Standing atop Mt. Belford (14,203′), my eyes met the allure of the buttery ridgeline connecting Mt. Oxford (14,160′) to its flanks. I stopped briefly for a snack, asking my friend, “I wonder how you connect Harvard from there”. Alex, looked at me with a wide grin, “are you considering Nolan’s?”. This was August 9, 2018, less than three-months after sharing a near fatal experience with him. In fact, the last time I had seen Alex, prior to meeting up with him at the Missouri Gulch Trailhead, was bidding him ado from the Alaska State Trooper helicopter that was en route to Fairbanks to complete an amputation of my left hand, that a human triggered rockfall had initiated. We were forever bound by the horrors of May 12, 2018; ironically and tragically, my first Mother’s Day.
I responded to Alex, “I have too many demons to work through before I could really consider that, but I would love to know how they all connect”. It was on that day that my intentions were made painfully clear to Alex, perhaps more clear to him than myself. I wanted Nolan’s. It has been a dormant goal in the back of my mind since moving to Colorado in 2014. The sheer lunacy of connecting 14-14,000′ peaks, in sequence, over what is arguably 50% off-trail terrain, was an alluring challenge.
Fast forward to June 2019, now with 10 surgeries on various body parts and some serious PTSD, I returned to this maddening idea of Nolan’s. I sat on CalTopo drawing curious red lines, with my left palm held together by 25 sutures reaching from the tip of my index finger down past my wrist and my right arm in a sling. Was this even possible? Probably not this year, but maybe next summer. I thought about it every day, I was infatuated with Nolan’s.
Over the next eight weeks, I slowly recovered from my physical ailments. The sutures were removed, and the sling soon followed. I began to run again with my hand and shoulder surgeons’ blessings. As much as they both understood athletes, I don’t think they could fully comprehend that I was running up 14k peaks and mentally exposing myself to inner demons that are called upon when I enter loose talus terrain. The only person who truly understood the depths of these days was my hand therapist, whom I have spent 102 visits with to date. It was during those visits that I wholeheartedly opened up to her about these “runs”, and recapped my prior days of scouting Nolan’s with her. She was rooting for me; however, she also displayed empathy for the undeniable pain seeping from my eyes, leftover from the demons I taunted on each and every one of these days spent in the Sawatch mountains. Some days I was accompanied by a friend, but often times I was alone.
Originally, it was my foolish intent to attempt Nolan’s 14 solo and unsupported. In this daze of thought, I had reached out to a few Nolan’s finishers. One never responded, the other pretty much wrote me off and told me that it wasn’t as simple as following a gps track. The latter individual was correct, I knew it wasn’t as simple as following someone else’s red line, but that’s not what I was looking for when I was asking for advice. Moving forward, I essentially wrote off Nolan’s finishers as an elitist persona with which I was disinterested in; a gross generalization that would later prove to be false.
Around July, an avid mountain endurance athlete, Sunny Stroeer, publicly mentioned her intentions to go for Nolan’s 14. I reached out to her letting her know that I too was considering this line. She graciously offered her company on scouting trips and to share beta, something that caught me off guard after my previous Nolan’s athlete interactions but felt welcoming.
Sunny and I joined efforts to scout the last three peaks; Antero, Tabeguache, and Shavano of the N-S line of Nolan’s 14, or SOBO in Nolan’s vernacular. We made great time and conversation up Antero and were ultimately weathered out from going up Tabeguache and Shavano. The monsoons came late and left early this year, but they were fierce while present. Both Sunny and I had enough experience in the mountains of Colorado to know that the last place you want to find yourself in a convective thunderstorm, is on a ridge above tree line. Back at our cars, Sunny, while acknowledging and respecting my intentions to go solo, invited me to join her and her girlfriend Tara to attempt Nolan’s the first week of September. I said I would consider it, we shared a beer on her camp loveseat chair and after some time, I rushed off to pick up my daughter from daycare two hours away. Sunny was off to China for her Transquilian FKT, and I had thousands of vertical feet of off-trail scrambling and hundreds of miles of terrain navigation to cover so that I could learn and commit the line to memory.
It was on an earlier scouting trip up the West Ridge of Elbert that I decided I would be better off with a partner for my first attempt of Nolan’s 14. Truthfully, being alone with my mental demons scared me and scared those closest to me. My risk tolerance was in line with Sunny’s, I trusted her decision making in the backcountry, and valued her personal achievements in the mountains. The partnership made sense. By the time of her return, we shared one more scouting trip together, ironically back to where I first made mention of Nolan’s to Alex, the Missouri Gulch and Pine Creek areas (Belford, Oxford, Harvard). From there, I refined the red line I had been diligently working on, finalizing our Nolan’s 14 route. I felt strong, mentally and physically. I was ready to take on Nolan’s 14.
During the last week of August, our third partner, Tara Parsons, flew out from California as planned. Having no time to scout the line personally, Sunny and I took it upon ourselves to do this. Fresh off the airplane, Tara accompanied Sunny to scout the NE ascent route of Princeton and myself to scout the SW descent route the following day, so she had a fresh mental map of what was sure to be the mental crux of the attempt, Princeton on tired minds and legs. We then entered a modified taper week.
We shared a flurry of anxiety inducing text messages, obsessively discussing weather and strategizing start times. We locked into a potential weather window on Wednesday of that week, agreeing to finalize the start day and time on Friday. As luck would have it, I came down with a chest cold on Thursday and did everything in my power to get well before the attempt. I was heartbroken, secretly hoping we would lose our weather window which would allow me more time to get well. Instead of losing our weather window, it pushed up. My heart sunk. Do I go for it? My legs had never felt stronger, so perhaps they could push through and my chest cold would not be too much of an issue? I knew the odds were stacked against me, but I also knew that this was too perfect a weather window to pass up and Tara had a booked return flight so there were too many factors to consider other than just my chest cold.
Friday, August 30th at 6pm arrived and we re-checked the weather forecast. It was crystal clear with little to no chance of thunderstorms from Saturday morning through Monday night. It was the perfect forecast. We decided to meet that very next morning at the Leadville Fish Hatchery, August 31 at 7am. I slammed some Nyquil, and calmed my screaming two year old daughter the only way she was willing to be calmed, we shared the bed and she fell asleep rubbing my head while singing me ‘twinkle twinkle little star’. My heart grew bigger, all the while still sinking. I spent the past month in the mountains, not fully present during the time I had shared with her; either because I was too physically/emotionally drained following a scouting trip, or because Nolan’s consumed my every thought. And all for what? I owed it to her to just show up and try.
5am, my alarm clock beckoned and I carefully moved my sleeping angel to her own bed, kissing her sweet forehead. I made a cup of coffee and a double serving of oatmeal. I had packed my car the night before, so as not to forget anything in my anxious and tired state. With a turn of the key, my car’s engine roared, and I was off to the Leadville Fish Hatchery. The drive was relaxing and I made it a point to enjoy the heated seat feature for the last hour I had, boxed away from the elements, for the next 60-ish hours.
I drove to the familiar parking area of the Leadville Fish Hatchery, finding Sunny in an expedition weight sleeping bag, strewn on the lawn. Tara soon followed, parking next to me. I used a toilet with running water one last time for good riddance, and wasted no time to start pulling out my crew bags, tightening my running shoes, and donning my scree gaiters. There was a strange calmness and everything felt familiar, the only unknown was my health and how it would affect my attempt. With 10-minutes before our gun time, two additional cars rolled up. Who were they and what were they doing here?
One car was a pair of familiar faces, Dana and Andrew and the other was a complete stranger to all of us, Gavin McKenzie. My mind was too disemboweled to understand the full capacity at which they were there to support, so I hugged Dana and Andrew, and thanked Gavin (who I would later learn was a 2014 Nolan’s finisher) for showing up as a means of support. It wasn’t until 15-24 hours later, that I would truly comprehend how deep Dana, Andrew, and Gavin would go into this Nolan’s soiree for us.
We each started the tracking feature on our Garmin inReach devices and then simultaneously pushed the start buttons on our GPS watches. At 44 seconds past 7am, we left the Fish Hatchery Trailhead. We power hiked the Highline trail, and quickly found our trail exit, but not before a moose let his/her presence known by an exciting stampede in our direction. We were definitively now awake and wasted no time to gain the wide East Ridge of Mount Massive. Steep, but mostly tundra, we picked off vertical relief with purpose and stood atop Mt. Massive (14,421′) at 10:06 (+3:06), having gained 4,800′. We exchanged high fives and acknowledged that we were ahead of our anticipated split of 3:30.
Wasting no time, we made our way down the Southwest slopes. Within minutes of each other, Tara and I both lost our footing on eroded sections of the trail, eliciting our first blood offering to Nolan’s. We dropped 3900′ to the Halfmoon Creek TH in 1:30, filtered water and snacked, then headed off to our next objective, Elbert via its West Ridge. Unbeknownst to us, Gavin had set-up a surprise crew station a few hundred feet down the road from us. We would never see this, because we cut across Halfmoon creek earlier than he had anticipated.
Power hiking the rugged Halfmoon Creek 4WD Road, through two river crossings, my mind began falling victim to my demons. I had scouted the upcoming section, the West Ridge of Elbert, earlier in the season and the line I chose was a very steep and loose scree slope before gaining the more stable ridge in earnest. With each step the ground released beneath me, talus and scree careening down the steep incline. This mentally brought me back to the scene of my accident in Alaska, and this section paralyzed me with fear. This time would be different. Sunny had found a better access point to the ridge, stable talus to a tundra tongue leading directly to the West Ridge. I trusted Sunny. Sure enough, we picked our way up the ridge, gaining more than 3,000 vertical feet in under a mile. We found ourself atop Colorado’s highest point, Mt. Elbert (14,439′) at 2:30pm (+7:30). This would be the first time my lungs seized as a result of my lingering chest cold. I struggled above 13,000′ and I never experience problems with exertion at altitude. Heck, I spent the entire month prior exerting myself at 14,000′. My lungs were betraying me, but my legs felt spry. How cruel this felt.
Still ahead of our estimated splits, we dropped down the south of Elbert traversing just below Bull Hill and scree skiing past the Golden Fleece and Last Chance Mines. Our efforts were rewarded with a shaded butter flow trail, the Echo Canyon trail, down to our first established crew point. We reached familiar faces at 4:40pm (+9:40). There, I switched out socks and shoes (thanks Andrew), threw down some delectable top ramen (thanks Jamie’s mom) and forced a banana down my throat (thanks Dana). I looked at Andrew and Dana, quite surprised to see them, and asked them “how long are you guys sticking around?”, to which Andrew replied “we’re here through the finish”. My heart exploded with happiness, and my eyes would have cried if they had energy reserves to do so. Before I knew it, we were hiking the most awkward section of our mountain adventure race, Highway 82.
After a brief reintroduction to civilization, we reached the La Plata Peak trailhead and power hiked up the smooth trail of La Plata’s Northwest Ridge, enjoying the last rays of light demonstrated by what appeared to be the longest and most spectacular sunset of my life. The trail terminated into a discombobulated boulder field, and we picked our way up toward the summit. I took a moment to pull out my headlamp, preparing for when the night sky turned black, and found myself abruptly halted by coughing fits so violent that I simultaneously peed my shorts. I pulled my buff over my mouth, hoping that I could humidify the air just enough to seize the antagonist to my lungs – the cold, dry ambient air. In a painstaking effort, I reached the summit of La Plata (14,336′) at 8:38pm (+13:38). With no time to waste, I added a layer to my upper body and we launched our legs down the Southwest Ridge. We worked our way through a series of nondescript boulder fields, some scree skiing, the smoothest and most beautiful single track we had seen all day, and finally down to a mindless dirt road leading to Winfield, our next crew point, at 10:47pm (+15:47).
It was at this point I spoke aloud, what I had been internally wrestling with all day. My lungs were not getting better, only trending worse. I found it nearly impossible to breath, and could not stop the coughing fits. I began to cough up a very thick greenish-yellow exude from my lungs, so thick I could chew it. My ability to oxygenate was inhibited, and I so needed this for all other bodily functions to work. I felt psychologically crushed. My legs still felt strong, but I just couldn’t breathe. I carried on at the crew station, eating as much warm soup and spaghetti with meat sauce that I could get down. I switched out my shorts for leggings (thanks Andrew and Dana), and then we were off again to hike our fourth 14,000′ peak, Huron. This was our last anticipated crew point for the next seven peaks in succession, likely another 20 or so hours. Andrew muttered something about meeting us at Elkhead, but I was too in my head over my lung situation to make sense of his words.
Under a moonless sky, setting one foot in front of the other, we moved with purpose up the long dirt road to the Huron Northwest Slopes trailhead. We had 3,500′ of elevation to gain over 3.25 miles. We made our way up the smooth switchbacks to the upper basin. My cough was relentless and worsening. I emotionally told Sunny and Tara, “I think I need to make the call”. I knew the call was already made for me, I just had to own it. Tara retorted kindly, “You’re moving uphill great, at a 36:00 min/mile pace”. None of this mattered though, my lungs felt like death. Sunny added, “don’t make any decisions about bailing at night”, a sentiment both Tara and her repeated as we gained the upper eroded boulder field. By 13,200′ it was clear to Sunny and Tara that I had no option but to leave them. I was holding them back at this point, and suffering through an upper respiratory infection isn’t the allure of Nolan’s challenges, it was a dangerous handicap to our efforts and one that was sure to put our whole group at risk for failure. Instantaneously, I felt an insurmountable guilt; the only section of Nolan’s that Sunny had not scouted was the North Face of Yale, and I knew they were relying on me for that. I had scouted this independently and worked out a line that gained Yale’s summit rather fashionably only after a heinous, albeit unavoidable bushwhacking entry. I’m sure Sunny was haunted by the memories I shared with her of my scouting day where I bushwhacked through a hornet nest and subsequently was attacked until I sought refuge in a stream, so I walked through the route with her verbally as we slowly gained the summit of Huron Peak (14,003′) at 3:25am (+19:25), making it from our crew station in Winfield to the top of Huron in a sluggish +3:14.
It was here that Sunny and Tara waited for me and we shared an emotional group hug, I asked them to take care of each other, and it wasn’t long before Sunny and Tara disappeared over the East Face of Huron at a saddle between Huron’s summit and Brown’s Peak. I sat under that moonless sky, on top of Huron, looking back and recounting the line we took to get to that very point. I felt overcome by emotions, not doubting my decision to bail, but upset with how much time I had spent to learn the route and gain the fitness required to travel in this style through that terrain. And for what? I failed. It all came down to a stupid chest cold. I was furious.
I packed on all my extra layers, replaced my gloves with a more heavyweight alternative, stopped my watch and turned off tracking on my Garmin inReach; sending a message to my public mapshare page, announcing my decision to bail. 19 hours and 30 minutes, 37.96 miles and 16,742′ elevation gain.
Click here for a 3D animation of my Nolan’s attempt, summiting Massive, Elbert, La Plata, and Huron.
Holding true to the promise I made to both Sunny and Tara, I did not hang out on the summit long. I began, what I would later refer to as, my ‘Egress of Shame’. I descended down a dark and lonely trail, missing the company Sunny and Tara provided. I experienced my first hallucination, a cougar mother with her cub. I shook my head vigorously, forcing them to morph back into their steady state, a log precariously perched atop the meadow. I’ve had many epics in the mountains and was intimately familiar with how my mind and body perform on sleep deprivation, I typically do not hallucinate until my second night. This must have been a result of my hypoxic state of being. Every ten minutes or so, I would clutch my poles and embrace the coughing fits. I was now wheezing on inspiration and the lung butter was thicker than ever. I needed to keep descending. I was only alone for a matter of 30-minutes before the deluge of labor day foot traffic passed me in the opposing direction; many asking if I had already summited [Huron], the most I could mutter in reply was a simple ‘yes’.
I watched the time closely. I knew Sunny’s husband, Paul, was sleeping in his van at the crew point I had left the night prior. Thankful for his exhaustive efforts with crewing, I didn’t want to rob him of much needed sleep on my helpless account. I was kept busy with my thoughts as I slowly descended the 5.7 miles back into Winfield. I thought to myself, would I ever try Nolan’s again? Absolutely not.
Nearly four hours later, I reached Paul’s van and sheepishly knocked. There was no answer and I found my gaze drift to the beautiful sunrise, thinking to myself that the girls should be reaching Missouri’s summit by now. I envied the next group of peaks they would soon be encountering. Maybe I would try Nolan’s again someday. I walked to the driver side of the van and opened the unlocked door, quivering out Paul’s name. He answered. He awoke, offering me warm blankets and food. I took him up on his offer of top ramen. I then exited the car and proceeded to cough to the point I was dry heaving.
Eventually, the dry heaving ceased, and Paul took me back to where everything began, the Fish Hatchery in Leadville. I picked up my car and returned to Buena Vista, where I shared an oatmeal breakfast and coffee on the side of highway 24 with Paul. I then set off for the Missouri Gulch trailhead, where I knew my crew, Andrew and Dana were likely to be based on the conversation I had the night prior with Andrew. They ended up cooking bacon and ramen atop Mt. Belford for us, but it was only Sunny and Tara who arrived. I waited for them until noon, before deciding to head home to my daughter and husband in Eagle Vail, an hour and a half away.
I was greeted by my loving daughter, who couldn’t hide her excitement to see me, and my husband who was excited to hear the whole story. I hopped in the shower with my daughter and she pointed out all of my “boo boos”, even lathering them up with soap. As I washed away the filth of the adventure that was now behind me, I felt overcome with a sadness. Without mention of this to my husband, his eyes met mine, and he said “you should give it a try next summer, you have the route dialed”. I replied with hesitation. I was still so frustrated with how everything ended up playing out. I was frustrated leaving unfinished business in the mountains. This one wasn’t going to walk away without mental torment, and he and I both knew this.
As the hours of the day transpired, I was glued to Sunny and Tara’s trackers. I had been in constant communication with Gavin throughout that afternoon, asking him how he felt accompanying the girls from the obscure town of Alpine to the summits of Antero (14,275′), Tabeguache (14,163′) and Shavano (14,232′). Gavin was game, so we made a plan to head to Buena Vista in the morning. Day soon became night and I couldn’t fall asleep until I saw them pass the infamous airplane gully of Yale’s North Face, having successfully summited Missouri (14,075′), Belford (14,203′), Oxford (14,160′), Harvard (14,423′) and Columbia (14,078′) since my departure. I felt a pang of guilt as I closed my eyes, knowing that this was my section of the route to lead and here I was in the comfort of my bed as they endured their second sleepless night.
The next morning I awoke to my husband ordering me out of the house, as he too had become glued to the girls’ trackers. With a heightened voice octave, he told me that he was concerned they were quitting. I fired off a message to Sunny’s tracker, with words of encouragement that would undoubtedly fall on deaf ears. I updated Gavin and we both left our respective homes for Alpine. Sunny’s tracker showed she had stopped at the Denny Creek trailhead after summiting Yale (14,199′) and a 5am text message from our crew, Dana, supported the notion that Sunny had made the call to not continue on, but Tara’s tracker showed her making quick work up Princeton. It was possible, though improbable, that Tara could still complete Nolan’s in less than 60 hours.
With my daughter in my arms, I met up first with Sunny and Paul at the Alpine turnout. Sunny briefly recounted their journey since I had left them on Huron. Juan, Tara’s husband and crew, soon arrived, followed by Gavin and then Dana and Andrew. We all caravanned to a dead end where the trail terminated into the town of Alpine at 292C. This is where Tara would be dumped out after summiting and descending Princeton. Juan walked up the few miles of defined trail that traversed from Alpine to Grouse Canyon, where he waited in a meadow for his wife to arrive. The rest of us assembled a crew site most race directors would envy. The minutes turned into hours, and we became increasingly empathetic for the unbearable heat she must be enduring on the exposed climb and descent of Princeton. She was overdue.
Finally, around 4:15pm, Tara and Juan popped out of the forest. She was in better spirits than I had imaged she would be. It was no longer possible for her to complete Nolan’s 14 in under the 60-hour cutoff. She knew this. We al l knew this. At this point, it didn’t matter. She had come so far, and I think it is fair to say that we all admired her tenacity to persevere. She sat down in a chair, ate and drank well, and pondered only for a moment if she should continue on. We re-introduced Gavin to Tara and explained both he and Sunny would accompany her up and over Antero, Tabeguache and Shavano. They would complete their effort at Blanks Cabin trailhead. Undoubtedly, we were setting Tara up for her third sleepless night but there was comfort in knowing Gavin, a well rested Nolan’s finisher, would look out for both Tara and Sunny’s wellbeing. So off they went.
Tara went on to reach the summit of Shavano 68:45 after leaving the Fish Hatchery in Leadville. While technically over the 60-hour time limit for an official Nolan’s finish, I think it’s fair to say that it is the most honorable DNF in existence.
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The face you make when you are almost done with the longest hardest effort of your life. 106 miles 14 14,000 ft peaks, and over 72 hrs of being awake. Pc:@sstroeer On the surface our #Nolans14 effort was a failure. @ilana_jesse soldiered through 4 peaks before being sidelined by a lung infection. @sstroeer battled through ten peaks before dropping and then in an amazing turn around came back to guide me through the final three eventually finishing 13 of 14 peaks. And I finished the line but in 68 hrs and 45 min to the top of Mt Shavano. Well over the 60 hr time cap. However it’s hard to come away from this experience with anything but feelings of a win. My heart is so full from the amazing display of generosity and kindness from strangers. Thank you @gavin_mckenzie for taking your weekend and pacing some random girl from Cali for an entire night. Thank you @dmgeorge56 and @drewcj for taking your entire weekend to provide the best pit crew performance- from hiking to the top of a 14,er to staying awake all night- you guys were game changers. And of course my number one support @j_wiggles_ thank you for your endless love and for spending 3 days chasing me through the mountains braving sleepless nights and bees and bears and attacking bulls. I love you. @sstroeer and @ilana_jesse I literally would have been lost without you- thank you for your months of work in the mountains. It was a privilege to share the sawatch range with you. We may have “failed” but we persevered, we laughed, we cried (or maybe just me), and in the end we conquered. More images and stories to come from our adventure! @fastestknowntime can I get an honorable mention for slowest known completion of Nolans 14 in a single push? ? Thank you also @ultimatedirectionusa for the awesome backpacks that got us through! #accidentaladventurer #nolans14training #failepically #ultimatedirection #colorado14ers
Did we fail Nolan’s? Yes. By all quantitative measures, we failed. But I didn’t walk away from this experience feeling like I had failed in the traditional sense. I also find it impossible to quantitatively represent Nolan’s, as the numbers simply don’t do the line justice. The memories gained in the efforts spent scouting the line as well as those gained on the attempt have awoken a part of my soul that I had written off for dead in Alaska.
Inspired by the strength of each woman who left the Fish Hatchery on August 31 at 7am, I don’t doubt Nolan’s will beckon again. Until then, I will cherish every memory created in the summer of 2019.
And now for sentiments of gratitude, in no particular order:
- Eric Jesse – Thank you for encouraging me to pursue goals that scare me (and probably even you).
- Amari Jesse – Thank you for loving the mountains as much as your mommy and giving me the strength to dream big and dig deep.
- Sunny Stroeer – Your mental and physical strength are only second to your kindness. Thank you for the great company spent on long days scouting Nolan’s. I hope to share future sufferfests with you in the mountains.
- Tara Parsons – I’m inspired by your tenacity and brute strength. You persevered through what many would have given up on. I look forward to witnessing your future accomplishments as an endurance athlete.
- Andrew Jones and Dana George – I admire your spontaneity and loyalty. You were the most dialed crew I could have ever had. I will forever associate Belford with bacon.
- Juan Miranda – Your selfless support made the crew stations seamless. Your infectious smile hid the fact that you were concerned we were battling bears every moment we dug deep in the backcountry.
- Paul Gagner – Still jet lagged from your Pakistan expedition, you donated your three day weekend (and your wife) to this project. Thank you for rescuing me from Winfield and taking care of me when I felt at my lowest of lows.
- Gavin McKenzie – You didn’t even know us and yet you showed up to send us off from the Fish Hatchery in style. You make the best crew stations (even if we never made it to see them in person), it’s almost like you know what it’s like to throw yourself at Nolan’s. I look forward to sharing some miles in the mountains with you soon. If I give this a go next year, I promise to give you crew station waypoints so you don’t find yourself alone with snacks in the middle of nowhere.
- Dynafit – Thank you for the shoes that could take a beating on Nolan’s relentless terrain. The Alpine Pro Trail Running Shoes handled loose talus, scree and buttery single track like a boss.
- Ultimate Direction – Thank you for the FastpackHer 30 pack and FK gaiters, this gear was critical for the length of the route and the countless opportunities for scree to creep into your running shoes.