Peaks and valleys: Dan Hobbs and the self-supported 14er record
Minnesota hiker's story is about more than just finding the summit
As Dan Hobbs’ eyes ricochet off his suit coat and out his Rand Tower office window at the Minneapolis traffic below, his mind can’t help but wander back to Colorado.
In 2013, he bolted for the mountains, convinced they could heal him from severe depression.
He hiked all 58 14ers — peaks over 14,000 feet — in the Centennial State in just 24 days.
Now, two years later, he’s at another midlife juncture. scornfully sizing up his suitcoat, he glances back at his screen, where a story about Andrew Hamilton’s new supported 14er record — 10 days — evokes a covetous stare.
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“This should be me,” he mutters to himself.
Hobbs’ first venture to Colorado reminded him of life’s beauty.
His second — where he would lower the self-supported 14er record to 14 days, 17 hours and 33 minutes this July — would teach him how to thrive in its darkest moments.
Learning to suffer well
The Friday before his July 5, 2 a.m. start up Mt. Eolus this summer, Hobbs dialed Peter Jones. In 1996, Jones traversed the state in a Jeep, soloing every 14er in roughly 16 days.
“The hardest part is really convincing yourself to keep going,” he said of accomplishing the feat.
“You don’t have anyone encouraging or helping you. You have to wake up every four hours and just be like, ‘yep, this is something I want to keep doing,’ which is insanely hard to do.”
A long-lasting lung burner veteran who has been professional in five sports, Jones said wrapping the mind around the idea of spending a half-a-month sleeplessly driving dangerous 4×4 roads in between class 4 and 5 climbs is impossible until you’re in it.
“It’s not a fun experience,” he said, paralleling the advice he offered Hobbs,
“You’re not going to have a good time, ever. You’re going to be miserable the entire time,” he said in the five-minute phone call.
Hamilton — the man from the inspiring article Hobbs read seven years prior — would befriend Hobbs and ‘encourage’ him with brutal honesty: “This is like suffering at a level that humans should not encounter.”
Hobbs, who had hardened his mind by lapping Hyland Hills Ski Area’s 175-foot hill 70 times per day, discovered the record-holders were spot on.
“That’s really what it was,” the 36-year-old Minnesota native recalled of his own record-setting performance. “It was extreme suffering, to a point of being like mentally twisted.”
For someone whose nonprofit work for World Vision — the job he held before quitting to focus full-time on his trek in 2020 — has brought him face-to-face with some of the most impoverished communities on the globe, his peak-to-peak plight was eventually placed in its proper perspective.
“I learned how to be mentally OK with it and move on,” he said.
“I learned how to suffer well, and I think that’s a valuable skill in life and no one is born with it.”
Training the mind
The Mondovi, Wisconsin-raised homeschooler who has “zero sporting background” started honing his mind-over-matter abilities early on in life. Even though his parents passed down no particular endurance pedigree, Hobbs received “an education in self-control and doing hard things.”
One indelible memory revolved around his father’s arbitrary decision for his son to learn horseshoes.
“I hated it and I was terrible and it was boring,” Hobbs recalled of his 14-year-old self. For one month, he was required to play for at least 60 minutes per day.
“That was actually one of the most important lessons in my life,” Hobbs stated. “It’s pretty miserable to hate something, so I just taught myself to like it and to be good at it.”
After 30 days, his skill — and love for — the archaic backyard pastime grew.
“That changed my perspective on just about everything in life,” he said. “You can learn to like something you hate and you can learn to be good at something you’re bad at. You just gotta change your mental attitude and then work hard at it.”
Twenty-two years later, his self-talk would prove critical.
Aside from his mental toughness, Hobbs labels himself as “the most average person you know,” though, that’s not a completely fair assessment.
He dropped out of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with 100 credits and a 3.8 GPA because the lawn care company he’d started on the side “grew to be pretty big.” He would launch and sell two more tech companies before his World Vision stint. As he humbly pushes aside his rare entrepreneurial ambition, the undeniably successful individual’s insecurity can’t help but slowly bleed through.
“That’s probably not a great quote,” or “that answer might hurt your story,” are uttered more than once. For most, if his work resume didn’t already prove worthy, the reality of his feat adequately established his macho-hero status. For Hobbs, however, certain self-critical demons haven’t seemed to completely recede.
“I couldn’t think of anything else in my life. … I would not say I’m an especially talented person in any way at any certain thing,” he said, thinking back to the scene in his office, reading Hamilton’s story, and the mental and emotional impetus for embarking on this mind-boggling endurance test.
“I’m pretty average I guess. That drove me — this is it, this is my one shot to set a record in life and I just gotta do this.”
The seeds for his 2022 record may have taken shape in that moment, but understanding that trip’s significance requires a little more background.
Pressured by his childhood church, Hobbs was coerced to marry early. He had kids. Eventually, he divorced.
“That’s where the depression came in,” he explained of his state in 2013. He determined to address his mental health by hiking 14ers in Colorado that year. All of them.
During his brash trip, the mountains’ sheer presence, magnificent vistas and overwhelming power and beauty seized the 27-year-old Hobbs, forcing him to question his recent staunch rejection of God and the fundamental axioms that went along with it.
“I had walked away from the faith,” he admitted of that period in his life.
Required to grapple with his puny humanity and God’s opposite divine qualities, he was left face-to-face with his Savior’s sovereignty.
“You’re in the ‘God-zone,’” he said of “the most spiritual place on Earth.”
“The mountains are in control and not you, and when you’re up there it’s kind of you and God.”
He “discovered God was a God of love.”
“There was a journey out of depression and finding God and the mountains played a huge part of that.”
But, how could a self-admittedly uncoordinated, unathletic specimen accomplish a feat many Coloradans can maybe say they’ve done 1/58th of?
“I spent the majority of those 24 days scared to death,” Hobbs laughed when asked of his 2013 trip.
“Mentally, that was a very hard 24 days.”
On the peaks, he applied the same self-control he introspectively-willed chucking iron implements at a stake in his backyard, even addressing a fear of heights.
“I taught myself how to mentally stay in control of that innate fear I had,” he said.
Secretly emboldened by his “first athletic accomplishment of note,” Hobbs tucked away the thought of returning for a record until that momentous day in his office in 2015.
“After seeing that article, I decided that this was what I wanted to do,” he said.
“It was a very specific memory,” he continued, pausing to gather his words.
“I was tired of the sportcoat.”
Preparing for the worst two weeks ever
Between 2019-2021, Hobbs accumulated 6,000 miles of driving, bagging over 100 summits while scouting routes and developing his plan. He analyzed Hamilton’s route, spending hundreds of hours behind a computer, eventually concocting a spreadsheet that would make Kirk Cousins blush — with every minute of his record attempt accounted for.
“Of course, that kind of went to hell on the first day,” he laughed.
To handle the most challenging aspect of the record attempt — driving — he tricked out a boring cargo van. Equipped with front and rear axle rockers, a built-in air compressor, a second gas tank and a 30-gallon capacity water system, “Beast” traded its passenger seat for a driver-facing microwave. Hobbs’ pre-made, hand-held calories would be consumed en route.
Training-wise, Minnesota’s suffocating summer heat and humidity and notoriously bitter winter wind chills didn’t stop Hobbs’ daily regimen — 10,000 vertical feet and 20-25 miles of walking — on Hyland’s meager slope. He’d eat breakfast, then shuttle his two kids to school before carrying out his training during the day — often finishing the final one-third after dinner in the dark.
“That made me really mentally tough,” he said of his monotonous routine.
A turkey running across the ski hill brought smiles.
Introspectively analyzing how even his training shaped his outlook — not just on climbing, but on life — he said of those moments, “You learn to hang onto the smallest things.”
The peaks and valleys
Halfway through July 6 Hobbs gave an Instagram update from the top of Mt. Wilson — his eighth peak in two days — before heading to his car for a 3.5-hour drive over Cinnamon and Opheur Pass to Handies Peak.
“Hoping to get Handies, Red Cloud and Sunshine,” he said of the remaining day’s schedule to devoted followers, some of which were tracking his GPS coordinates from places as far away as Saudi Arabia.
His video continued, offering a harrowing glimpse into the reality of his ominous fatigue.
“Doing pretty good overall,” he narrated.
“Could use a little more sleep, but other than that” — a disquieting sigh of exhaustion briefly interrupted his talking — “I think I’m on target.”
Later, on the most difficult section of the Maroon Bells Traverse, the floodgates of heaven opened up. Pouring rain turned to hail, which morphed into snow.
“That was definitely a mental low point,” Hobbs said.
When asked what the best and worst parts of the experience were, Hobbs, without hesitation, declared, “It was hard through the whole thing. Every day I thought, tomorrow will be easier, and it never was.”
One nightmarish trial was utterly unexpected. On the first day, his body rejected dairy. For the next five days, Hobbs vomited routinely along summit routes before finally realizing the source. Three-fourths of his food would be useless the rest of the way.
Battling debilitating nausea, he nearly stumbled off Mt. Blanca’s ridge in the Sangre de Cristos, a warning sufficient to detour him away from the knife-like Little Bear traverse. He cautiously added several hours, retreating lower before ascending Little Bear’s harrowing ‘bottleneck’ stretch. After bagging the peaks, he returned to “Beast” at 11 p.m. Heading down Lake Como Road would result in the trip’s most precarious moment.
As the cliff-side of the road gave way, Hobbs narrowly escaped rolling off the edge in his vehicle. He kept driving, arriving at his next trailhead around 2 a.m. After a 23.5-hour day, he rested for just three hours before starting up Mt. Culebra and Lindsay.
Sleeping for approximately 3-4 hours per day, Hobbs gradually entered a new stratosphere of exhaustion. Decision-making became an arduous responsibility.
“Trying to maintain that line while multi-tasking, while being up for 20 hours straight and driving a four-wheel drive in the middle of the night was a very difficult prospect,” he said.
Pre-attempt warnings from Jones rushed back.
“The whole time you’re doing it you’re going to hate yourself, hate the mountains, hate the environment … you’re going to hate everything going on around you and you’re going to have to somehow keep going,” Jones had prophesied.
“It’s going to be really miserable and you’re going to go to some dark places.”
When people talk to Hobbs about his record, they generally assume it was a grand adventure full of scenic vistas and carefree sightseeing. “It was just pure suffering,” Hobbs would correct.
As the final peak loomed, Hobbs’ experience became increasingly raw.
On the second-to-last day, Hobbs accidentally had dairy again, jolting and churning up his cavernous stomach. Nonetheless, he was jaunting down Mt. Lincoln when a storm cloud moved in. It was the last straw.
He started crying and throwing things. “It was like a 2-year-old having a tantrum,” he said of his state. “Except it was a 36-year-old, full-sized guy.”
He shouted at the heavens.
“I was mad at the world and mad at God,” he revealed. “I just wanted something easy for once and it was just not happening.”
An emotional man, Hobbs admitted crying tears of joy multiple times on his trip, visualizing his final steps and imagining the jubilation surrounding his last day. Now, in the moment he’d envisioned, he lost his temper. His patented mental strength had failed him and stripped him of his dignity.
“That was my mental rock bottom; it just took everything out of me,” he said.
“I really feel like I lost a piece of humanity on this race. I felt empty after that. I don’t know how to say it other than that. I didn’t have any emotion at all anymore.”
A day later, Hobbs would take a more technical and dangerous route up Long’s Peak, one of Colorado’s notoriously hazardous mountains. He hadn’t run during the entire trip, but on the way down, in yet another rain storm, he took the standard, longer trail down. And ran.
When he got to the finish line, he had shaved nearly two days off of Jones’ 26-year-old record.
He didn’t care.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he said.
“I didn’t feel tired. I just felt blank. I didn’t have anything left.”
The ultimate person-versus-nature epic with a person-versus-self narrative and a universal takeaway, Hobbs’ late-night storms, mid-route puking and eventual shaking of fists at the sky was the unvarnished human state in perhaps its most real form.
Finding the next trailhead
When asked what he thought of the record, Jones said, “I knew it could go faster, and he proved it.”
For the record, Hobbs isn’t going to try and lower it further.
“No,” he said with conviction when asked if he would go back. “It was so hard and miserable and I suffered so much.”
Digesting Hobbs’ story is a balancing act. It isn’t easy to swallow some of the demons from his past, and while climbing was his way to work through them — and rediscover his faith — even that activity, and his record, have a roughness to their edges.
“Life is hard,” he said when struggling to summarize his main takeaway from the most challenging two weeks of his life.
“None of these are really positive things — they’re hard to hear.”
But learning to manage the suffering was something he was ultimately thankful for. No matter which of life’s trails he heads for next, he knows better than to assume a single breath or step is guaranteed.
“God doesn’t owe you anything,” he stated about the spiritual epiphany his second tour of the 14ers taught him, pointing back to those brutal storms that continually popped up at the worst of times.
“I think that was a big takeaway for me,” he said, his tone seeming to finally find rest.
“How to be happiest through the hardest times.”