Here I was again. Alone in the woods. Spooned tight against Lopi with the rain tinging loudly off the roof of the van. It was a Tuesday or a Wednesday. Days didn’t matter out here. What mattered most was the weather. Another flash of lighting blinded me for a few seconds and the thunder rumbled through the van. It fit my mood. I was feeling the apprehension of years of time spent here. Months of being alone running, hiking, and exploring these mountains. But the mountains don’t care about that. A fall could be deadly and the weather. The weather turns from blue bird to snow in seconds and when the hair stands up on your arms you fear you will die. But even if the weather held. Would I finish? Would I finally be able to bury this obsession? What if my body gave way before my heart and mind? What if an injury? What if a sickness? What if…
This was my second summer in Colorado scouting the beautiful line called Nolan’s 14. It traverses 14 14ers gaining and losing 44,000 feet respectively. And it is the most beautiful line I’ve ever seen. It has consumed my time and thoughts for years. After a horrible failure last year this was my redemption. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes, and I would have the company and strength of my partner Julia Millon to pull me through.
Let’s start from the beginning. It was a average cold Monday in May. I had just driven back from a week in Yosemite and wanted to see some familiar running faces so I showed up for the Donner Party Mountain Runners Monday group run. It was a large group and I recognized a few faces. We started with a big up hill. I struggled to keep on the heels of Gretchen and was looking forward to the downhill. At the top we waited for the group to all finish and then it was the fun part. I took off in my typical brakeless descent. It is rare someone can keep up with me, but I kept hearing a person a few steps behind. When we reached the parking lot within seconds Julia and I became instant friends. The most mentally tough person I had ever met and balls out crazy on technical descents… It was only days before I reached out to see if she would want to be my partner for Nolan’s. Her response was something like “Fuck Yes!!” and that’s how it all began.
I left for a two month training and scouting mission in Colorado around the beginning of July. Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse once I arrived. A horrible gum infections and two surgeries put me out for 3 weeks on my training and scouting. When I was finally able to run again I came back fast and hard. Spending long days in the mountains and as much time as I could. Nolan’s was coming together and as the date came closer and closer I was becoming less and less excited. I started to feel burned out on the mission. Nothing was new and exciting anymore. I had seen almost every part of the course and I couldn’t pull on any stoke. I had spent most the summer alone and work had been very stressful. My energy levels were tanking, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be my normal stoked self.
But here we were getting ready for go day. I picked Corbin and Julia up from the airport on Thursday morning and we all made our way out to the mountains in the van. First stop was the Leadville beer mile. A tradition at most races were your crew and pacers get out and run a beer mile. Corbin participated and actually did really well. It was a fun way to start the trip and see some other ultra friends.
Next was Friday. The plan, pack, and get super fucking nervous day. We spent the day in Buena Vista making sure everything was set and ready for our mission. Corbin was debriefed and our bags were packed. Now it was just time to sit and wait for 5am to come. It was crazy that last day. I had waited almost 360 days for this very moment. BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), as my friend Stacey calls them, have a tendency to pull you in and then spitting you out making you wanting more. I knew we could do it. The real question was would the weather allow us?
The alarm chirped at 5am and we all piled into the van to prepare and make breakfast. Corbin cooked me up some eggs and made Julia some coffee. This time I double checked to make sure tracking was turned on and at 6:08 sharp Julia and I were charging up the trail.
Most of the Shavano trail was in a thick cloud and when we finally got above treeline we got above cloud line too. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day and we made quick work of Mt. Shavano. Once we got to the saddle and started our final ascent a crazy wind picked up. It was blowing straight into our faces and my hands quickly lost feeling. We finally layered up, crested over the summit, and started our way to Tabeguache. The ridge between Shavano and Tab goes quickly and once on the summit of Tab we headed for what they call the Hamilton traverse. Continuing on the Tab ridge we got our first taste ofexposure and steep scree. It landed us in a beautiful saddle and we finally got to run a grassy roller descent.
Julia looked back at me as we opened up our stride and said this is some sound of music shit right here. To which I shouted “The hills are alive with the sound of music…” for the entirety of the descent. There was no trail and when we got to the bottom it placed us in a marshy bog with dense bushes. At first we tried to pick good footing and avoid getting are feet wet but after a few minutes we were just charging straight through feet and ankles in deep water and mud. The marsh dumped us out on a fire road which we would take almost to the top of Antero.
This is when I started to tank. My stomach had been sour all morning and I was struggling to keep any calories down. The fire road was a gradual grade and we never stopped moving but I was starting to feel the fatigue and my energy levels were tanking. My sister Ruthie and her fiancé Stephen were planning on meeting us on the top of Antero so I kept pushing through to see them. Off in the distances I caught a glimpse of Stephens backpack. Julia was waiting for me at the top of the hill and when I got there I told her I think thats my family and even though I want to take a little break lets keep going. Julia was getting her self situated as I continued walking. Out of nowhere a helicopter started to land. I turned around to find Julia getting dirt blasted. She took off in a sprint and we laughed at the close call. She was like I kept telling myself that helicopter won’t land till I get out of the way… apparently not.
We kept going until we caught up to Ruthie and Stephen and we shared stories about the helicopter and found out that a jeweler had a rock stuck on top of him and was needing a rescue. The four of us continued the last little section to the summit of Antero. I made slow progress of the final section to the summit. It seemed that every time we’d get close to 14,000 feet my body would slow to a survival pace and I just slowly keep moving upward. We said goodbye to Ruthie and Stephen and started our run down the steep face of Antero. As we lost elevation and scree skied down the mountain I started to catch another wind. Julia and I talked the entire fire road out to the van running the entire time.
At the van I finally got some calories down. We were making great time and right on the schedule we had predicted. 10 hours from Blank Cabin to Alpine was the most ideal situation. Giving us a good amount of daylight to get up the back side of Princeton. We refilled, changed socks, and got on our way quickly. It was hard leaving the van but the next section up grouse creek flew by. Julia was setting the pace and I was just keeping on her heels. When the trail finally disappeared we started straight up the side of the mountain towards the Princeton summit. On a map it doesn’t look so far but the terrain isn’t quick moving. Up through the woods we moved. The hill was steep and we followed aimlessly through the trees. This is when we encountered fresh mountain lion tracks. I had been intently looking at the ground trying to see any other signs of humans and unfortunately found signs of one of my biggest fears. Being alone in the woods at night in mountain lion territory. Our goal was to get to treeline as fast as possible now. A small kick of adrenaline got me moving and we crested above treeline right at sunset. We scared a heard of about 15 mountain goats and we watched them scurry up the steep talus.
We could see our ascent gully now and Julia looked at me and said that looks way too steep. Headlamps on and a little pump up music playing we started our way up the gully. At this point it was our only option we needed to get up and over. The gully which I coined “Death Gully” was incredibly steep and very loose. Every step up was a few steps down and a rockslide of dirt and boulders. It was important we picked a clean line and the leader didn’t send rocks speeding down at the second. Julia took the lead at first but after a mild panic attack I took over. The moving was slow and the top of the gully never seemed to get closer. At one point in the pitch dark I tried to convince Julia for a nap. We moved even slower the higher we got. The late night and lack of oxygen was getting to me. When we finally reached the top of the gully we could see Princeton silhouetted by the moon in the distance. We were still so far from where we needed to be. A quick scan of the terrain with the headlamp showed jagged steep cliffs in almost every direction. Unfortunately for this time in the night our best option was to traverse the ridge even though this meant submitting a 13,971 foot peak as well as Princeton.
The ridge to Princeton went slow. We had been above 13,000 feet for hours now and both of us were struggling with food and fatigue. When we finally made it to the summit hours later than we hoped we needed to make a crucial decision. Run down the shortest route and bushwhack below treeline in the dark or take the actual trail and potentially add several more miles but be on trails the entire time. I was nervous about the mountain lions below treeline and Julia was nervous about the terrain. So we made the decision to rough out the extra mileage in an effort to be on more runnable and safer terrain.
We didn’t stay long on the summit because we both felt very ill and started to run down the trail. The trail was steep and loose and both of us took a few tumbles. It wasn’t going as fast as we had hoped and I was looking at my GPS for navigation. I didn’t want to loose the trail on accident. At one point an hour or so after leaving the summit we looked at the GPS only to discover we were still above 13,000 feet. At 2 in the morning we took breaks often and barely talked. The trail turned into a road and we shuffled our way as quickly as possible. By the time we reached the Colorado trail at 3am we were still 12 miles from the van. I looked at Julia and said we’re going to watch the sunrise before getting to the van. And then silently we pushed our way towards Yale. Julia led setting a good pace on the uphills. We filtered water once and Julia took a few second nap on the trail. The sun was rising slowly and the darkness became a bit less dark. Our hallucinations started to hit strong. Is that a house I’d ask and Julia would respond I thought that was a bus and as we got closer it would just be trees.
By the time the sun finally rose we were on the road headed towards Yale. I was a little nervous that Corbin would head into town to check our tracker or something and miss us since we were now about 3 hours off of schedule. But being able to turn my headlamp off made me catch a second wind and we laughed our way the final two miles to the van. Our plan was to take a quick 30 minute nap and then be on our way up Yale.
When we got to the van at 7am we found my friend Brandon, Ruthie, and Stephen all surprised to see us. Our best case scenario arrival would have been 3am so showing up at 7am was a surprise to everyone. Julia and I passed out immediately in the van having been on the move for 25 hrs. Our half an hour nap turned into an hour and a friendly stranger named Sue offered to do some body work for us. She was a extreme sports massage therapist from Aspen out riding horses for the day. She gave Julia a leg massage and then came for me. I was struggling already with the nagging pain my hip gives. I was unable to sleep in certain positions in the bed because of it and Corbin commented that it felt like my femur was protruding from my hip. Sure enough it actually was.
Sue laid me down and rotated and popped my femur back into the socket. For a few seconds I felt better and then as I sat down I heard it pop back out. At this point there was nothing I could do about it. My muscles wanted to femur there and it was going to need to be dealt with later. Around 10 am after mentally and physically struggling to get started again Brandon, Julia, and I started to make our way up Yale. At this point time didn’t matter 60hrs was looking far out of the picture and I was now nervous we would be getting stuck in the dark on some unideal peaks. The steep climb up the Colorado trail to the Yale turn off went forever. Corbin and Lopi caught up with us for the summit and I really enjoyed all of the company. I had felt like shit for almost the entirety of the run and I was doubting my ability to continue. The middle 7 peaks are a serious commitment and after our night on Princeton I was questioning it.
As we reached the turn off for Yale I confessed to the group my lack of stoke. I was having the ultra downs and joked with Julia. “You didn’t come all the way to Colorado not to get stuck in a lightning storm above 14,000 feet.” I had been watching clouds build on Harvard as we hiked up the hill but wasn’t worried. A lot of the storms that happen don’t amount to much and the forecast was calling for a near perfect day. Julia and Brandon went ahead and Corbin stuck with me as I struggled to eat and keep moving. Yale was a death march but I was determined to summit.
We summited the false summit and then met back up with Brandon and Julia for the final push to the summit. The clouds were starting to look ominous and at this point it was safer for us to summit and descend quickly the trail on the other side than it would be to traverse back the way we came via the entirety of the ridge. Right as we approach 14,000 feet it started to snow graupel on us. Brandon in good spirits stated that this was his favorite type of precipitation because they were like little snowballs! Now above 14,000 feet and on the final 70 feet to the summit it hit us. Corbin threw Lopis leash to the ground shouting did you feel that!? As the carabiners on his leash started to sizzle. Immediately next my poles in my hands started to buzz and the hair close to my face stuck straight out. I threw my poles to the ground and Brandon said ow! My poles just shocked me. Someone in the group asked if we should turn around and before an answer could be made I was full speed down the hill. We needed to make it treeline asap.
We tried to keep 100 feet between us and stay off the ridge as much as possible. I made it down to the meadow at 13,000 feet and could still feel my poles buzzing. Next was the metal button on the top of my hat. The adrenaline was pumping hard and I was moving faster than I ever had with 50+ miles on my legs. The thoughts flashed through my heads what if something happened? This was my fault all these people were out here on this mountain because of me. Not only that I was the one moving slow if only I had moved faster we would have summited before the storm hit and hopefully had been in safer terrain. But it just came so quickly with no warning. CRACK! Lightning shot across the ground and struck in the valley close by. Don’t stop I kept repeating.
We all made it to treeline in record time and as we sat eating and dumping the scree out of our shoes it was over. Nolan’s was over. I wasn’t sad actually but happy. All the people I cared about were safe and alive. No serious injuries and nobody got zapped by lightning. Some things you can’t control. With Nolan’s the weather and the mountains determine your success. And there will always be another year.
We made it back to the van ate some food, took a nap, and started the return back to normal life. I keep telling myself I won’t be back. That I’ve seen all of the course and that I’m ready to spend my summer doing something else. But deep down inside I know I will be back. Me and those mountains have some unfinished business.