"The weather made me miserable a lot, but not to the point that it had me feeling unsafe... I'm not sure if everyone would agree that it was safe, though."
Thirty-five-year-old Pawel Szafruga, a resident of Fruita, Colorado, reminisced about the 40-plus day journey he had just completed, his body still feeling the effects of his daunting adventure in the form of liver issues and a condition called rhabdomyolysis, which results in the body breaking down its own muscles amid extreme and prolonged strain.
Not long ago, on August 26 at 10:43 PM, Szafruga finished his mission to climb all 58 of Colorado's 14,000-foot-plus peaks in a single, self-supported push. He started his journey at the bottom of Barr Trail around 4 PM on July 14 and after 43 days, 6 hours, 50 minutes, he was picked up at the bottom of Longs Peak. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his journey is that no vehicle or bike was used between trailheads. All of the distance up the peaks, down the peaks, and between the peaks was traveled by foot and spread between three pairs of trail running shoes... all 1,182.5 miles and 297,000 feet of vertical gain – an average of 27.3 miles and 6,800 vertical feet per day.
"This was a lot of 'nose to the grindstone,' which is what I wanted when I entered the trip, and the trip definitely satiated that," said Szafruga.
Sleeping in a bivy sack and carrying several days worth of food on his back between pitstops, Szafruga found his approach toward climbing Colorado's fourteeners to be liberating – not restricted by parking lots and dirt roads. While some peaks were best climbed via the most typical trail, many of the summit-bound routes used by Szafruga were non-standard and thus, not crowded as a result.
Szafruga's background as a rock climber and a runner set him up for success on his journey, not necessarily his fourteener-climbing experience (though he had previously summited 30 peaks). His physical fitness and comfort with exposure allowed him to push for many more miles each day than most can fathom while also opening up more technical class five ridge terrain and exposed routes as options. According to him, long distance thru-hiking goals seem to rely on one's ability to keep grinding versus how a speed goal might mean an ongoing battle with logistics.
While speed wasn't necessarily Szafruga's goal, he's confident that he set the fastest known time for reaching the top of Colorado's 58 fourteeners in one self-supported push with no wheels involved. Most other self-supported peak baggers use a bike to get from trailhead to trailhead.
In 2013, two climbers – Junaid Dawud and Luke DeMuth – did a similar thru-hike between July 20th and September 29th. The report of their journey on fastestknowntime.com also references two others that completed the task over roughly four months in 1985 – Patrick Renworth and Mike Whitehurst.
During his journey, modern technology allowed Szafruga to keep his gear to a minimum, with a base weight of only 8.5 to 9 pounds. He used a 40 liter, 13-ounce Dandee Packs backpack that allowed him to stay lightweight and mobile from the trail to more technical stretches of terrain. His food on consisted mostly of tortillas, beef sticks, cold-soaked mashed potatoes, and nut butter, among other things – unless he passed through a town, at which point he would eat portions of food he described as comical (one morning he had three breakfast sandwiches and a breakfast burrito before 8 AM). Most nights, barring three spent in hotels, he slept tent-less, tucked in a Bivy sack with an inflatable cushion and lightweight sleeping bag – many miles from any other human.
Despite traveling through countless stretches of treacherous terrain, Szafruga found sections of road to be troublesome, too, with his route taking him over Monarch and Independence passes amid heavy vehicular traffic. During these portions of his journey, Szafruga couldn't shake the thought of being hit by a passing car – not the way he would have expected to go out during his trek.
Natural portions of the route were also intimidating, at times. From headlamp navigation to rarely travelled ridges to plenty of bushwhacking, these wild areas posed their own challenges.
While Szafruga's accomplishment was quite the physical feat, it was also a mental battle, as throughout his trek he faced complications while exhausted and hungry.
"Though this was technically self-supported, I also got a lot of emotional support from my girlfriend," Szafruga said, giving a nod to Melissa Kelley for her support. "One morning, I woke up with frozen shoes and so many days I was walking with blisters. Even if it's just a few words on an inReach screen (a common GPS device among adventurers), it means so much. Her support got me through it."
Szafruga also expressed thanks to Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and the many others that help to build and maintain trails around the state.
"This really helped my appreciation for what the Colorado 14ers Initiative does," said Szafruga. "Colorado can seem so touristy, but at one point I was able to travel 100 miles of trail without crossing a road. I didn't know that existed. It really grew my appreciation of public lands. We're incredibly privileged to be able to experience that."
Find Pawel Szafruga on Instagram to read more about his journey and see photos at @projectofscience.
If you'd like to make a donation to or learn more about the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, find their website at 14ers.org.