There are no shortcuts to 14,000 feet above sea level.
Alpine enthusiast and mountaineer Andrew Hamilton, 40, knows that better than most, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t fly up some of the country’s tallest peaks and into thin air.
On July 9th, Hamilton set the speed record for climbing all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains (known as 14ers), doing it in nine days, 21 hours, and 51 minutes to break the previous record of 10 days, 20 hours, and 26 minutes set by Teddy Keizer in 2000.
A more realistic goal for many is climbing all of those mountains during the course of a lifetime; not in less than two weeks and on cat naps.
“In the record, there’s not a lot of joy for each individual mountain,” Hamilton said. “It’s really the experience as a whole that provides the joy. Other people that I met at the summit were almost annoyed because I’d say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Well, see you later.’ I would get up there, get my tracker out, and press the button saying that I made it, and then head back down. There’s no staying there and enjoying the view.”
Hamilton covered 265 miles, but more impressive is the 140,000 vertical feet that his body endured. That’s equivalent to 26.4 miles, or a “Vertical Marathon.”
Going the vertical distance
The Denver-based stay-at-home dad to three sons and a daughter was introduced to hiking at 11 years old by his stepdad. Then in the mid-90’s, as a rafting guide in Buena Vista, CO, Hamilton used his time off the river to climb the surrounding heavy-duty peaks in the Sawatch Range.
“I remember when I was little my stepdad was always cursing the guidebooks. The old book had one route per peak and he was constantly getting lost because the instructions weren’t that great,” Hamilton said. “I remember picking up the latest “Colorado’s Fourteeners” by Gerry Roach, and it had all these different routes and maps. In the beginning of the book, there’s a chapter about the 14er record. In that version, it was 16 days, 21 hours, and 25 minutes. I just remember thinking that maybe I could set that record.”
By the end of 1998, Hamilton and his younger brother had climbed all of the states 14ers. A year later, he was ready for his attempt to break the record, which was 14 days at the time. He came in 1 hour and 28 minutes faster than the previous record-holder.
Because records are meant to be broken, Hamilton’s didn’t last more than a year, so in 2003, he established the “Self-Powered 14er Record,” meaning he climbed all of the 14ers, but used a bike rather than a car to travel between each.
His time at high elevation tapered a bit as he got into 24-hour mountain bike racing, adventuring racing, and fatherhood. His wife, Natalie, was eight months pregnant with their first child, Calvin, just as he was wrapping up the Self-Powered record.
When Natalie got accepted to medical school and had another child, Andrew took care of the kids during the day, and worked as a a computer programmer at night. Training, racing, and lung-searing climbs just weren’t in the cards anymore.
Adapting to family life
By the time Calvin was four years old, Andrew could get back to the mountains he loved. At that age, he brought Calvin on his first hike up a 14er, which was 16 miles roundtrip. Calvin enjoyed it so much that the father-son duo ended up climbing ten 14ers together that summer.
Now 11, Calvin has climbed all of Colorado’s 14ers twice. His 8-year-old brother, Axel, has climbed all of them once. At 5 and 3, the Hamilton’s two younger ones will be introduced to the thrill shortly.
With the family engaged and supporting him, Andrew got the itch to break the speed record again. So in 2014, he set off, but had to quit just 36 hours short of his goal due to injury.
This year, he wanted to give it another shot. So how does a stay-at-home father of four train while his wife finishes up a fellowship? By running the kids to school.
“The kids’ school is three miles away,” Andrew said. “The older kids rode their bikes and the two younger kids I pushed. I ran them three miles to school and then back home. I did it twice a day which is 12 miles a day.”
Andrew also scouted routes on the 14ers, and with all the late season snow, it provided him with a good workout as well.
One by one, step by step
With a support crew of eight, including Natalie, Clavin, and Axel, Andrew set off for southern Colorado, where he bagged eight 14ers on his first day — June 29th.
“The first five days were flawless in how the timing worked out,” Andrew said. “Usually the hardest part is when it’s nighttime and you just can’t stay awake. You get what’s called the “sleep monsters.” You have hallucinations, and you’re so tired that everything is just so unreal. The timing was just right so that I’d get done with the day climb, get a little rest, and then go out on my night climb.”
Day four was perhaps Andrew’s worst day in terms of pain. A tendon in his foot flared up to the point that he didn’t think he’d be able to continue.
“I remember walking along this ridge, and my hat was buzzing because there was this lightning storm nearby. I was really depressed,” Andrew said. “I remember thinking, it would be easier if I just got struck by lightning than having to come down and quit with an injury. That was probably one of my lowest points.”
Andrew’s final climb was Longs Peak, the most prominent pinnacle from Denver’s front range. He slept for a few hours at the trailhead having already climbed four mountains that day, and then took off for the final push around 7:15 p.m. He hit the summit of Longs at 11:30 p.m., and per the rules, had to descend 3,000 feet to complete the 58.
In the crisp dark night, Andrew was greeted by not only his support team, family, and friends, but by Teddy Keizer, the previous record-holder, who flew in from Oregon just to congratulate Andrew in person.
An 18-hour sleep following the record-setting expedition allowed Andrew to get “back to normal.”
Fifty-eight peaks, hundreds of miles, and maybe a few lost toe nails.
All worth it for a different vantage point.