| Pacing Homie
My name is Andy Wellman and I live in Crestone, CO. I was alone with John "Homie" Prater on the summit of Mt. Yale on Thursday morning when he looked at me and said, "I think this is the last one of these for me." I had hiked with him to the top of Mt. Yale, his 41st and last 14er of his record attempt that morning, as well as to the summits of Mt. Shavano and Mt. Tabeguache the night before. I usually don't take the time to write up trip reports of my adventures, as that would probably end up being the only thing in my life I would have time for, besides the adventures themselves, but a day and a half later now I can't stop re-living the incredible experiences I had in my mind, to the point of total distraction. I want to write down this story for myself, and feel like many of you would enjoy hearing what went on, as well as a behind the scenes look at the couple days that I was a part of the Homie crew. Here is my report:
SHAVANO AND TABEGUACHE:
On Tuesday morning, the 28th of August, I was at my computer trying to catch up on the "novel" of Homie's exploits on the 14ers.com forum. I had spent the previous 4 days backpacking in the Sangres near my home, and had plenty of catching up to do, like about 600 messages or more. One of the first things I read was the blog post written by Bill Wright imploring anyone who was available to assist Homie the next few days in the Sawatch range, especially with pacing. Let me say, I had never met Homie. But, I did share many great friends with him, as some of my best friends work with Homie and share adventures with him all the time. I had heard plenty about his exploits in the past, knew that of course he was a great guy, and I was incredibly inspired by his record attempt. I thought to myself, "well, there's less emails here in my inbox than I thought there would be, I live fairly close tot he Sawatch, and would love to be a part of such a cool adventure. Why not?"
So I called up my longtime friend Stefan Greibel, whom we have all learned that Bill has an incredible man-crush on, and asked him for Bill's contact info. (FYI, Stefan's name is pronounced like Stephanie, but without the -ie at the end, and no, he does not speak with a german accent.) I emailed Bill that I could be available as early as that afternoon, and could pace for as long as needed, if needed. Not being a friend of Bill's or Homie's, I must have got a great recommendation from Stefan or Ben Hoyt, cause within about half an hour Bill had written me back that they were incredibly grateful, and I was in, my shift was to start that night with Mt. Massive! "Oh man," I thought, "time to start packing."
As I packed during the afternoon and watched the SPOT page and monitored Bill's Google Docs spreadsheet that at any given time about 8 people were editing and constantly changing, it fell into place that I would be pacing on and off for the entire Sawatch Range, taking turns with Jason Halladay. This was going to be a big mission. It also became apparent that I would probably have a couple of night shifts, and that the plans were so fluid they were changing by the minute. Watching the SPOT tracker, I saw that Homie had bailed on the plan to link Antero to Shavano and Tabeguache. Then, when I saw the SPOT was in the Mt. Princeton parking lot, which was also a change of plans, I knew it was go time, I had until Homie finished Princeton to be there and ready to rock, and would be climbing Shav/Tab that night. Moments later Mark Oveson called me and confirmed the plan, and I was to meet them at Mt. Princeton, as that was the only way to confirm I was on board if the plan changed again. I jumped in "Ole Bess" my trusty peice of crap Plymouth mini-van which I roadtrip in, bowl of past brimming in hand, and peeled out of the driveway.
I picked up a pizza in Salida and made it to the parking lot at the bottom of the Mt. Princeton Road with plenty of time to hurry up and wait. A couple hours later, down came the SUV's driven by Gerry Roach and Jason Halladay. It was about 9:30 and Homie was sleeping in his bed in the back of Bill's SUV, which Gerry was driving. Homie had taken longer than anticipated on Princeton and had climbed it alone, as Jason had not arrived in time from Los Alamos to go with him. I met the crew, and Jennifer Roach told me that Homie said his legs were really hurting on this peak. Homie also confided in me later that night that it was a very difficult peak for him because super tired and strung out at this point, and alone on the peak, he had been unable to keep his emotions in check when thinking about his family and had broken down a bunch, losing time and motivation.
Anyway, Jason and I formed a plan that I would go tonight as he rested, then he would go for the big Sawatch traverse on Wednesday while I rested, as he was away from work cause he was "sick," probably with "summit fever," but he would surely be recovered enough that he would be expected back at work on Thursday. I would then take over again Wednesday night and go for as long as I could, hopefully the rest of the Sawatch. We caravaned out to the highway and met Ken Nolan who resupplied the crew with water and Ben and Jerry's ice cream, one pint of which Homie woke up and ate entirely in about 2 minutes flat. 600 calories, boom. Then we all rallied to the Blank Gulch Trailhead.
At Blank Gulch, at around 11pm, Jennifer, the team Mom, tried to wake Homie unsuccessfully about 3 times. He was literally snoring in the middle of mumbling incoherent replies to her questions. After the crew had polished off the ice cream we decided it was really time now, and Jennifer got more forceful and made Homie get up. I met him for the first time at this point, by headlamp, and watched as he applied athletic tape over his lower right shin, where there was an alarmingly large protruding red bump. Holy crap, I was just starting to learn how tough Homie was.
The crew packing for Shavano
Just before midnight we marched off into the dark, Homie carrying his pain, me bringing the very much needed Psyche at this point. Homie was limping with both legs at the same time, if that was possible. His left ankle was very swollen and super painful, he was telling me, from the mishap on Little Bear, but his shin splints in his right leg, the ugly bump, was at this point so much more painful it was drowning out the pain of the left ankle. There were rules to pacing him, and I was not allowed to lead, show him the way, tell him the way, carry anything for him, or really help him at all beyond just being his companion and for emergencies. We chatted endlessly as we marched steadily up the trail at about 2 mph.
Above treeline the moon was incredibly bright and I turned my light off, enjoying one of my favorite things, night hikes by moonlight. I was very impressed by how fast Homie could move, even in obvious pain. On any given day on a 14er, he would have been passed by nobody, despite it being his 34th summit. At this point after our introduction to each other and a lot of BSing, he told me about Princeton, and said it was incredibly helpful to have me there for psychological reasons. He said the distraction of our conversation had made the time pass like nothing, and was very grateful for it. We also discussed the Elks traverse a bit, which Homie was already worried about. This conversation eventually led to Stefan(forever after known as Man-Crush???) being added for that section later by Bill. Above 13,500 feet the wind picked up and was cold, we were wearing all we had with us. At this time also Homie started moving faster. Not like it seemed like he was going relatively faster, but literally, he was upping the pace the higher we went. I was again impressed, as he was grunting with pain after every slight mis-step, which were frequent.
Following Homie in the dark
We topped out Shavano in just under 3 hours, at around 3am, and spent less than 8 minutes on top, pushing buttons on our respective SPOT devices and eating Shot Bloks. As we started down the large talus towards Mt. Tabeguache, Homie was really suffering. Talus forced him to bend his ankles a lot, which was what he needed to avoid the most. After some steps the pain was so intense he would stumble and almost go down cause he didn't want to weight the ankle at that angle. It only took about 5 minutes of this before he stopped to pop some ibuprofen, which made noticeable differences about half an hour later. We stumbled our way to the saddle, and then powered up the loose scree on Tab, reaching the top only 36 minutes after leaving the top of Shavano. Here I remembered to take a photo. Less than 7 minutes later we were reversing course again.
Summit of Tabeguache, sorry its blurry
We traversed slightly beneath the summit of Shavano and as we made our way around the summit the moon descended, a bright orange glowing orb of flame and clouds, very cool. Unfortunately this made it darker, and we couldn't see into the distance as well. Here Homie became dissoriented. We were descending the summit cone, and he thought we were too far right, and needed to move left more. The further we went this way though, we just kept hitting grass and talus, no trail. I knew we needed to go right, but was not allowed to say anything. Knowing the terrain really well, I knew if we continued on how we were we would not really run into any dangerous terrain, just more scree and grass, and so I decided to just watch and see what would happen. Homie sat down and busted out his iPhone with GPS maps on it and started using that. But his interpretation of the GPS was to go further left still. I was amused. He kept rotating it in a circle, watching the arrow keep moving in a circle. Eventually he zoomed the map out a bit more and realized he was completely backwards. At this point I agreed, and we angled down and right and hit the trail.
The Ibuprofen had kicked in, cause Homie was able to run. We both charged down the rocky trail at a pretty decent running pace, by headlamp, in the dark. I was again impressed. The crazy thing was Homie was so tired that he would mis-step or catch his toe about every minute or so, and trip, stumble, grunt in pain, stop, breathe in pain, and start going again. Anyone who trail runs knows that big spills are inevitable and part of the game, and I was absolutely convinced I was about to witness some head over heels carnage. I asked him about the pace, and he was fine with it, so we kept going. He never fell, and we ran all the way back to the car without stopping, him running the uphills on the flat Colorado Trail at the bottom as the horizon started to become orange. Round trip time in less than 6 hours. The last couple hundred feet we quickly made a plan that I would trade phone numbers with Jason, and they would text me from the tops of the link-up peaks to come with the plan. Weather, tiredness, or darkness could have all forced an early exit, and we support team would need to know where they would exit the wilderness with enough time to react and be there at the trailhead.
The crew quickly rallied and we all headed into Buena Vista and re-convened at Bongo Billy's for coffee. Gerry and Jason jumped into Bill's car where Homie was sleeping and rallied away to the Clohesy Lake TH for Mt. Missouri. Jennifer and I just sat, tired and a bit shell shocked, and chatted at Bongo Billy's. Let me tell you about the incredible job the Roach's did as the crew for about 4-5 days. Crewing for this sort of thing was much harder than pacing, even through the night. The amount of logistics they had to deal with, on very little sleep, constantly adjusting last minute to Homie's whims, were incredible. Gerry drove Homie around in Bill's car, while Jennifer would follow with their dog Izze in the Roach's truck. Add in the pacers, and the logistics were often as complicated as 2-4 sleep deprived people could handle. We would often reach a conclusion about who was going where in what car, just to forget what had been decided by the time that it was all concluded. Needless to say they are both fantastic people, have an incredible amount of experience in this crewing business, and did an incredible job, and were virtually always very tired. Respect to them!
Having been awake for 24 hours, I was getting very sleepy. I ate some bacon and eggs in a sleep coma, then parked my van in BV to sleep the day away. I wanted to eat food in BV after I woke up without driving back into town, so chose to sleep in town. About an hour of sleep later, though, my van had heated to about 110 degrees and I couldnt sleep. So, I drove up to Ken Nolan's house, which is close to the North Cottonwood Trailhead for Harvard and Columbia. The Roach's were planning to spend the day there as well, as Ken had graciously volunteered whatever he had to Homie's effort. Ken Nolan was the support team for the support team, and it was very much needed. I parked Ole Bess in Ken's shaded garage and slept until about 2:30.
We were hanging out and I have to say that I witnessed one of the most interesting, and also dorkiest (sorry Gerry and Ken!) conversations about lists that anyone could imagine. I especially liked Gerry's conclusion that if you cant complete your list, or someone else has already completed it before you, or whatever, then the only recourse is to modify the parameters of your own list. Each and every one of you is the first person to accomplish something, as long as you modify the qualifiers adequately enough to ensure that you are the first!
Eventually we started receiving texts from Jason, which were very helpful, since with almost no cell service we couldn't load the SPOT tracker page, and actually had to rely on the forum at 14ers.com, which loaded easier, in order to know where they were at! So yes, the crew was completely reliant on the Homie thread at one point to figure out where Homie was! Late afternoon we snapped into action and Gerry and I went to retreive Jason's car from BV and take it to the North Cottonwood trailhead, as we had learned that Jason was coming out there to get home, regardless of what Homie wanted to do. It was possible I would hike in at that point and accompany Homie over Yale, so we also wanted to stash my van in BV, to be picked up after Homie and I had traversed Yale. But, once in town we learned that they were both coming out at North Cottonwood, so we were stranding my car in BV. I drove Jason's car to the trailhead, with Gerry following, and then we both jumped into Gerry's ride to head back to Ken's to reconvene with Jennifer. You see now what I mean about the logistics being sort of a head-scratcher. After some quick coffee, we loaded up the Roach's car, and Bill's car, and took both of them up to the North Cottonwood Trailhead to wait the arrival of Jason and Homie. We also learned at this point that Jon Kedrowski had already hiked in to meet them somewhere along the way.
At the trailhead it quickly became dark as we settled into the absolute hardest part of being a crew: waiting in the dark, while sleepy. We kept hallucinating headlamps coming out of the woods, literally, we all saw them at different times. Finally we saw a real headlamp, and shouted with joy. It was only Jason alone though. He told us that Jon Kedrowski had met them on the summit of Columbia, pizza in hand. (As a side note, due to a note of Bill's saying Homie loves pepperoni pizza and he would be grateful if some was delivered to him, every single person who showed up brought pepperoni pizza, and in my 2 days on the crew, there were no less than about 6 pizzas kicked around and gnawed on, we all ate a lot of pizza!) Homie couldnt eat the pizza due to his rules, but I think Jason did. Anyway, at 13,800 ft. Jason had left the two John's and ran out so he could get home. He arrived at the trailhead in the dark at about 9:30pm and told us Homie would be at least 2 more hours. Ouch! Right around this same moment Eric Lee, ultrarunner, Nolan's 14 attempter, and friend of Homie's ripped into the parking lot in his subaru and promptly laced up his shoes and went running into the dark woods to find Homie and bring him in. What a friend. I guess in a bizarre reverse role, Homie had done the exact same thing for him at the exact same place last year as Eric epiced his way down from Columbia after a Nolan's 14 attempt.
Here is what happened in Columbia in the dark, although I was not there, it was related to me by Homie the next morning. After Jason left, Homie developed a severe pain in his right quad. It was sort of beneath the muscle above his knee, and was intensely painful when he bent his knee in any way. Range of motion sent shooting pain through his leg. This debilitated him to sliding with a basically useless straight leg down Columbia. He couldn't bend his leg at all, and it was virtually screaming pain. At some point he sent Jon Kedrowski out to the trailhead to tell the Roach's what was happening. At the bottom of Columbia, on the trail, he ran into Eric Lee, who he said saved him and rallied him. The tried deep tissue massage with the butt end of a stick, but that didn't help. They tried stretching it relentlessly. He consumed lots of S Caps. Nothing helped. He hobbled out to the car a total wreck in horrible pain, and asked Gerry to take him to Ken Nolan's house for some sleep. They got there around midnight and Homie slept in a bed for about 3 hours before being roused for Yale.
Back to my story, I rode with Jason in his car out to BV to become re-united with faithful Ole Bess. I drove her up to the Denny Gulch TH for Yale, and went to sleep for a quick nap while waiting for Homie and the crew. I anticipated being hiking by 1am, not knowing the full story. I woke up in the van at 1:30 and was distressed that they weren't yet there. What could have happened? Is Homie in trouble? should I drive down to cell service? Did they go to Ken's? Did they go to Winfield instead? Should I drive back to the N. Cottonwood Trailhead? Thinking these thoughts in a circle I passed out again, only to re-awake at 3:00am this time. Holy crap! Where are they? Same thoughts all over again, but again I passed out before making a decision. This time I had some really wierd and bizarre dreams involving some neaghbors of mine, the Roach's, the theme of quitting, and bizarrely large and furry tarrantula spiders. I awoke in a sweat, sitting up in the van, staring out the windshield to the sight of headlamps as the crew drove up. It was 4:30am.
Awoken in a daze from REM sleep at 4:30am, I was having a hard time thinking through my prep and getting my stuff together. Homie was struggling with the same thing in the car next to me, but had a 6 day headstart on his sleep deprivation, so I was ready first. Jon Kedrowski was also there to hike with him if needed, but seeing that I was there, decided to head home to Vail. We began the journey up Mt. Yale in the dark at about 5:00am.
Pretty much immediately Homie was talking about how tired he was, and how his leg hurt. I didn't yet know last night's story, so didn't understand the quad pain. Within 5 minutes he was hiking back down a steep section of the trail to test the quad on the downhill, obviously worried of a repeat of last night. It was hurting on both the uphill and the downhill, but not too much to keep stumbling along. He was also using hiking poles, which he hates and reportedly never ever uses, so that was also an indication of his worry concerning his state. The ground was super wet and muddy, and it was very humid and chilly, it had clearly dumped rain here the day before. We kept seeing large warty toads in the trail by headlamp, which was strange.
Homie kept mumbling about how he should have slept more. He could hardly talk really, he was so tired, and so didnt talk much. I kept imploring him that we would just keep walking till it got light out, and he would be refreshed and come around. We stopped to put on extra layers, as it was that chilly, and after putting on his tights, Homie mumbled "sorry" and promptly laid down in the middle of the trail in the sticky mud. I was like, "Whoa dude, I dont think laying in the mud is a good idea, your gonna get wet and cold man, we gotta keep going." He mumbled for 5 minutes, and I sat there for about 2 minutes watching a mouse run around in the dark and wondering what I would have to say to get him up. Then with no warning he promptly stood up and was walking again in about 3 seconds. I had to catch up. We strolled along some more, him still mumbling about sleep and me saying just a little longer. He sat down on a log and burried his head in his hands between his legs. I rubbed his shoulder for a while and told him his real problem was that he surrounded himself with people who wouldn't let him quit. That got him to his feet again.
After that he was marching faster and the early morning twilight was creeping into the sky. I though we were over the hump when he promptly stopped in the middle of the trail, swaying a little, and said I think I need a little sleep. At this point I moved in front of him and looked him in the face and realized that he was most likely literally asleep on his feet. I have a cat who sleeps with her eyes open, and thats how he looked. I said OK, lets take a 15 minute nap and found him a bed of pine needles under a tree that was dry. He laid down and was asleep right away. We were above the cold air which sinks to the lowest points, and it wasnt too cold. I laid down too and thought a bit, and decided to let him sleep for 30 minutes. I wanted to make sure that the nap did what it was supposed to actually do, revive him, rather than wake him up and still have him in a daze. A guy walked past during the nap and was very amused to say the least.
Homie in bed next to Yale trail
Just before I woke him up
When I woke Homie up it was much lighter out and again he was off like a bullet, faster than I could get my pack on. He was chatty right away and I was releived that the nap had worked. We were pretty much immediately talking strategy: if we can do this one and Huron and La Plata in the afternoon, then etc. etc. He was ready to go get this thing done! But, by the time we had reached treeline it was obvious that the quad was really painful. He told me the story of the night before, and at this point he was grunting and grimacing with every uphill step, and we were moving at a typical midwestern pace of 10 steps, sit down and rest. We massaged it, we stretched it, nothing worked. It wasn't a cramp. Homie kept talking about how worried he was about the descent, but we kept moving up.
Like the previous night, he did indeed get faster above 13,000 feet. I was quietly confident that it could be worked through, as he had been in a horrible pain cave for like 5 days, what was another painful setback? He mentioned the quad hurt so bad he couldn't even feel his shin or foot anymore. I suspect that he was having internal thoughts the whole uphill that he was not sharing though.
Grunting it out to the summit of Yale
We reached the summit over 5 hours after setting out, and Homie was not pleased about it. He knew that 7 hour trips up and down Yale were not going to get it done. It was a remarkable day. We were alone on the summit, gave fist bumps, and were all smiles with not a breathe of wind and warm sun beating down on us. The views were incredible. We really hadn't been in any hurry this morning, and we were snacking on top, when Homie looked me in the face from about 10 feet away and said, "I think this is the last one of these for me." By the way he said it I knew instantly that this was not a decision worth arguing about, it was already made and final. But it still caught me off guard, and I came back with what I was supposed to say, "Really? No way man, you're doing great. Why don't you wait to make a decision until after the descent. Or after Huron, the two of us can bust up that one, its easy, you can find a new groove." But he didn't really answer any of that and just sat there happy and peaceful. He was not bothered by the decision, he was at total peace, and quite relieved it seemed. We talked for quite a while about it. I was intensely curious, and at this point wanted to know his thoughts. I don't want to rehash all that was said, cause I'm sure Homie will at some point share his own thoughts, and I wouldn't want to put any words in his mouth, so I won't try to convey what was said. From my perspective though, I think that Homie would agree with the thoughts that CaveDog posted and was quoted on the 14ers.com forum:
"I personally am not concerned about holding the record. For me the goal was to strive to do my best in this competition and to learn about myself, others, and nature in the process. The record was only a guideline for which to focus my endeavors. In these terms, I achieved my goals beyond any of my expectations. "
We went on to take some pictures and talk about a lot of interesting things, like the record, inspiration, future goals, his family and anniversary, which is Friday, religion, spirituality, Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos.... At one point Homie said that this was his favorite summit of the journey, and that he really hadn't had the chance to enjoy too many of them. Eventually he said time to go, so we did.
On top, after the decision
On the way down we re-harshed many thoughts again, and eventually we worked around to talking about the Elks traverse. It had obviously been worrying him a lot for days, and he confided that he felt he was just in no condition at all to be attempting to climb those peaks. He was just way too unstable on his feet and legs. No amount of super Man-Crush assistance, even having more than one pacer, as Ben Hoyt is a superstar himself, would be able to guarantee his safety on those steep and treacherous mountains. It was way way too risky in his mind, no matter who accompanied him. If pain alone was not a tangible enough reason, than safety surely was. It was a good call.
He was moving ok, in tons of pain, stopping to rest here and there, but nothing like on Columbia the night before. Eventually he brought up the idea about future pacers already on their way to meet him, and asked that I run ahead and notify Bill to tell the pacers not to come. I asked if he was OK, and I felt that he would be fine making his way down the trail alone at his pace, so I ran ahead. The team at the trailhead of Jennifer and Gerry, Eric Lee, and the next pacer - William Surls - were disappointed to say the least, but honestly, and not to sound glib, but after the night before and the pace today the writing was beginning to show up on the wall. I explained the situation, and they understood. He was at peace about it, and there was no need to argue or try to force him to go on. I became confused about Williams role and therefore never sent a text to Bill, but it was better that he heard it from Homie anyway.
William and Jennifer took some water up the trail and met him for the rest of his walk out. And then we had another pizza party in the parking lot. It was a great time, and slowly the energy began to shift away from Homie and began gathering around Eric, who was beginning his Nolan's attempt the next morning. Other hikers came over to share their congratulations at a fantastic effort. It was a relaxed and thoroughly enjoyable form of closure. And then we all split, and went on to our next adventures, wherever they may be...
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed my story. I played but a very very tiny role in what was an incredibly huge adventure for many people. I have to thank Homie and Bill for giving me the opportunity to be a part of it all, it is truly something I will always remember, and was charged with a level intensity, emotion, and friendship that is rarely experienced, even on mountain adventures. I have to thank everyone else who was there or had any part as well. I can only hope I represented everyones contribution fairly, which is what I tried to do. I feel like I made a number of very good friends this "weekend," and I could not be more grateful...
Summit Photo - THANKS HOMIE!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):