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Andrea Sansone was riding in the car back to Golden in August after becoming the first person ever, man or woman, to climb 12 fourteeners in 24 hours. She just wanted to sip on that elusive cocktail of elation and exhaustion. But her partner, Andrew Hamilton, couldn’t help himself. He suggested another challenge. 

Hey, he said, turning to her from the driver’s seat. What about summiting all the fourteeners in Nolan’s 14? 

Sansone couldn’t believe it. Only three hours had passed since completing a feat that would finally give her some real respect among the supportive, but persnickety, cult of extreme endurance athletes. Couldn’t she just enjoy that?

Well, no, Hamilton argued, she was in incredible shape and he believed in her. His faith was rewarded: A month later, she broke the women’s speed record for Nolan’s 14, giving her a third record obscure to the general public but revered in the endurance world. 

The respect she earned this summer was a long time coming. Hamilton always believed in her. But at first, many others were skeptical. 

Since they began dating in 2017, many had dismissed Sansone as Hamilton’s tag-along.

Hamilton is a legend. In 1999, he set the Colorado 14ers speed record, climbing all of them in 13 days and 22 hours. A guy who everyone called Cave Dog shattered that record a year later by climbing them in 10 days. The record held until Hamilton broke it in 2015, summiting all of them in nine days. 

Sansone was a relative unknown — she had set the women’s speed record for California’s fourteeners in 2017, but no one cared about California’s fourteeners. The endurance world’s response to her first time completing Nolan’s 14 was even more dismissive, even hurtful. 

Nolan’s 14 is the perfect example of the weird compulsion endurance athletes have to challenge themselves in painful and arduous ways. The route takes you over 14 fourteeners in the Sawatch Range. The official time limit, if you want it to count, is 60 hours. Why 60 hours? Because dem’s the rules. It requires 100 miles and 44,000 feet of climbing, most of it above treeline. Nolan’s is, essentially, the worst ultramarathon ever, except it’s an unofficial event. You can do it anytime you want, and you don’t get a T-shirt or a medal. The only good news is there’s no entry fee. 

In 2020, Sansone and Hamilton did it in 53 hours. This was seven hours faster than the cutoff. and Sansone, because she did it in 53 hours, had set a new women’s speed record. No one seemed to care. The indifference was, in fairness, understandable: There was no women’s record officially set. It was the way people dismissed her that hurt. 

People acted as if Hamilton had led her on a leash, or perhaps carried her on his back. Even close friends were derisive. One suggested to Sansone that she couldn’t claim the women’s record because Hamilton was leading the way. One of Hamilton’s buddies saw a photo of the two of them for a magazine feature and said it “was a stretch” that Sansone had a climbing rope in her hand, even though it really was just a prop for the photo. 

“That really pissed me off,” Hamilton said. 

Driving toward the year of Andrea

Sansone didn’t want notoriety. She looked at the mountains as a way to strengthen the figure-eight knot the two had enjoyed since she met him in 2012 climbing the Maroon Bells near Aspen. Her intention of doing Nolan’s 14 with Hamilton was just to have fun with him, not to set any kind of record at all. She was fine with their time being recorded as a mixed-gender team instead of an individual record. 

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But that didn’t make everyone’s indifference hurt any less. As much as she looked up to Hamilton and marveled at his legend, it hurt to be so overshadowed by it. 

“Of course there’s a benefit to being with Andrew,” Sansone said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without that. But there would be articles that didn’t even mention me. I felt so dismissed.” 

What was even worse for Sansone was the way the endurance world showered love on Meghan Hicks and Sabrina Stanley after they broke her record and then set and reset it that same year. Sansone’s accomplishment had at least in part inspired Hicks and Stanley to go for the record. 

Stanley finally recorded the fastest time for a woman at 48 hours and 49 minutes. 

Sansone led the cheers. She was proud of them. But she couldn’t let her resentment go. She already doubted herself more than most realized. Hamilton could be a robot, but she was all emotion, and she didn’t need something like Nolan’s gouging her psyche. She swore to never do it again. 

Just imagine, then, how Sansone felt when Hamilton did bring it up again and all she wanted to do was soak in her accomplishment. 

Hamilton, though, was blown away by Sansone flashing through an arduous route linking Harvard, Columbia and Missouri, beating the split by an incredible five hours. Five hours! If she could do that again, she could own Nolan’s 14. No one would ever doubt her again. 

This time it was Sansone’s turn not to care. 

“No,” Sansone said to Hamilton that day in the car, adding in a few f-bombs before shutting him down. 

Days later, Sansone dug her beat-up toes in the sand on her family’s annual beach trip and allowed walls she’d been building since that winter to come down. It had already been the year of Andrea. She’d already set a record that May on the Manitou Incline, looping it 19 times in 24 hours, or five more than the previous record. She now owned an obscure but badass fourteeners record. She’d earned some respect. 

Hadn’t she done enough? 

A match made at Maroon Bells 

This will surprise no one, but Hamilton and Sansone have enough energy to power a small city. This is why, even if you could take the mountains away, they are a good match: They are the only ones who can keep up with each other. They riff off each other, like thrash metal guitarists, and interrupt each other and get lost in conversations that go deeper than the Earth’s crust. 

“She always brought this cool energy to any trip we did,” Hamilton said. “It was just so fun to hike with her.” 

Andrea Sansone and Andrew Hamilton started hiking together after meeting in 2012 at the summit of Maroon Peak, left, one of the two challenging 14,000-foot peaks that make up Maroon Bells near Aspen. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Sansone was a Florida nurse in 2012 who had climbed a couple fourteeners on trips to visit a friend when she met Hamilton on the summit of south Maroon.

She was blown away that Hamilton had some of his four kids with him on one of the state’s toughest fourteeners, including Axel, who was 5 and seemed to be no bigger than a marmot. She was about to head down when Hamilton suggested they head over to North Maroon and “ring the Bells” by completing an even more difficult traverse over to an even more difficult peak.

Sure, why not?

They became buddies, and that next summer, she climbed 30 fourteeners with him and his kids. In 2015, she joined a fanatic crew driving and cooking for him as he set the speed record.

They were close, but Sansone friend zoned him, and not just because of their age difference: Andrea is 33 and Andrew is 47.

Hamilton was having a difficult time with his marriage. Hamilton married Natalie when they were young, and after she became an anesthesiologist and he became a peakbagging legend who stayed home with their kids, they drifted apart.

After the divorce, Sansone made it very clear she wanted to remain friends. She ignored all his attempts to woo her. She didn’t want a divorced guy with four kids. 

But nothing, not even romance-sparking destinations like the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls, bonds people like suffering in the mountains. Sansone and Hamilton share something that few couples ever experience, even when they are frequently yelling at each other out of frustration or pain or exhaustion. Now they share a home in Golden. 

“The mountains are where we thrive together,” Sansone said. “We can deal with hard stuff together because we deal with hardships in the mountains. The fourteeners teach us how to behave outside of the mountains. It’s kind of like our rock.” 

Nothing strengthened that bond like Hamilton setting the speed record in 2021 for the Centennials, Colorado’s 100 highest peaks, a list that includes the fourteeners. Sansone had worked on crews for Hamilton’s past exploits, of course, but this time, she was in charge. 

Crews are essential for nearly anyone who wants to set a fourteeners speed record, and serving on one presents its own endurance challenges. Crew members go without sleep and work hard to cook, drive and rub their runner’s disgusting feet. Sansone had to go beyond even those duties for Hamilton’s attempt last year on the Centennials. 

Hamilton knew he would set a Centennial speed record last year — there really wasn’t one for the Centennials — but he had a plan to finish them in 18 days anyway. It was an audacious goal. It assumed nothing would go wrong. On the first day, something went wrong. It snowed.

Demoralized and frightened after trudging through waist-deep snow all day, he told Sansone he wanted to quit. Absolutely not, she said. They’d reviewed the plan 1,000 times and planned out logistics for months, stashing mountain bikes and cars and crew members along the way. But the snow set the tone.

A few days later, a hailstorm pummeled him as he ran off Humboldt Peak, the gentle fourteener that was supposed to be a nice break after climbing the rough-and-tumble Crestones next door. He then crashed on a mountain bike he was riding down the long approach road to South Colony Lakes, a traditional base camp for the Crestones as well as Humboldt. 

He landed face-down in a creek, with an angry calf leaving him wondering if his attempt was over, and limped into a hotel room that night with Sansone. She gave him some pickle juice — the salty brine is supposed to help with cramping — that made him vomit again and again as he lay in the bathtub. She had to wash him off, bathing him like “like a baby,” she said. The next day, she hiked with a slow and ravaged version of him up Pikes Peak while he vomited, forcing him to eat Noosa yogurt until he could keep it down and telling him to stop whining about his calf. 

Even later in the attempt, Hamilton was deep into the remote Weminuche Wilderness, facing a couple of scary peaks, when he ran out of food. Sansone hiked nearly 25 miles to bring him a burrito. 

Then it was Sansone’s turn

This year, before Sansone attempted the 24-hour record, Hamilton found himself on her support crew, and he loved it. He considered going on the 24-hour attempt with her, but as they trained together that spring, he realized she was stronger. He thought he would slow her down when minutes would matter. Instead he focused on scouting the best routes, as creative shortcuts or bombing down gullies can save hours of time. 

Hamilton, a computer programmer before his kids were born, still uses dorky data-crunching skills to find special routes and shave minutes off a summit. It may be his greatest strength, even more than his speed (some, after all, are faster) and his disturbing ability to suffer.

Sansone doesn’t have that route-finding talent, she said, but she can learn routes, and so she hiked the peaks again and again to memorize the best way up and down, many times with Hamilton driving her hours to towns known as basecamps for 14er climbers, such as Buena Vista and Leadville and Salida. She estimates she’s visited the summits of fourteeners more than 350 times. 

“I didn’t want to waste 1 minute going the wrong way,” she said.

A trail leading to the summit of Mount Elbert, one of the peaks in Nolan’s 14, on Aug. 2, 2021, near Leadville. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Besides the scouting, Hamilton did the same kind of thankless errands she did for him during her 24-hour record, such as borrowing an ATV and driving her down a trail to the next peak, but more than anything he provided emotional support. She can hike alone but doesn’t do well with it. During the Manitou Incline record, as the laps piled up, he’d wait for her at the bottom, let her bawl, give her a hug and then tell her to start walking back up. When it’s in the middle of the night, as the clock doesn’t stop, she needs him to hike in front of her, even if she’s faster, to calm her shaky nerves about climbing in the dark. 

“When she’s miserable and cold,” Hamilton said, “she just needs to be told, again and again, that she can do it.” 

Remembrance of time lost 

Some couples like to go to a movie. Others watch football together. Still others go to a nice dinner. Hamilton and Sansone love to talk about workouts, about the mountains and, most of all, break down their past attempts and analyze where they could have saved time.  

Andrea Sansone and Andrew Hamilton take a break during scouting routes on 14ers in preparation for her record attempts this year, including Nolan’s 14, one of the most iconic endurance routes in the state. (Courtesy Andrea Sansone)

As they pondered their time on Nolan’s together, perhaps much to Sansone’s dismay, they found a lot of time wasted, doing things like stopping to cook and losing the location of a stored cache of food and just resting (the horror!). Hamilton wasn’t sure Sansone could beat Stanley’s 48 hours — five hours off their time of 53 hours was impressive — but when she crushed Columbia during her 24-hour record, Sansone saved five hours on that route alone. Hamilton couldn’t let it go. 

Eventually, after several sessions on their living room couch breaking down the route with him, neither could she. 

Hamilton agreed to go with her after Sansone was worried about needing his emotional support. That was before Hamilton came down with kidney stones during a scouting session two weeks before the attempt. They spent a couple frantic hours in the car while Sansone drove him to get medical care as he leaned out the window and puked, proving that the couple can’t do anything without it being epic. 

“That was one of the hardest experiences of my life,” Sansone said. 

Hamilton gave a pained expression in response. “It was hard for me too.” 

In an attempt to take the overwhelming pressure she felt off herself, on Sept. 6, Sansone posted her intentions on Facebook: to finish in 48 hours, less than an hour faster than the record. 

“I’m going to give it a go,” Sansone wrote. “We have a great crew lined up … but if I get three, four, five peaks in and I am not feeling it, I’m not going to waste my energy or that of anyone else’s, and I’m going to call it and save my energy and emotional state for a later attempt.” 

She does not think that she would have attempted the record without the confidence the 24-hour record gave her, even as she still felt anxious about the attempt. A few days later, on Sept. 10, she was off. 

Mount Princeton near Buena Vista is one of the early fourteeners on the northbound Nolan’s 14 route. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The first 24 hours, Sansone was leading the record by an hour and a half, and she was bubbly and energized, the woman Hamilton fell in love with on the trail. But that night transformed her, even as she was doing well, and she began struggling on Columbia, the key to her 24-hour record. Hamilton, hyped up on 5-Hour Energy, sang songs to her and doled out snuggle breaks, but she kept missing her splits. Nothing was working. After a bit, she’d lost all the time she made up. She got slower, and time ticked away. She wanted to quit, she told Hamiton. 

“Then quit,” Hamilton said, and the harsh rebuke seemed to help her. She needed to hear that Hamilton would still love her if she quit. He suggested they go on to Huron, a relatively easy fourteener with 3 short miles to the summit. 

“We felt so slow,” Hamilton said, “but we ended up matching the splits we needed, even as her legs cramped.”

She was elated but hit another low point on that summit, looking over at the huge mountains she had left to climb, a hike that would take her well into the early morning. Hamilton gave her another emotional boost: Focus on La Plata, he said, the next summit, not the ones after that. 

One of the neat things about the fourteeners community is most everyone’s willingness to help out. Hamilton, for instance, helped others trying to break Cave Dog’s 2000 speed record of 10 days and 20 hours before Hamilton did it himself with the assistance of others (and with Cave Dog’s encouragement). 

So of course Joey Campanelli, the current Nolan’s record holder of 41 hours, agreed to pace Sansone. Campanelli’s speed, and his spiritual energy, was a godsend, she said.

Every mountain that second day was a death march, she said, but she kept going, and as she peaked on top of Mount Elbert, Hamilton watched through binoculars from a distance as she descended. 

Hamilton thought of his sister, who had been a key crew member when he set the speed record before Cave Dog broke it, as Sansone descended under the trees. He knew she would break the record if she kept going. 

“I got a taste of what I put my family through in the old days,” Hamilton said. 

She finished in 45 hours, smashing the women’s record and besting all the men’s times too, save for Campanelli’s otherworldly record. 

Sansone gives Hamilton and her crew as much credit as herself, just as Hamilton calls his Centennial record Sansone’s record as well. 

Next year, she wants to do Nolan’s again, this time with Hamilton. She’s had her year, and she doesn’t need any more success, even if Hicks and Stanley break her record again.

“I’ve shown I’m capable of doing these things without him,” Sansone said. “But I do them with him because we love to do them together.” 

The year after that, however, she will probably try to break the female fourteeners speed record.

When she mentions that, Hamilton’s eyes light up. How much sleep does she really need? Sansone said she needed at least four hours a night. Nah, Hamilton answered, you can do less. 

There’s so much time she could save, Hamilton tells her, and the two start yet another long discussion on the couch.

Dan England

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @DanEngland