Scott Simmons had thought about a specific mountain challenge in the San Juan Mountains for years. He never imagined completing it in trail running shoes instead of ski boots.
The 48-year-old Durango man set out Aug. 11 on a mission to link up 13 summits of 14,000 feet or higher in the San Juans in a single effort without navigation from outside Durango, Silverton, Lake City, Ouray and Telluride. He tackled all in the San Juans except San Luis Peak (14,014).
Though he wanted to drop out after his initial day in Chicago Basin over to Stony Pass, the graduate of Fort Lewis College would persevere.
After 104 hours and 58 minutes, Simmons stood atop El Diente Peak at 14,160 feet and stopped his watch. He had done it, one of his biggest feats after 30 years of dabbling in the San Juans.
“It was so difficult right up until the end. It was a pretty amazing feeling,” Simmons said. “I like to challenge myself and feel like a lot of mountains here you really can run up them in a couple of hours. It’s a challenge maybe to do it speed-wise, but the actual challenge of whether you can get up them maybe isn’t that great. To link these all up in the style I wanted to, it took longer than I wanted to, but it was an amazing feeling. One of the best feelings I’ve had in the mountains just to pull it off.”
Simmons’ goal was to beat 100 hours. Initially, he expected the route to cover 140 miles. But his run would actually cover 157.14 miles. It featured 58,949 feet of elevation gain. He felt he could have done it in 100 hours, but he chose to sleep a few hours before climbing Wilson Peak after some trail-finding issues in the dark in a big meadow in Bilk Basin.
Originally, Simmons wanted to do the trip on skis in the winter. He had thought about it for a few years and was ready to do it last spring before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I’ve probably been thinking about it for a couple of years, but never thinking about running it,” Simmons said. “Really, I had just been riding my bike this year to stay relevant with the kids. I haven’t been running at all. I don’t know when it really occurred to me to maybe just run it since I wasn’t able to ski it.
“I’d like to ski it. That would really be the biggest goal is to link them all up on skis. I had it in mind to do it this year, but we ran into the COVID. It seemed like the consensus was to not put yourself way out there in the backcountry in case you had to be rescued and all that, so I just kind of drew back on that.”
Inspiration came from the Nolan’s 14. The Nolan’s 14 is a mountain running challenge that has drawn worldwide notoriety in recent years. Jim Nolan, who has climbed all 54 of Colorado’s famed fourteeners, was asked by Fred Vance how many fourteeners could be linked in a 100-mile point-to-point course. Nolan came up with a string of 14 peaks in the Sawatch Range from Leadville to Salida. The first official run was in 1999, as a group of Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run veterans set out on the challenge. Since then, the challenge to connect the 14 summits in less than 60 hours has drawn runners from all over the world to test their mettle.
Simmons liked the idea of trying to do something similar in the southwest corner of the state. To his knowledge, nobody else has linked up all of the San Juan fourteeners in a single effort.
“I knew I couldn’t be the fastest at it, so I might as well be the first,” Simmons said. “A hundred hours was really hard for me. I’d love to see someone fast go get it. I’d just say be careful. There are some pretty nasty down-climbs if you try to straight line it through the peaks.”
Some of the first names that came to mind for Simmons were Durango’s Kyle Curtin, a Tahoe 200 winner, and four-time Hardrock 100 champion and world-famous runner Kilian Jornet of Spain.
“I kind of know him loosely,” Simmons said of Jornet, noting their time as competitive ski mountaineer racers. “It would be awesome if Kilian came and did this. He’d love it. He loves the San Juans and loves Hardrock. This basically was like a big Hardrock with a lot of off-trail navigation. It was lot of time not on trail which is a pretty big difference also from Nolan’s. Nolan’s, there is some thrashing around, but not the magnitude of what I went through on this.”
These days, Simmons is most commonly known for being the father of Quinn Simmons, a 19-year-old professional cyclist who won the 2019 junior world championship. Quinn, too, has a ski mountaineering background, as he won a bronze medal in the sprint race at the 2017 International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships in Italy.
Simmons has put together plenty of his own impressive results in competitions on skis and bikes. Born in Alaska, Simmons stayed in Durango after his time at FLC. He entered his first ski mountaineering race in 1997, a sport he became interested in after he completed an uphill and downhill race at Silverton Mountain.
A well-respected backcountry skier, Simmons has been named to the U.S. team for the ski mountaineering world championships four times, and he set a Grand Traverse course record. Simmons and longtime ski partner Paul Hamilton also notably joined Jason Schlarb of Durango and filmmaker Noah Howell for the first-known ski loop of the Hardrock 100 course.
Last winter, Simmons decided to ski from Silverton to Lake City and back, noting it was just as fast to reach the couloir he aimed to ski by touring from Silverton to Lake City than it was to complete the seven-hour round-trip drive from Durango to Lake City.
Simmons didn’t have much time to train for his San Juan 13 effort. He spent most of the summer on a bicycle, either training with his sons Quinn and Colby on the road or riding in the mountains. He completed the Telluride One Hundred mountain bike race on July 31 and had only 10 days to switch gears to running before his attempt. His feet paid the price.
“I think I got in seven or eight runs and foolishly said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ So, yeah, I set out on a Tuesday morning to run what I thought was 140 miles and turned out to be 158,” he said. “It was all I expected and then some.”
The RouteSimmons started at the Purgatory Flats trailhead at 3:18 a.m. Aug. 11. He ran into Chicago Basin and checked off North Eolus (14,039 feet), Eolus (14,085), Sunlight Peak (14,058) and Windom Peak (14,088) and slept on Stony Pass after 43.3 miles and 21,500 feet of vertical gain.
“There is a dispute if North Eolus is (a fourteener). It’s above 14,000, but it doesn’t have the difference in elevation from Eolus, itself,” Simmons said. “But, there are four in Chicago Basin.”
Simmons had left some food on Stony Pass two days before his effort. He was stressed the entire time that an animal or camper would find his stash, but it was hidden away well and waiting for him when he arrived. What he wasn’t ready for was how hard the first day would be.
“The first day went way longer that I thought it would. I was out for 21 hours and thought it would be five hours less than that,” Simmons said. “Off trail from Windom to Stony was way harder than I thought, even though I had been there before. I actually quit that first night. I decided I wasn’t going to go anymore. It was just too hard.”
But Simmons didn’t want to call his friends in Lake City and tell them he wasn’t coming for the food they had stashed at Nellie Creek, so he kept going.
On Day 2, Simmons climbed Handies Peak (14,058), Sunshine Peak (14,007) and Redcloud Peak (14,035). He would spend the night at Nellie Creek after 31 miles and 10,777 feet of elevation gain.
The next day, he checked off Uncompahgre Peak, the tallest peak in the San Juan Mountains at 14,308 feet. Then, it was on to Wetterhorn Peak (14,015) before he ran to Ouray and resupplied. He spent the night in Yankee Boy Basin after 39.43 miles and 11,652 feet of climbing.
Out of Yankee Boy Basin, Simmons checked off Mt. Sneffels (14,150) and then ran to Telluride to get his final resupply. He spent the night in Bulk Basin after 30.41 miles and 8,790 feet of elevation gain.
The final effort came on the Wilson group outside Telluride. First was Wilson Peak (14,017) and then Mt. Wilson (14,246) before the finish atop El Diente Peak (14,160). He finished with 13 miles with 6,230 feet of elevation gain before he hiked out Kilpacker Trail.
HHHSimmons said he packed heavier than he needed to. He had a strong shelter with stakes in the event of heavy rain, which never came. He had a sleeping bag and pad, saying he needed a comfortable bed to get through the challenge. He also had a water filter, pants and a puffy jacket for warmth.
Along with the blisters on his feet that made the final two days excruciating, Simmons said he made some fairly risky route choices that could have become problematic. But he wanted to stick to his plan and avoid backtracking whenever possible.
He said it was also a mental challenge seeing his next fourteener and knowing it was, in the case of Windom to Handies, 37 miles away.
“I know all the fourteeners. I’ve been up all of them, so I know where they are and recognize the shape,” Simmons said of his decision not to use navigation. “I could see them a long way off, and it sure takes a long time to get to them to actually start climbing them. Then, as you go away from them, the other thing I realized is it takes a long time to get them our of your rear-view mirror. There’s a lot of distance between them.
“Kind of what I wanted to do was basically prove to myself, I guess, that I kind of know the San Juans.
Now, Simmons is ready to sit back and see if someone else can set a fast time and help build excitement around the challenge. And he will look to get back out there on skis once the snowpack returns to the mountains he loves.
“I’d like to see someone put a fast time on it and hear the stories,” he said. “There are some stories out there.”