14er Mania

16 Jul 2000 - by Steve Bremner

On September 26th, 1998, two months after moving to Colorado from Ottawa, Canada, I had a little run up 14,196' Mount Yale. As I surveyed the distant peaks to the north I was able to identify seven more fourteeners, ranging from the relatively close Columbia to La Plata, so far away it registered as a mere jag in the complex sawtooth of peaks on the distant horizon. In that moment I experienced an epiphany.

I realized in that crystal moment that I could make the entire trek across those eight fourteeners, from La Plata to Yale in a 24-hour day. Because I could do it, it therefore followed that I would do it. From that bright sunlit day I began my plan. Over the next two years I carefully scouted the segments between the peaks in order to lessen the route finding problems that might slow me down in my ultimate quest. The most direct course between many of the summits means not following "standard" routes or the "easy" trails.

Though we fell short of our goal on the full moon day of July 16th last, Jonathan Cavner and I did succeed in equaling the record for the most 14ers ascended in a 24-hour period on foot at six, and were on schedule to complete all eight until 500 vertical feet short of the seventh summit we were driven off by a severe electrical storm. We had another five and half hours left in the day. We know now it can be done. Once the memory of the pain involved fades, we will get right on it again! (We are already scheming to rope in one or two more nearby 14ers to up the ante)

Oh yes there was pain! This is the hardest thing I have ever done, both mentally and physically. I have run 33 marathons and ascended many a summit, but 23 hours on my feet, covering 40 or more miles with 20,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss), all on the roof of the Rockies; this feat was close to my limits.

I met Jonathan Cavner at one of Sky Runner extraordinaire Matt Carpenter's Incline Running Club sessions. Jonathan and I share two passions: running and climbing. We both know that when you combine these two combustible fuels the resulting conflagration is the rare ability to move very quickly in the mountains. Our level of fitness is extremely close. Though I normally finish ahead of Jonathan in the Incline Club workouts, he recently beat me in the Aspen Sky Half Marathon by a 15 second margin. When I shared my plan of doing the eight central Sawatch 14ers in one day he told me that he had harbored the same idea for three years. Just the partner I was looking for. Someone as insane as I!

Coordinating our Saturday departure times from Colorado Springs, we drove our separate vehicles to where the Colorado Trail intersects the North Cottonwood Road west of Buena Vista. There we left Jonathan's Subaru for the end point of our journey. We took my truck to the trailhead for La Plata Peak off of highway 82. By starting at Highway 82 we added 1000 feet of elevation gain and one mile of distance compared to starting south of the peak at a 4WD access road near Winfield. We started where we did for aesthetic reasons: going from north to south and not retracing our steps, as we would have if starting from near Winfield, would give our project more the feeling of a true trek. By placing our 2nd vehicle on the North Cottonwood Road we had adequate "bail out" options if we fell short of our ultimate goal. This turned out to be a wise move in light of the disastrous weather that would ensue as evening fell.

After a brief hike up trail to make sure we knew where the bridge crossed South Fork Lake Creek, we set up our tent near the trailhead. As we scouted for a tent site we were embarrassed to stumble on an unfortunate young woman attempting to answer the call of nature. The next morning I just couldn't rid myself of the ditty "Fat bottomed girls, they make the rocking world go round!" silently intoned to the rhythm of the run.

Once we set up the tent the rain began almost immediately and continued until we arose at 11:40 P.M. After assembling our gear for a midnight departure, we intrepidly ventured from the tent. Conveniently, at that moment the rain ceased. High clouds blocked the full moon, but its persistent glow lit the distant ridges. We steadily ran up trail, the immediate path lit by our headlamps. Soon the excellent trail recently built by the Colorado 14er Initiative switch backed steeply to the final summit ridge. Once on the ridge we lost the main cairned route and were forced to pick our way through boulders. Two hours and fifteen minutes from the trailhead we were on top of our first 14er summit. I signed the summit register: "Bremner and Cavner, 1 of 8 in 24 hours, Yale bound". (At the trail register I also marked our destination as "Yale". I'm certain that will raise an eyebrow or two.)

After less than two minutes on top we began our descent to Winfield. Jonathan and I had both done this route. Initially we picked our way through boulders, then dropped steeply to a high drainage jam packed with willows and marshy muddy ground. We lost the trail, as we both knew we would. Though still pre-dawn, the bright moon lit up our surroundings, though not bright enough to keep us from dipping our feet into mud troughs. Our respective memories of the trail came into debate as we neared the end of the high basin. This time my memory was correct and we aimed right to rejoin the trail from our muddy meanderings. Later Jonathan's memory of trail segments would be better than mine. Because we worked so well together, with respect for each other's judgment, we had no disputes over route choices on this long day, and every choice we made turned out to be the correct one, including our ultimate decision to abort the mission.

One hour and fifty minutes below La Plata we came on the structures of the "town" of Winfield. Once a thriving mining town, the remaining structures appear now to be private retreats. Here we began our ascent of peak number two, Huron. Up to this point we had covered nine miles with nearly 5,000 feet elevation gain and loss. It was 4:05 A.M.

From Winfield a road follows the South Fork of Clear Creek. If one follows this road for about three miles one comes on the trailhead for Huron Peak. If one instead mistakenly makes a left turn about half a mile up the road from Winfield on a 4WD road then one is on new ground. In the dark we missed the right choice and went up the 4WD road. As we switch backed steeply up the slope of Middle Mountain I had a feeling we were off course. Only I had gone this route on Huron before, though in descent after ascending the peak from the east. When we came to end of the road with no trailhead nor "car campers" in sight our doubts rose to the fore. Once we broke out the topo our error was evident. The question was, how to recover? Retracing our steps meant considerable elevation loss. Not an option. The topo showed an old 4WD road extending nearly to the main trail up Huron far to the south. This course led us in an easy traverse nearly to our goal. We only had to traverse a short ways across heather fields to join the trail. Our time to the summit of 2:17 from Winfield was as good as we could have hoped for even if we had not lost our way. We spent seven minutes on the summit.

I began to feel a sore spot on the outside of my right knee.

Descending from Huron we dropped down a steep scree gully to the east. I had ascended this gully one year before. I much preferred going down to the ascent.

We had both gone this route from Huron to Cloyses Lake before. Aiming to the left of the high pond we came on the climber's trail that brought us in the vicinity of the cabin on the lake. Here we had planned to meet a friend who was to bring food supplies and to accompany us on the next three 14ers. We arrived at 0800, the time we had agreed upon to meet, but unfortunately our friend didn't make it in time. We waited fifteen minutes then left a note and continued on. We later learned that he had missed the turn at Rockdale and didn't make it until nearly nine o'clock that morning. Since we were on a time schedule we couldn't wait.

Ascending Missouri from the west was a long hard sustained effort. After unending heather slopes we gained the NW ridge, reaching the summit one hour and 51 minutes after Cloyses Lake. The time was 10:06 A.M. A 14er party was happening up top with five climbers on the summit and we lingered for seven minutes.

Following the ridge north to the saddle, we then took the most direct course descending steep scree slopes to Elkhead Basin. After a mere 29 minutes we reached the Elkhead Basin trail. We took aim for Belford's knobby summit, marching up the grassy slopes to the main ridge and trail for the final stretch to the summit. From Elkhead Basin to Belford' s summit of 14,197' took 56 minutes; the elevation gain about 1500 feet.

On Belford's summit we encountered another 14er gala, with about four others on the summit: the time of 11:38 A.M. a good time to reach the summit of a 14er.before the typical summer afternoon thunderstorms set in. Belford was the only summit without an official register, though we were able to make an entry on a piece of paper and insert into the canister. We spent a leisurely eight minutes on this peak, gratefully accepting some food handouts and taking a needed break. I remarked to Jonathan, "I'm starting to get tired."

The next summit, Oxford, was the easiest of the day and I relinquished the lead to Jonathan, resting in his wake. From Belford to Oxford, a 653' drop and rise took 45 minutes. It was now 12:34 P.M. Our plan called for us to be there by 1 P.M. We were ahead of schedule. From distant peaks to the west the sounds of thunder rumbled ominously. Clouds rolled in obscuring even nearby peaks.

Shortly after leaving Oxford's summit I tried my cell phone. Pleasantly surprised to see ROAM appear I tried a call to my special friend Laila in Salt Lake City. When I told her I was suffering and now we had the most difficult peak ahead of us (Harvard) as an ultra marathoner herself she would have none of it. She told me to get those negative thoughts out of my mind and focus on the goal-to imagine myself just walking up that mountain. What a help that conversation turned out to be!

The descent from Oxford to Missouri Basin was one neither of us had attempted. At first we started down the SE ridge, but soon struck out for a more direct route, down the drainage to the right. The danger of descending an unknown drainage is the possibility of getting stranded above cliffs. A ridge normally is an easy stroll. We did encounter some difficulties, but made steady progress reaching the valley floor in 1 hour 28 minutes--an outstanding time for a rugged descent. The elevation loss was 3000 feet. We had settled into a sustainable pace. Though it seemed slower, it was steady enough to consistently and quickly eat up ground.

As we went down Oxford's slopes we debated the relative merits of either ascending a scree slope to gain the main NE ridge of Harvard or to instead go up through woods to the right of the ridge and reach a heather slope culminating in the ridge. As it turned out by following the easiest course our minds were made up for us. We came out in the main valley near Bedrock Falls. Pine Creek was very flushed with water and moving extremely fast. Luckily a short hike up the trail revealed two logs conveniently positioned across the creek allowing an easy crossing. Ascending now through open forest we came on a trail of sorts. The occasional boot print gave it credibility as more than an elk trail. We followed it as it gradually traversed, wrapping to the right of the ridge. When the trail moved down we left it to continue our ascent, soon coming on a steep open grassy slope that brought us to the main ridge. It had taken us only an hour to break out above tree line.

Now for the first time I was confident that we could really do this! When Harvard's final summit pyramid came into view I was overcome with emotion. My spirit soared. There was no more pain. I picked up the pace and marched up that mountain! At 14,420 feet, Harvard was our highest summit that day. I could feel the difference in the last stretch. On the summit I quickly signed the register "Bremner and Cavner, 7/16/00 4:45 P.M., 6 of 8 in 24 hours, next Columbia then Yale, World Record!" It had taken us 2 hours and 36 minutes to ascend 3200 feet of difficult terrain on our 6th 14er of the day. Jonathan arrived on the summit as I put the register back in the canister. We set off for Columbia with a sense of urgency. Clouds were thickening and the sounds of thunder in the distance troubling.

May 21st of this year we had climbed Harvard and Columbia to determine how long the traverse from Harvard to Columbia would take. Dropping to the Frenchman Creek drainage to the east of Rabbit Ridge and ascending easy snow slopes had taken us two and a half hours at a comfortable, leisurely pace. We hoped to be able to do it one and a half to two hours today.

The salient image I had taken from the traverse last May was that we needed to aim far to the left and descend easy grassy slopes to the low point. I had forgotten that we first had a quite a distance to travel the ridge before we came to that point. Fortunately Jonathan recalled the sequence correctly and we kept to the ridge, going through a notch to the right of the ridge before coming out on the grassy slopes. With no snow to aid our descent we didn't make great time at all, reaching the low point in an hour and 18 minutes. The skies grew dark and threatening. Black clouds rose like burgeoning smoke from the cauldron of Horn Fork Basin west of the connecting ridge.

We were thirty minutes into our final ascent and 500 vertical feet below the summit when lightning flashed followed a second later by a loud clap of thunder. The storm was in the basin directly west of us. It would be suicide to continue to Columbia's summit. I have climbed a lot of Colorado's mountains and my experience is that thunderstorms leave often as fast as they arrive. They blow in and out with fast moving winds. We decided to hunker down and see if we could wait this one out. The time was 6:30 P.M. After thirty minutes it was only getting worse. Clouds rolled in from the east, moving up the Frenchman Creek Basin and consolidating with the black clouds from the west side of the connecting ridge. A huge thunderhead with a dark underside sat poised to the east.

I looked quickly at the topo map and plotted a course that would take us on a high traverse around Columbia's east ridge, then down to the North Cottonwood Road and our 2nd vehicle. I clicked the lap counter on my watch and told Jonathan we would back to the car in an hour and a half. It would take us four more hours. My hasty glance at the topo map had not taken in an extra drainage in between Frenchman and Cottonwood Creeks. It would have been faster to have gone over the top of Columbia. The time was 7:00 P.M. as we started down the grassy slopes.

The storm was gathering force and it first hailed then rained hard in large cold drops. I was clad only in running shorts, a lifa top and light windbreaker shell. Lightning was now in our basin. I told Jonathan, "Let's get off this mountain now! We're going to have to get below tree line fast." We ran steadily down the slopes aiming for the tree line and Frenchman's Creek. Our new plan was to follow the drainage to the Colorado Trail, then make a right and follow it to our 2nd vehicle.

Just below tree line in an open meadow we noticed a solitary tent. "Why would anyone be crazy enough to want to camp in this rain storm?" I asked. "Why would anyone be crazy enough to be climbing 14ers?" was Jonathan's response. We optimistically took the tent as an indication that the Colorado Trail must be near. Soon we found the Frenchman Creek trail and followed it along the creek. It went on seemingly forever. The rain and hail continued to alternate. The lightning and thunder was relentless, but at least we were out of the extreme danger zone. Finally after about an hour we came on a trail going to the right. Though there was no sign it had to be the Colorado Trail. We continued our Bataan death march. The pain on my right knee was getting worse.

As night fell we continued for some time without using a headlamp. Lightning flashes lit up the trail every 2-3 minutes. As we marched we optimistically anticipated the road and our car at any moment. Finally three hours from our bail out point we heard a strong river ahead. This had to be N. Cottonwood Creek! It was 10:00 P.M. I was so tired I was falling asleep on my feet. We rounded the corner only to find a totally unfamiliar swollen creek jammed with logs. "Where the hell are we???" We stopped and took out the topo for our first look since the glance high on Columbia's slopes three hours before. We were at Harvard Lakes! We still had three more miles to go to reach the car! We had no choice but to continue. Stopping would mean hypothermia. We resigned ourselves to our lot and continued our sorry slog.

On, on, on. This was a merciless conclusion to a very difficult day. I consoled myself with the thought that it would end eventually. I thought of the myth of Sisyphus, where the poor fellow is stuck for eternity pushing a rock up a mountain. I lapsed into oblivion, immersed in my own private hell of marching in the cold rain forever. Finally, we rounded a corner and far below could hear the melodious sound of the North Cottonwood. We still had to go down half a mile of switchbacks to reach it though. Here my knee pain sharpened and movement became painful. We were nearing the end of a 23-hour ultra marathon.

Back to the vehicle at last. Fortunately Jonathan was capable of driving back to our campsite off highway 82 far away at the trailhead to La Plata Peak. As we rode back I found myself dropping off to sleep. I forced myself to stay awake in case Jonathan had lapses into sleep himself. Finally back to the tent around midnight we collapsed exhausted in our bags into deep sleep. I awoke before seven with my knee screaming in pain. As I write this I hope the injury heals quickly. I have not run since.

Steve Bremner


webmaster requests:

That's the best trip report I've read in ages! I'd like to put it in the archives on climber.org.

Steve Bremner replies:

Sure go ahead. I only put the copyright because I intended to see if the Gazette would publish it in the "Out There" section.

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