So, watching the snow creep further down the faces of the front range mountains here in mid October, I realized my goal of climbing a 14’er our first year here was quickly fading away… We had our first snow of the season last weekend and the mountains got hammered, with Wolf Creek Ski Resort already opened. I noticed we were supposed to have a quick warm up this week, so I started thinking I might be able to squeeze my hiking goal in, but I only had one shot…
It has been said, that hiking Colorado’s 14er’s is an immediate addiction. Living near them and seeing them daily, hiking around them and fishing in the many lakes and streams in the area are one thing, but to actually hike a 14’er to the top, that is what it is all about. I have been a long time researcher on www.14’ers.com getting trip and route data, conditions and packing suggestions and just general information. A 14’er is defined as a mountain that exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level and the great state of Colorado has 53 of them (some say 54…) more than any other state. There are some technicalities on how they are measured, but you get the point.
We have many 14’ers right here close to home, but I decided to attempt Pikes Peak for my first one (for years Pikes Peak was believed to be 14,110 feet. It’s actually 14,115 feet. Measuring equipment has improved and the sign has not caught up). What better mountain to start with than “America’s Mountain”. This is the mountain that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write “America the Beautiful” in 1893. Another big deciding factor was that I was to attempt this climb solo and I knew this was a popular trail and would come across people if I needed something. There are two main routes to the summit. The trail I was going to take is Barr Trail (east slope) and it is the longest (14 miles) of any trails leading to the top of the 54 mountains in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet, and offers the greatest base-to-summit elevation gain in the state: 7,400 feet. Let the planning begin.
After watching the summit webcams for over a week, I could see some snow melt and Saturday, October 15th was supposed to have highs in the upper 70’s in Manitou Springs (at the trail head) and highs in the upper 20’s on the summit. There is a guy I work with who has climbed this route a few times, so I got a lot of information from him. I started putting my gear list together, as this was different from any other hike I have attempted. I would be hiking through 4 different “life zones” (the foothills zone, montane zone, sub alpine zone and alpine zone) http://pikespeak.us.com/Learn/life-zones.html. This would require more and different types of gear, aside from just layers of warm clothing. I invested in some Micro-spikes to help with traction in the snow/ice, gaiters to help in the deep snow and trekking poles. Not all of this is necessary, but I am very glad I invested…
To summit a 14’er in the summer months, the single most important factor is time. Simply put, you need to have reached the summit and back to shelter before thunderstorms move in. Lightning strikes are the biggest killer on mountains. Many people try to summit a 14’er and get within a few miles of the top and have to turn around because of the weather and deteriorating conditions. Weather at these altitudes is extremely unpredictable. Since it is October, I didn’t have to worry about thunderstorms, I did however want to be off the mountain before dark and didn’t know what my pace would be and how long it would take. I was told 6-10 hours depending on endurance and frequency of stops. I decided to leave at 4am.
K, Furry B and I drove down to Manitou Springs after work on Friday and stayed in a hotel near the trail head. We woke up early in the am, packed, made sure I had everything and headed to the trail. It was a short 5 minute drive down the road. I borrowed two hand-held radios and due to little to no cell service I was to contact K via radio at certain times and when I reached the halfway point, Barr camp http://www.barrcamp.com/. Barr camp was 6.5 miles up and for me, was the point of no return. If I went past Barr camp I was going to attempt to summit, if not, I was to head back down to the trail head and meet K. I knew there was snow, but I wouldn’t know if it was passible until I reached the camp and spoke to the caretakers. We said our goodbye’s, went over final contingency plans and K made one final call to the information line. Everything came to a grinding halt. Due to time restraints, my original goal was to hike to the summit and have her pick me up there. A lot of people hike to the halfway point, stay the night at Barr camp and then summit the next day. I wanted to attempt the entire hike in one day. The information line said Pikes Peak highway was closed 4 miles from the summit because they could not get the road cleared of snow. I told K to drive as far up to one of the pull offs as she could, I would summit and walk the 4 miles down the road to meet her. We stuck to the plan and I was off at about 4:09am
I headed to the trail head sign and into the dark canyon with my headlamp on, the twinkling lights of Manitou Springs fading behind me. About twenty minutes in, I realized I was sweating and needed to shed some clothes. It was about 35 degrees when I started and I would need these clothes later and I needed them dry. I put them in my pack and continued. It was an eerie feeling hiking in the dark with a head lamp and the almost full moon, but it was very peaceful. I was in awe of the landscape being lit up by the moon. Switchback after switch back, I slowly made my way up the trail. I never heard, or saw anyone for the first two hours, then I saw a headlamp flickering through the trees. I met up with a guy that was from Colorado Springs and was attempting the same plan I had. He had hiked to Barr camp the previous weekend to scope it out, so we decided to stick together. We rounded a bend and before us was the first glimpse of Pikes Peak from the trail. It was still dark, but the moon was reflecting off the snow covered peak and hopefully in a few “short” hours, we would be on top. About an hour after we met, the colors in the sky began changing and the sun peeked over the horizon east of Colorado Springs. We were still in the treeline, so our view was a little obstructed, but we stopped for a few pictures, some water and then kept going. After walking in the dark for almost 3 hours the sun was a welcome sight. We arrived at the primitive, but welcoming Barr Camp, built in 1921 by Fred Barr (hence the name of the trail) around 7:30am. We were welcomed by the permanent caretakers, went inside to warm up and ate some breakfast (trail mix, jerky and Cliff bars). The caretakers hike all supplies in, or it is delivered by the cog as there are no roads. The snow was spotty at this altitude, but there were people heading up the trail, so I tried to contact K via radio, with no luck. I was able to get one text message out, saying we were heading to the top and should be there around 1:00-2:00pm. We repacked our bags, strapped on the gaiters and micro-spikes and headed up. By this time, my legs were already feeling tired and I could feel blisters beginning on my heals. This was not going to stop me. Further up the trail, the snow started covering the trail more and more. We pressed on and reached the treeline at about 12,000 ft and knew we had about three more tough hours to the summit. The snow was getting deeper in spots and my feet felt like cinderblocks. We briefly stopped and talked to two guys who we yielded to. One of them does this trail frequently throughout the year, has climbed some of the most famous peaks and uses the Barr trail as a training ground. I was glad to be following them. Looking up, we were on the east face of the mountain. The wind was ferocious at times, which didn’t help when you were on the side of a mountain at the mercy of the elements. This part of the trail was by far the toughest and with each switch back, there seemed to be no end. The views here were unbelievable. We got off track a few times because of the depth of the snow, losing the footprints of whoever was in front of us. After one more long trek across the face, we headed up to the “16 Golden Stairs”, which is more like 32, as they are switchbacks… We were postholing in some spots above the knees, which made it that much more grueling. We came around the last switch back and reached the summit at 1:30 that afternoon, 9.5 hours from start to finish. Not bad for first timers with the snow conditions that were present.
What an indescribable feeling to be finished!! We went to the summit house took some of our gear off and sat down. We found out that they had cleared the road and it had opened at noon, so no 4 mile hike down to the car. It was funny to see the tourists who had driven, or taken the cog railway up looking at you like you are crazy. With our red, wind burnt faces and wet, snow-covered boots, I guess I could see why. I stood in line for a world-famous Pikes Peak doughnut and coffee and the cashier said with a grin, how was the trail? I checked my phone and had a message, K was almost to the summit for our ride down the mountain. We finished up and went outside to get the famous summit picture by the Pikes peak sign. Another tourist came up and said, you guys hiked all the way from the bottom, with a smile, I said yup.