STRAIGHT TALK: Ben Clark and “Nolan’s 14”

Photo by Andrew Maguire

Headed out on a fifth attempt at the hardest run on the planet, the filmmaker talks about what it takes to pull off the grittiest challenge in mountain sports.

Nolan’s 14 is 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. The route is up to the participant, but only 15 percent of those who have attempted it, since it began in 2001, have been able to finish. Former Himalayan mountain guide Ben Clark attempted the route four times and has yet to complete it (he will try a fifth time this month). He has, however completed a documentary called “Nolan’s 14,” which chronicles the pain, joys, and history of the run. The film will be making the rounds this summer on the Ragnar Trail Series and at hosted screenings presented by Osprey Packs (check the schedule at bclarkmtn.com). You can also purchase it for home viewing on Vimeo, with $1 going to support Paradox Sports. We caught up with Clark just before he set out on his latest solo, unsupported attempt.

What exactly makes Nolans’s 14 so difficult?

It’s a high-altitude adventure that requires a great bit of flexibility and a unique skill set. The “completed” line linking 14 fourteener summits is not a set route, other than those 14 specific points. An attempt can be made traveling on foot between them in any order, direction and style. Because of that flexibility, the distance can vary from 88–103 miles, although the amount of vertical gain and loss stays the same at around 46,000 feet both ways. Shorter is not always better, which is counterintuitive and often adjustments have to be made on the fly because of weather, darkness and logistics if the attempt is supported by a crew or pacers.

How do the few who do finish manage to do it? What’s the secret? 

Low precipitation seems to be the one common theme to every successful completion. Route knowledge and fitness more akin to ultramarathon runners than mountaineers is equally important.

What inspired you to make the film? 

I was getting footage with small cameras while I scouted so I could have it as a log to figure out the route. It was clear that a lot of others who had made attempts also had personal footage or photos of the route, too. Enough, I found out, to make a film. I felt people would enjoy learning about what others had experienced and aspire to do it themselves. I wanted to encourage that. With four documentaries already under my belt, I knew it would be a challenge, but I also was uniquely qualified to rise to the occasion.

How did your experience as a guide for so many years play into how you approach this film project?

I love sharing the mountains with others and spent most of my early twenties as a guide. Around 2005, I put out the film “Everest: The Other Side” about my ascent of Everest at 23 years old. From 2007–2012, I increased my climbing risk level to pioneering alpine climbs and ski descents. Guiding became less of a priority. But the desire to be able to share that sense of discovery and adventure never waned, and through several projects I found ways to include media. I always felt that it wasn’t enough to go these places on my own and take them in just for me.

Do you worry about public land managers closing down something like Nolan’s? Could they even if they wanted too?

A large group of friends developed and attempted Nolan’s 14 in the early 2000s. It started as three people and grew to be a real celebration of the run. When the group size swelled to more than 15, the Forest Service asked them to cease organizing and attempting it as a large group. That was a game-changer, the line was just too big and logistically complicated to consider going alone. But Matt Hart, Jared Campbell and Eric Lee were able to do it successfully almost a decade later. Then in 2014, Andrew Hamilton did it completely unsupported and solo. Going smaller is less impactful and there have been no reports regarding shutting down any smaller attempts or those attempts in any way disrupting the outdoor experiences of those around them.

How does something like Nolan’s reaffirm the importance of public lands to you?

The freedom to roam in the Colorado Rockies is a real privilege. Climbing a line like this, one so much larger than anything I attempted in a decade of focused Himalayan climbing is rare. That there are no permit fees, no private land or mining claims blocking the path to the summits of these peaks is a real asset that every Coloradoan can experience for themselves. This is a huge region that you can drive right up to and feel as if you are in a faraway land in under an hour on foot, sometimes minutes. That’s important, to be able to take in nature, to connect.

Why did you choose to raise money for Paradox Sports with the film?

I like challenges and encouraging people to challenge themselves. Paradox Sports works with people who are experts at non elective challenges, such as a physical or mental impairment, they are pre-qualified to see another way to do things, something I really admire in people. So far, with donations from the film tour and sales, we raised enough money for Paradox to send two climbers up the Grand Teton. I like that. To be able to set out to share a story for the sake of inspiring others and to have a measurable impact, that’s awesome. There is no doubt we can make a difference with it.

What was your favorite moment when you were out on the run? 

On my second attempt in 2013, I endured the first 50 miles of the course in mostly winter conditons with deep snow. Cut loose from my pacer on the second day and chasing sunlight, I finally broke into a clearing and I could see that heading south, the line was finally going to get less complicated and easier. I should have quit long before then but I didn’t. I pushed myself to explore this dream and, in that moment, despite 35 hours on foot, I was present and living what I dreamed Nolan’s could be—me at my best and the line at it’s best. Then all hell broke loose in the skies nine hours later and that attempt ended—but not without that lesson learned.

 

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