In darkness illuminated only by a tunnel of light from his headlamp, a sleep-deprived Andrew Hamilton keeps running. He’s not afraid of wild animals or stumbling on the rocky trail. As he traverses one fourteener after another, there’s just one soul-and-sinew-motivating fear: stopping.
His mantra: “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid of standing still.”
Standing still means quitting. Quitting means failure. But in Hamilton’s case, fear translates to an almost superhuman perseverance. After setting the ridiculously difficult Nolan’s 14 record, Hamilton is still standing.
Yeah, okay, with blistered feet, wheezing lungs and a befuddled brain. But victorious all the same.
Last month Hamilton, a 42-year-old Denverite, managed to summit 14 fourteeners in 53 hours and 42 minutes. Taking the north/south route, he traversed 100 miles and gained 44,000 feet in elevation to conquer mounts Shavano, Tabeguache, Antero, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, Belford, Missouri, Huron, La Plata, Elbert and Massive. In the process, Hamilton beat the records he'd set in 2014 and 2015.
“I’m slow and steady. I’m the tortoise kind of guy," Hamilton says. "But I have this consistency, and that’s how you get the records. It’s not about speed. The key is to just never stop.”
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The Nolan’s 14 challenge dares adventurers to summit as many fourteeners as possible in the Sawatch Range, in Chaffee and Lake counties, in sixty continuous hours. The Upper Arkansas Valley has the largest concentration of fourteeners in the state, and the Nolan's 14 started there in the late ’90s as an organized event. Today it's neither sanctioned nor a race, but it’s still a respected solo pursuit for the rare soul who considers climbing consecutive fourteeners a fun way to spend a weekend.
“For ultra runners, you do the Leadville 100, the Hard Rock 100, and then what’s next? Nolan’s,” Hamilton says. “It’s not a set trail. That’s what makes it so different. There’s a lot to figure out beforehand, and during, really. You can never put your brain on auto-pilot like when you’re doing an organized race. You’re by yourself, and you have to concentrate the whole time.”
That’s the thrill.
Hamilton’s record this year was even more remarkable because he started his trek on July 2 at the Mount of the Holy Cross. This additional thirty miles transformed the feat into “Holy Nolan’s,” something no one had before attempted with the Nolan’s 14. “Adding Mount Holy Cross was an idea whose time had come,” Hamilton says. The time on the extra peak was not added to his Nolan’s 14 time, just to the wear and tear on body and mind.
A fellow fourteener enthusiast, Chris Tomer, KWGN Channel 2 Daybreak’s meteorologist, helps adventurers plan treks around good-weather windows. It's hard to describe how difficult Hamilton’s feat was to accomplish, Tomer says: “This really is the Holy Grail.”
Hamilton, a divorced dad with four kids, was born in Salt Lake City; his family later moved to Cortez. He vividly remembers his first mountain summit. It was July 4, 1986, and he was eleven. “It was a pretty epic day. I fell down a snowfield,” he says, and laughs.
He graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder and spent several summers guiding for Wilderness Aware Rafting in Buena Vista. “I’ve always loved the Arkansas River and the Sawatch Range there," he says. "I love that these mountains are literally the heart of the state. I also love Cottonwood Hot Springs and Mount Princeton Hot Springs and the whole South Main area in Buena Vista. I’d like to live there.”
Without a goal, Hamilton admits that he’s an exercise procrastinator. But about sixty days out from a big climb, cue the Rocky workout music. He starts doing the Insanity workout daily; the intense routine gets his whole body ready. “I’ll run, too, but only about six miles at a time," he says. "If I go longer while training, it starts to destroy my body. It’s good to mix it up, especially now that I’m in my forties.
His training diet? “He eats cookies, chips and salsa, and Frappuccinos,” says his girlfriend, Andrea Sansone, a nurse at Children’s Hospital. Fittingly, they met on a fourteener. Sansone was part of Hamilton's support team for his 2015 record, and repeated the job this year. “I’m a vegetarian, but I’m a junk-food vegetarian,” Hamilton admits.
On the mountain, though, the goal is simply to get calories in. “The powder is really key. We use an endurance powder that tastes terrible. We call it 'yucky milk,'” Sansone says.
When Hamilton's hiking, he has no desire for food. “But you’re burning so many calories, you literally just need the fuel," he says. "You have to force food down. I’ll have eggs with a whole stick of butter. I drink a lot of liquids. Still, I always lose weight on these things. I lost five pounds in three days this time.”
“Then gained it right back," Sansone adds. "Thank you, M&Ms.”
There are other physical challenges. By the time he was coming down from Columbia this round, Hamilton had a nasty blister on the bottom of his foot. Because he's obsessed with keeping his feet dry, Hamilton takes off his shoes on big stream crossings. This time, some river gravel ground its way into his blister and festered. At the meet-up, Sansone practically had to “peel off my skin” to clean it out, he remembers. Then she wrapped his foot in athletic tape, and off he went.
Sansone and several other friends followed his route with GPS tracking and coordinated their meet-ups with precision timing. Most were at trailheads, but once Sansone had to hike in with supplies. “We’re there to give him food, more powder, a change of socks or clothes, whatever he needs,” she says.
Proof of each summit is provided by satellite tracker.
The longest Hamilton went without human contact or help was sixteen hours. He listens to audiobooks like Aragon, The Pillars of the Earth and The Martian to quiet the sound of his own heartbeat and breathing.
Why does he do it? “Sometimes I think it’s the only thing I’m really good at,” Hamilton says. “When I was a software engineer, I never had the chance to inspire people. Now I do, and it’s a cool feeling. To have that effect on people. To feel like I have this calling. I’d love to find a way to turn this into a career.”
It’s addicting, too, Sansone adds: “Not that he’s an addictive person, but he definitely likes that ‘what’s next’ element.”
They both do. What’s next for Sansone is her own quest to set the California fourteener speed record for women; her goal is to summit fifteen peaks in less than nine days. Hamilton will hike alongside her. His “what’s next” is attempting to set the record for climbing the Highest 100 in Colorado — a combo of all the thirteeners and fourteeners.
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Fourteener hikers enjoy a special camaraderie. They gather for fourteeners happy hour, they share information on 14ers.com. They follow each other’s climbs on trackers. “We learn from each other. Inspire each other. It really is a strong community,” Hamilton says. But it’s a competitive bunch, too. Others are barking at his heels.
“Having to navigate, especially at night, is a special skill set," he explains. "That kind of sleep-deprived brain fog has been the downfall of many attempting this challenge. Sometimes these really fast guys make mistakes in that area and fall apart. But someone will figure it out. Someone will beat me. But it’s fun to be at the top for now."
Hamilton still holds a 2003 record for riding a bicycle between all Colorado’s fourteeners, too.
“It’s cool to have records for however long they last, but I embrace others’ accomplishments, too," Hamilton says. "I’ve seen hikers with records get really bitter when someone beats them, and then others who are so gracious. I want to be the gracious guy when it happens.”