saddle and slip Ďn slid down the gravelly trail. Down lower there were several stinky mud bogs with perfectly placed rocks as steps. We hit the road with about 2 miles to Winfield. Note to self for great camping spots up here! An ATVíer stopped and asked about the trail, then proclaimed that we were his heroes when we told him we started on Massive earlier in the day. Winfield wasnít as busy as we figured it would be and we quickly found Tom, Margie, Bill, and Rebecca.
We plopped down in chairs around 8pm and said we were going to quit. Apparently none of them heard this (or simply chose to ignore) as they kept bringing us food, refilled our bladders, and told us where they would meet us next. A+++ Crew business going on here. A beer sure tasted good and I was surprised at how well I felt despite being 14+ hrs and 30+ miles deep. The pulled pork, quesadillas, and coffee helped to get us moving again and before long Jason and I were discussing options and started moving. Up the trail we went around 9pm! Fortunately the Huron trail is quite gentle and easy to follow, we didnít even need our headlamps until 9:30pm. Around 12k Jasonís breathing started to bother him again and we took some much-welcomed breaks. Above 13k Jason said he wasnít going past Huron, I still felt good and after much debate, I decided to try to continue on my own with plans of him picking me up on Saturday afternoon at Missouri Gulch trailhead. We parted ways and I hustled to the summit arriving at 12:01am. It was quite pleasant temps and the stars were in full force. I sent the ďOKĒ SPOT message, ate a bit, put on gloves and a buff and headed down. Jason and I fist-bumped and wished each other safe travels. The first gulley I started down didnít seem rightÖ steep snow to my right, rock wall to my left, and big loose rocks up and down. After about 100ft I turned around and headed back up. Further down the ridge I found the correct gulley. Moving slow and constantly checking my GPS I got into my own head. Steep and loose unknown terrain at 13k and my world consisted of the 20ft that my headlamp illuminated. The mini-Jean on my shoulder kept telling me not to do anything stupid. So I turned around and headed back to the main trail to meet Jason and head back to Winfield with him. My Nolanís attempt was over, it was a bummer but a bit of a relief as well.
Conversation came easy over a wide range of subjects and Twizzlers never tasted so good. Just before camp we joked about the cars not being there. Once arriving at camp at 3am we found only Tomís car! Díoh! Fortunately Jasonís bag with his tent was in there. We set it up and divvied up one mat, one sleeping bag, a blanket, and all the extra clothes we could find. Sleep came easy despite being cold and uncomfortable. The morning sun was welcomed and the leg muscles ached with every step. We drank coffee, chatted, and packed up. We picked up Jasonís car at the end of the road and headed to Janís in Buena Vista for an awesome breakfast. It was a sleepy drive home but I was glad to be heading east considering all of the holiday weekenders going west. At home I unpacked and got cleaned up, told Jean and Miles all about our adventure, had enough pizza and beer to kill a horse, and got a good nightís sleep while already thinking about another attempt and what I would do differently!