The Captains of Us are back in action! This August, Jonathan and Molly will undertake another crazy adventure: attempting to fastpack the 485-mile long Colorado Trail (CT) in just 14 days.Read More
If you have been following Dan and Jonathan's blog since its inception, you may remember a certain red-haired tagalong who started popping up about halfway along the PCT when she and Jonathan hiked a double marathon together (the *real* one). 900 miles later, there she was again, photobombing their monument pictures. When the boys realized that they hadn't booked a ride back to STL, it was Ms. Frizzle and my Magic School Bus on loan, who came to the rescue. (Or at least, that's sort of how it happened...).
After leaving these fine fellows in St. Louis, I drove back to Vermont to live off the fruit of my parents' table for a few months while splitboarding the East's finest backcountry. You might say that a life of free rent and powder refills sounds pretty good. And it was. But I just couldn't leave these guys alone.
Somewhere along that 900 miles, I fell in love with Jonathan and to my delight, he agreed to go on another crazy adventure in which we moved from our respective homes here to Boulder, CO to play in some really big mountains. Daniel even moved out to Golden, CO, just down the road, putting the third wheel back on our PCTricycle (Or is that me?).
I've shared a lot of great stories with the Captains of Us, and I may pop up once in a while to tell a story or two when these clowns are taking themselves too seriously. I think its realistic to say I outrank them.
-- Major Frizzle, reporting.
THE REAL STORY:
The natives call these mountains the "14ers": the 54 peaks in Colorado above 14,000ft in elevation. There are websites, even an app, dedicated to the pursuit of summiting the whole set. Since arriving in Colorado in April, Dan, Jonathan and I have collectively summited 10 of them, but this past week, Jonathan and I got a little ambitious and decided to do a few more. Ok, a lot more.
Taking 4 days off, we decided to attempt a route through the Sawatch Range developed for a challenge known as "Nolan's 14". This challenge, that some insane athletes complete in under 60 hours, goes up and over fourteen 14ers by the most expedient possible route, which can vary slightly depending on who you ask. On average, to complete the challenge, you have to cover between 90 and 110 miles and do 44,500ft of climbing, or, about 3.5 times the amount needed to summit Everest from Base Camp. Much of this is off-trail route-finding and, as we soon discovered, much of that is scambling over sketchy, loose scree at 13,000ft. Check out the details of the route here.
No problem. We have 4 days and we're in good shape, right? Right?
On Day 1, we wake up to a frosty car window and put the alarm on snooze for a few more moments in the relative warmth. It is cold already at 9,500ft, but we start up the trail and we both feel strong as the sun comes up. Mt. Massive is the second highest peak in Colorado, the largest contiguous area above 14,000' in the U.S. and our first challenge of the day. Instead of taking the Class 1 trail up this rockpile, the route takes us up the shorter North Ridge, a steep Class 2 scramble. Huffing and puffing up the last few hundred feet we see someone heading down toward us.
"Wow, he's moving fast!" Jonathan exclaimed. The guy was wearing a running vest and was jogging off-road down the slippery rocks. When we came up to one another, he asked where we were headed and we explained our plan to hike the Nolan's 14 route. The guy grinned. He said, "I'm just finishing up!"
"Actually," he continued, "I think I'm about to set the speed record!" His GPS was at 51 hours. We asked him his name. Sure enough, when we got home there it was "Andrew Hamilton breaks speed record on Nolan's 14". Check out Andrew's website here for some inspiration.
Back to us, we had just barely made it to peak #1. It felt great. And look at that view behind us!
On to the next! Peak #2 is Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in the Rockies, at 14,433'. Usually known for being one of the easiest 14ers, it turns out that Elbert has a dark side. (Its the west one). Instead of cruising up Class 1 trail on the East Ridge, which would add lots of mileage, we ran down the back side of Massive, hiked up a 4WD road to the West Ridge and proceeded to climb 3,000 vertical feet over 1 mile of extremely loose, football sized rock-missiles. Do people really do this during a speed attempt?
Nearing the top and closing in on 8,000ft of climbing for the day, we were working for that summit. (read: I felt like I wanted to die). It even started snowing on us: Happy Autumn! Suddenly, we heard someone cheering us on. I heard Jonathan say: "They're so close! There's someone on the summit and they're so close!" Motivated, we pushed onwards to the summit.
At the top of the Rockies, we enjoyed a new view as our cheering squad erected his "BEER HERE" flag and cracked a tall boy. His friend was wearing a "DRINK WATER" sweatshirt and did not take photos with the flag, although it sounded like he had probably carried it for most of the hike. Mr. Keystone Ice told us it was his first 14er. (Yea... we know).
Jonathan and I were pretty wrecked after that climb and as we ate our summit snacks, we both realized that we were burning through food way faster than we had anticipated. We wouldn't have enough for even two more full days of snacks, and looking at the maps, we also realized that the best, and maybe only, opportunity to hitchhike back to the car for a resupply would come on Hwy 82, right on the other side of Elbert. So, we changed our plans.
It got dark as we finished our descent to the highway and we cowboy camped near the road, talking about our changing expectations. Before we left, we'd been impressed by the athletes who completed Nolan's 14 in just 60 hours. After just two peaks and just under a quarter of the elevation gain required to complete the route, we were astounded. After about 13 hours, covering 22 miles and over 8,000' of elevation, it wasn't that we were behind schedule. We were just ready to sleep. Soundly. Not do another 40+ hours of hiking.
Instead, we had a great night's sleep, and woke up to a beautiful morning. Did I mention that it's autumn in the high country? The aspens glowed that morning, amber against the sunrise as we walked down the highway, waiting for a hitch.
Highway 82 is a direct route to Aspen, so after a stream of dapperly dressed folks in Priuses drove past without flinching, a pickup truck was a welcome sight. An older gentleman pulled the truck to the side of the road and motioned for us to hop in the back. Hooray for pickup hitches!
After two easy hitches, we made it back to the car, drove into Leadville and concocted a new plan over delicious coffee at City on a Hill Coffee & Espresso. New plan: Hit La Plata Peak (#3) that afternoon, then drive south to hit the two southernmost peaks the following day.
La Plata was a steep hike, but the trail was relatively easy-going and the weather was gorgeous. We were sore from the previous day's hike, but we made it up to see another mind-blowing view.
It was an uneventful evening, but we had fresh food waiting at the car, so we were in great spirits as we drove south to the Angel of Shavano Trailhead, close to the southern terminus of Nolan's 14.
I wasn't feeling great the next morning, but the sun was up and off we went. The trail up Mt. Shavano follows the Colorado Trail for a few miles of stunning aspen glades and well-manicured path, then juts upwards through a forest of krummholz trees to a high saddle. Mt Shavano and Tabeguache Peak (say: "Tabawatch") are close together, connected by a gorgeous rocky ridgeline, and after snack breaks on both (of course), we felt like we had done enough for one weekend.
Finally on our last descent, we decided to take Friday to rest and recuperate our bodies before returning to work on Saturday. For good measure, we ran down Shavano, jogging the last few miles under a golden roof in the late afternoon sun.
That evening, a little sore and pretty tired, we drove up to Breckenridge to meet up with Washpot, who Jonathan had met on the PCT, and his girlfriend, Charlotte. Back at their place, we scarfed down a whole pizza and talked about tiny homes with a stunning view of Mt. Quandary (a 14er in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range). Washpot enlightened us with an answer to a questions we've been pondering since arriving in Colorado: Does high altitude give everyone gas? The answer? Not everyone (Charlotte was quick to explain), but almost. Coloradans have a name for this syndrome: HAFE, or, High Altitude Flatulent Expulsions. Well, now we know.
On our three day mini-adventure, and within 60 hours, we had hiked about 50 miles, climbed approximately 18,000ft (about 1.5 Everests) and bagged 5 peaks. Plus, we had two good nights' sleep! Even without going for speed, the rocky terrain and consistent high elevation were hard on our bodies and we would have been very hard pressed to hike for more hours than we did. We learned that, more than anything, Nolan's 14 is about brutal endurance: the willingness to push for hours, and when it gets hard, to push harder. In terms of the challenge, we completed only 35% of the peaks (5 of 14), but over 40% of the total elevation gain as well as about half the mileage (with some different routes, of course). We also slept for approximately 18 hours and drove for 3.5 to 4 hours. The rest was mostly eating, with some hiking interspersed in there. Let's just say we came back with a healthy respect for the athletes who complete the whole thing in that same time frame.
Maybe one day, we'll come back and bag the rest of the peaks. Perhaps someday, we'll even have a fighting chance at completing the challenge. For now, I'm pretty pleased with the fantastic days we spent hiking in these beautiful mountains. Altogether, not bad for a weekend.
Words: Molly (AKA Ms. Frizzle)
This posts takes us back to the High Sierra when we carried solar panels, extra clothes, and bear cans. Refer back to the previous two posts about both Forester and Glen passes - climbing them took time and required some logistical coordination. Surely climbing two in a day wouldn't be a great idea...
We had put ourselves in a tough spot, we hiked out from Kearsarge with 6 days of food hoping we would be okay hiking through the Sierra, we had a deadline. To get to the next food resupply we needed to hike both Pinchot and Mather in the same day and we thought we could do it.
The two passes were only 5 miles apart, both were over 12000 feet. Pinchot was straightforward, we camped in its shadow so the approach would be easy: hike a short distance and climb 2000 feet as soon as we woke up. I woke up late - around 7:30 or so, and was hiking alone. The climb was steady, but snow fields covered the trail most of the way. It was easy to get lost with the pass not yet in view.
I lost the trail several times, but once I could see where the pass was I just hiked straight for the it. Closing in on the final climb I stopped in the snow field. When I looked around and saw Quinoa and Pedi making their way in the snow behind me. Somehow I had gotten ahead of them by climbing over a rise in the snow pack while they followed the trail around the rise. I laughed because I was ahead now and because I was having the time of my life in the most beautiful, rugged landscape I'd ever been in. The pass was in sight and Half and half was ahead. It was time to get to the top. Looking forward, I saw the trail in the distance and plenty of foot prints in the snow to guide me.
I was third to gain the pass and the view was incredible. All four of us had made it and we ate a late breakfast together. Next we set our sights on Mather. The descent from Pinchot was easy - the trail was mostly uncovered and the north side of the pass was fantastic to look at.
Mather was a more gradual climb over 6 miles, but took longer than two hours. On the way up we encountered a ranger! She was headed the opposite direction and just asked for our names, but it was an incredible encounter to me. She was clean and carrying a huge pack and a shovel. She wished us luck and took down our names and let us go. I couldn't help but admire how clean she looked next to us, with our worn out shirts, shorts and tiny backpacks. She was hiking out to her summer appointment, most likely.
We made it to the final climb quickly - a couple stream crossings and walking on some snow, we crunched across hoping to avoid postholing as we went. It had looked easy from distance, but was not. The first part of the climb was fun compared to the other passes. The switchbacks were steep. I was able to look around and really observe the scenery. Mather had a gradual approach with a big lake at its base and the trail snaked around to the east. As we began the climb up switchbacks we entered the shade of the afternoon sun and we were totally exposed. After just a short way up I looked back to see what where we had come from. I took in that moment in the mountains.
The High Sierras are really like no place I've ever been. Snow covered and treacherous, they command respect. From the high places we could see vast expanses of white and grey teeth jutting upwards. We got to sample some the forces that helped shape the landscape as the cold wind whipped. I felt my own smallness and was struck by my insignificance relative to the giants I crawled upon. In that moment, on the side of a mountain pass, I was humbled by the enormity and majesty of the raw expanses which I was granted passage over. My moment of romance passed quickly, though - I had more altitude to gain and then we had to get down safely.
Loose talus (gravelly rock) and snow covered, the trail on the last few switchbacks was a littler nerve racking, and the mountainside was a deceiving 60 - 70 degree incline so no one fancied slipping. At one point I was clambering on softened snow and ice and slipped, feeling a shock from my feet, up my spine and in my neck - the image of me with my heavy pack (bear can included) sliding and falling down a mountain flashed in my mind. Immediately, I punched my fist into the snow on my left side and stabbed my trek pole hard on the right. No harm. Just sweating like crazy and that image not fading quickly enough. The snow had been in the sun all morning, after all, we couldn't rely on it to carry our weight as we gained altitude in the hundreds of feet.
The rest of the climb I finished carefully and was really happy to see the final switchback was mostly cleared of snow. The down climb was going to be rough - it was late in the day and the snow was soft and the first part of the descent was completely covered with thick snowpack and a few jutting rock points.
Pedi and Half and Half chose a different route than Quinoa and I. All of us postholed over and over again. I was soaked from falling in the soft snow, sweaty and exhausted by the slow, slipping down climb - fearing with each step I would sink into the snow, into some unseen pointed rock. Oh, and I was concerned the other two wouldn't find a safe way down and that I'd hear a yell from higher up on the pass as the sun began to set. The north side of Mather Pass was steep and had some shear cliffs and the trail probably navigated them well, but we had no idea where the trail was underneath the layer of thick snow.
Finally I made it to a boulder field and could hop from rock to rock downwards. Quickly I descended and found the trail - until that point I was just searching for a route in soft snow that led safely downward. Even though the trail was acting as a channel for ice-melt, I walked the cold water, completely soaked, but happy to take a full step again with confidence. To make progress. After what seemed like hours, I was anxious to find the others and to find a spot to camp.
After a few minutes of trudging in the water I saw Pedi and Half and Half! And they were ahead of me! Quinoa had postholed a lot and fell once or twice, but scrambled down quickly as well - I had a sense he was not far behind me the entire time as I could hear him cursing when he postholed (I'm sure he could here me, too. I'm not Soapbox because I'm the quiet one). Finally we could hike down and find a spot to sleep without slipping. We were exhausted.
With the four of us reunited and the trail immediately in front of us we hiked as fast as we could to find a place to camp for the night. As a reward for our double pass day we hiked to Palisade Lakes just as the sun set. Beautiful end to a day, but the Sierras had taken quite a toll on us.
Cheers and thanks for reading,
Dan (aka Soapbox)
I guess you could also call this post "PCT gear review."
Note: UL means ultralight. There is a trend among backpackers to carry gear as light as possible.
Note II: Always look for gear at a discount. Steep and Cheap is my favorite, but you get almost any piece of gear for a discount. Just because someone has a pack full of nice new gear doesn't mean they shelled out for it.
Note III: There is almost never an end all, be all for any single piece of gear. See what fits for your style and budget. These are simply my observations and opinions.
Pack - Granite Gear / VC Crown 60 (2lb 2oz)
Your pack needs to do two things. It should hold your stuff and ride comfortably. That's about it. That's exactly what the Crown 60 does, and it does it well. It does not have tons of bells and whistles, but it doesn't need to. It's comfy, light and reliable. One of my favorite pieces of gear. If it has a shortcoming, it's the lack of hip-belt pockets, but you can buy them and add them if you like. A very popular pack this year.
Sleeping bag - North Face / Blue Kazoo (2lb 6oz)
My sleeping bag is slightly heavier than average, but not by too much. It kept me warm almost every night but the most bitter cold and did so at a cost that was impossible to pass up. Not the fanciest piece of gear I own, but certainly one of the best values.
Sleeping pad - Thermarest / Prolite 4 (1lb 8oz)
My pad is an inflatable one, so you have to blow it up. Not a big deal, since it is one of the more comfortable options out there. It doesn't pack down as small as other pads, nor is it as light as most others, but it performs well and was cheap.
Also consider: Thermarest / Neo Air , the Cadillac of sleeping pads. Expensive, but the most comfortable and definitely UL. Requires lots of blowing up. Were I to do the trail again, I'd get this in a 3/4 length and use my pack for under my feet. (8oz for the shorty)
Also: Thermarest / Z-lite. Very popular, UL, durable and inexpensive. Doubles as a sit pad. Not exactly the cushiest pad though. (10oz for the shorty)
Groundsheet - 2' x 7' sheet of Tyvek (4oz?)
Totally necessary. I bought mine for $5, it weighs next to nothing, adds mild insulation and protects both your tent and sleeping pad from punctures and abrasions.
Tent - Easton / Kilo 1p (1lb 14oz)
I loved my tent. It's light, reliable, kept me warm and dry, has a decent size vestibule, and doesn't take too long to set up. Add the great price at which I purchased it, and it is a great buy. The big downside was that it is a monopole tent and, therefore, not freestanding, which means you have to be careful how you set it up in the wind, but that was never really a problem for me. Unfortunately nobody seems to have it in stock anymore.
Also consider: Big Agnes / Flycreek UL 2, a very popular tent on trail and with good reason. (1lb 15oz)
Don't consider: Tarptent / Contrail. Everyone I knew who had one if these hated it.
Headlamp - Petzl / Tikka XP 2 (3oz)
While the headlamp can be a pretty inconsequential piece of gear, I loved mine. Bright/dim, beam/diffused, white/red lights. It's got all the features and doesn't weigh much.
Also consider: I can't be bothered to care.
Knife/multitool - Leatherman / Style CS Multitool (1.4oz)
Great little tool. Not too heavy and just the right tools, which include a knife, scissors, clip/bottle opener and a file.
These worked well for the desert and Sierra, but their effectiveness dropped off rapidly by time we hit dense forest in NorCal and Oregon. Useless in Washington. Plus, they aren't exactly UL, especially not with the Guide 10 attached.
At only $20 and and 5 ounces, I think this is a much better option for recharging your phone. It'll give my iPhone two charges, which should be enough for pretty much any section of the trail. It's also much smaller and less cumbersome than dealing with a solar panel.
Trekking Poles - Black Diamond / Ultra Distance Z-poles (10oz)
These are among the lightest poles available on the market and worked well for me. One broke, but Black Diamond had great customer service and immediately replaced it. Poles are actually one of the few pieces of gear where weight doesn't seem to matter so much. Even having poles is up for argument. The lighter your pack, the less necessary they are. Sometimes I wouldn't use them for most of a section and find them irritating, especially over rocky terrain. Other times I found them invaluable. Mostly, I recommend looking for a pair that are affordable.
Stove - JetBoil / Flash (15oz)
The JetBoil is faster than anything else out there, but it's really only effective for boiling water. If you try to cook pasta and stuff in it you're going to burn stuff to the bottom, which is a major pain in the butt to clean. It's also slightly heavier than other options. If you cook a lot of Mountain House, Ramen or instant potatoes, though, it's awesome.
Nothing is going to be perfect, but this setup allows for actual cooking if you have things like Knorr sides or Mac'n'cheese. Not as fast as a JetBoil, but it's a little more versatile and lighter. Remember, variety is key when it comes to eating on the PCT.
A small one for odds and ends like toothbrush, permits and Ibuprofen. Also for sleep clothes. You could honestly just use a gallon ziplock bag though. Why didn't I think of that while I was still on trail