A Plan in FullThe idea was simple: recon mountain running routes in Colorado Springs. Having just arrived from Utah for a temporary work assignment, I assumed that the Springs suffered from the cold and snowy reality of winter in February. I was mistaken. Apparently, such conditions prevail 100 miles west, but on this extreme lee side of the Rockies, even the high elevations were bone dry.
Of course, I knew none of this. I thought I would need to find some running routes as low as possible. It wasn't until I was on my way to the Garden of the Gods that I cast my eyes on the hills and saw virtually no snow on the Incline Trail, near the Barr Trail to Pikes Peak. So, I conceived of a triptych: I would run the Incline Trail, then Garden of the Gods, then a part of the Santa Fe Trail, for a good 20-mile morning.
I parked at the Barr Trail lot and suited up: running shoes (Hoka One Ones), smartwool socks, dirty girl gaiters, windproof tights, shorts, a long sleeve cycling jersey, a beanie and a hat. In my pocket was an ultralight rain shell and pair of YakTrax for any ice. The plan was to climb the Incline Trail and descend the Barr Trail.
Upon reaching the summit of the Incline Trail, I was astonished by the lack of snow at 8700'. Some passing hikers told me that this was not unusual, and that the snow was light all the way to Barr Camp, four miles distant. I felt good, having done very little running the previous two days on account of packing and travelling. Plus, a huge dinner at Carraba's the night before seemed to be paying off in my energy level. What the hell? I headed up to Barr Camp.
The running was easy and nimble up to Barr Camp. Upon arriving, I noticed fresh tracks continuing to ascend the trail: two sets. What the hell? I followed.
The sun was peeking out from behind partly cloudy skies. The temps were moderate (mid-20s) and the wind was marginal in the trees. I continued to press on, figuring that I could get all 20 of my miles right here. Upon reaching treeline, I caught the hikers. They were aiming for the summit, and were genuinely surprised to see me. They were also lost, having left the trail shortly before I reached them.
Having run Pikes a couple of years before, and also having my Garmin Map 60st, I quickly got them back on track. I was resolved at this point to turn around, as I was bonking badly. But I looked at the summit massif and noticed the utter lack of snow. It was just too tempting.
I asked my new grateful companeros if they had any calories. What kind? Don't care; give my anything you really don't like, I'll eat it. Then I will break trail for you so you can know where to go. Deal. Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches later, I was scampering up the trail.
The weather was supposed to sock in around noon, but it didn't look too bad. As I climbed above tree line the wind picked up, and I put on the shell. But it was manageable, far more pleasant than some winter experiences I had had on Provo Peak or Ogden Ben Lomond. The sun would peek out and palpably affect the cold.
Right as the trail cut across a shoulder into the main basin, I hit my first real crux. A hard wind slab filled the trail, and my Hokas, so good for trail running, were no match for it, not even with the YakTrax. I could see the remainder of the trail was virtually snow-free: I needed to make it through this 30-foot crux. Finally I probed around and found filled-in boot holes. Triumph! I continued the ascent.
The next 1.5 miles were almost as fast as a summer ascent. One would hope. For hell's sake, I wasn't exactly carrying anything. There were a few more small wind slan cruxes above 13300', and the 16 golden steps were an exercise in probing whether drifts were hard or soft. Of course, now the altitude was affecting me, and my pace had to dial down. And, of course, the promised storm was closing in, with sideways snow whipping past me.
Finally I boulder-hopped to the cog railway and the small industrial complex on the summit. I had no time to wrinkle my frozen nose at the spectre of civilization: I touched the summit monument to Katherine Lee Bates and got out of there.
My only scare on the descent was when one of YakTrak broke. The spring had shot off to the inside of my right foot, and I hadn't noticed it. It then caught on my left YakTrax, and became an instant horse hobble at about 13500'. Fortunately it was flexible enough that I was able to dance my way around and avoid a fall, although I smacked my palm pretty good on a rock when I finally stopped. That could have made for a bad day.
The rest of the descent was very runnable as snow showers and clouds closed in (including some very exciting thundersnow below tree line), and I made it down in a bonked, lazy 2:40. My ascent time was 4:45.
This experience was improvisatory and spontaneous, and not representative of a new ascent philosophy I have adopted. I was clearly flirting with death. But, it was kind of cool all the same. It certainly made for a fast time.
Sorry, no pictures. This was supposed to be a quick, little trip, remember? So no camera.