15-Year Record on Colorado’s 14ers Falls

Yitka Winn July 10th, 2015

Andrew Hamilton, Denver native and stay-at-home dad, climbs 58 14,000-foot peaks in less than 10 days

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Andrew Hamilton on Day 3 of his nine-plus-day odyssey. Courtesy of andrewhamilton.com

At 2:30 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, July 9, Andrew Hamilton emerged through a foggy darkness to wild applause. Far below the 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak, the 40-year-old father of four from Denver had accomplished the unthinkable: consecutively climbing all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet tall) faster than anyone else on Earth.

His time of 9 days 21 hours 51 minutes shaved almost a full day off the previous record—Ted “Cave Dog” Keizer’s 10 days 20 hours 26 minutes—which had stood untouched for 15 years, despite many others’ attempts to break it.

An Obsession Spanning Three Decades

Hamilton’s passion for Colorado’s 14ers began when he was just 11 years old, when his stepdad began taking him and his younger brother, Joe, then just 3 years old, climbing in the high country. Years later, as a raft guide in his 20s, Hamilton learned about the existence of a speed record on the 14ers. It had been set in 1990 at 16 days 21 hours 25 minutes by brothers Quade and Tyle Smith—only to be lowered in 1997 to 14 days 16 minutes. Hamilton wondered if he could do better.

In 1999, he set out to break the record—and after what he refers to as “some setbacks and a whole lot of suffering,” he did just that, besting the previous record by 88 minutes.

“My experience in 1999 was a defining experience in my life,” wrote Hamilton on his blog. “I have never been a great athlete, and compared to other record setters my pace is almost embarrassingly slow. However, I was able to persist through pain, sleep deprivation, desperation, hallucination, etc., to finally succeed with the goal.”

The next year, the record was broken again and again, ultimately taken down to 10 days 20 hours 26 minutes by Ted Keizer. In the meantime, Hamilton temporarily shifted his focus to a different kind of 14ers speed record. In 2003, he successfully climbed all the 14ers self-supported, using only a bicycle to get between them, in 19 days 10 hours 40 minutes.

In June of 2014, he attempted the overall speed record again but was stymied by persistent injuries, including a scary bout with rhabdomyolysis. By September, his health had rebounded, and he completed the first-ever self-supported traverse of the burly Nolan’s 14 route in an astounding 57 hours 18 minutes.

Despite these other accomplishments, Hamilton couldn’t shake his desire to break Cave Dog Keizer’s long-standing record. He wasn’t the only one; two years ago, SB Nation published a long-form piece entitled, Chasing Cave Dog: The Agony and Ecstasy of Attempting to Climb 55 of Colorado’s 14,000-Foot Peaks in 10 Days, that told the story of another climber, John Prater, and his failed 2013 attempt to break the record.

“You have to have two opposite personalities,” Keizer told SB Nation, speaking about the kind of person he thought most likely to break his record. “You have to have a certain intensity about you. But you also have to have a laidback nature. When you’re on a peak, and it’s 2 a.m. and hail and winds are pummeling you, as they did me, if you’re super intense, that will freak you out.”

Keizer has long been supportive of others trying to best his record over the past 15 years—including many conversations and route-beta sharing when Hamilton announced his plans to attempt the record again in 2015.

The year began inauspiciously, with Hamilton suffering several early season injuries, ranging from knee pain to plantar fasciitis to shin splints. An unusually late and heavy dumping of spring snow fell on the Rockies throughout April and May. Then Colorado’s notorious monsoon season—characterized by heavy rains and thunderstorms—set in early. It seemed unlikely, even to Hamilton, that this year would provide the ideal situation for breaking the record. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop him from assembling a supportive crew team and setting an aggressive summit-chasing schedule for himself.

In pre-dawn darkness on June 29, he began his first climb—the 14,093-foot Windom Peak in the Needle Mountains of southwest Colorado.

 

The Journey

“There is something entirely selfish about an endeavor like the 14er record,” wrote Hamilton on his blog. “It is not just leaving the family for so long, but having other friends willing to put their lives on hold to help out.”

Hamilton’s crew involved a stout team of supporters, including his wife Natalie, sons Axel (who had climbed all of Colorado’s 14ers by the age of 6) and Calvin, mother Brenda, mother-in-law, Annabel, sisters Laura and Jennifer, and a number of other family friends and 14er enthusiasts. Even John Prater, who’d had his own sights set on breaking the record in past years, came out to accompany Hamilton on parts of his journey.

“If someone else [breaks the record],” Prater told SB Nation in 2013, “I’d be their biggest fan.”

Andrea Sansone, a friend that Hamilton met atop South Maroon Peak in 2012, posted frequent photos and progress updates on Hamilton’s blog during his journey.

Without a doubt, any trek of such duration is not without its share of kinks along the way—beginning with the entire crew getting awoken in the middle of the night, just hours shy of Hamilton’s 4:30 a.m. planned start up Windom, by a herd of mountain goats stomping around outside their tents in the midst of a lightning storm.

In the coming days, the crew itself would be tested by the unforgiving weather, including hailstorms, thunderstorms and multiple muddy road washouts—which required getting their crew vehicles towed out by a bulldozer. Hamilton, meanwhile, continued clicking off mountain summits at the precise, aggressive rate at which he’d planned.

He carried snowshoes and an ice axe on several of the more technical summits, including the crux of his journey—a 24-hour push, beginning at 2:30 a.m., across the rugged Elk Mountains that included Pyramid Peak, South Maroon Peak, North Maroon Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak. On his descent from North Maroon Peak, he got cliffed out and had to climb back up to access a safer descent.

His final day, July 8, would take him to some of the most popular 14ers in the Front Range—Torreys, Grays, Evans, Bierstadt and, last of all, the 14,259-foot Longs Peak. Sticking to Keizer’s rules and standards, Hamilton could officially stop the clock once he descended a full 3,000 feet below the summit. Keizer himself—among dozens of other family members and friends of Hamilton’s—were there to greet Hamilton at 2:30 a.m. on Thursday when he emerged from the fog and rain, weary and sleep-deprived, but triumphant.

“I definitely do not have a superhuman ability to endure and suffer,” Hamilton told The Denver Post in 2014. “What I do have is a long history of failure in endurance events. In that long string of failures, I have learned a lot about myself. I know that it is possible to continue through what seems like unendurable pain, and I know that it is possible to go without very much sleep, despite what may otherwise seem possible.”

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