Peak Bagging in Colorado
High-altitude bushwhacking across 14ers the rugged Sawatch Range
Jared Campbell leads Matt Hart along the summit ridge of Missouri Mountain (peak #5 of 14) at dawn on day two. Photo by Fred Marmsater.
The wind was calm, but my mind was not. As my running partner Jared Campbell, 33, of Salt Lake City, Utah, and I climbed the trail to the 14,337-foot summit of La Plata Peak, my body was already breaking down—and our ambitious adventure had hardly begun.
We were just three peaks into our attempt to run the “Nolan’s 14,” a route that summits 14 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch Range. With over 45,000 feet of elevation gain and only a smattering of established trails, the route mostly consists of strenuous bushwhacking.
The idea for Nolan’s 14 was hatched in 1991 when ultrarunner Fred Vance of Pleasanton, California, asked mountaineer Jim Nolan to devise a route that summited as many 14ers as possible in 100 miles. Nolan had climbed all of Colorado’s 54 peaks over 14,000 feet. Though it took him only a week to devise the route, it wasn’t until 1999 that anyone attempted it, and 2001 until anyone completed it. That year, four out of 11 starters—Mike Tilden, Blake Wood, John Robinson and Jim Nelson—managed to summit all 14 peaks within the allocated 60-hour cutoff of the loosely organized event. The following year, Robinson, an ultrarunner from Oregon, became the only person to finish the route twice, also claiming the fastest known time (FKT) of 54 hours 57 minutes. Then, in 2003, the U.S. Forest Service closed down the event. Still, a handful of hardy individuals attempt the route “unofficially” every year.
In training with Jared throughout our home state of Utah, I had grown accustomed to him climbing faster than me, navigating rugged terrain with the ease of a mountain goat. As I watched him bound up the trail toward the summit of La Plata, it wasn’t that I doubted my ability to continue so much as I feared his disappointment if I ruined this adventure.
Jared has accomplished a few of the almost impossible challenges in ultra/adventure running, including finishing Tennessee’s Barkley Marathons (the 11th person ever to do so) and winning the high-altitude Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run in Silverton, Colorado. We had met six years prior at a party of mutual runner types. Many years and adventures later, we landed on the idea of attempting to run Nolan’s together in less than 60 hours.
Now just 10 hours into our adventure, I felt dizzy, weakened by altitude sickness that had caused me to stop eating miles before. Jared would pull ahead of me for 30 minutes at a time, then wait for me with a smile. At La Plata’s 14,337- foot summit, I said, “This is ridiculous. I gotta cut you loose. You can do something special on this route.”