Saturday, October 22, 2016

Nolan's 14 2016 Trip Report

At 4:17 AM on Sunday, July 3rd I was shivering in a moderate snow storm on the top of Mount Huron. It was my fourth 14,000 foot mountain in 20 hours, and fourth time I had precipitation above 14,000 feet in the last 20 hours. I think I am going to take up scuba diving in the Caribbean.
Summit of Mount Huron
The story on my Nolan's 14 attempt this year starts well before 4:17 AM July 3rd. For starters, I ran part of the route back in 2014 as a reconnaissance for an attempt. Unfortunately a key bridge was out, and I ended up with a very different route than I intended. Still, it was a really good experience and I made three summits I had not done prior.

Fast forward two years, to the completion of my second Everest expedition, and summiting Everest. Hiking from 10,000 feet up to 14,000 and running back down just to repeat it all, requires that a person is acclimated. Hence, not living at altitude the best time for me to attempt this route is in the two months after an 8000 meter expedition, while I still have some of the extra red blood cells in my body. Another consideration is that I have very little vacation until March of 2017, thanks again to using 10 of my 13 days on Everest. (And six weeks of unpaid leave of absence...) So the long July 4th weekend in 2014 and 2016 have been prime time to go. Plus, being so near to the summer solstice means having a lot of light and not as much dark, which is a huge plus when tackling off trail routes.

I mentioned attempting this a few times to my sister and parents. After my last attempt, I learned carrying all of my food and equipment for two days was very heavy and slowed me down. Being required to purify all of my water was inconvenient too. Having a support crew would solve many of my challenges. It would allow me to change clothing if (when) I got wet, take only the equipment and food I would need until the next "aid station", and not have to purify water most of the time. Plus, a crew allows for the X-factor. For example, I was hungry for some hot food and ordered Chinese food Saturday night for when I arrived at Winfield. Which is a long way of saying, this is now the third time my sister has crewed at an ultra for me and the second time my mom has crewed at an ultra, although my mom has taken care of me before and after a number of road races and track races in the past. My family is awesome! They may not think they are a great crew, and we all certainly have more to learn about ultra running, but I would say they are excellent support crew!

So I suppose I need to actually talk about the attempt. I left work just after 3 PM on Thursday and drove to Denver. Note: not a whole lot of coffee shops are open between here and Denver after 5 PM on a Thursday, but Wichita and Salina do have Starbucks open until at least 6 PM. The drive was uneventful. It was really nice, under 9 hours of driving, but closer to 10 hours with stops. That's a welcome change from the 13-14+ hours from Dubuque to Denver. I arrived after midnight to my dad's cousin's condo and after some short greetings and some conversation, fell asleep.

The next morning we woke up and had breakfast with the relatives, who just insisted on cooking for us. Yeah, I'm definitely staying at their place again! Eventually we made our way to the airport and picked up my sister. Them my mom, my sister and I headed to REI for a huge purchase of gear and food. I bought a new sleeping bag and a pair of rock climbing shoes. Neither of which I used on this trip, although I was prepared to use the sleeping bag if necessary.

After Everest, after actually climbing to the top of Mt. Everest, there is a certain element of not waiting to live my life any more. I delayed purchases, neglected to keep up with the Jones, and lived a spartan life to be able to afford the adventure of Mt. Everest. Now that it's over there is a question of what am I saving for? Thus the hundreds of dollars I spent at REI in less than an hour.

We headed up I-70 around noon, and since none of us were particularly hungry, we ate snacks in the car, stopped at Walmart in Evergreen for water and potato chips, and drove to Leadville. We checked into the Motel 8 and then headed off to check out trailheads. My mom and sister were not the most confident in their navigating skills. Fortunately my dad created a folder with detailed driving instructions from trailhead to trailhead and I circled all of the road crossings, or "aid stations" on a topo map as a back up. I've learned from previous experience that trying to meet up can be a huge challenge as schedules change or there are multiple trailheads, or trailheads are hidden from the road. So we scouted several road aid stations under overcast skies.

View of Mt. Massive from Leadville on Friday.
Dinner at Qunicy's, of course. Seriously, for the price, it's hard to get a meal that good. I had the prime rib... delicious. By the time we finished eating, it had been a long day and we headed to the hotel and went to bed.

5 AM came plenty quick on Saturday morning. Getting ready was pretty standard. Sometimes I am nervous before what is certainly going to be a long day, but I wasn't really. We had coffee and pastries at the only place open at 6 AM in Leadville and then were off to the Fish Hatchery!

Getting started I floundered around getting onto the Highline Trail. There are so many trails around the Fish Hatchery that it can be a bit confusing trying to take the shortest route. Eventually I got onto the right trail, and then the Colorado Trail and then the Mt. Massive trail and I just cruised up it.

My sister asked a great question, "How do you pace for an event this long?" Well, I just try to keep it slow enough, a low enough effort, that I can keep going. If I overexert for a time, then I try and slow down. I think I was pushing a little too hard up Massive, I was breathing pretty hard on the ascent. Certainly that's part caffeine and part adrenaline but a little overconfidence too. I felt so prepared for this attempt, I thought it was going to be a breeze. That's an understatement of course, but I did think it would not be too hard.

Mt. Massive was easy, even though it was raining lightly most of the time I was above 13,000 feet. I even descended the south face really fast despite not trying. Around 13,500 feet I tripped and fell and whacked my left knee and skinned my hands. Tripping while running down a mountain is a huge risk. I was well enough that I returned to running, but my left knee did begin to swell up.

At the halfmoon trailhead I met my mom and sister to restock my food and refill my water bottles. I ended up only eating 100 calories in the 4 hours it took me to go up and over Massive, which is not much, but eating is always hardest at the beginning, and it was cool and rainy, which also doesn't encourage hunger. For example I wore tights and long sleeve the entire first four hours. It was a cloudy, cool and wet day.

After an excellent transition I headed up Elbert, and I nailed it. In 2014 I headed up the ridge on the right, and you need to head up the ridge on the left to avoid a few minutes of back tracking. When I made the top around 1 PM I was the only person on top, with clouds and rain but no lightning. That's the second time I've been on top of that mountain in the afternoon alone in stormy weather. Yet it always works out well for me.

Descending Mt. Elbert
I headed down the ridge and that is distinctly an unpleasant little jaunt at a decent altitude, despite my smile above. Especially when it is misting. However I headed south enough and met up directly with the Golden Fleece Mine, which again saved me some time over my 2014 run. Once picking up the trail it's a solid trail down that is very runable.

My mom and sister were cruising up and down highway 82 because the trail I came out of was branched off a driveway and they didn't find it. So when they came past I handed them my backpack and I jogged to the La Plata trailhead. After a quick restocking I was off again. I was pretty excited at this point because it was still early afternoon and I had done the two highest mountains and I felt good, although my knee was still bothering me a little.

The hike up La Plata was uneventful, until about 13,500 when the clouds rolled in and there was a little mist and light rain, for the third time that day. Fortunately this whole part was on a nice trail. It was my first time summiting La Plata, despite four summits of Elbert just to the north. I was on the top around 7 PM I believe. I headed down the south ridge and again there was a faint trail not well marked but certainly easy to follow. Around 13,000 feet it solidified and was quite clear all the way down to Winfield.
View of La Plata Descent
The down hills were hurting my knee more than the uphills and I was starting to struggle. On the way down La Plata around 12,000 feet you go through a very wet section around a lake, a bog sort of, with chest height bushes. It was draining, it almost sucked my shoes off a couple times, fortunately it did not. Once down into the tree the trail was better, and then it turned into a road and I ran down into Winfield, making it there near the end of twilight, using my iphone as a flashlight. I struggled to find my mom and sister, eventually finding them on the south side of the creek near a campground. I had texted them from La Plata to get me some Lo Mein if possible, and they totally came through! I sat there, shoes covered in mud, knee hurting, tired, and oh it tasted so good.

I had not made concrete plans ahead of time about my schedule, like when to sleep and where. The reason being, it is a hard call, and I still don't know what is best, even writing this three months later. Winfield is the perfect place to camp, because it's accessible by any vehicle. Also, there are seven mountains between it, and the next two wheel drive accessible "aid station". So using a minivan as the support vehicle the options are basically, plush camp at Winfield early in the 14 mountain adventure, plush camping at Avalanche Gulch after 10 mountains, which seems extremely difficult, or hike into Rockdale, which if (or when) I try this again, I think I will push for that. However, while I appreciated my family hiking into the Halfmoon trailhead, but that was during daylight, without camping supplies, and Rockdale would be in the dark with camping supplies, unless you had all wheel drive then you could drive in.

Point being, after eating I decided to sleep for a little over 3 hours and wake up at midnight or 12:30 AM. I took an ibuprofen and after a few hours of sleep my knee felt much better. A few minutes after I left my headlamp battery died, because I hadn't changed it from my Everest summit push, so I had to turn around and get new batteries. Then I was off, passing all of the people sleeping in their vehicles on the road to Huron. The ascent of Huron went well, but again, about the time I made it to 13,700 feet it started snowing. I was wearing everything I had with me, and I was shivering. My shoes were slipping a little on the rocks and again, I had never climbed Huron, so route finding took a little longer than it might for someone who had been there. Eventually at 4:17 AM I made it to the summit. After a scant couple minutes I headed down the hardest part of the route so far. A roughly third class descent on either an unmarked trail or extremely poorly marked trail. I don't really know because the fresh snow and darkness was obscuring everything. It was not a fun descent. But, it doesn't have to be fun to be fun!
Summit of Huron
Eventually the sun came up and I made my way across an unstable boulder field (not fun or fast) and then down an old mining or deer trail (again, not fast because the trail kept ending and restarting) and then I made it to the river crossing, which did not have a bridge. I had still not warmed up from the snow storm, and this river was significant enough I didn't want to wade through it, even though that's what I ended up doing. It only came up to my knees, but it was enough I stopped and wrung out my socks after crossing.

I made my way east, wandering through a couple empty campsites before picking up the trail. The trail up the west side of Missouri was really good. After the nightmare adventure of the east descent of Huron I was tickled to have a trail not marked on maps to take me up Missouri. However, at this point I was quite tired. I had been moving slowly for hours due to the technical nature of the last couple miles and as I ascended Missouri the thought of doing six more mountains until the next "aid station" was overwhelming. At the top of Missouri, or perhaps a little before I decided that would be all for me today. It didn't help that it was misting while I was on top of Missouri, making it five precipitation events and five times above 14,000 feet. It wore me down. I did Oxford and Belford in 2014, so I knew that part of the route, doing those two mountains, to say I made it half way was not that interesting.

The sun came out and my mom and sister hiked up to meet me and the three of us hiked back out to the Missouri Gulch trailhead. I changed in the bathroom and we headed back to Leadville for a late lunch, and then down into Denver for the night. Everyone else stayed up to watch fireworks, but I went to bed. I covered right around 50 miles, and that's what it felt like, a 50 mile race. I was very sore, but I could walk.
GPS track of my Nolan's 14 2016 Attempt
What lessons were learned?
  • Weather doesn't need to be great, but it needs to be better than snowing. I had precipitation on every summit, and mentally that was not easy, physically it didn't help shivering either.
  • My family is really good at crewing, better than they think they are. They can also navigate just fine, despite what they think. 
  • I need to do every step of the route before I do it all in one go. I had no idea the descent of Huron would be that hard. Which means, I'm going to have to do a few one or two day runs out there, I can do solo and unsupported for those, to research the route better. I know this route can be done in under 48 hours, there just isn't time to be wasted figuring out a descent.
  • La Plata is easy, except for the muddy patch, the descent on Huron is hard, but the ascent is easy, and Missouri is easy. All three of those mountains were first time summits for me.
  • While I doubt anyone would want to climb a mountain in the dark with me, that's where I could use some company. I rarely run in the dark and that's because I end up hiking a little more defensively, worrying about bumping into a big unhappy animal, rather than the offensive speed which I move with during the daylight. Someone who could simply follow me in the dark would be a huge help. 
  • Hydration and nutrition went just fine. I typically carried two 20 oz. bottles on my chest and a 16 or 20 oz. bottle in my backpack for each mountain. So about 2 liters per 3.5-5 hours and one mountain. 
Selfie between Huron and Missouri (Just kidding, I wasn't feeling that good between Huron and Missouri, this is the South Col on Everest on May 20th, 2016.)
The View Descending into Winfield (Just kidding again, that's Lhotse, Camp 4, and the South Col on Everest May 21st, 2016.)
Thanks for reading! There are some videos too, but I'm not sure when I will take the time to edit those into one video.

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