Van Horn conquers Nolan’s 14, summiting 14 fourteeners in less than 46 hours
There was a moment when Sean Van Horn didn’t think he could complete his Nolan’s 14 endurance run attempt.
In his bid to complete all 14 of the fourteeners — peaks with summits 14,000 feet or higher — that make up Nolan’s 14, he found himself climbing La Plata Peak alone in the middle of the night.
“I hadn’t done the backside, which is a (regular) route; it’s a trail most of the way up. It was the second night, and I was just fraying mentally and physically, and I had a really tough time. It probably would have helped if I would have actually scouted that part,” he said. “The trail kind of disappears in the talus. I was just kind of bumbling around trying to figure out where to go. I was in a tough state at that point.”
And, after a 2:17 a.m. summit, the way down from La Plata wasn’t any better.
“Quite a few people have actually gotten lost coming down off La Plata on their Nolan’s routes. I think it’s ended a couple bids. I always thought that was weird because it’s just a standard route. … But coming down that in the night I now understand how people get lost, because it’s just a big pile of rocks,” he said.
Fatigue was also setting in.
“I was stumbling around confused for a while. The body was coming apart. I kind of had to walk down that whole trail. My quads were pretty blown, and I was definitely contemplating dropping. I got in to see my crew at the bottom, and I crawled into the back of the truck, told people I need to sleep and that I might not be able to go any further. But after a couple of minutes in the truck and some goading from my friends and family I was able to get out, and the next climb up Elbert actually went pretty quickly,” he said.
In the end, Van Horn went on to post the second-fastest time on record for the Nolan’s 14.
The course goes over 14 of Colorado’s fourteeners between Mount Massive on the north end and Mount Shavano on the south in either direction.
Originally a race, people now do it on their own and submit their time to the website mattmahoney.net/nolans14/.
Van Horn climbed 43,225 feet over 92.8 miles in 45 hours, 57 minutes, according to his Strava data.
Though he picked the days for his attempt based on the weather forecast, Van Horn, 33, got into some trouble on a mountaintop.
“We got caught in a pretty decent lightning storm on top of Oxford. … I was a little concerned,” he explained. “My friend Andrew (Letherby) was with me at the time. He’s super positive and upbeat, and he was like, ‘We’ll be fine, no worries, it doesn’t look that bad.’ As we get up closer lightning starts cracking off with graupel the size of quarters coming down.”
Bad weather on an exposed peak can very quickly make for a dangerous situation.
“I was pretty freaked out, I just wanted to run off the mountain, I didn’t even care about the effort at that point,” Van Horn said. “My poles were buzzing and crackling (with electricity). I was petrified. We ended up hiding out by this rock outcropping for a while until it subsided a bit, and then kept going toward Belford,” he said.
Van Horn relayed the common experience among endurance athletes, the inevitable low and coming out of it.
“Everyone’s going to have a big low at some point in an effort like that. After two nights with no sleep you’re probably going to start to fray at the edges at some point. I’m kind of glad I had a good low by myself out there. It makes it feel like more of a challenge I really had to overcome. If it all went smoothly and I didn’t come apart at some point then it would have lessened it in a way,” he said.
Somehow knowing lows happen and are temporary is forgotten in the exhaustion of the moment.
“This is the third thing I’ve done that’s a day or longer, and every long effort I’ve done so far you have a low when you think you’re done. Your body hurts and your brain is crying out for respite, but the body and brain just come back around. I seem to forget this every single time I’m out there, and I think the new low I’ve had is the lowest low I’ve ever had and I’ll never get out of it, but it is kind of amazing that if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other it comes back around,” he said.
Even some of the parts that were less dramatic were still challenging.
“Princeton is probably the crux of the route. On the descent off the north side the whole mountain just wants to move. There’s just rocks the size of small refrigerators that are trying to come down on top of you, so I did that with Casey (Weaver) in the night, and I hadn’t scouted it out. That was pretty heinous,” Van Horn said.
“I think the fact that it was in the middle of the night, and we were both kind of tired (made it dangerous). … It was a talus slope, really loose, everything was moving, if you step on it wrong it would turn over on your ankle. We moved slowly through it,” Weaver said.
Weaver, 30, also did a few laps with Van Horn during his uphill record attempt at Buttermilk last year.
Like the Mount Princeton descent, much of the Nolan’s route is off trail.
“A lot of it is nonstandard (routes). I’m not sure what the percentage breakdown is but I’d say 40% or so is on more established routes,” Van Horn said.
Because of that, it is a much more solitary experience than climbing 14ers can be.
“Luckily on the Nolan’s route a lot is off-trail so you really don’t see too many people. That was pretty cool to be out there with myself and my pacer for a lot of the sections. I saw two other people who were doing Nolan’s while I was out there, which was kind of cool. It’s definitely becoming a more popular route this year with COVID,” he said.
COVID was a factor in Van Horn’s decision to try the Nolan’s 14.
“It was difficult to think about signing up for anything with the uncertainty of it all. We weren’t sure if we should travel to races, what’s correct, what’s the right thing to do. It just seemed easier to come up with a plan for an effort on my own to get out and challenge myself,” he said.
Van Horn didn’t sleep during his nearly two-day effort.
“In the back of the truck (after La Plata) I probably slept for 30 seconds or one minute. I had the intention of trying to sleep more. I was super tired, but my thoughts were racing, ‘Just keep moving.’ Once the sun came up I felt pretty good actually,” he said.
He started at 5:11 p.m. on July 30 and finished at 3:08 p.m. on Aug. 1. While many people opt to start early after a night’s sleep, Van Horn sees an advantage to an afternoon start.
“People seem to start at all different times. A lot of people start in the morning because that’s kind of traditional, but I do think there can be one big advantage to starting (later). The two other fastest times started in the evening. … One of the main ideas is that you’re in that first night when you’re not that tired. So I had good energy through the first night because I was only a couple of hours in, whereas if you start at 6 in the morning by the time it gets dark you’ve already been moving for 14 or 15 hours and you’re pretty worked, and that night kind of gets to you a little bit more,” he said.
Van Horn ran some alone and had pacers for part of the trip. Casey Weaver did Princeton. Joe Demoor did Missouri and Huron, and Kyle Young did Elbert and Massive with Van Horn.
“There are a few sections where I definitely wanted some people because I didn’t know the route as well. … I didn’t do that many sections solo, which was good and bad. I like being alone, but it was a long time to be out there, and it was honestly pretty nice to have company,” he said.
Van Horn has had recurring back problems that concerned him some in the lead-up to his attempt.
“With my injury history with my back I’m grateful my body held up and I was able to finish it. I always have some back stuff going on. It was bugging me a bit in the weeks going into it,” he said.
While he said rest and recovery is in his immediate future, he might try another similar effort someday.
“I’m not sure what’s next, but I’d like to do more things and routes like this just because I think the process leading up to it and the training is so fun. So maybe the Wind River high route, or maybe something up in Washington where I’m from,” he said.
Weaver said that Van Horn is quite unusual, even among endurance athletes.
“Sean’s one of the most incredible athletes I know. He’s physically very talented; he’s been a serious endurance athlete since he was very young. … Serious endurance athletes have an interesting relationship with pain and discomfort, they appreciate it and understand its value, they see it as a means to an end. Sean’s the only one person I’ve ever met who has real enjoyment of the discomfort as an end in itself. … Between that mindset and that ability to dig a lot deeper than anyone else I know he’s more capable than anyone else out there,” Weaver said.
Van Horn said the best part of the experience was the preparation.
“It was a great summer. … What I really liked with this was it got me out on some pretty fun alpine routes that allowed me and (wife) Kylee to get out and explore and spend time in beautiful places, so that was pretty cool,” he said.
CIA Director William Burns headlines the list of speakers and panelists for the Aspen Security Forum, which returns as an in-person forum from July 19-22.
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