After hiking through the peaceful and serene Garden of the Gods, we decided that we wanted to take on a more challenging, more Coloradan-type feat. We wanted to take on a 14’er (slang for a 14,000+ foot mountain). With the behemoth Pikes Peak looming in the background all day, we agreed that we would make this mountain our bitch (and our first 14’er). That is, if it didn’t take US out first.
This is a tale of two trips. The first ended with absolutely nothing achieved. Go us! The second ended in victory, a very defeating victory if that could even be.
Plan A: Arrive early in the morning to summit via the popular Barr Trail. With a 14 mile one-way hike, we planned on hopping, skipping, jumping to the summit taking about 7 hours and then, post-victory, throw out our thumbs, show a little leg (mine, not Rob’s) and hitch a ride back down the mountain. We’d finish around 1:00 PM, spend a little time on the summit, and get off the mountain before Colorado’s daily afternoon thunderstorms possibly rolling through.
Plan B: There was no Plan B. Plan A was pretty straight forward. Boom.
Result: FAIL! After arriving to a full parking lot at the trailhead, already pushing a late start, we had to park in one of the free lots in Manitou Springs and catch a free shuttle to the trail head (which is pretty neat service, if you ask me). By the time we started up the mountain, it was after 8:00 AM and we suddenly remembered that we are no longer in thru-hiker shape and 7 hours could easily turn into 8 or 9. No bueno… no go. Defeated, we returned home and plotted our revenge.
Plan A: Arrive early in the morning to summit via the not-so-popular Crags route. This trail is about 7 miles one-way, 14 miles round-trip (genius, I know). A shorter hike would leave room for unexpected occurrences along the way and grant us some more time to accommodate our out-of-shape-ness. This time we’d summit, keep our thumbs and sexy legs to ourselves, and hike back down.
Plan B: Again, no Plan B. We never learn.
Result: Success! With a few modifications to the above…
We arrived at the trailhead around 6:30 AM. Just getting here was an experience as the trailhead was a bit off the beaten path. Something to the tune of “over the river and through the woods, up a hill, on a gravel road, past a Mennonite camp in middle of nowhere to the trailhead we go”.
The first portion of the trail was a relatively easy grade and made for great hiking. We started around 10,000 feet so the air was brisk and thinner compared to home in Denver. Nothing feels more like I envisioned Colorado than cool air, the sunrise blocked behind a mountain, the smell of Pine engulfing you, and the sound of a babbling brook in the background. That’s right, babbling.
Pure heaven that turned into the most enjoyable kind of hell.
You have to be somewhat of a masochist to enjoy the pain encountered while climbing mountains. We’ll just call it the thrill of the challenge. I mean, we knew that this hike would be challenging, we’ve hiked 14 miles plenty of times so it shouldn’t be too hard, right? WRONG.
A) 7 miles straight up a mountain is a very challenging and S L O W feat.
B) Hiking at elevation is a beast we hadn’t yet experienced. A beast of an elephant, that is, sitting on your chest while simultaneously sucking all the air out of your lungs after a mere 10 steps.
Once we hit tree line, the views opened up and we could see for miles on end. This is also about the time the oxygen left our lungs. The scenery was the only thing distracting us from imminent death. Sorry for calling you a bitch, Pikes Peak. That was mean. Please let us live!
Shortly after this picture the trail took a turn straight-up the mountain, no switchbacks, and started to feel how I imagine one does while experiencing a heart attack. We later read that while the Crag’s Route is shorter, it is a much less gradual route. This would explain why we were having such a hard time on our first 14,000 feet experience.
A little background on Pike’s Peak:
- The first American sighting of Pikes Peak is credited to Zebulon Pike and his crew in the early 1800’s (hence the name). They tried to summit the mountain in NOVEMBER but failed citing the incredible amount of snow, their lack of proper clothing, and cold temperatures (a smart bunch).
- “Pike’s Peak or Bust” became the slogan during the gold rush due to its visibility to those traveling West, not necessarily due to gold found on the mountain (though it was later found in nearby Cripple Creek).
- “America the Beautiful” was written after and inspired by the views from atop Pike’s Peak.
- You can reach the summit by foot, by car, and by cog railroad (we chose the hardest, go figure).
- The oxygen level on the summit is 43% less than what is found at sea level. You want to be sure to acclimate to the elevation a bit before going to the top (i.e. a flat-lander vacationing in Colorado who summits Pikes Peak on Day One of vacation will probably not feel so go. It is advised to wait three days to get used to the elevation).
- The air pressure is so low at this elevation that it would take 8 HOURS to boil an egg! Nobody’s got time for that!
The final push consisted of balancing from rock to rock. Cairns are placed alongside the trail (as seen above my right shoulder) indicating the designated route up the mountain. It’s really easy to lose the trail here, which I did plenty of times, but when all else fails, look for a cairn or one of the other thousand people on the trail to find your way.
And at last…. summit!
We were both feeling lightheaded at this point so we pretty much went straight inside the visitor center to sit down and regain clarity. We read that the visitor center supposedly had incredible doughnuts so you can guess what we did next.
Sadly, it didn’t quite live up to the expectations we had built of it during the hike (granted those were fairly high expectations).
Remember the crystal clear blue skies I pointed out earlier? That changed. Quickly. Colorado weather can be even more unpredictable than Michigan, sometimes. Clouds rolled in, lightning struck in the distance (thankfully only in the distance), and then snow happened. Snow. SNOW. The summit can be around 40 degrees cooler than at the base. 70 degrees in Colorado Springs can equal 30 degrees on the peak. While waiting for the storm to pass (it didn’t), we watched two people get treatment for altitude sickness, gangs of people get off and on the cog, and tourists load up on souvenirs for loved ones back home. Eventful.
As there were not any weather updates in the visitors center and our phones did not have service, we decided to fall back onto flashing some leg for a ride (not literally, it was too cold). Luckily, we saw a truck about to leave and asked the driver if we could get a ride down to a parking area that intersected the trail to avoid descending the snow-covered rocks on the peak. He said “Absolutely!” and refused to let us sit in the truck bed like we originally offered.
The snow/rain mixture didn’t let up and, when we approached our unloading spot, he told us he could do one better and give us a ride all the way to our car. We warned him that it was a bit out-of-the-way. He and his girlfriend, who was visiting from Massachusetts, both said they had nothing else to do that day anyways (yeah, uh huh… wink, wink). We happily accepted his offer and enjoyed good conversation the rest of the way to the car. Turns out he is in the service and is being deployed in a week (hence why his girlfriend was visiting). People are good, people are kind; trail magic can happen anywhere.
All complaining and melodrama aside, the Pikes Peak hike was awesome and I would recommend it to anyone (not just to those I don’t like). No feeling, besides maybe lightheadedness, can replace the accomplishment of reaching the summit and bearing witness to our incredible planet along the way.
It can only get better, and hopefully easier, from here.