Slow-lans: Backpacking the Sawatch 14ers


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Nolans 14 is a Colorado mountain running/mountaineering challenge: link the 14 Sawatch Range 14ers (Mount of the Holy Cross, the 15th, is omitted) by foot as fast as you can, historically with a 60 hour cutoff.

Quite popular as FKT challenges go, the concept also becomes interesting to more casual backpackers that may be looking for a bit more excitement in a trip. The two long thru-hike trails that go through the Sawatch: the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail sometimes merely travel besides these high mountains, keeping you in the trees, rather than traveling over these mountains.

This guide will explore the idea of the Slow-lans: if the time cutoff and other constraints weren’t there: would it be realistic to create an enjoyable backpacking-style route with the same basic goal in mind of linking 14, 14ers together?

Nolans 14 Description

Let’s first talk about the general terrain of a Nolans 14 route, and how we may want to modify it for backpacking. I’ve recon’d the route many times, and I’m familiar with every part of it. I’ve summited every 14er in the Sawatch at least twice – I even tried to do Nolans myself unsupported (with less than ideal results).

The Nolans 14 line is comprised of many on-trail routes up 14ers, mixed with many off-trail routes of varying quality – some of those off-trail routes are at this point actual undocumented social trails; while others ascend/descend particularly crappy avalanche chutes and chossy hillsides that take considerably more route finding skills. Some of the off-trail routes are bomber, albeit steep and direct lines off the mountain to valley below. There is no “official” line, and any challenger is allowed to do whatever they see fit, when it comes to route optimizations.

For the most part, a mountain or clumps of mountains will have first be ascended starting from the valley floor. Once you summit, you’ll descend back down the other side of the mountain, into a different valley/basin. Usually, good camping is available at these low points, as well as water, and bailout/resupply points.

The technical nature of all these routes is particularly mild, much to the chagrin to perhaps those who would like you to think Nolans 14 as some sort of ultimate mountain challenge sort of thing. What’s hard about Nolans 14 is ultimately the time cutoff of 60 hours. Anything, really, gets particularly hard the faster you try to complete it.

As a whole, the entire Nolans 14 line would go at Class 2 at the most, except for a few feet on the southern ridge of Mt. Princeton which, if you squint really hard, may go at Class 3. Class 2 in this sense just means we’re doing off-trail hiking. Remember that a lot of Nolans is on-trail, and thus: Class 1. Bottom line: you don’t need climbing gear to do Nolans 14.

There are a few issues though concerning the terrain of a Nolans line that do need special consideration. The off-trail portions may go through steep avalanche chutes (usually done when there’s no lingering snow present) with loose footing, bushwhacking through thick aspen groves, and a whole lot of time above treeline.

That last point is particularly problematic, as Colorado’s lightning storms can be dangerous. Lots of ridgelines are also followed, exasperating the last issue. All of these aren’t impossible to deal with while backpacking, but it does perhaps suggest Plan B’s be put in place at specific parts of the route.

Another special consideration is route finding skills. Terrain can, at times, be challenging and not designed for enjoyment first, but rather efficiency. Backpacking this line will require off-trail hiking skills: the ability to read the terrain, a topo map, etc. This guide won’t allow you to simply follow a GPX track through the trail-less portions. No guide could promise such a thing.

General Bailout/Resupply Points

Although (again) Nolans 14 is touted for how far out and desolate the line is, this is actually not the case at all. Many roads (some paved even) cross the Sawatch range and thus the Nolans line, and there’s an entire across-the-country trail that parallels it. Bailing to a trailhead with a parking lot isn’t particularly hard, especially if you have a few days worth of food and camping gear with you. Thumbing a ride to town from many places is also probable. Those are going to be good to note, as they can be used for your own resupply to town, if needed.

Water Concerns

Water is also plentiful on route. Even though the Nolans line is seen as a mountain challenge, many times you descend all the way to the valley floor, and creeks will be crossed. Contrast this with full ridgeline traverses, like L.A. Freeway, Mosquito/Tenmile Traverse, Sangres Traverse, etc. This helps make the line much more realistic to backpack, as multi-day trips will need things like water resupply and a good place to camp.

You will want to make sure to fill up at these creeks, as once you start ascending and definitely when you’re above treeline, water does gets pretty scarce.

Consider Skipping Peaks

Historically, Nolan 14 challengers get shut down oftentimes because of weather: a storm rolls in, a peak is too dangerous to ascend in lightning, a challenger’s tight timeline is blown, and they have to quit, even though their legs are still there.

But a Slow-lans backpack also doesn’t need to summit every peak! Chances of you getting shut down because of weather is actually pretty good, but there’s no reason why a backpacker can’t just keep going on via more adaptable terrain, away from the danger thunderstorms present (below treeline). There’s multiple roads that cross the line too, and who says your backpack doesn’t include a hitch to the next trail segment, or even back to town for some pizza and beer?

All these pieces makes me feel that for the intrepid and advanced backpacker, just following an FKT-worthy Nolans route would be just fine, with options marked if one elects not to take the most direct/off-trail portions based on your own personal fitness, experience, weather, or preference.

When it comes to estimating your daily mileage of your backpack: don’t. A direct line will come in around 85 – 100 miles, but most likely, mileage will be an abstract concept, and what will constrain you for the day will be elevation gained. One mountain or a close group of mountains may be all you can realistically do in one day, as the total elevation will come close to 5,000′, and adding the next mountain/mountain group will double that elevation gain. Considering there’s only a few different groups of mountains:

  • Shavano/Tabeguache
  • Antero
  • Princeton
  • Yale
  • Columbia/Harvard
  • Oxford/Belford/Missoui
  • Huron
  • La Plata
  • Elbert/Massive

In this guide, I’ll describe each part of a version of the Nolans line going South to North, what the terrain is like, and alternatives to the fastest line, etc With this data, you can piece your own version of a line on the Nolans – Slow-lans spectrum. I’ll point out terrain features, camping spots, water sources, resupply/bailout points, ways to skip peaks, etc:

Next: Caltopo Route Map Legend


Slow-lans Guide Navigation:

This guide is currently being written and is far from complete. Receive updates on this guide, as well as the rest of the site by subscribing with your email address:


 

 

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