As rain splattered against the windshield of his Land Cruiser, Bill Wright told his longtime friend and climbing partner, John Prater, that he would wait for him for a couple hours, at the base of Wilson Peak, before driving on to their next meeting place. The unspoken message was obvious: Are you sure you want to do this?
Prater planned to climb a trio of peaks on the outskirts of Telluride known as the Wilsons. Telluride, a ski town on the southern edge of Colorado, is known for its crunchy music festivals, million-dollar residents and lush, evergreen hills right out of "The Sound of Music," but nothing demands attention like the Wilsons. Wilson Peak, the smallest of the three, looks like what most think the Rocky Mountains should look like - a shark's fin that splits the sky. The mountain on a can of Coors? That's Wilson Peak.
On Aug. 23, 2012, however, there was no gorgeous view. Wilson Peak was socked-in by a glob of clouds. Prater knew the weather would cause problems; the weather always causes problems for mountaineers. Earlier that day, at 5:15 a.m., under a sunny morning sky, Prater got off to a good start on an adventure that, if all went as planned, would entail about a week and half of climbing, running, maybe a little puking and very little sleep. Already, he had raced up four peaks in four hours, climbs that normal hikers usually took two full days to complete. Prater prayed the good weather would hold as he headed to the Wilsons in the afternoon. But the weather was always fickle.
Instead, on the first day of the wildest feat he had attempted in a life full of wild feats, he would have to do something he would otherwise never do. He would climb the Wilsons when the weather was practically screaming at him to stay away. Among the delights of the Wilsons were a difficult traverse, lots of loose rock climbers refer to as "crappy," and an airy, 100-yard homestretch so smooth and slick that any moisture, even morning dew, turned it into a deadly, twirly slide.
Prater was attempting to become the fastest person to climb 55 of Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains, known as the 14ers, breaking the existing mark of 10 days, 20 hours and 26 minutes climbing those same peaks. It is an iconic record in a sport that does not offer many, the near equivalent of the four-minute mile, a pace so tough, so trying, that in the last dozen years no one had attempted it. The owner of the record seemed like some superhero, a smooth-cheeked math tutor who wore glasses and a short haircut by day and ran up mountains, refusing to sleep, by night. He even had a mythical nickname: Cave Dog.
Many of Prater's friends respected him and admired some of his previous accomplishments, but they were surprised when he told them he was going after Cave Dog's record. An experienced ultrarunner, Prater could run nonstop for almost two days, and in over two decades he'd climbed hundreds of peaks and completed more than 1,000 ascents. But he was 41 years old. He looked, and acted, like the stereotypical software engineer he was, unassuming and quiet, with a conservative, old-fashioned haircut and lots of clothes from REI. He had a job and a wife and two daughters aged eight and five and had just moved into a new house that still needed unpacking. Although Prater was tough, determined and possessed the kind of endurance that few athletes could match, it still didn't seem to be enough. The record seemed made for a superhero like Cave Dog, not a guy like Prater. His nickname among other climbers and runners underscored his self-effacing nature - "Homie."
"It's not that I didn't consider him a badass," Wright said. "But the record was a level of badass that I thought was above him."
Prater left the dry, comfy Land Cruiser and headed up alone into the cold, sopping-wet wilderness. As he left the security of tree line, the first bolts of lightning raced across the sky, causing him instinctively to crouch on the tops of his toes. He was already soaked and shivering. He repeated a mantra that he not only climbed by, but also lived by: Manage what you can. And it worked. The storms subsided just before the serious climbing began. He completed the traverse between El Diente and Mount Wilson and then skittered his way up that final, slick pitch. Then, as the last light drained from the sky, Prater headed up Wilson Peak, his last of the three mountains.
The blackness made the rockfall that much scarier.
The booming rocks echoed through the natural amphitheater between the peaks. He couldn't see where they were, or where they were going. He just knew that rocks both large and small, and all potentially deadly, were tumbling his direction. They seemed to growl as they crunched closer and closer until they came to a stop just below his perch. He could sense that the rocks had pounded down the route he had scooted up and across just minutes earlier.
Now Prater wasn't shivering because he was cold and wet. He shook with fear. He dug out his headlamp and strapped it on as if he were a 5-year-old who needed his night light. He paused and wondered if it was worth it. He wasn't expecting that rockfall, but it made sense. It had rained for hours, lubing up a mountain that was already a little too loose for comfort. That's why it wasn't a good idea to climb the Wilsons, or many other 14ers, in a heavy rain, even in the daylight, even for an expert who could handle the slippery rocks.
The near miss made him realize a cold and hard fact. It was only the first day. No matter how much planning he did, if he wanted to break the record, there were some things he couldn't manage. And those were the things that could kill him.
* * *
In Colorado, bigger means better. Out of the thousands of mountains in the state, the 14ers are by far the most popular, perhaps even more so than the state's ski slopes.
The 14ers inspire websites, posters and T-shirts with boxes of checkmarks on the back so you can humblebrag about how many you've climbed. Hikers usually add how many they've bagged after writing their name on the summit register ("Number 24! Beautiful!"). Collectively, the peaks draw an estimated more than a half million visits a year.
More than half of the 14ers are nothing more than long hikes on easy-to-find trails. They'll still kick your ass, as many climbing routes are eight miles or more and include elevation gains upwards of 3,000 feet. And good luck breathing at 14,000 feet. At that altitude, the air has nearly half of the oxygen it does at sea level, and many climbers feel hungover, as air that thin causes headaches, nausea and dizziness. A popular T-shirt sold to tourists reads, "Sea level is for sissies."
Many people are happy just to climb a few 14ers, and the "easier" trails get busy with what hardcore climbers refer to as "the masses."
Other 14ers challenge even the most experienced climbers. Those require scrambling on all fours, usually on hard-to-find, exposed routes that have killed dozens of hikers in their long history. A few have knife edges, tiny ledges hikers have to scoot across on shaky, fatigued legs. The prettiest can be the most sinister. The route up and down Maroon Bells, the Aspen mountains often pictured on postcards and calendars, features 1000-foot sheer drops and rock that crumbles in your hand.
With enough fortitude and fortune, it generally takes hikers a decade to complete the 14ers, not only because of their difficulty, but also because of their distance from one another. The peaks are scattered in seven ranges around the state, which increases the allure of the quest, as climbers experience all of Colorado's most beautiful spots such as Vail, Alamosa and, of course, Telluride. Yet even today, only a few thousand people have climbed them all.
In 1960, Cleve McCarty climbed the then-recognized 52 14ers in 52 days, an accomplishment many found astounding. After that, as noted expert Gerry Roach wrote in his guidebook, "the mania began." As climbers whittled down the record, going after it became a measure of pride, the mark of a badass. Fit hikers could manage one 14er in a day, or maybe two when paired together, but it usually took them all day to do it - even McCarty took days off. Then ultrarunners took up the challenge in a new way, running the routes, stringing together peaks and depending on support crews that cooked their meals and drove them between ranges. They recklessly raced up the peaks in bunches, sleeping only a few hours a night, ignoring the fatigue-driven hallucinations that caused one climber to report that elves walked alongside him. In 1995, Rick Trujillo and Ricky Denesik climbed 55 in 15 days, and Denesik soon lowered that mark twice, setting a record in 2000 at a then-astonishing 12 days, 15 hours and 35 minutes.
He held the record for all of two months.
Outwardly, Ted Keizer, who owns a math and science tutoring business and speaks of the mountains in reverential tones, looks far different from what one would imagine someone nicknamed Cave Dog. He earned his nickname more than a decade ago from his spartan lifestyle as he creatively eked out a living in the tiny ski town of Crested Butte, Colo. He ate twice a day at a diner that offered an all-you-can-eat buffet, worked just enough to allow him to spend 50 hours a week on the slopes, and lived rent-free in a cave accessible in the winter only by snowshoe. Hence the nickname.
Ted "Cave Dog" Keizer
When he decided to go for the record, Cave Dog asked previous record holders for help, but when they refused to share their routes, he spent two-and-a-half years scouting out his own. Cave Dog, like Prater, wasn't as fast as the best ultrarunners, but the unpretentious, analytical mathematician figured out the most efficient route possible, even if that meant climbing several hard peaks in a row without an easy one in between to calm his nerves and rest his legs. He had no idea if his plan would capture the record - he didn't even break the assault into days, instead creating one long "super route" that no one had ever attempted, depending on a support team as he dozed during the drives between one set of 14ers and the next.
Cave Dog began his attempt on the cusp of the fall of 2000. He encountered strong winds and snow and ice that caused him to slip more than once, including one fall on the Maroon Bells that left him hanging by the crook of his elbow. He became so exhausted that he twice fell asleep while hiking. By the end, he was in agony not just from the effort, but from mouth sores caused by an allergy that made eating excruciatingly painful. Despite consuming thousands of calories a day, he still lost more than 10 pounds.
"You have to have two opposite personalities," he said. "You have to have a certain intensity about you. But you also have to have a laid-back 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."
He rode more than 1,500 miles, ran more than 100 miles and gained more than 138,000 feet in elevation, or about 10,000 feet higher than Felix Baumgartner's jump from the outskirts of space when he broke the sound barrier. In the end, Cave Dog took more than two days off a record he had hoped to beat by only a few hours.
His crew celebrated with balloons and streamers at 4 a.m. in Rocky Mountain National Park, in the dark shadow of Longs, the final peak. Rather than howl at the party, Cave Dog curled up and fell asleep.
* * *
John Prater didn't fall for the mountains right away. He initially joined a roommate at the University of Colorado for a few recreational climbs, then became enamored of mountain biking before the allure of the mountains first took hold. Prater soon found himself pursuing the 14ers as one would pursue a lover, first drawn to their beauty, then for the challenge, for the way they tested his commitment, endurance and drive.
Still, Prater was not a prodigy, just an above-average hiker who was happy to finish the 14ers. He then became friends with other climbers, including Bill Wright, a gregarious co-worker at a software company who co-wrote books on speed climbing. The two spent hours talking about their upcoming climbs and Prater discovered that, like Wright, he liked pushing himself. Wright talked him into competing in the Pikes Peak Ascent, a half marathon run up the mountain that dominates Colorado Springs and inspired the song "America the Beautiful." Prater soon added ultrarunning to his skill set, later finishing several 100-mile "fun" runs and eventually even competing in the grueling Hardrock 100. With an average elevation of 11,000 feet, the Hardrock brings the pain like few other races on the planet.
"I'd just rather be up there than in a city," Prater said. "I'd rather be up there than just about anywhere."
Like Cave Dog, Prater could be both stoic and passionate. In his daily life he was emotional, even tearful, but on the trail, he was almost robotic, a hard shell clamped over his squishy center. His wife Lori, whom he met when she organized a hike for church and he was the only one who showed up (many of their early dates were hikes up the 14ers), called his temperament a "quiet strength." Many mountaineers and ultrarunners are similarly wired. Both sports attract introverts because of the generous amount of time the athletes spend in their own heads on the trail.
Prater wasn't a climbing superstar, but the more he climbed, the more he took a hard look at Cave Dog's record, and the more he thought he could beat it. Over the years it became something of an obsession, and using information on Cave Dog's website as a starting point, he began to form his own meticulous plan for the record, poring over maps like a furtive eighth-grader reading Harry Potter, yet Prater didn't let the mountaineering turn him into an absentee father. Even as he prepared for the record attempt by climbing and scouting out routes, he still made it to the girls' soccer games by skimping on sleep, or simply skipping it altogether.
Finally, in July of 2012, one month before he began his assault on the record, Prater started asking for help and put together his support team. Wright, fresh off shoulder surgery, agreed to take a few days off work and accompany him on the first half of the journey to drive, prepare his meals, and give him an occasional pep talk. The second half would be led by Gerry Roach, a 14ers historian and author of the most well worn guidebooks to Colorado's mountains, and his wife, Jennifer. Other friends agreed to run and climb portions of Prater's route with him, not to assist him in any way, which would violate Cave Dog's accepted rules of the record, but to provide moral and psychological support.
They all agreed because they knew Prater would do the same for them. Prater, for instance, paced Gerry's wife to a successful Hardrock finish, saying just the right things at just the right times. But assisting Prater was also a chance to be part of a record, something they all agreed was kind of badass.
Before he started, Prater posted his SPOT GPS receiver on the 14ers.com forum, allowing others to track his progress on the web, something that surprised his closest friends. Prater generally didn't like attention, but he was a fan of the record, too, and knew that if someone else were attempting it, he would want to know about it. Besides, the record was special, an ultimate goal for the obsessed, and even if Prater failed, he wanted to make sure his effort drew attention to it.
Hours before he started, others on 14ers.com began leaving messages of encouragement, including one from Cave Dog.
"I wish you a wonderful and successful adventure. It will be amazing," Cave Dog wrote. "You will see so much and experience so much in the coming days. Live it. Treasure it.
"And break that record."
Prater may have had doubts about continuing as he left the Wilsons at the end of the first day, but once he ran back down and banged on the truck, startling a worried Wright, he was ready for the next peak. He gulped down a little cold pasta and climbed in the back to sleep on a mattress.
Wright roused him from a snoring sleep at 1:15 a.m., and after already climbing seven peaks in 20 hours and dodging his first brush with death on the attempt, Prater headed out into the crisp air to do Mount Sneffels surrounded in clouds of mist. Wright, already exhausted just from his time in the truck, was amazed at his friend's endurance.
Prater had the one trait common to all ultrarunners - an incomparable tolerance for discomfort. At mile 70 of his first Hardrock, for instance, he barfed for more than a half-hour, then popped back up and continued on, stunning those who had already written him off. But he also possessed something more. A software engineer by trade, Prater had an intangible quality that could help him break the record: He had the ability to reboot. Most people needed a full night's sleep to recharge. All Prater needed was the morning sun.
"It's a new day," Prater said, "and therefore a new beginning." He finished the tough San Juans on Day Two, first climbing Sneffles and the easy Handies Peak, then the more moderately difficult Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks and moving on to Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn, two peaks that most climbers never did together because it made for such a long day. The record remained in his sights.
As he headed into the third day, Prater had climbed 14 peaks and was a few hours ahead of Cave Dog's pace, a neck and neck sprint that would last another week if everything went well. All he had to do was keep climbing. That morning, Prater and Mark Oveson, an attorney from Louisville, Colo., planned to climb a series of tough peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Range, a swath of some of the most difficult 14ers in the state.
No organizing body monitors the 14ers speed record, what Cave Dog refers to as the "Mighty Mountain Megamarathon." But as the record holder, Cave Dog has a few rules on his website, thedogteam.com, that are accepted in the mountaineering community in order to break his mark.
Here are a few:
1. Ascend at least 3,000 feet on foot from the base of a peak — This rule also applies to those attempting to finish all the 14ers. This rule prevents hikers from driving to the top of Mount Evans, Mount Antero or Pikes Peak, which is possible, and hiking the last few steps and saying they've "climbed" them. Once they ascend 3,000 feet on the first peak, traverses between others is acceptable.
2. Hikers can pace, but they can't help — No one can carry your gear, food or water for you during your climb. The one attempting the record also must be out front the entire time, and those along for company can't offer advice or help on the routes.
3. The clock starts 3,000 feet below the first peak and stops 3,000 feet below the last peak.
4. Do as much or more as the last record holder — There are 58 named peaks that are 14ers, but only 54 of these are considered real peaks and not just sub-peaks. It's a little confusing. Cave Dog climbed 55 of these peaks, so the new record holder needs to climb at least the same 55 he did.
5. Honor your word — John Prater used a SPOT GPS to track his movements, offering as much proof that he did what he said he did as he could muster, but those attempting the record shouldn't lie about their feat.
6. There is no rule for performance enhancing drugs. Give it time.
For more information on the rules, Cave Dog's times and the statistics of his journey, go to thedogteam.com.
It can be more difficult to find a good climbing partner than to find a spouse, yet friendships forged on peaks, like those formed on fishing trips, over long runs or in wars, often last forever. That was the case with Prater and Oveson, who had climbed together for more than a decade. Oveson, an expert climber and ultrarunner himself, was one of the few people Prater trusted for a long, fast day through the challenging Cristos. Prater felt comfortable with Oveson, a devoted father of five kids of all ages, including three girls, and a Boy Scout troop leader. He was also a religious man, which amused Wright, an avowed atheist. The two men just meshed, and Prater knew he didn't have to explain why he wanted to do something as crazy as chasing after Cave Dog's record to someone like Oveson. He understood and was not just a good climbing partner, but an even better friend.
Almost as an apology for the Wilsons, the late summer weather was gorgeous, and the two enjoyed the day and their good fortune, blasting through the tough Challenger Point and Kit Carson and Crestone Peak before starting the traverse that would lead them to Crestone Needle's summit.
The Needle is an impressive sight. Roach even used a picture of it catching the sunrise for the cover of his seminal 14ers guidebook. Yet only the more serious hikers even try to attempt it.
Prater had a hard time finding the correct entry point to begin the traverse between Crestone Peak and the Needle. Oveson, who knew the right way, followed silently, strictly adhering to the rules. Although Prater eventually found his way, he later came to regret those lost minutes.
As Prater knew a late afternoon in the mountains can transform any gorgeous day into a stormy one, and sure enough, halfway through the traverse, small bits of ice called graupel began to fall, and thunder sounded in the distance. By the time they reached the Needle's final pitch, a sheer, exposed slab of rock and the crux of the route, Prater didn't feel comfortable topping out and inviting a lightning strike on the wide-open peak.
The two men squatted, far apart from each other in case a stray bolt came their way, and pondered their options. Oveson thought Prater looked pensive, and as the iced marbles kept falling, with only an hour of daylight left, their options decreased by the minute.
Oveson considered turning around, but that meant again navigating the tough traverse now coated in ice pellets. Jason Pettigrew, an experienced climber from Denver, was on the same traverse in 2004 when a similar storm hit, and he fell to his death.
The 100-foot pitch up the Needle would be much shorter - they were, at the most, 10 minutes from the summit - but it was more exposed and coated with a thick frosting of snow-cone ice. Some climbers aren't comfortable doing the last pitch without a rope when it is dry, let alone covered in frost. Yet the two had faced much more difficult routes before without incident. Prater thought the better option was to keep climbing, and they started up the final pitch.
Prater had bear paws for hands that never seemed to get cold, Oveson said - one of the many reasons he is such a good climber. Oveson's hands were more mortal, and as he climbed behind Prater, he brushed away the icy pellets with his bare fingers before jamming his hands into the cracks. They soon went numb. Ten feet and only a few difficult moves below the summit, Oveson was stuck.
He couldn't go back down because it was too slick, but he couldn't go back up because his frozen hands couldn't grasp the holds he needed. Prater, on top, could see that any slip would kill him. Get here, Mark, Prater thought as he watched Oveson claw for his life below the Needle's summit. Please don't fall. He thought about Oveson's two teenaged girls and an 8-year-old still at home and felt guilty about asking his friend to risk his life to help him set a record. Mark may die, Prater thought, because of those minutes he lost looking for the route, and because Mark, as usual, was being both a good partner and a better friend.
As a last resort, Oveson, unable to move and losing his grip, prayed. If there's any way of getting out of this, God, he thought, please make it happen. Then the clouds parted, and the last bits of sun shone down. His hands warmed, or maybe they just seemed to, but the event gave him enough courage to make these last few moves and join Prater at the top.
Oveson, on his knees, bawled in gratitude that he would see his family alive again.
Prater let Oveson have a minute, but only a minute, for the light was dwindling and they still had a difficult descent ahead of them. Prater led them down, and once they were in relative safety, Oveson admitted that he had thought he was going to die.
Prater hugged him. A few minutes later, as the last mountain loomed ahead, they huddled for a moment of reflection. Compared to the Crestones, Humboldt Peak was the stereotypical walk in the park, but Prater was no longer certain he wanted to continue.
Sitting there, in the dark, Prater questioned himself. Is a record worth dying over? He was quiet for a bit, and Oveson asked him what they were going to do.
"It was as close to reckless as anything I'd ever done," Prater said during his recollection of the experience. "It was as much putting my friend in that dangerous situation as anything."
Prater knew he would face a potentially even more harrowing traverse the next day, from Little Bear to Blanca Peak, and Oveson's experience shook him hard. But sitting for even 15 minutes was costing him time.
"If I go, will you go with me?" Prater asked Oveson.
If Oveson understandably bailed, Prater would too. He didn't want to climb another mountain, alone, in the dark, with his emotions scattered like pieces of a broken mirror.
Oveson hoped Prater would ask him to head down. He looked over at Humboldt, but in the dark the relatively easy mountain looked huge, even menacing. But Oveson knew that if he said "No" he was probably ending Prater's attempt at the record.
"Yeah, you bet," Oveson said. "Let's go."
As soon as Oveson said that, Prater rebooted. He got up and began to head off.
"Headed to Humboldt," Oveson texted to Wright, who was waiting for them in his Land Cruiser. "Nice night for a walk."
Prater was enjoying his patented reboot, zipping across the harrowing Blanca-Little Bear traverse, what some considered the hardest in Colorado, in less than an hour. He had pieced his emotions back together. But his legs were feeling it. Of course they were. In just a few days he'd already taken hundreds of thousands of steps at a pace close to running, over wet tundra and muddy trails and small rocks that hikers call ankle breakers.
The odds caught up to him, and he clipped the edge of a rock and twisted his left foot just below the ankle. Prater knew pain, just like bad weather, would be one of the demons he'd have to shake off to get the record. But that twist HURT. At first he wasn't sure he could walk, let alone make it back in time to keep chasing the record.
Prater didn't like to take painkillers, but he popped his first ibuprofen, and then he called Gerry Roach, who had taken over for Wright. He listened to Prater's description of the ankle, told him it was OK and encouraged him to get back to the car. Roach thought something different in his head: Oh, shit. Roach knew about those hundreds of thousands of steps, too. Even a twinge could cost Prater the record.
The pills allowed Prater to maintain a slow jog, almost a trudge, back down the rocky Lake Como Road. He got back in the car, silent and dejected, and put an ice bag on the foot. He had originally planned to hike on to Mount Lindsey, which would have saved him the run down the road and some driving time, but he was having trouble keeping anything down, even water, when he was in the peaks, and so Prater needed the time in the car to eat. Nutrition is one of the challenges of ultrarunning: the stomach shuts down during hard physical activity, and Prater was hiking or running up to 20 hours a day. Friends who saw pictures Oveson posted of Prater on Crestone Peak thought he already looked a little withered.
As they began to head to the next peak, Roach noticed the oil gauge on the Land Cruiser was getting low. Roach called Wright, who had loaned him the car, and he told Roach that the gauge was faulty. But as the level fell to "E," Roach was nervous enough to stop at a gas station and check the oil. The dipstick was bone dry. Roach added quart after quart of oil while Prater, who was supposed to be sleeping, fretted over burning daylight.
The incident underscored the fragility of the record attempt. Many of the roads leading to the trails were rough and littered with car parts. A broken ankle or a broken tie rod could be equally devastating.
Prater's bad wheel forced him to limp up Lindsey that night, and while Prater hiked, Roach came up with a Plan B. He would drive Prater to Pikes Peak and the easier 14ers in the Mosquito-Tenmile Ranges. Those peaks featured gentler trails to the top, and even the average hikers could knock off a group of four in a few hours. Perhaps those peaks would give Prater's foot a chance to heal.
Prater was excited about the new plan. Some of Prater's accomplished climbing partners wondered why he still bothered spending days on the easier 14ers trod by the masses. But Prater loved a day, any day, in the mountains, both the monotonous and the monstrous. As long as his foot allowed it, he looked forward to the day, even though he knew that the hundreds of thousands of steps that awaited him would all hurt like hell.
As soon as Prater posted an update of his attempt on 14ers.com, work productivity among peakbaggers took a dive.
By the fifth day, scores of hikers, many who either had climbed all the 14ers themselves or hoped to, followed along in awe. Those who loved the mountains had never gotten to watch and enjoy a sporting event like the one Prater was putting on. Homie was their home team. The thread was one of the most popular in the site's history.
The posts on his progress calmed Lori's nerves about his trip, and they helped her show their daughters, Mia, 8, and Anya, 5, what he was doing.
"Our oldest, especially, was getting a little frustrated at his absence, saying things like, 'He's hiking AGAIN?'" Lori said. "But I could show her the thread and say, 'But look, Daddy's doing something cool.'"
At the start of Day Five, Daddy sighed as the sky turned black during his morning hike up Mount Antero, supposedly another breather. Antero was known as a gemstone hunter's oasis, with the highest concentration of aquamarine in the country, not for its adventure. The peak is at the end of a thin, 300-foot hiking train after a hike up a long, boring, four-wheel-drive road.
But the weather, of course, changed all that. Prater heard a rumble, then a boom, and then a crash. He didn't have time to wait out another stupid storm. Other hikers charged back down the trail with wide eyes, as if being chased by Vikings. Then Prater, for the third time during his record attempt, did something he normally would never do. He continued up.
He passed a white van, and a group standing by its doors asked him, incredulously, if he was going on. Prater answered yes. They introduced themselves as a crew from the Weather Channel working on a reality show about severe storms. Prater picked up his pace but ran on, with his left foot growling at him. Then, as he reached the summit, the clouds cleared. Of course they did.
Jason Halladay, an ultrarunner who hiked with Prater once or twice a year, followed the postings on 14ers.com feverishly until he couldn't stand it any longer. He left his job as a computer technician in New Mexico and drove six hours to provide Prater some company. He knew Prater would need it.
At nightfall, as Prater wound his way up Mount Princeton, another short 14er with a trail, he thought of Lori and his daughters. If the sun always gave him the energy to reboot, the nights always magnified the mental challenge and threatened to drain whatever reserves he had left.
The emotional trips up the Wilsons and the Crestones, days of not eating much and sleeping less and the wearisome pain had drained him. Prater enjoyed hiking alone, but now he was lonely. Lori was everywhere, wrapped up in all those 14ers; they had courted one another on the slopes. His shell cracked, and at 13,000 feet, Prater wiped dusty tears from his face. Halladay met Prater coming off Princeton and could see he was down. As an ultrarunner, Halladay knew he was battling loneliness as much as fatigue.
"You know, a lot of times I don't even feel like talking during those times," Halladay said. "But you just want someone there."
Prater finished Day Six with Mount Shavano and Tabeguache Peak, two mountains with easy terrain but punishing ascents and descents. He made it back to the crew, drained, and pulled out his cell phone. He listened to a message left by Lori and Mia and Anya. Standing next to the car, with his crew busy washing his socks and fixing a meal, he sobbed out loud with the phone to his ear.
He called Lori back and told her not to leave him any more messages from the girls. At that point, not even the morning sun could cure the gnawing isolation Prater was beginning to feel. He missed the girls' soccer games and dinners at Chick-fil-A, his favorite food, with Lori. He craved adventure, but by that point, he longed for the life he left back home even more.
Prater began the day in the dark by taping his right shin, which had swollen to three times the size of his left with a lump protruding from it the size of a golf ball. Prater battled shin splints earlier that summer, even taking an unthinkable 10 days off to heal. Now they were back.
Runners often use compression sleeves to ward off the overuse their sport demands. By the seventh day, Prater's own sleeves weren't enough. He needed something tighter, so he borrowed a pair of Lori's much smaller sleeves. He didn't care that they were hot pink.
Prater winced as he and Halladay began to run up the trail. The good news was the pain in his twisted left foot was better, but Prater wondered if that was just because his right shin hurt even more.
Still, as the sun rose, Prater rebooted yet again, and Halladay, one of the better ultrarunners in the region, joked with a friend over a text about being dropped as Prater surged ahead. Most of the 14ers in the central Sawatch Range, like Princeton, were named after universities. In one sense they were easy because trails covered most of their tracks, but they were also hard because they were steep and exhausting. As hikers pursued the 14ers, all kinds of mini-challenges helped keep them focused up some of the mundane routes, and climbing Missouri Mountain and Mounts Belford and Oxford, a climb of more than 8,000 feet in one day, was one of those badges of honor hikers often bragged of. Of course those who managed to do so usually didn't talk about how trashed they were by the end, usually limping back to their cars with barely enough daylight left to guide their way. Prater climbed them all by lunchtime.
Even with the wear and tear, the bad weather, the oil trouble and the loneliness, he was still on Cave Dog's tail. For most climbers, ascending the next two peaks, Mounts Harvard and Columbia, was an epic day unto itself. That afternoon, he traversed over to Harvard and dashed across Mount Columbia, and as he headed down and prepared himself for Mount Yale, his last peak of the day, he allowed himself to dream about Longs Peak.
He planned to save Longs for last because it was closest to his Superior, Colo., home. The mountain, the tallest in Rocky Mountain National Park with a breathtaking east face and a route called "the Diamond" that attracts climbers from around the world, also draws thousands a year to a second, easier, yet still challenging route. Prater loved it. He had climbed Longs at least once in every month of the year.
With nearly four days of climbing left, Prater had only 15 peaks to go. Those peaks, however included the Elk Mountains in Aspen. Rock for rock, the Elk range was the toughest among the 14ers. They contained the crumbly, exposed Bells, Maroon and North Maroon Peaks, and two other peaks just as difficult. But he thought he was ready. Every step hurt, but so far the ibuprofen dulled the pain just enough to continue.
Wright, back home, had lined up what everyone agreed was a dream team to help on the final days. Stefan Griebel and Ben Hoyt, who could climb like spiders up the smoothest faces, were scheduled to join Prater, as was the legendary Andrew Hamilton. At one point, Hamilton held the 14ers record himself, and he still held the "self-powered" 14ers record of 19 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes, meaning he either hiked, ran or biked the whole way.
The record, at last, seemed within Prater's reach, like a peak on the horizon coming into focus in the morning light. It actually seemed doable. Longs was going to be fun, and Prater imagined what would wait for him at the end. At this point, he knew his attempt was drawing a lot of attention on 14ers.com, and there was talk of a reception right in Longs' parking lot. That would make him uncomfortable, but he admitted to himself that it would also be kind of cool.
Minutes later, as he descended down Columbia, a sharp pain hit his quad just above his left knee. He didn't feel a pop. He didn't bang it on a rock. He didn't even twist it. But every time he bent the knee, the pain was excruciating. Many hikers scowled at Columbia, which at times seemed like nothing more than a pile of rotten marbles. The proper term for the tiny, loose rock was scree, though hikers preferred to use another, more profane "S" word to describe it. Prater tried to keep his leg straight, but that was like trying to stand on a pile of LEGOs. Then Prater taped it, which did no good.
He started to crab walk, bending at his waist and scrambling on his hands and feet, and then he fell before the mountain to his knees and began to crawl. He sent Jon Kedrowski, the first man to camp on the summits of the Colorado 14ers in one season, and his partner down Columbia, to inform the crew that he may be finished.
Eric Lee, who thought about attempting the record himself that season, was having none of it. He ran up the trail and met a disgusted Prater at the bottom of Columbia. Lee tried a deep tissue massage on the quad with a stick, and Prater tried stretching his leg in all kinds of ways and gobbled salt pills, hoping the pain in his leg was just a cramp. None of it helped, and yet Lee's presence, along with a few more ibuprofen, seemed to rally him. Prater stood and the two broke into a slow run back to the car that felt like a death march. Prater was in horrible pain. He knew his shot at the record was in trouble - Longs was fading in the distance.
Roach, hoping for another Prater reboot, took him to Ken Nolan's house. Prater felt bad about that, but if anyone would understand, it was Nolan, one of a handful to climb all of Colorado's 1,300, 12,000-foot mountains. He called Prater a friend and, like those following on 14ers.com, was rooting for him hard to break the record. Roach hoped a few hours of sleep in a real bed, not on a mattress in a car, might get Prater through another day. Prater crawled into Nolan's guest bed without showering and felt guilty until the moment his head hit the pillow.
Prater awoke in the dark the next morning to climb Yale, but he wasn't the same. Even after sleeping, he was exhausted. The pain in his leg was still sharp, and after reaching the trail Prater hiked down a few steep sections to test it. He didn't want a repeat of the previous night's awful descent. It hurt, but the ibuprofen masked it just enough for him to stumble along. Prater even used hiking poles, a staple of many mountain hikers, even though he believed they slowed him down.
Now Prater feared the message his body sent with every step: Enough, already. He had promised himself before the attempt that he would give it everything he had and was now taking measure. He cursed his twisted foot. That, he thought, started the chain of pain, as he had to favor the foot, which probably caused the shin splints in his right leg, which threw off his balance and may have ruined the quad in his left leg.
Or it could be that he was just a middle-aged guy with kids and a family whose body was collapsing under what many consider one of the most demanding endurance feats in the world. Prater could barely talk. He thought a nap might help. He collapsed in the wet grass and the mud.
Andy Wellman, another ultrarunner who Wright lined up to get Prater through the peaks, tried to rouse him, but Prater slept on. Wellman wondered what he could possibly say to him to wake up.
Then, without warning, Prater stood, and within seconds, he was gone. It was much lighter out, the start of a new day. Prater was off like a bullet and even began talking strategy. Maybe he could knock off Yale, and then Mount Huron and La Plata Peak in the afternoon, and that would set him up for his epic trip through the Elks. Wellman wondered if this was the famous Prater reboot he'd heard about.
Cave Dog's record is a tough one, Gerry Roach said, but it is breakable. John Prater showed that much.
"These new guys, these young ultrarunners, are pretty good," Roach said. "There are lots of 100-mile races now, and those times are being lowered all the time. People are figuring it out."
Prater didn't get the speed record, but he did set his own. He climbed those 41 14ers faster than anyone else ever has.
Prater's foot still hurts him, if you poke it, but that's the only lingering injury from last year's attempt.
Prater said earlier this year that he would like to try it again in 2014. But that's only if someone like Eric Lee doesn't beat him to it.
Prater's ultimate goal, to draw some attention to Cave Dog's record, was a wild success. His attempt got the more than 1,600 responses on 14ers.com, more than any thread in the last few years. Roach has heard that one, and maybe even two, ultrarunners were fascinated with Prater's attempt and might take a shot at the speed record.
Cave Dog wanted to see Prater break his record, and if someone else calls him for advice, he is willing to help. He posts his routes, times and statistics on his site as a guide for others.
"My goal was to be the fastest at the moment," Cave Dog said. "That record will be mine forever, just as the records previous to mine will be theirs forever. I really hope others improve on it."
Better trails, technology and beta on the routes should help the attempt, but Cave Dog reminds others that he had advantages others before him didn't as well, including lighter and more durable running shoes.
"Give me a call," Cave Dog said. "I'll give them any tips I can. I want people to have their own adventures and their own victories."
Prater, like Cave Dog, will be one of the hundreds following along and cheering that person on if it happens. He may even join them for a few trips up.
"If someone else does it," Prater said, "I'd be their biggest fan."
At the tree line, however, Prater slowed again, the jolt of energy spent. He grimaced and grunted with every uphill step, as if his leg was pierced by shards of broken glass. Prater massaged it and stretched it, and once again, nothing helped.
Prater knew he was done but said nothing. That realization stung even more than he thought it would. Privately he had worried about the Elks from the moment he twisted his foot. Those peaks demanded anyone's best, and Prater knew his body wasn't right. He wasn't ready to go against his instincts for a fourth time. He was content. It was time to stop chasing the Cave Dog.
But it was not time to stop climbing. For the moment, Prater decided to keep going. Climbing Yale would meet another goal and mark his third time he had summited the same 55 14ers he set out to speed climb in the record attempt. That alone justified a trip up, and in so doing meant that he had given everything he had. He had failed to catch Cave Dog, but had set a personal record, pushing himself harder and farther than he ever had before.
As he hiked at the speed of an average hiker, not a badass ultrarunner trying to set a record, his pace reminded him of a time when every trip up was a new adventure. There were weekend outings in college, and the climbs he'd done both on his own and with his friends, and with Lori, and climbs to come someday with his daughters. In the last week, he had made a valiant attempt at the record with great friends who lost sleep and nerves and even risked their lives to help him. He planned to give Roach a big hug at the bottom for all of his friends' hard work. Maybe one day he would help one of them go for the record. Or, maybe one day, he would try it again himself.
At this moment, however, he still had Yale to climb. The peak wasn't anything special, just another 14er with a steep but easy trail to the top, a mountain climbed by the masses. Every step hurt, both in his legs and in his heart. Yet it was still another day in the mountains, his home away from home. He loved their summits more than just about anything, but the frenetic pace of the record pursuit hadn't allowed him the luxury of experiencing one of his favorite reasons for climbing. He hadn't had a chance to linger on the peak, to soak in the view and know how far he had come.
As he approached his 41st and last summit of his adventure, he looked forward to some quiet reflection on top.
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