On Friday September 25th at approximately 6:00 am MST Osprey Athlete, mountaineer, filmmaker and ultra-runner Ben Clark kicked off his 6th attempt to complete Nolan’s 14. Nolan’s 14 is a challenging traverse that links 14 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot summits, one that covers nearly 100 miles of some of the Sawatch Range’s toughest terrain, one that must be completed in less than 60 hours.
Ben shares his reflections on “touching the edge” during this attempt:
In frigid air and with dreary gaze I saw that an ascending moon lit the long and toiling spine of rock that sends mountain climbers down the East side of 14,196′ Mt. Yale and back to the lowest point along a route called Nolan’s 14, connecting 14 Colorado 14,000′ peaks-14er’s.
I was alone in the dark past midnight on my second sleepless night — 10 peaks and 43 hours into a single push across these mountains. An hour after reaching the summit, I laid down in a small pocket of pyramid shaped rocks and layered my storm shell over my legs barely blocking the winds and sub freezing chill. It was my second chance for a 15 minute nap that night. It was here that when I awoke around 3 am, I knew I had pushed my limits and that moving forward was only part of the answer. I had just ramped up the pace for a few hours and I was hypoxic-altitude sick and making slow decisions — my best option since rushing anything through this maze of rock in the predawn hours could lead to amplifying an already temporarily suspenseful fate in what was to be a full and focused effort to descend.
I like challenges — I do.
I am ok chipping away at the most complicated ones that I engage a piece at a time. I can.
But there are some challenges that transform us. If even once, then maybe twice in our lives we will have an opportunity for that. For me, it is being open to the hard work and reality that those challenges require to execute that reveals the value of the knowledge inside a challenge, the virtue of a transformation I need to make. I completed an effort like that in my early 20’s, climbing Mt. Everest’s North/NE Ridge. I think I’m on the second great challenge of my life with Nolan’s 14 and this line has revealed to me more about who I am than any other.
Judiciously and with a cynicism reserved for only my most tired and underfueled self, I talked myself down the ridge, spiting the wind every step of the way. The year before and hours ahead of my current 45 hour time, I had been in a similar circumstance on this peak — Mt Yale — where descending in the dark during freak flooding forced an end to an attempt on this line, just like the previous year when I reached this 70 mile point and the route became engulfed by snowstorms. Both times were heavily supported and I was on the route with great friends — now I was alone and a sniffling mess. As I contoured along Yale’s mighty ridge this third and arguably much more difficult time I began to falter mentally and to lose track of time and where I was. I laid down in a clearing by some dead trees just below treeline and decided to sleep again hoping for daybreak to light and reveal the way, this time I didn’t set an alarm and just like that I was out, out in the cold frozen air.
When I approach a challenge in the mountains, it is not always clear at the outset how it all wraps together, or why it will. There are a lot of variables to the type of experiences I wish to learn from. But if the process is always fun, and the long term benefit of health is not risked, then I pursue it based on merits that serve my intrinsic motivation to explore. I do it to do it. I’d like to think that as a mountain climber I’m pretty fit and that it matters, but more or less, I think I am just strong willed-fitness is a by product of that. But with that fitness and my experience of adopting challenges I know I have to really work at to complete, I can find myself a long way away from anyone or anything that most folks are going to find reasonable to be living for, therein lies the challenge: I reach beyond limits — others and my own — and hope I have the courage and confidence to stand up against myself all alone in the most extreme low points of circumstance.
When I woke up a sliver of faint blue light lit the horizon extending in front of me. I was cold and shivering, my throat was constricted, I had laid there too long and sunrise wasn’t coming fast enough. I was sick and mentally reduced to just a few thoughts; The memory of popping a Dayquil the day before I started to ward off the cold I had, my hand being my 3 year-old’s Kleenex and us joking about it, how happy it made me to walk him home from school that day—Then back to the mountains my thoughts ran as I waited for direction from inside.
“Could I move?”
“Man, I had already lost my way looking for a trail and just wanted the sun to come up so I could see.”
“Why the hell isn’t anyone answering me?” I wondered. Because I was alone…
I alerted my friends and family that I was sick and cold using my tracking device and a cell phone. Within 40 minutes, my father had instructed me on how to find the trail. Using my reference point on a track that uploaded every 10 minutes and showed my position on a detailed map online, I was just a half mile from it. I started running, as planned months before, as soon as I reached the trail. My granny gear auto pilot had taken over. After all the starts and stops I still had it; the relentless will to stick to a plan.
In the last 3 summers I have become obsessed with this line and completing it on foot in one single push from start to finish. This was the sixth run over 30 miles I have done on this route. I think that going alone on this 94 mile line with 92,000′ of vertical change has been the most mind-blowing experience of my life. It is the most committing mountain objective, stacked on top of a lifetime of already committing mountain objectives. No cocaine, no acid, no drug could blow a mind like this…just old dirt and rock. And they whup.
And I keep coming back to learn from them.
As dawn rose and the dim light of my headlamp receded into the suns diffused rays I lay down after running a mile, passed out again on the side of the trail in that old mountain dirt, coughing. I set my alarm on the iPhone and placed it in my chest pocket one last time. I woke 15 minutes later and quickly hustled down the trail. There I saw a man hiking, then another, and then two more. Or maybe I didn’t. I will not exaggerate my state, but many have reported hallucinations near the 40 hour mark of sustained efforts like this. I was sick, I knew that, but felt I could still cough it out and get my head back together.
As I neared the valley lowpoint at 9300′ I was not overwhelmed by the heaps of sub-alpine oxygen, instead it was the immediate reentry into cellular reception signaled by text after text coming in. I kept walking, I kept thinking, I kept walking.
“Don’t give up.”
People were coming to meet me at the end, I would have support if I needed to get down from the next peak.
I hiked for a few more miles in the honey colored light of a Sawatch sunrise and blinded by the sun embraced the day again from a trailside stump where I brewed one final cup of coffee on the trail, my third since starting two days prior. As with anywhere, this place specifically to find myself having been alone 46 hours and traversed 10 peaks over 70 miles through two nights was a place of sanctity. But not one I could keep up, I was just a visitor. The first one on this end to have gone so far, but not the last.
As the sun slowly crested the ridge it washed over me from my neck down and I sipped that semi-warm brew, just to soothe my throat. That 180 calories fueled the next thought, after running on nothing for 6 hours.
It was time to let go. I was sick, I didn’t recognize myself. I was going to blow it if I kept on. Someone would have to get me. And that would mean losing. This I could own.
And there I figured out why. I figured out why I did it and why I’ll try it again. Why it doesn’t matter. Why it does.
Every moment I was alive and connected to the environment alone for feedback, for stimulation, for direction. I just went out and flowed it and life led around by the mountains was good, until the end when it was just euphoric, when my own limitations brought it down to the human level, to my limit. But unpolished and wild as it may be — I’ve touched the edge for the second time. I’ll take that time in that place of dreams, it is why I live my life.
Watch Ben’s film, “Nolan’s 14”
Keep up with Ben:
Read Ben’s thoughts on previous Nolan’s 14 attempts and how he prepares for this formidable traverse.
About Osprey Athlete Ben Clark:
“I have shared some accomplishments with luck, and a couple of great colleagues, like most people aged 35 years. Yes, there are experiences that stand out but the impact of that 17 years and the meaning of what came forward, far exceeded the tangible values of grades on hard things I did with some real strong people that became like family to me. Nonetheless, my bucket list included Everest’s summit forever ago and putting up a few mixed climbs in the Himalayas while on a quest skiing them. But different from some I backed away-I’ve saved friends lives and my own has been spared, often off nothing but a photo I pursued fresh tracks on virgin terrain-obsessively and then mostly not when I became a dad. Simply put after all that, I am a mountain athlete and pioneering within them motivates me.”