Nolan’s 14 and the Pfiffner Traverse are both high routes in the Colorado Rockies, suitable for advanced backpackers and adventurous ultra runners. While they both feature lengthy off-trail sections and alpine ridges and summits, these routes are considerably different, and I thought it would be useful to directly compare them, in terms of their wilderness, difficulty, and flow.
Outside describes Nolan’s 14 as the “Mount Everest of Ultrarunning.” Created by Fred Vance and Jim Nolan, and documented best by Matt Mahoney, the 100-mile route through the Sawatch Range crests fourteen of Colorado’s 14,000’ peaks.
The route is rugged: long scrambles over scree and talus are common, and bushwhacking is required to approach some peaks. Ultramarathoners will look to complete the route in less than 60 hours, some choosing to forego sleep. I opted to backpack it in 9 days at a more sustainable clip.
Inspired by Carl Pfiffner, first proposed by Gerry Roche, and developed by Andrew Skurka, the Pfiffner Traverse is a 77-mile high route through Colorado’s Front Range. The route includes a ridgewalk across the expansive James Peak Skyline” before taking on a pass and valley pattern through the Indian Peaks Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park. The Pfiffner has numerous variations and alternates, but when followed closely it will entail steep vertical gain and loss, scrambles across talus and scree, and probably some sock-soaking bushwhacks.
The starkest distinction between Nolan’s 14 and the Pfiffner Traverse was the sense of true wilderness.
In linking together Colorado 14’ers like a Connect the Dots puzzle, Nolan’s crosses numerous roads and follows many high-use routes. On summits like Mt. Princeton, Mt. Yale, and Mt. Elbert, I found myself surrounded by Boy Scout troops and Denver-based day-hikers. On more remote peaks, like Huron Peak and Mt. Harvard, I had the summit to myself.
In contrast, the Pfiffner Traverse was much more of a wilderness experience. With the exception of the “James Peak Skyline,” which can be easily accessed by car from Berthoud Pass or gravel Rollins Pass, the Pfiffner accessed some of Colorado’s most pristine backcountry. I had plenty of room for myself throughout the Indian Peaks Wilderness, in which the Pfiffner Traverse only rarely follows established trails.
In Rocky Mountain National, the sense of wilderness dials back because of designated campsite regulations. However, the route still has off-trail stretches that made me feel like an early pioneer venturing across Colorado’s expansive alpine. Wildlife was abundant, with elk, moose, deer, countless marmots, and bighorn sheep peppering my camera roll.
Difficulty & skills
Both routes are hard, plain and simple. They have extensive cross-country sections, extraordinary vertical change, and many scrambles on scree and talus. They are also very exposed to the elements.
Nolan’s has a consistent pattern. Nearly all ascents begin around 9,000 feet at a 4WD road, trailhead, or creek basin. It then climbs steeply to a 14’er. And then descends all the way back down. In some cases, several peaks are clustered on the same ridgeline, so you can tag more than one before repeating the process.
Water is sparse throughout the route. It’s only reliably accessible in the valleys or creek basins from which the ascents begin. Nearly all of the route is above treeline, and is therefore highly exposed to storms and the elements.
None of the peaks on the Nolan’s 14 route exceed Class 3, although some are harder than others. The descent down Tabeguache Peak, which consists of a long stretch across loose scree, ripped the sole off one of my shoes. The route up to Mt. Princeton, as well as the descent down the other side, do not follow established trails, and feature steep scrambles across talus and scree. Also, the final ascent up to Huron Peak (from the south side) climbs through a steep gully filled with scree.
The Pfiffner has its share of challenging sections as well, especially when off-trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. As an early-season northbound hiker, the descents of the Northeast Gully and Paiute Pass were particularly difficult. Both are steep, nearly 40 degrees at some points, and both were completely snow-filled. I glissaded down both passes without an ice axe or microspikes, using my trekking poles as a brake. I have previous experience on snow, so I was comfortable in my ability to self-arrest with my poles and on a snow slope, but for those without any previous self-arrest experience these descents would have been difficult.
Route finding on the Pfiffner was mostly straightforward. I had a printed set of topographical maps, and reviewed the Pfiffner Traverse Guide each night, which I had downloaded to my phone. The expansive views allowed me to easily navigate by line of sight. The most challenging navigation came along Thunderbolt Creek, when I was unable to locate elk trails that led down the valley, which left me with numerous miles of bushwhacking.
Like their respective senses of wilderness, Nolan’s and the Pfiffner also differ in their flow. Both routes have have unique sections and get an interesting variety of terrain, but overall the Pfiffner provides a more consistent experience.
As a connecting route between many of Colorado’s highest points, Nolan’s can feel fragmented — it’s broken up by road crossings, frontcountry campsites, and fourteen mini-goals. On Nolan’s, morning climbs will begin below the treeline, reaching the airy alpine by mid-morning all the way up to the summit.
The Pfiffner can be more cleanly broken into sections. The first 20+ miles are atop the Continental Divide and completely exposed. In the Indian Peaks, it follows a pass-and-valley pattern through remote areas. The final section through Rocky Mountain feels like a victory lap — it maintains the pass-and-valley pattern, but it feels safer due to the easier topography, high quality trails, and greater backcountry traffic.
Looking back now, both Nolan’s 14 and the Pfiffner Traverse were incredible journeys of their own kind. Both are incredible challenges to take on, and both have reward in their own unique way. Nolan’s 14 is a great project for those looking to add Colorado 14’ers to their resume, with high-profile peaks like Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive in the lineup.
Whereas if you’re less interested in peak bagging and more interested in a genuine “high route” with sections of off-trail, go for the Pfiffner. It will reward you with a great sense of “exploration” through some of Colorado’s true “wild country.”
With either route, you can’t go wrong.