Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Hike up Pikes Peak

The week before our recent trip to Colorado Springs, my son David called me and asked if I’d like to hike a trail to the top of Pikes Peak while we were there. Not knowing anything about the trail but thrilled to do something outside with David, I immediately said “Yes” and then proceeded to learn what we were planning to do. While the plan depended on weather and baby cooperation, it all came together on Monday, July 3. And what a day that was.

We went up on the
Barr Trail, well-described in this link (and a longer, detailed description from a trail marathoner here). We were up at 4:30am, out the door at 5 and on the trail at 5:45am, along with a LOT of other people. It was pretty amazing how many other had the same idea. We set out at a comfortable walk and quickly began the climb up. I was amazed at how well-groomed the trail was, how well-conceived the switchbacks were and the number of runners we saw, both going up and down the trail. We hit our own rhythm and just kept moving. The day was glorious and it was special to be with David.

Around 7am, we had covered about 3 miles on the trail, gained about 2,000 feet in altitude when we got our first clear view of Pikes Peak. Wow…over 10 miles horizontally still to go and we were only an hour into the hike. The peak sure looked a long ways off; the moment was simultaneously awesome and sobering.

The next four miles got us moving horizontally towards the peak and with a less-steep slope. The trail widened, the crowds had lessened and David and I could walk side by side instead of single file. The conversation was pleasant, the scenery fantastic. The morning was beautiful, the birds were in full voice, I was with my first-born, outside, doing something we both enjoyed. Awesome.

While pausing for some water along the way, we met a family from Lubbock, Texas decked out in Chicago Cub hats. We all laughed at the unlikely premise of five die-hard Cub fans finding each other on the side of a mountain in Colorado. It ultimately turned out to be a more important “coincidence” than we first imagined.

Half-way up, we came to
Barr Camp, a respite and shelter along the way. We paused for some water and to sign the registry. We wondered, at the time, about the number of people sitting around there who seemed content to hike to Barr Camp, rest up and then walk back down. But, we hadn’t done the second half yet.

Shortly after Barr Camp, the father of our Cub-fan family caught us as we paused for water. It turned out his wife and daughter had planned to go back down after Barr Camp, while he sought to go to the summit. We never learned his name, so I’ll just call him “Harry” for this story (Cub fans know why). We invited Harry to join us the rest of the way.

Heading up from Barr Camp, the path got steeper and the trees started to look smaller and smaller. At around 12,500 feet, we got to the tree line…what a sudden shock to the system. Whereas we had been on a pleasant forest walk, we were very suddenly alone on the mountain. I can’t quite describe the feeling of smallness that hit me. We were small…other hikers only a few hundred feet above or below us looked tiny. With no protection any more from the elements, it was us and the mountain, with nearly 2,000 vertical feet to go. Everything seemed to change.

Looking up, we saw a dark cloud now covering the peak. As we went further, we realized we would soon be walking up into the mist. I took one last picture, packed the camera against the moisture and we carried on.

It was along here that Harry told us his story. He had come to Colorado Springs many times as a child and always admired Pikes Peak. Adulthood came along and then so did a lot of weight. Harry told us 6 years ago, he tipped the scales at 400 pounds. At about 5”9” in height, he realized the real danger of obesity. So, he began to shed those pounds, steadily and safely. And, in the back of his mind, he set a goal of one day being able to be in good enough condition to make the hike up Pikes Peak. And today was the day. It was moving to David and me to realize our spontaneous adventure of a Dad and a son had intersected with a major life event for our new-found friend. The Cubs were interesting, but Harry had much bigger things to prove to himself. I was impressed.

The cloud descending down the mountain dropped the temperature. As we walked into the cloud, David and I both added to a second shirt and kept moving. (Technical note: I ended up wearing only two layers of polyester; a short sleeve and long sleeve T shirt. That's it...I was astounded at how warm I stayed, even when wet, even to the summit, with just these two wicking fabrics.) Harry did the same, but was starting to struggle. It started to drizzle and then sleet as we got near 13,500 feet. Then we heard thunder but unlike any thunder I had ever heard before. Since we were in the cloud, not below the cloud, the thunder came from all around us. Bouncing off of nearby rock faces, both above and below, it felt like being inside the biggest subwoofer ever invented. It was almost Biblical in magnitude. The mountain, the cloud, the thunder, the walking; it was all there. Amazing. Cool. Unique.

However, thunder always comes from lightning and I wondered if we were in danger. The trail description (which I only read after the outing) says we were. At this point, though, we were committed and the best we could do was to move steadily towards the summit…storm or no. We stopped again to pull on nylon wind pants and kept moving.

It became evident that Harry couldn't keep the pace. David wanted to move on and see if we could snag a spot on the cog railway for the trip down the mountain. He and I agreed that he would surge ahead and I would stay with Harry. Given that David is an Army medic and I’m just a guy, we might have made a different decision had we thought more. But it turned out OK. It was just a matter that Harry was struggling and I’d have to do the thinking for both of us.

The thunder continued, the sleet fell, changed to snow and we kept going up. With the peak completely shrouded in the cloud, we had no idea how far or close we were; we could only follow the path. We took regular breaks and I kept encouraging Harry, who had less and less to say. We came to the famous 16 Golden Stairs portion of the trail. While I knew there were large boulders in this section, I thought there were only 16 of them. I only learned later the name referred to 16 switchbacks…not 16 boulders. Oh my. We kept moving.

As we finished the “Stairs”, we paused again when we saw two guys walking down the mountain, still shrouded in fog. “How far do we have to go?” we asked, hopefully. “Hey, only about 10 minutes,” was their most welcome reply.

Onward we went and soon we heard a train horn. Looking up, we could finally make out the shape of cog railway cars stopped on the peak, only about 100 feet above us! This final portion of the trail got steeper and steeper. Harry was breathing heavily and I urged him to watch his step on the wet, icy rocks. David appeared out of the fog above us, having made it to the top a half hour ahead of us. What a welcome sight.

The last short climb was rough but short. We got to the top and I let out a series of joyous shouts, feeling every bit like the finish line of a marathon. David was there to welcome me and we gave each other a huge bear-hug. It was an awesome moment, even in the 36 degree temperatures, soaking wet, in the snow. What a day with my first-born.

Harry, on the other hand, looked a little dazed. David and I shook his hand heartily, congratulating him on this life accomplishment. He smiled wanly and as David and I talked, he wandered off to find his wife who was to have driven their car to the top to pick him up. And we never saw him again, never learned his name. He didn't say thank you or good-bye or anything. He was completly exhausted, physically and mentallt. It was an odd ending…but we got him safely to the top and he’ll remember it forever. He’s a neat guy and I hope he remembers us well


David talked our way onto the cog railway back down the mountain. We plopped down on seats facing three tourists who were trying to figure out why these two wet, cold guys could be so happy and chatty. We tried to explain. “You mean you guys just WALKED up this mountain?” “Yeah, it was awesome.” “Today? You did this all today?” “Yeah.” “How long did it take?” “Well, six and a half hours for David, seven for Joe.” “And this is your idea of fun??” “Yeah.” We both were grinning ear to ear.

Then they looked at me…”How old are you, anyway?” I wasn’t sure if they were concerned for my health or questioning the sanity of one who appeared to be old enough to know better. Learning I was 52 only elicited an “Oh my…” from them and they changed the subject to the evils of elk eating the grass off of golf greens in Colorado. David and I winked at each other and kept enjoying the moment.

This whole event was as memorable as any race I’ve ever run. The emotions you go through in a long race paralleled this experience exactly. The start is cool and neat, energy is high. Then reality starts to set in and you keep moving as you realize just how long it is. You settle into a rhythm and keep moving and the middle miles begin to click off. Then, you get to the latter stages, when it becomes more mental than physical. In this event, I was amazed and pleased that running on the flatlands and low altitude of Indiana still held up on this mountain. My legs never tired or got sore (I actually ran 5 pain-free miles the next day “down” at 6,000 feet on David’s base). While I noticed the thin air, stopping for a break at times was all I needed. And my brain never went to mush…I was aware of what was going on all along; from the incredible joy of doing this with my son, enjoying each moment and grasping its significance to getting Harry safely to the top.

The event was so unusual and significant, it’s taken me three weeks to reduce it to writing…hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.


david said...

It is great to make memories with our children, no matter what their age!

Anne K. said...

Joe, what an amazing story!!! I know Harry will remember you well, and it was wonderful to read your observations - emotional, physical and meterological. Thanks for sharing this very special story.

D said...

What an amazing post Joe. Incredible.

jeff said...

awesome post, joe. stuff like this sits with kids and really shapes who they are. what a great opportunity and way to spend time with your son!

George said...

Joe, I loved it! I grew up on the South Side of Colo. Springs, it makes me homesick reading it. Sounds like a typical day on the Peak.

I am toying with the idea of doing the Pikes Peak Asscent one year. I think it would great!!

What a wonderful experience with your son and a guy who needed your help! I used to think people who did stuff like that were crazy, now, I can't wait to do it!!

Darrell said...

What a great day and a wonderful memory. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us. I laughed when I read "I only learned later.." referring to the 16 switchbacks. Are you ready for the marathon version?