A Nolans Descent

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The summit of La Plata, my third fourteen thousand foot mountain for the day, still seemed impossibly far away. The storm system that had surprisingly reappeared just over my shoulder was now again not so quietly building up force. Thunder boomed. On any other day I would have called it.

I crawled upward, rather than descend downward. What I needed desperately to do was to text the only person I knew who was in the area: my girlfriend. The only way to do that was to top the summit and chance getting cell coverage. Finally there, I typed furiously with cold fingers, wind and snow burning my cheeks:
HELP. I AM NOT OK. Too weak to keep going and stuck in another storm. Going to walk back to the La Plata Trailhead. I should be able to make it.

Are you there?

If my SPOT Tracker stops moving, I may have just passed out for a bit. If you get this, please meet me... meet me wherever I'm found.

If the text got out, and if she herself had service (who knows where she was camped?) she may then be there to help me with my extraction. A gamble, but it was my best idea to avoid calling Search and Rescue. It was going to be a cold night waiting out whatever was about to come down without her help. I just had an ultralight bivvy – a plastic bag essentially, to nestle in. I brought no sleeping bag.

Sending the message, I turned around, and immediately felt lost on the descent. My Unsupported Nolans 14 attempt was over, but my night was only beginning.

My summer season in the mountains certainly felt special.  My practice and training in Winter was deliberate and disciplined and culminated in running my first “official” ultra, The Golden Gate Dirty 30, where I more than exceeded in my expectations. I racked up over 75 ascents of Boulder’s local Green Mountain, and made a habitual cycling trip from Boulder to Longs Peak to summit on a semi-technical/technical route almost a dozen times, perhaps establishing some new FKTs in the process. I helped pace my housemate on his first ultra race: The Leadville Trail 100.

longs_peak_diamond_step.jpgLooking out to Chasm Lake, from the Kieners Route, Longs Peak, RMNP

I  also spent many weeks on the road alone bikepacking with my trusty Surly Crosscheck – my Jake of All Trades, beast of burden of a bike; all along the Arkansas River Valley – from Leadville to Buena Vista, recon’ing for my late summer go at the Nolans 14 line.

I spent so much time either on the bike, or parked at a coffee shop working in my downtime, that the bike itself became my calling card, and friends and acquaintances knew I was around if they spotted my fairly unique rig, always patiently waiting for me. Never locked up.


Outside of City on a Hill, Leadville, CO

Nolans 14 is itself a great mountaineering challenge: take the 14 most Southern Sawatch 14ers,  run/walk/crawl to all of them in a row without stopping, and do it in 60 hours. I liked the idea and the more I became familiar with the nuances of the route and the more I became obsessed with completing it. Having so much mileage off trail means one has to figure out their own strategy to get from each peak, allowing you to put your own signature on your line. You’re not tied down to someone else’s course, but instead can build upon the ideas of people who have come before you.

By Labor Day weekend, my recon missions were done, I felt ready, my ride to Leadville and back home were secured and I loaded up my UD Fastpack 20 with some clothes, some food (burritos of different types, mostly), some trekking poles, and that’s just about it. On Friday afternoon, we were off. My girlfriend was given up her Labor Day weekend for my attempt, and I had promised her few weekends of doing whatever she would like to do, as proper recourse.

Sure, I was nervous. My stomach was upset, and I was having a hard time sleeping the week leading up. Pretty normal things for me, but as we snoozed in the back of her Subaru, I kept resetting the alarm every time it went off, until I was more than 2 hours past my planned start time.

Finally, inevitably, I got up. I was off.

nolans_start.jpgOne chilly body; one Fastpack. 

Only then to come back to the car, and fetch the one item I had forgotten and the one item I could not go without for 2 1/2 days: Sunscreen!

After my little do-over, I was off for real at around 2:30 am. The stars were out, but the first peak, Mt. Massive, was no where to be seen. I immediately and surprisingly started my fight with the Sleep Monster, that seemingly unstoppable, instinctual, domineering force to just Stop and Go To Sleep Again. My eyelids stayed heavy, and my movements were just a little too labored. 2:30 start times were not at all unusual for me – that’s the time I’d take off for Longs Peak for my self-powered peak bagging.  Alpine starts are something I’ve intimately familiar with. This wasn’t a good start things at all.

“Oh, no.”, I thought,  “This is far too early to be dealing with Him!”

I’m pretty experienced with pushing through fatigue of all sorts and this seemed no different. I’m also pretty experienced with starting out these types of stunts without proper sleep the night before – I’m usually just too excited to sleep! After a few hours, my natural sleep/wake internal rhythms have a tendency to  take over and I feel a lot better – yeah, a little groggy, but I’m still all there. A little caffeine kick can help as well.

Mount Massive, my first summit, came after what seemed an endless hike in, or should I say: a sleep walk, where I simply leaned upon my experiences on the route to get me going forward in mostly the right direction.

nolans_massive.jpgMassive. A low point, but not the lowest point. 

I was greeted by snow on the summit, accompanied by high winds. Everything was enveloped in a cloud, itself comprised of stinging bits of water and ice. Summer, it seemed, had come to a very quick and decisive end. I took just enough time to snap the only photo of the trip, one of myself showing I hoped, a will to keep going (“this was my low point!”, I even mentally noted as to be a quaintly fitting caption), and quickly trotted down to the valley floor, to pick up the next 4wd road, to bring me up the West Ridge of Elbert. I felt alert enough to know which way to go (I’ve gone the way many times!), but it all just dragged on.

I felt a great deal better once at the bottom of my climb and as the sun now was fully up, I was looking forward to taking on this West Ridge: at just shy of a mile in length and steepness of 50%, it delivers you to the highest point in Colorado akin to ordering up a burger and fries at a old-time drive through: no frills, but prompt: here’s your burger, here’s your shake, now go, you’re taking up room!

Still, the climb up is a big precarious with very, very loose talus and rock that’s just waiting for a bad reason to break off, and sending whatever caused this immediate erosion with it to the bottom of the gully. I followed prints in the fine talus, but wasn’t sure if they were made by human, Yeti, or mountain goat. My energy quickly subsided, and my forward motion certainly was slowing down, as the grade ramped up.

I was experiencing a certain phenomena of hill walking that I was not so happy to be in the throes of: that of the summit never seeming to actually get near, but rather appear to be moving farther away!

This happens when the mind
tires, and wants nothing but to end the task at hand, seeing no reason to continue. So, it makes its own mind what physical characteristics of your environment becomes, “The Summit” and these false summits, once uncovered for what they are (just another bump in the ridge line) are a source of great disappointment. To compare this to the false oasis in the desert would be spot on.

Finally though, the true summit pinnacle gave way. Although the sun was up, the weather was still chilly up high as well as windy and I paused not a moment, as I wanted very much to simply go back down. So off to contour around Bull Hill I went, past the Golden Fleece mine, and down – and I mean straight down, through the lower section of this immense pile of loose ground to the bottom, for a few miles of walking on HWY 82.

Down is always easier than up, but I was losing it – and I mean really losing it, trying to stay alert enough to be cognizant with what I was doing. At one point, I had lost my GPS, but couldn’t remember where I could have done such a thing. Was it 5 minutes, or an hour ago? I retraced my steps knowing full well that finding such a stupid tiny thing was almost impossible, I could not tell the difference between rock and electronic device. They were both small, and of a similar color. I’d go without it, but just losing something so expensive made me very angry at myself. I mean:

Picture a windburned, angry, bearded dude, a little – OK: a lot lacking on sleep, crying and yelling in the middle of an aspen grove alone: “STUPID GPS! STUPID GPS!”. Now think of that same guy, elated, crying – but now with tears of joy! of having found the gps, not 30 feet from where he first realized his misplacement. Energized, he romps down, but not in any way he’s been before. Soon though, that burst of energy subsides and he’s again, off course and a little lost. Such emotional swings were a bad sign.

Keep it together, Justin. Keep it together.

It was afternoon now, and at least at around 9,500 feet elevation, things were pretty OK. Going down just a few thousand feet of elevation is similar to gaining a few hours of sleep it seemed. Up high, I was a wreck; lower down, it was at least manageable.

I kept eating and drinking, and was looking forward to the relatively easy section of hiking on roads and seeing probably the majority of people I would see my entire weekend racing by me in cars to/from Aspen. These positive moments though, did not last.

La Plata trailhead. Even though I didn’t want them to affect me, the support crews of other challengers, however skeleton, for the Nolans line took somewhat of a hit on me. I elected to personally go without support as that’s the way I found the line to be almost perfect: it’s short enough that you can realistically just bring all you need with you from the start!

But it reminded me that people were trying this carrying only what they needed for much shorter sections and resupplying with fresh gear and additional food afterwards – something to look forward to! And that even with all that extra help this line was almost beyond most people who have tried.


What was I doing here? My confidence was crumbling and my physical fatigue was quickly catching up to my emotional lassitude. I was losing it even more. I was stumbling through my foggy mind in search of an exit, but only buried myself deeper.

As I began up La Plata, the Sleep Monster came back doubly so. It started raining. Then rain then just got worse. My pace was slipping. Everything got very complicated to do. I wanted very much just to curl up and take a nap, but for whatever reason, pressed on. I promised myself a nap on the other side of La Plata, but not on this side. I felt masochistic telling myself this, but if I was to make the entire Nolans line under the time limit of 60 hours, I needed to keep going, however unrealistic.

Again, my summit oasis – an oasis of cold, wind, and snow,  just seemed to take an eternity to get even close to – every step just revealed more mountain to overcome, to overwhelm my scrambled brain.  Confusion over simple things: have I eaten enough? Where are the clothes I wanted to wear? Should I change?; had me direct my attention to something other than the job at hand.

Overwhelmed, I feel to my knees and cried. I was not sleepwalking anymore, I was in a living nightmare –  a nightmare set in exactly the environment I loved the most and sacrificed so much to spent as much of my life in: these incredible mountains of Colorado. Something within me was just not even close to being correctly calibrated, my movements painful and jerky; my goals complex and frustratingly hard to know even understand.

My internal chatter raged, yelling at me: GO DOWN, GO DOWN! Filling me with self doubt, telling me how miserable am I, how this whole thing was a huge mistake, how I was not really prepared.

“How are you going to  recover from all this for the next eleven mountains?!”. Being sleep deprived, tired, and confused is one thing. If it snows tonight and I’m without a proper shelter, I’m now in a dangerous situation.

“That’s it”, I thought, “I’m done.”

A few hours after I summited La Plata, and making my way slowly down , my headlamp met with another going the opposite direction. It was my girlfriend. She had received my text and also had been just down the road from the trailhead, having a wonderful time with new found friends at one of the numerous Indy Pass climbing access parking lots. With her help – I sometimes couldn’t keep up!,  we made it back to the La Plata trailhead and into her car where I almost immediately fell to sleep. My legs instantly cramped in every way imaginable, waking me up it seemed every 15 minutes, but at least they did not have to move anymore, up or down.

The next day, I met her new climbing friends and their crag dogs. Dogs always make me happy, as they care not of our silly human problems, and would rather play a game of fetch, or just generally hang out around you.  I made plans to just hang out while everyone climbed, but I never made it out of the car, having passed out multiple times in whatever position they left me in, while they went out to their climbs.

Now that I’m home, and having a few days to reflect, I wonder what went so very wrong? I pride myself over my control over my mind and my negative emotions.

Was it just that I was a little tired? Perhaps, but I’m just not too sure. It could have been a week+ of too many sleepless nights that might have culminated into something like my experience of temporary well, madness. Or perhaps I was just sick: my stomach was feeling pretty shaky before/during/after my Nolans go. Even a small stomach bug, paired with an intense physical effort can cause a dramatic result. I kid to myself about all the untreated water I’ve consumed this year in the mountains, but perhaps I’ve picked up something.

Or, it just wasn’t my day.

Whatever happened, discovering the terrain that makes up the Nolans line was one of the highlights of my entire year. It felt as if I was rediscovering the high mountains again for the first time. The routes were for the most part all new and held their own little surprises that made me feel alive and to feel like simply smiling on the route. They gave me solitude on otherwise busy and popular peaks.

It gave me a great reason to get out and explore.

Failure is something that happens to the best of us, and as I will so ineloquently restate: happens most often to those who dare to push their own boundaries frequently. I gave all I had with the circumstances I was given, and it wasn’t enough – it wasn’t even close. But it bests the times where I’m too lazy to even go out the door and onto the trail, having no good excuse other than I’m not feeling like putting forth the effort. Those days are the real failures, as I stop myself from doing what I love. It’s a constant  battle to change that sort of habitual nature, and as long as I do not go gentle in that good night, I feel as any time out, exploring, creating and expressing myself is a total success. Having the outcome be different than what I expected? That should always be the real expectation.

Will I try again? Perhaps as I still think it’s an overwhelmingly awesome challenge, but I don’t know if the summer season where a speed run is facilitated has already passed us all by. Perhaps that weather window, the one where it’s warm enough during the day and night, yet the monsoon pattern doesn’t play a role in bringing dangerous thunderstorms upon you just didn’t play out this year the way it usually does late in the summer. I would never count myself out of a good challenge in the mountains.

Thanks to many people who have helped me with my Descent into Nolans Madness:

  • Ultimate Direction – who makes the quintessential FastPack for this quintessential Fastpack adventure!
  • Trackleaders for helping with the live GPS tracking
  • Chrissy, my girlfriend, who gave up her Labor Day weekend to drive my carless ass to Leadvile, get up around midnight to see me off, loiter around with not much to do other than make sure I wasn’t dying, and then carry me down the trail, when I was barely holding it together.
  • Brendan Leonard – thanks for that Outdoor Research rain jacket. It protects agains wind, rain and one’s own tears of pity!
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