In June, we spoke with mountaineer and ultra-runner, Ben Clark prior to his fifth attempt at ‘Nolan’s 14,’ a 100-mile mountain route with 90,000 feet of climbing and (not surprisingly) a dismal 15% finish rate. In the article, EO’s Editor Doug Schnitzspahn, aptly described ‘Nolan’s 14’ as “arguably the hardest thing to pull off in the sport of mountain running. It is not a race. It’s not even a sanctioned event anymore. It is simply a standing challenge—participants must traverse 14 14,000-foot summits in Colorado’s Sawatch Range in under 60 hours.”
Last Friday, September 25 at 6 am, Clark set out on his sixth attempt. In 43 hours, Clark made it up and down 10 peaks. In total, he only stopped to eat, rest and sleep for 90 minutes; which means he spent 41.5 hours on the move. When he reached the bottom of Mt. Yale (the 10th peak on the route) and began ascending toward Princeton, Clark pulled the plug. He was battling a bronchial infection induced by so much time at altitude and started to question his ability to make good decisions.
Last Sunday, just hours after he emerged from the backcountry, I was lucky enough to spend time sharing food, hearing stories and watching the eclipse in Salida with Ben—an amazing athlete and humble soul who seeks out adventure because he thrives on it, but also because he hopes to inspire others through his actions. Though he was understandably exhausted, after a shower and some chow, Ben was kind enough to feed the journalist in me by answering a few questions about his adventure and what’s next on his exciting agenda.
Why attempt it 6 times?
Nolan’s 14 has never been boring to me. I’ve greatly enjoyed the process of first trying it the way everyone did it—crewed and heavily supported. Eventually, I unlocked that I could at least get by with doing it the way I want to: solo, in one push with no support. Every time it just gets faster and more fun as it inspires higher levels of commitment and as I actualize my potential in the mountains.
What happened this time to make you call it?
I was taking everything very easy for as long as possible to set myself up for a lighter pack and faster pace for the last 28 miles. After nearly 39 hours and 70 miles on the move at a very easy but constant pace with breaks every 7 hours or so, I started pushing harder and a chest cold flared up when I hit 13,000′ on the 10th of 14 peaks. It made me hypoxic and gave me very challenging and distracting symptoms like having HAPE. I didn’t realize that pushing so hard suddenly would bring the cold back, but the numbers above don’t lie; I was on such a fine line of sustained effort and the increase pushed me over.
I had taken a Dayquil the day before I started and started thinking the cold had maybe moved on, but I didn’t have plans to push it and see until I felt I should. I felt great 70 miles in and was happy at the time I finally started hammering the uphill. I am a single dad with a 3-year-old little boy and he was sick when I left as well too. Kind of luck of the draw when you have little ones. My life is a balance and this time, it got to me.
Why do you still see this attempt as a success?
No one else has made it as far as I have North to South on the route and without support. If so few can squeeze it in heavily supported, it’s mind-boggling to think it is still possible in under 60 hours with 35 pounds on your back. The preparation was intense and educational. I spent a lot of time building out the right kit of gear and training to be alone and moving for 7 hours at a time. It made me a more patient person and has inspired me to dream bigger and trust myself when I’m alone and/or hurting emotionally and physically.
What was the best moment?
There was a moment about 27 hours in when I discovered that the food I really wanted, a Clif Organics Pizza Margherita paste was right on top when I unzipped my front food pouch. I was at 13,500′ or so, traversing this gnarly backside off-trail terrain on Mt. Missouri and my stomach was rumbling and did not want more sugars. I yelled out a huge “F*** Yeah!” when I saw it. You would have thought I had found a gold mine up there. I think it is amazing how much simpler I’ve become in recognizing that the things I need are not that complicated and when I have them, I am very happy not to worry about anything else but the delight in that moment.
What was the hardest/worst moment?
As I descended the summit ridge of Mt. Yale in the dark on my second night out, I struggled to make sense of the route because the cold had overtaken me and my mind wasn’t getting the blood it needed to make quality decisions. Any moment on that ridge qualifies as bad, from start to finish.
Will there be a seventh time?
Yes, I will finish it. I hope that it only takes one more time but then again, it doesn’t suck being healthy and in shape for this.
What’s next for you?
I will go to Bhutan next October and run The Snowman Trek with some friends. It is 216 miles long and has eleven 16,000′ passes. I will also finish the fourteeners next summer; I have 11 left.
You made a film about ‘Nolan’s 14.’ Where can we see the film?
You can always download and watch it here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/nolans14. It should also be showing in Aspen and Salida at some point in 2016 so keep an eye out.
Osprey Rev 18 pack
3 L Reservoir
Sawyer Inline water filter
Esbit Fuel cell stove
6 fuel cells
Montbell 10oz summer sleeping bag
Outdoor Research Helium Bivy Sack
Sol 96″ x 54″ emergency blanket
Stainless steel cup
Med kit with bandages
3 spare batteries
Goal Zero Venture 30 Charger
1100 Lumen compact Flashlight
Delorme InReach Explorer
Suunto Ambit 2
New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro
Superfeet Carbon Pro insole
2 Smartwool compression sock
2XU calf sleeve
Patagonia Strider short
Patagonia fleece tights
Patagonia Forerunner L/S Shirt
Patagonia Fleece vest
Patagonia Leashless jacket
Patagonia Super Cell pants
Patagonia Nano Air hoody
Patagonia Ultra Light down Sweater
Patagonia Duck Bill Hat
4 pairs of gloves
12 pieces of homemade gluten-free pizza
1 plain double cheeseburger
10 Kits Organic Clif bars
12 Clif gels
6 Clif Organics pouches
12 salt tablets
5 Starbucks Via Lattes – instant
9 Clif electrolyte drink mix