The Toughest of Them All

Anna Frost and Missy Gosney just became the first women to complete the epically difficult Colorado mountain running challenge, Nolan’s 14

At 3:55 p.m. on August 18, after two and a half days, 100 miles and 90,000 vertical feet, Anna Frost and Missy Gosney reached the summit of Mt. Shavano. Delirious and elated almost to the point of tears, they hugged one another and made a pinky promise that they would never, ever do it again. By “it,” they meant Nolans 14—a linkup of the 14 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch Range. They had just become the 13th and 14th people overall—and the first women— to complete the challenge.

“In the end, I had been focused on this for three years,” says Gosney. “The sense of accomplishment at working so hard and sticking to my goal, that was pretty huge.”

“Relief,” says Frost. “And exhaustion. That’s what I was feeling. From the summit of Shavano you can look back and see six or seven peaks, and it took me a long time to believe that we had actually done that. It’s a beautiful line.”

Nolans 14 is the brainchild of two engineers, Fred Vance and Jim Nolan. They conceived of the run over the course of several years in the early 1990s. Vance was dissatisfied with the lack of true mountain races in the U.S. He enlisted his coworker, Nolan, who had hiked all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, to cram as many 14ers as possible into 100 miles. Nolan found their line in the Sawatch Range, where the peaks are close together and less technical than their counterparts in other parts of the state. To keep things challenging they set a time limit of 60 hours, though neither thought anyone would actually be able to finish in that time.

Due to strict regulations on the use of federal wilderness area land, Nolans 14 no longer exists as an official race. However, die-hards continue to test themselves against the route each year. To date, nearly fifty runners have attempted the challenge. Until this summer, only 13 had succeeded.

Frost and Gosney on the Mt. Massive's summit ridgeline, two peaks into the route
Frost and Gosney on the Mt. Massive’s summit ridgeline, two peaks into the route

A Colorado local, 48-year-old Gosney found out about Nolans three years ago when her friends Jared Campbell and Matt Hart ran it in 2012. “I had no idea that you could take a great line like that and put it together as an ultra distance run,” she says. She had only been running ultra-distance trail races for two years, but quickly began doing reconnaissance in preparation for a Nolans bid of her own, building on fifteen years of experience teaching for the Colorado Outward Bound School. “I spent months examining topography maps and then going into the mountains, nailing the routes I wanted to use and making sure I understood what to do on the ground once I got there. It was a lot of long days, after day after day, figuring out: can I go out and do three or four peaks in a single push? Can I go out and do that two days in a row?”

Frost had had Nolans on the brain since 2011, when she traveled to the United States from her native New Zealand for the Trans Rockies Run. Fellow professional trail runner Anton Krupicka took her into the Sawatch Mountains to climb her first 14er. “There was no trail, just scrambling up rocky cliffs and down scree shoots and through brush,” she says. “Then we got to the summit and there were like 20 people on top. I thought how on earth are people doing this? I asked Anton if this was a trail, and he said ‘no, this is the Nolans route.’”

Frost and Gosney teamed up after spending the summer training together for the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run, which took place in July. Frost won the women’s race and Gosney came in fourth. With only a five week-turn around between that first brutal 100-miler and Nolans, the two women decided to go for it. “I had put in 6 or 7 really solid weeks before Hardrock,” says Frost. “I knew it would still be in my system for Nolans. It was just a matter of going for short runs to get the legs working.”

They set out from the Leadville Fish Hatchery at 6 a.m. on August 16. The weather cooperated and they moved well, bagging Mt. Massive, Mt. Elbert and La Plata, a total of 34 miles, by 6:30 p.m. “At this point, my biggest fear was not being able to keep up with Frosty,” says Gosney. “She was killing me with her quick descending. I had to run in front of her to keep her from burning us both out.” The women met their crew at the La Plata trailhead, refueling on water and snacks before heading out to tackle Mt. Huron and Mt. Missouri, an 11.5-mile stretch, overnight.

It was during the ascent of Missouri that the weather started to turn. “We had rain, hail and lightening,” says Gosney. Luckily, their crew had hiked in to 13,000-foot Elkhead Pass, where they had tents, sleeping bags, hot food and whiskey waiting. The duo slept for ten minutes and took advantage of the lower elevation to scarf down some turkey, avocado wraps and freeze-dried meals. “Up above 13,000 feet, you’re just not hungry,” says Frost. “We were only consuming around 100 calories an hour. We tried to refuel as much as possible down low.”

The rain and lightening continued as they set out for the next 15-mile stretch, which would include Mt. Belford, Mt. Oxford, Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia. The storm chased them up the first two peaks and down into Pine Creek. As the sun rose on day two, the rain dissipated. They summited Harvard and Columbia, but by this point exhaustion was closing in. Both wanted desperately to nap, and probably would have, if not for the large storm clouds moving back in.”We stopped and lay down,” says Frosty, “but didn’t sleep.”

Frost and Gosney were halfway up Mt. Yale when a violent lightening storm finally broke out, forcing them back to tree-line to wait out the storm. “The storm was right on top of us,” says Frost. “We bailed off the side of the ridge and hid under some pine trees. We spent about an hour and a half sprinting from tree to tree between lightening bolts, until we could get out of the storm.”

When they got off of Mt. Yale, almost 70-miles into the route, the rain was still crashing down. If the storm continued much longer, they would have to abandon the route alltogether. But they weren’t ready to give up just yet. “We knew that if we got to tree-line on Princeton and the storm was still in full force, we would be done,” says Gosney. “But we knew we had to at least try.” After a 25 minute nap and some pizza, they set out for the approach to the Princeton ridge route. They had roughly seven miles to traverse down low before hitting the Princeton trailhead. Hopefully seven miles would leave enough time for the storm to clear.

“Part of the beauty of Nolans is that in between a lot of those mountains, there is no exit unless you are prepared to run for four hours,” says Frost. “You are out there. You are committed. There is always a risk that something will go down, but that’s the risk you take.” When they reached the Princeton trailhead, the lightning storm was still in full force. They decided to go for it, hoping that it would dissipate by the time they neared tree-line.

Luckily, it did. In exchange, however, they got gale-force winds and frigid temperatures. “It was uncomfortably cold,” says Gosney, “but better than being in an electric storm.” The wind was strong enough to knock them over repeatedly, and they retreated to the lee side of the ridge for occasional relief, where they did sit ups to stay warm.

It was around this time that Frost’s hallucinations set in. “I told Missy ‘keep an eye on me, I’m not sure if I’m standing on snakes or stones,” she says. “At one point there was a rock—I knew it was a rock—but I couldn’t see anything other than an elephant. We were cold, miserable, and scared. We kept giving each other pep talks, because we knew if we could get over Princeton, we could finish.”

Exhausted, the duo descended into the Alpine aid station and for the first time, realized that success was within reach. Frost wanted to sleep off her hallucinations, but Gosney knew that if they wanted to make it to Shavano on time they would have to hustle.  Hustle they did, in one straight push for the final sixteen miles and three summits—Mt. Antero, Mt. Tabeguache and Mt. Shavano. There is some discrepancy in Nolans tradition as to whether the route technically ends at the summit of Shavano or at the trailhead, several miles below. For Frost and Gosney, the choice was obvious: they knew they had reached their finish line when they saw their entire crew on the summit of Shavano waiting to greet them with champagne and hugs.

Frost and Gosney on top of Mt. Shavano, the final peak of Nolan's 14
Frost and Gosney on top of Mt. Shavano, the final peak of Nolan’s 14

“In my mind it was clear: 60 hours to the summit of Shavano. I was happy to have achieved the goal I had set for myself. We had two hours [until the cutoff], so we could have made it to Blank Cabin. But when Dakota Jones showed up with two bottles of Champaign, running and screaming “you guys are early!” well, I thought ‘Its been all business for the last 57 hours and 55 minutes, dammit I’m going to take a breath to celebrate.’ I wouldn’t give that up for anything.”

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