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One man's shot at Nolan's 14 

Good Dirt

click to enlarge Julian Smith (left), and Brandt Ketterer make their way up Mount Columbia.
  • Julian Smith (left), and Brandt Ketterer make their way up Mount Columbia.

Seventy hours with no sleep and 100 miles behind him, Julian Smith looked out across the night sky to the lights of Salida.

He had climbed 14 Fourteeners, a string of granite skyscrapers in central Colorado, and his adventure was nearly done. He'd fought through rain, snow and a crushing wind. And now he could enjoy the relatively easy hike down Mount Shavano.

His longtime friend Sheila Huss walked with him, lighting the trail. She was there to remind him to eat and stay hydrated, to keep him moving in the right direction, and to listen to comments that sometimes made no sense.

"We were walking down and he asked me, 'Is that Salida out there in the distance? Do you see the roller skaters in the building? They've been going to town for hours,'" Huss says.

That's what the Nolan's 14 (mattmahoney.net/nolans14) will do to otherwise sane people. Smith began his journey on Friday, Sept. 2, at the Leadville Fish Hatchery. From there, he climbed 14,429-foot Mount Massive. One big Colorado peak is a good day's workout for most folks. But Smith, an ultrarunner with an obsession for rock climbing and mountaineering, kept going.

Nolan's 14 is not an official event, but rather an alpine backcountry challenge in the Sawatch Range, Colorado's rooftop. There is no set course, or start time. The rules are simple. Participants must find their way — via established jeep trails, singletrack routes, or good ol' fashioned bushwhacking — from the fish hatchery to Blank Cabin near the base of Mount Shavano. They can travel either direction, and they must summit all 14 mountains. The idea is to finish in 60 hours.

It isn't easy. The best mountain-sport athletes in the world often drop out after a few summits. Smith says the 60-hour limit is not in his future. "The people who are doing that are elite athletes," he says, laughing at the idea that at 50, he is the oldest and slowest ever to complete the distance, according to the Nolan's 14 records.

"Julian was chasing his dream," says Steve Bremner, an ultrarunner who has shared many miles with Smith. "Nothing could stop him this time."

Smith has twice climbed 12 of the big peaks in less than 60 hours, a staggering feat. The Nolan's 14 record is held by Andrew Hamilton of Denver, a father of four who made the distance in 53 hours, 49 minutes in 2015. Brandon Stapanowich, an ultrarunner from Manitou Springs, owns one of the best times. He and mountain runner Gavin McKenzie teamed up to finish in 56:19.

Two weeks ago, Meghan Hicks of Moab, Utah, set the women's record of 59 hours, 36 minutes.

Nolan's 14 has become a tradition for Smith, who has summited 38 of Colorado's highest peaks a total of 158 times. He and his friends have gathered in each of the last four years to scout out the best routes and then pick a weekend for the big push. His support crew is something of a rolling party, meeting the climber at different points along the course. Records are fun to talk about, but the new-age mountain tribe of adventure seekers are really after the experience.

"It has become less about how many peaks I can do and more about the friendships you make and the people you meet," Smith says.

He'll always remember descending Mount Columbia with many of his friends around him. "There was a whole group of people who came up to meet us," Smith says. "That's when it hit me emotionally, realizing the bonds we'd created doing this each year ... to just be together."

Still, the challenge of the clock, the high peaks and thin air are attractive, and Smith admits that the concept of moderation has eluded him.

"I got into running and that wasn't good enough, I had to do 100-milers," he says.

He's motivated simply by the act of moving through the mountains. "That's what Nolan's is like for me, being able to get out there and move over that amount of terrain."

From the summit of Mount Massive he knocked off the peaks in order: Elbert (Colorado's highest point at 14,439 feet), La Plata, Huron, Missouri, Belford, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Antero, Tabeguach and Shavano. He climbed 44,000 feet along the way.

Some creative Nolan's participants have charted routes of about 85 miles. Smith said he logged about 100. Bremner, a veteran of many ultra races, said the Nolan's 100 is the toughest of them all.

A biting wind whipped the last two mountain summits and Smith climbed slowly, but doggedly. Huss, who has summited all but one Colorado Fourteener, said she had never seen a wind so strong. There was no hugging or celebration at Shavano's summit. They moved off the mountain, Huss minding Smith's condition as he put one foot in front of the other and hallucinated about roller skaters.

"Julian has a lot of experience in the mountains," Huss says. "He was completely strong and steady and he never lost his cool. Even though he had been awake for 70 hours, he never complained about being tired."

A member of the team, John Danese, climbed up to meet them, bringing a beer for Smith. The trail's end and more friends soon emerged in the darkness and Smith completed Nolan's 14.

  • Julian Smith is motivated simply by the act of moving through the mountains.

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