Hiking Pike’s Peak

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If you are considering hiking Pike’s Peak and want some practical advice from an adventurous senior-aged amateur hiker, read on.  To begin with, if you are looking for those cautions about “altitude this,” “be careful of that,” “spray on this,” and “rub on that,” read elsewhere.  This is all good practical stuff for those who do not spend their life sweating details.

My trip started in early June from Dallas, Texas, a mere 670 feet above sea level.   You have to know that cities in Texas are annotated only by population, never by altitude, because the terrain is ceaselessly horizontal.  I drove to Pike’s Peak in 12 hours and stood at the base camp early evening of the day I left Dallas.

The surrounding city is Manitou Springs at 6,360 feet elevation.  Stay in Manitou Springs.  There are many quite suitable motels, certainly if hiking is your interest.  I stayed at a rather dumpy but clean little motel built in the 1950’s I would think – neon sign outside and park-slant in front of your little door.  I made no reservations and looked no further, leaving chance to be part of the adventure.  All I wanted was a comfortable bed and a place to shower in private.  If you need saunas, pools, and business centers, we’re not on the same speaker’s forum.

The trail up the peak is called the Barr Trail and it starts just past the Cog Railway station.  Drive past the Cog Railway parking lot (where they will not let hikers park) and turn right at the top of the rise.  Cost to park is $10 per day and you pay at the little machine.  Start early.  I took my first step up the trail at 5:50 AM, but it was quite light already.  Starting 30-40 minutes earlier would have been better.  In retrospect, a day or to to acclimate to the altitude would have been a really good idea, but I did not want to wait a day or two and I had set the alarm for 5:30 AM so here I was.  Let the adventure begin.

I wore hiking shorts and a tee-shirt.  I strapped on a backpack because it is more comfortable than shoulder straps.  The contents were a long-sleeve shirt, toilet paper, four protein bars, four slices of bread, two liters of water in 1-liter Nalgene bottles, and a wonderful little device that pumps raw water through a filter to remove bacteria.   That, plus some chlorine tablets to kill little viruses left in the water and I was good to go.  I know most people buy bottled water but this was just water from the tap at the motel.  There are stream crossing along the route, if required.

The hike is 11.5 miles each way.  The first 3 miles are strenuous.  The next 3 miles are much easier.  At 6.5 miles you come to the Barr Camp at 10,200 feet.  The next mile after that is deceptively easy.  I was feeling pretty good but did have to stop frequently to try and squeeze oxygen out of the air.  If I had a headache from the altitude, I did not notice it because I was too tired from hiking to feel it.  The trail instructions said the total climb to the top would take 8 hours.  This seemed pessimistic at this point because I was averaging about 2 miles per hour at the Barr camp so I expected to be at the top in a total of 6 hours.

One mile past the Barr camp (7.5 miles from the trailhead) the climb separated the men from the boys (women from the girls).  The altitude began to take it’s toll and the climb was noticeably more difficult, more like the first three miles or worse.  At this point, I thought of going back but forced that thought aside and kept thinking, “I can make one more mile.”   Reality is not something you should dwell upon.  At about 3.5 miles from the top one passes an A-frame shelter.  From there it is tough-going, and you classify everything up to this point as easy by way of comparison.  After the A-frame I was going 50 – 100 feet and then stopping to gasp for air.  My pace slowed to a crawl.  Snaking my way along, I found a metal sign that said it was 2 miles to the top.  But, oh those last 2 miles.

By now, good portions of the trail were covered with snow and ice – which caused some sliding and stumbling, probably encouraged by my weariness and lack of attention.  I put on my long-sleeve shirt, but cold was not a primary concern.  Somewhere in all this I lost one of my bottles of water.  It’s still there, somewhere in the snow field.  The trail was indiscernible in many places so there was a great deal of scrambling over rocks to find the trail.  Then, I lost the second bottle of water somewhere else. (They were hanging on side patches on the pack and they were knocked out, I suppose, during the scrambling parts.  They likely fell silently in the snow.)  Of course, one-by-one as I lost them they were close to empty anyway.  Melting ice-water flowed under the snow so I just scooped up the water in my palm and drank away.  Yes, I know I had the filter contraption, but at this point I also did not care.  I might die later but I needed water now.  Water is water, I thought.  Worry about first things, first.

The last mile was all mental, a step or two at a time, 50 feet and then rest.  You never quit huffing and puffing because there is too little oxygen.  Plus, I did not know where the “top” actually was so I did not know how many more switchbacks I would encounter.  I could see the top but did not know exactly where the trail ended.  I looked down 1.5 miles below me at Colorado Springs.  It was awesome.

Finally, I stepped out onto the peak and there was the visitor center in front of me, children playing in the snow, and tourists who had driven up taking pictures.  I was a little sick at my stomach but I believe this was from one of the protein bars that had chocolate in it.  (I dislike chocolate and it sometimes regards me mutually.)  I was exhausted but my legs were not rubber.  I looked at my phone – almost 8 hours from the time I started.

Now, several days later, I can only say I loved this hike and will do it again.


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