This article was compiled from Kent Groninger’s Tribute to Ken Nolan at the 2012 Boulder CMC Annual Dinner. Thank you to Jean Aschenbrenner for contributing the text and photos (also presented by Kent). Thanks to Christopher Smith for the blog entry and co-editing!
Ken Nolan was awarded the CMC’s 2012 Ellingwood Golden Ice Axe Award for mountaineering excellence at Boulder’s Annual Dinner. Ken is a lifetime Boulder Group member and he epitomizes the award’s criterion of ‘pushing the boundaries of climbing accomplishments.’
Ken is a born peak bagger. While living in New York in the early 1970s, he became an Adirondack 46er by climbing all the peaks above 4,000′. Then, a few years later, Ken hiked the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine (actually missing the last few miles due to a raging fire).
In 1978, Ken moved to Colorado and climbed Longs Peak, his first 14er. Soon after, he took the Boulder Mountaineering School (BMS). For a few years following graduation, he assisted in teaching BMS and taught Boulder’s annual “snow structures” training. He would take the class to that famous, huge drift that accumulates at the base of Mt. Audubon. Members learned how to dig their own snow caves and how to build an igloo, then spent the night in their creations.
In the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, in addition to his domestic ascents, Ken participated in a number of international expeditions. These trips took him to 18 countries, from China to Chile and from Mexico to Kirghizstan.
Ken experienced incredibly close calls on two of his foreign trips. The first was in 1982 in the Canadian Yukon. His seven-member group, primarily from Boulder, was attempting a new, difficult route on the north side of Mt. Logan, at nearly 20,000’, the highest peak in Canada. About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, an avalanche wiped out their camp. Three members of the expedition perished, including Franz Mohling, a physics professor at CU and a former director of Boulder’s Mountaineering School.
Eight years later he experienced another incredibly close call. Ken and his close friend and climbing partner, Jean Aschenbrenner, were climbing on Peak Lenin in the Soviet Pamirs when a major avalanche wiped out Camp I. This event was, by far, the deadliest mountaineering accident in history. Forty-three climbers were killed, only two climbers at the camp survived and only two of the 43 bodies were ever found. Ken and Jean were supposed to be at Camp I that day, but miraculously, they were a day behind schedule because the helicopter that was supposed to transport them to Advance Base Camp was grounded by bad weather.
Let’s return now to Ken’s Colorado climbing, and his safer tales. Here are some of the highlights of his astounding climbing resume in our Colorado mountains.
• In 1984, he completes the 14ers.
• Three years later, he completes the Centennials.
• By 1992, he reaches the top of all peaks above 13,000’ (637 total).
• In 2003, he completes the 12ers (another 676 peaks).
• In 2010, he finishes the 11ers (1,781 peaks above 11,000’).
•He has now climbed every peak in Colorado above 10,957’ and is 36% of the way towards knocking off the 10ers (while claiming no interest in those forested bumps).
• He has also climbed all 126 named peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Ken is obviously a prolific climber, but he is also a prolific writer. With encyclopedic knowledge, he keeps meticulous records of routes and approaches. He is respected as an elder statesman on internet websites, where his detailed, and witty, trip reports are sources of information and inspiration for many mountaineers. He is also an accomplished photographer. The increased difficulty of climbing peaks in the winter compensates with a special beauty that is evident in Ken’s many photographs.
This could be the end of an incredible story … but not so fast. Several years ago Ken moved to Buena Vista to be nearer the center of Colorado’s peaks. Thus, Boulderites have not seen much of Ken in a few years.
Now he has undertaken a new project – The 14er GRID (See the Picture Above). Talk about compulsive! The object of this obscure game is to climb each of the 14ers in every calendar month. Ken counts 59 14ers (CMC recognizes 54) . So, imagining those as the rows and the months as the columns, you have a matrix, or grid, of 708 slots. At this writing, he has filled 564 of those slots (more than 79 percent) and completed 37 of the rows (i.e., climbed 37 of the 14ers in every calendar month).
Rheumatoid and osteo arthritis and surgery to fuse vertebrae have taken a toll on a well-worn body, and Ken is realistic when he grants that he will never complete the 14er Grid. But his life is being in the mountains, in all seasons. And his record is unprecedented, no matter the final tally.
It’s safe to say that no one has made more ascents of Colorado’s alpine summits than Ken Nolan. Thank you, Ken, for being an inspiration to us all.
WHAT IS the Ellingwood Golden Ice Axe Award?
This is the highest award that the state CMC gives for mountaineering excellence. It is given to the recipient for: 1) reflecting the CMC’s climbing ethics; 2) demonstrating and teaching strong climbing skills; and 3) pushing the boundaries of climbing accomplishments in Colorado and around the world.
A small golden ice axe pin is given to the recipient.
Boulder constitutes about 20 percent of CMC’s members. Our group can be extremely proud that 7 out of the 11 Ellingwood recipients have come from our ranks! The list of recipients is:
• Jean Aschenbrenner
• Gary Neptune
• Jack de Pagter
• Ken Nolan
• Jim Gehres
• Glen Porzak
• Kent Groninger
• Gerry Roach
• Dale Johnson
• Terry Root
• Bob Martin