Andrew Hamilton’s 1999 Attempt

Day 14 (September 10, 1999)

Natalie rode in the back of the truck with me and gave my legs and feet a massage. We arrived at the Quandary trailhead at about 3:00am.  I was mad again because I thought we were at the wrong trailhead.  Instead of being on the south side of Quandary, at the Monte Cristo trailhead, we were on the north side of Quandary.  After a little confusion we realized that the book was out of date and that this was now the standard trailhead up Quandary.

It was nice to have some company on this hike.  Kelly, Natalie, Buddie, and Dave Dog were all going to join me.  We headed up the trail.  The trail soon became very steep, much steeper than I had remembered, and I left Natalie and Kelly behind, as I was able to get into my uphill groove.  Just having them along helped me go faster.  After a painfully long, rolling ridge I finally made the summit at 5:00am with Buddie and Dave Dog.

I headed down and soon ran into Natalie.  Natalie is attempting a record of her own.  This was her fourth summit that she completed 95%.  For varying reasons, it seems like she always has to turn around a few hundred feet from the summit.  Soon we saw Kelly, and we determined that Kelly was a half hour from the summit.  Kelly decided continue up to the summit, and we mistakenly thought that she wouldn’t be able to catch us on the way down, and she said she would drive over and meet us at the next trailhead.  She turned around in a couple of minutes though, realizing that she wanted to stay with the group.

I descended as fast as I could.  I hopped, leapt, went backwards and did everything I could to go fast.  But when I looked at Natalie and Kelly I could see that they were leisurely walking down the mountain.

We decided to have Kelly descend ahead of us and help get everything ready to go.  I knew I had a chance at the record but I knew it was going to be a nail-biter.  I was impressed with how quickly she descended and soon it was just Natalie and I.  We lost each other near the trailhead because I took a shortcut and Natalie stayed on the trail, but we found each other again and made it to the trailhead at 6:30am.

We climbed into the back of the truck and Mom and Kelly began the drive over to Bakerville, the access to Torreys and Grays.  On the way up to Stevens Gulch trailhead I was frustrated, because I wasn’t sure there was anyway I was going to be able to set the record.  Natalie reassured me, she knew I could do it and that helped lift my spirits.

I started up the trail to Grays at 9:05am.  I made great time up the mountains, which I have since deemed “Beautiful Torreys and Grays” because it was such a fast hike for me.  I made it to the top of Grays in one hour and eighteen minutes (10:23am).  On the way up my ankle was starting to bother me, probably from my descent off Quandary.  I ignored the pain and figured it would go away.

I made the summit of Torreys a short time later, at 10:46am.  Not wasting any time, I immediately turned around and headed full hiking speed back down to the car and finished at 12:00pm sharp.  I had completed the mountains in just under three hours, an entire hour faster than I had estimated.  I had a new hope that I could actually set the record, and I knew that the next two mountains could either make or break me.

Mom drove to Guanella pass like she was racing in the Indy 500.  Passing cars on turns on the windy mountain road and speeding out of control (At least that is how it felt from the back of the truck).  Originally I was going to have her stop a little early because Guanella pass is all the way up at 11,670 feet.  However, the trail up Bierstadt begins by descending a little, and I didn’t want to do one foot more than I had to.  So I had her drive all the way to the pass, and using my altimeter I would see how much extra elevation I needed to gain, and I decided to make up the elevation on the steep slopes of Bierstadt, in the same manner I had chosen on Pikes. [Big mistake, more grumbling by previous record holder!  Like I said before, in future don’t do laps!]

I started hiking at Bierstadt at 1:00pm.  The infamous willows of Bierstadt, which I had bushwacked many times in my life, were no problem due to the great trail provided by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.  I was feeling very sluggish however, and gaining the extra 500 feet and dropping back down to meet the 3000 foot rule was mentally difficult.  I didn’t make the summit until 3:00pm.  Just before I summited I saw a big thunderstorm in the distance, and I was worried.  I figured it was about time my luck run out, because I had enjoyed an entire week of great weather.  As I reached the top it started sprinkling, but the meat of the storm missed Evans and Bierstadt completely.

The ridge that awaited me had been an important variable in my chances to break the record.  I had no idea how long it would take me.  Called the Sawtooth ridge, it is very intimidating when viewed upon from Guanella Pass, although it is only rated Class 3, and it surprisingly pretty easy.  I began the hike off Mt. Bierstadt, and my right ankle began to scream.  It hurt so bad that everything else that was hurting me was instantly healed.  Every step down sent a sharp pain up my leg.  I slowly but steadily continued.  Although my ankle hurt so badly, the ridge turned out to be very nice, even fun.

I finished the Sawtooth Ridge and had only to hike a little over a mile up Evans North Ridge.  I limped past a few mountain goats, then tried to radio into mom that I needed a bag of ice.  The ridge lasted longer than I thought, and just as I reached the summit of Evans at 5:15pm, the storm that had been hovering around but not over Evans finally hit.  Mom, Natalie, and Kelly were waiting for me and they pointed me in the direction of the right trail to follow on the way down, and got in the trucks to drive down and meet me.

The storm now hit at full force. There were loud claps of thunder, and there was a mixture of rain, sleet, and snow falling from the sky. Dave Dog joined me on my descent, and I quickly realized the descent was not going to be easy. My ankle was hurting so bad I was crying. I was also frustrated when 15 minutes later, I looked at my altimeter and had only descended to 13,900 feet. I could see the road at 12,800 feet where the trucks were going to wait for me. When I got there I would be approximately half way down.

I was in so much pain that I had to stop and lay down. I saw Kelly’s truck come to a stop where she would wait for me. I went down another couple of hundred feet and had to stop again. Finally, I told myself to stop being such a baby, and I found a nice rock that fit in the palm of my hand. I squeezed that rock in my left hand as hard as I could, trying to focus all of my pain into that rock, and ran down the mountain. The storm would not relent, but neither would I, and soon I made it to the road, and I crawled into the front of Kelly’s truck.

We decided that we would drive down a little ways, and try to find a good place for me to descend another 1600 feet. The storm was worse than ever, my truck’s brakes were shot, my ankle was in terrible pain, my mom was worried about me. Was I taking this record too seriously? I asked Kelly what she thought, and she said she didn’t think I should finish the descent.  My mom was very concerned with the snow and driving the truck with bad brakes.  I felt terribly guilty for putting everyone in this situation.  Kelly even asked me if the 3000 foot rule said anything about descending.  I didn’t know, but in my mind it mattered to me.  I had been so adamant about that 3000 foot rule the entire record, I didn’t want to short change it this close to the end.  It was a tough decision.

In the end I made the decision to just leave. I moved to the back of my truck, and with Natalie massaging my ankle, we began the long drive to Long’s. It was a tough decision, but I felt like it was the prudent decision. My ankle was in so much pain, it would have been hard emotionally to endure more. And the bad weather was now completely socked in. The electrical storm had turned into a full on snow storm, and I could only hope that it wasn’t socked in all the way up at Long’s. I quickly forgot about not descending the entire 3000 feet.  And started thinking about the climb up Long’s.

[This is another spot where the previous record holder complained.  Later on Long’s, I essentially added 1600 feet of descent that in my mind’s “effort” paradigm cleared my conscience of not descending 3000 feet on Evans.  However, this was described as transferring elevation from one mountain to another.  When worded like that I know it sounds bad.  I even read in the newspaper that I had never actually ascended Pikes, but had chosen another mountain to do 3000 feet on, and called it the same as ascending Pikes.  In hindsight, if I were in the same position I think I would do everything I could to finish that descent.  I just did not understand at the time how serious people were about these records.  The previous record holders had been, in a sense, heroes of mine.  I had assumed they would, above anyone else, understand what I had been through and be more than excited to meet a kindred spirit. Look at the monumental effort it took for me to shave a few minutes off their time!  I was shocked when I found out about the malice directed towards me, Denesik was quoted in the post as saying I had “Cheapened the record”.  It was like waking up from a wonderful dream where everything is perfect, and then slap! Back to reality, people hate you! ]

It was 6:00pm, and if all went well we would be at the trailhead for Long’s well before 10:00pm.  The drive to Long’s took longer than expected.  Part of the road we had been planning to take (the Peak to Peak Highway) was closed, so we had to make a long detour through Boulder.  I was not at all confident that I could set the record.  Earlier in the year, I had climbed Long’s in five hours and twenty-two minutes.  I had not been running and had been caught in an electrical storm.  I had been guessing that if I were given an extra two hours, then I should be able to set the record.  That is why I wanted to start by 10:00pm.  But I hadn’t counted on my ankle being in so much pain.

Fortunately, Shane was going to meet us at the trailhead.  He was going to carry my pack for me and hike with me all the way up.  I felt that with someone with me I would probably be able to make the record in the time I had available.  When we got to the trailhead, Shane was nowhere to be found.  Kelly made me some grilled cheese sandwiches and soup, and I ate while we all hoped Shane would pull up.  But he never made it.  Natalie offered to hike up to the keyhole with me.  And I was glad to have her along.

We said goodbye to Kelly and mom and started hiking at 8:50pm.  That would hopefully be plenty of time.  But I knew only too well that Long’s was not a quitter.  When Ricky Denesik set the record of 14 days, 16 minutes, he had been on pace to set the record almost eight hours faster.  But just after reaching the keyhole, only 1000 feet from the top, a terrible storm had blown in and forced him to retreat.  Although the skies were clear and the stars were out, I wasn’t going to be happy until I was back down at the truck.

I struggled on the way up the trail.  Although my ankle was wrapped and I had taken lots of Advil, the ankle still hurt on every step.  I was also very tired.  I was falling asleep as we were hiking up, and I never got into rhythm and found my fast pace.  All I could do was follow Natalie, and I gave it everything I had just to keep up.   Without Natalie I don’t know if I would have had the willpower to keep moving.  We made it to the boulder field around 11:30pm.  Natalie prepared to wait for me in one of the tent shelters.  She had carried up a blanket, and I gave her my poncho.  She tried to make me take the poncho, but I refused telling her there was no way I was stopping, even if it rained.

I continued alone up to the keyhole and beyond.  I noticed that I could no longer see stars in the southern part of the sky.  Under normal conditions, it is hard to get lost on the keyhole route, because there are bullseyes painted on the rocks marking the path.  The route is only rated class 3, but I was still taking it seriously because every time I had ever climbed the mountain, I had bad luck and ended up with an epic adventure.  The bullseyes weren’t too hard to follow on the way up, and soon I made it to the Trough, an 800 foot gully that you have to ascend.  At first I actually went past the Trough, and after ascending to 13,500 feet I realized my mistake and descended back until I found a bullseye.  Now my luck changed for the worse as a thick fog rolled in.  I checked my altitude (13,400 feet) so I would know on the way down at what elevation I should exit the trough and traverse over to the keyhole.  I ascended the trough and near the top the clouds broke for a few minutes, but then rolled back in for good.  At the top of the Trough I followed the Narrows and when I reached the Homestretch, I noted my elevation again so I wouldn’t descend too far on the way down.  On the way up the Homestretch, I noted my elevation at a couple of the bullseyes so I might be able to find them on the way down.  It was so fogged in now that my bright headlamp was almost too bright, I couldn’t see farther than a few feet.  I finally reached the summit.  I remembered that Long’s has a huge, flat summit, and that to get to the summit register I have to walk all the way to the south end of the summit (I reached the summit on the north end).  I figured to be safe, I would build a little cairn where I was supposed to go down.  As I walked over to the summit register, it began to sleet very hard and the wind picked up.  The wind was at my back though, and quickly I found the summit register, it was 1:04am.

I turned around and headed into the wind.  I made it to the north end of the summit, but I could not find my cairn.  I started walking along the summit crest until five minutes later I finally saw the cairn.  It was a good thing I built that because without it I would not have been able to find me way down.

My situation did not improve.  The wind was blowing straight up the homestretch, and the sleet in the wind stung my face when I looked down trying to find my route.  I started descending and was surprised at how slick the rock had become.  I finally understood what Gerry Roach meant when he said the Homestretch turns into a bobsled run when it is wet.  I went down with visions of the body I had seen on Eolus in my head.  I was fearful that I would not be able to find the Narrows again.  I cautiously made my way down and one by one found all of the bullseyes.  I made it to the narrows.  Thinking I was past the worst of it, I continued down to the trough.  The adrenaline rush I had on the Homestretch finally gave way and once again I could think of nothing but the pain in my ankle.  It screamed on every step.  When I made it down to 13,400 feet, I couldn’t find the way back to the keyhole.  I didn’t see any bullseyes.  I dropped down to 13,300 feet and still couldn’t recognize anything, I had no idea if the trail was up or down.  I try not to place blind trust in my altimeter because changes in weather can throw off the elevation readings.

My instinct made me go up and soon I found the trial.  I had forgotten how much it descended before reaching the entrance to the Trough.  I slowly made my way towards the keyhole.  As I reached the keyhole, I noticed that the sky was clear down here and the rocks weren’t so slick anymore.  I rounded the corner and saw a light on at the shelter at about 2:30 am.  I figured it must be Shane.  I thought he must have hiked up to meet me and waited for me at the shelter.

“Is that Andrew?” asked an unfamiliar voice from the darkness.  “Yes,” I answered, “Who are you?”  “You’ll never guess,” he responded.  It was Buzz Burrell, what a surprise!  I had met Buzz the year before during an adventure race.  What the hell was Buzz doing here?  We hiked down the boulder field together.  He had heard about me trying to set the record, and been frustrated because my website, which was following my progress on my record attempt, didn’t have any information on how to contact us.  He had read that we were going to be at Long’s late on Friday night, and had decided to come up and offer some support.  This was kind of a tradition for him, as he had been there when Ricky Denesik and Rick Trujillo set the record in 1995, and then again with Ricky Denesik in 1997.

Having Buzz to talk to lifted my spirits.  My ankle pain seemed minor, and I was able to walk normal, even jog down.  I told him I wasn’t sure that three hours would be enough to get down, considering my condition, but he assured me that it was “in the bag.”  We came down and picked up Natalie, who was happy to see me.  Although I was jogging as fast as I could, Buzz and Natalie leisurely walked down the trail behind me as we made our way down.

On the way down Buzz told me that on the previous record attempts, the clock had always been stopped at 11,000 feet.  Something about that just didn’t feel right to me.  When I stopped the clock I wanted to be able to lay down and relax, and not have to hike or anything for a long, long time.  Stopping the clock at 11,000 feet would be great, but I still had a couple miles and a lot of downhill to hike.  So I decided to officially stop the clock at the trailhead.  Once we passed 11,000 feet.  We started passing lots of hikers who were on their way up.  Streams of headlights working their way up the mountain.  Most hikers like to get an early start on Long’s, but this was ridiculous.  We made our way on down the trail.  Someone hiking up helpfully suggested that I was going the wrong way.  But I responded that I was the one going the right way, they were going the wrong way!  Eventually we ran into Shane and Kelly who had been hiking up the trail.  We all hiked down, made out way through streams of people heading up, and at 4:18 am made it to the trailhead.  I was finished.  I laid down, wanting to fall asleep, but Buzz didn’t let me stay down for long.  He helped me back up, I sat down on a bench and started talking to a reporter (Nadia White), who had driven all the way at that early hour to interview me.  I answered her questions and at some point she asked what the official time was.  It took us awhile to do the math, but it came out to 13 days, 22 hours and 48 minutes.  I had only beaten the record by an hour and a half, but I was still more than happy.

I was ready for some serious rest and relaxation.