On his way to becoming a Colorado mountain legend, Andrew Hamilton has kept his head down.
Charge to the top, charge to the bottom, drive to the next trailhead for the next 14,000-foot peak. Spot location on satellite tracker, proving progress to all watching from computers. Maybe take a selfie for extra proof. Eat, drink, sleep when possible. Otherwise, spare no time.
How else was Hamilton to crack the fourteener speed record in July 2015, reaching all of the state’s 54 highest points in nine days, 21 hours and 51 minutes? How else could he summit 14 fourteeners last summer in 53 hours and 42 minutes? That was his third time setting the record in the test known as “Nolan’s.”
But this winter, in his pursuit to be the first to conquer all fourteeners between Dec. 21 and March 20, Hamilton would pause.
Hardly anyone dares Colorado’s greatest elevations in winter, for the chances of getting lost on snow-covered trails and chances of death by frostbite and avalanche. So Hamilton would be alone on mountaintops.
“I learned you get really spectacular sunsets and sunrises in the winter because of the angle of the sun,” the 43-year-old says from his Denver home. “So I took tons of pictures this time. I’ve got tons of pictures that are just spectacular.
“Winter, there’s something about winter. I was really drawn to it. I’m excited to do more of it in the future.”
After 84 days of burning pain combined with blistering wind and wetness and hallucinations and constant threats of snow burial, that’s crazy for him to say.
Then again, is any amount of suffering crazy for Hamilton?
Wasn’t it enough, that first 36 hours into the winter record, to come out of the Chicago Basin with swollen feet? Nerve damage flared somewhere between Mount Eolus and Sunlight and Windom peaks.
“I wanted to sleep so bad,” Hamilton says. “Everything started to look like picnic tables, I just wanted this picnic table to lay on top of. Or a rock, I’d picture a rock that had a flat, dry top, but they were all covered in snow.”
Injury forced him to take off a couple of weeks. Having no job made him optimistic about having time initially, but now he felt he was falling behind. A divorcee, he wanted to be home for the kids every other week.
“I pretty much had six weeks to work with,” he says, six weeks to tally the 58 points in the obscure tradition of winter fourteener-bagging.
Aron Ralston, the alpinist who famously cut off his arm to escape a canyon, is on the short list of people who’ve climbed the summits over several seasons. Hamilton followed valiant single-winter attempts in recent years.
His interest was piqued by something he heard from friends who’ve climbed some of the world’s biggest mountains, embarking on envious expeditions that never seemed fit for the time- and money-strapped Hamilton.
“One of the jokes they say is the Himalayas are training for the Rockies in the winter,” he says. “I don’t take that seriously, but the point is well taken.”
So he devised his epic quest. Despite having at least 10 ascents on most fourteeners, he’d never bothered with winter. But he had knowledge.
“There’s something (about) my mind where I just get obsessed with these peaks and how to link them up more efficiently and stuff like that,” he says, crediting also the side of his brain professionally occupied by computer programming. “Everyone’s got their thing, and I guess this has somehow become my thing.”
After his Chicago Basin recovery, he assaulted the Crestones, connecting five peaks in 24 hours. Then he dug deeper.
He invented “Snolens” – pushing through those 14 peaks as no one had done in winter, going five days straight.
But the Elk Range loomed, Colorado’s most dangerous mountains.
Toward the end of a 53-hour foray, Hamilton found himself lost at night, dozing off and waking up in thick willows.
“I had an emotional breakdown in the car, tears started streaming,” he says. “The Elks made me earn it in the end.”
Up next, if he’s healthy: an attempt at the state’s highest 100 peaks in 20 days.
It’ll be hard to enjoy the little moments, such as sunrises and sunsets and encounters like the one he had at Mount Yale’s trailhead. A man told Hamilton how inspiring he was.
“I just got to thinking, no one ever came up to me when I was a programmer and was like, ‘That piece of code you wrote was so inspiring!'” Hamilton says. “It’s kind of cool. Here’s one thing in my life that other people can get excited about, even though they might think I’m stupid.”
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