Pikes Peak trip report


What could be more patriotic than a Fourth of July weekend ascent of Pikes Peak, whose summit inspired the writing of "America the Beautiful"! Well, probably a lot of things, and this particular timing really wasn't a factor for me in choosing Pikes.

Although Pikes seems to have a reputation as being easy to climb because of the excellent Barr Trail, it's also quite popular for people to climb the trail and then ride the Cog Railway down, or to have someone pick them up at the summit via the toll road. Also, the full-featured Barr Camp halfway up the trail includes the option to buy hot meals and turn the climb into a two or three day trip. These options provide a "civilized" way to turn Pikes into a more modest undertaking. There's also a route on the other side of the mountain, but this runs near the toll road in places and has never seemed very appealing to me [to put it mildly] even though it's only half as long as the Barr Trail. Thus, I intended to do a self-supported one-day ascent - and descent - of the Barr Trail.

In planning for such a long hike (my previous longest trips were in the 15 mile/6000 ft vicinity), travelling light took on extra importance. I wasn't anticipating any weather problems, at least with precipitation or extreme cold. So, I left a couple items of clothing at home, and with the low trailhead I started the hike in shorts and my thermal shirt. I still had sufficient extra clothing, which ended up being important. I also left some "toys" at home, including my wind gauge which I really wish I had brought with me. The final big decision was footwear. Since the last time I was hiking regularly in 1997, I've taken up running again, and with the good trail I decided to wear running shoes.

I left Boulder at 2350, then quickly realized that I forgot my treking poles, and left home again at 2358. It's just a 1:45 drive, and I started up the trail at 0155. One of the reasons for starting so early was to avoid hiking down at low elevations in the afternoon in our current heat wave (it was about 85F at the 6700-foot trailhead when I finished). Another reason was to summit before the train and cars start arriving at the summit. And, there was a good chance of having the trail all to myself on the way up. It ended up being partly cloudy, and the waning gibbous Moon kept my headlamp in my pack most of the early morning.

For a change, I started the hike at a moderate pace. It didn't take too long to start feeling some aches and pains in my legs, particularly a running injury that has been very slow to heal. However, I gambled that this would get better as I went along and this turned out to be the case.

I took my first break at 0315. At this point I could start to hear the wind blowing fairly strongly through the tree tops. My second break came only an hour later due to a bit of a blood sugar crash; this is my second hike of the summer and I've had an unusually strong appetite on the hikes. Plus, I'm finding that the energy gels that I have used on runs the last couple years work fine for about 45-60 minutes, but then things go downhill quickly. Thus, at the second break I had a Nutri-Grain bar and some chocolate, which fueled me much longer. At this point, I was just short of the approximate halfway point of Barr Camp, and the wind was loud enough for me to wonder if the people camping outside were getting much sleep. And, I was feeling just enough of it to put on my jacket.

It didn't take too much longer for July's early twilight to start to fully illuminate the forest, and indeed having the trail all to myself brightened the mood even more. Despite still being below treeline, I reached a nice open area at around 0540 in time to catch a gorgeous sunrise. I was feeling pretty strong, and didn't stop again until about 0715 to eat some more. I was above 13000ft by now and was occasionally feeling some brief strong wind gusts. The temperature was down into the low 40s and I had to put on gloves. By this time, there were a few short trail sections with some snow cover. This was a little awkward early in the morning before the Sun softened things up.

By the time I hit the "16 Golden Stairs", I was starting to feel the very strong winds that the mountain had been blocking. I was slowing down a lot by now, but I was still moving well considering the effort I had already put in. I came up the last incline and reached the Cog Railway terminus at 0747. Five hours 52 minutes for the climb, which I was pleased with.

However, there would be no long celebratory break on the summit. The wind was just ballistic up there, 50mph and possible stronger. I was having trouble walking straight and when wandering around on the summit for 10 minutes my legs were occasionally sand-blasted by dirt lifted off the ground. The summit temperature was 38F, so the wind chill was down near 0F. Just your typical summer morning on a 14er! I did snap a couple photos on top, but decided to save a sit-down break for better conditions.

The first 2000ft or so of the descent went fine, but after that, I really started feeling the results of hiking so long. My legs were getting generally sore, and my feet were starting to hurt. By this time I was starting to encounter people occasionally, and probably saw about 100 people total on the way down. On the lower reaches there were quite a few runners, presumably training for the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon coming up in a couple weeks. In fact, even if I had hiked the extra distance at the start, I would have made the cut-off times for the Ascent on my hike!

I found some agreeable company at Barr Camp and spent almost a half-hour there before continuing to plod down. (Just for the record, I didn't get any water there, to keep my "self-supported" hike intact.) By this time it was getting warm. I tried doing a little running myself, but that was making me feel sick, so that didn't last long. After I took a break and went back to normal walking I felt better. Actually, I felt like I still had plenty of energy, it was just my legs and feet begging me to stop (as a runner I've never covered more than 18 miles at once, and as a hiker 16 miles was my previous record). I finally reached the full parking lot at 1243 and hobbled over to my car to change clothes and shoes. Then I hobbled over to the water fountain and restroom. Then I hobbled back to my car for the drive home. It's a good thing I didn't realize how used up my legs were while I was hiking! However, I wasn't feeling any acute pain, so I knew it wouldn't take too long to recover.

The most exciting event of the day was on the drive home. Just past Castle Rock on I-25, my right rear tire blew out at 70 mph. The short story is that despite some problems with my jack (having a jack doesn't do you any good if it doesn't work right), I eventually got the spare on and made it home. I was hoping to do another hike on Monday, but I got back into town too late to get a new tire, and of course nobody was open on Sunday the 4th. So, I was stuck in town puttering around the yard, etc., on the 5th. At least I didn't get stuck in the annual end of the holiday weekend traffic jams on the mountain highways!

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File last modified: 28 December 2004

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