Making Zebulon Proud on Pikes Peak!I’m embarrassed to admit that I lived in Colorado Springs for two years before I had attempted the fabled Barr Trail on Pikes Peak. While I had summited “America’s Mountain” by the shorter Crags route my first spring in Colorado, I had only been up to the top of the Incline over the first 4 miles of the Barr Trail.
Alan Arnette, a fellow SPer, has been my climbing buddy for most of the Colorado 14ers that I have done. Presently he is training for a climb of Pakistan’s Broad Peak and K2 in the summer of 2006 (www.alanarnette.com), while I am gearing up for a summer of class 2-4 14ers. I figured 3 days of hiking and climbing above Colorado Springs would be good conditioning for both of us.
The Barr Trail is just less than 26 miles from trailhead to summit and back down with the Barr Camp (www.barrcamp.com) serving as a great resting spot 7 miles along the route. Some will choose to do the entire route in one day. We chose to “attack” the mountain over 3 days.
Alan said that he was going to leave his snowshoes in my 4Runner, but I encouraged him to bring them along. I was sure that we were going to need them. We left the trailhead at 9:30 on a beautiful April Saturday morning and took a leisurely pace to the Barr Camp where we planned to spend the night. This is not a demanding part of the trail by any stretch, but we still took our time and enjoyed the scenery as weekend joggers and their Labradors zipped past us. The first 4 miles is the steepest section with an elevation gain of over 2000 feet. The remaining 3 miles to the Barr Camp is a more gradual gain up to 10,200 feet. We arrived at camp early in the afternoon and were immediately greeted by Teresa and Neal, the caretakers of the camp. The camp was swamped with guests and visitors, but they still made us feel like we were the only people there. This is an amazing little place that has a special niche carved out for itself in the Colorado Springs community. The main cabin has a bunkhouse that sleeps at least 15 with an extremely comfortable living and dining room that are heated by an inviting wood stove. After dropping our packs Alan and I spent a big portion of the afternoon lounging in the sun on the deck talking with other hikers while Teresa doted on us with cups of tea. I felt like I was trekking in Nepal.
Pikes Peak and our route stood before us through the trees, but in that inviting atmosphere it seemed far from intimidating. After grabbing a quick catnap in my bunk I was able to reach my wife on my cell phone to get the score of my beloved Cleveland Indians game … and to let her know that I was OK. Dinner was world class spaghetti made by Teresa and homemade bread by Neal. We were sharing the cabin with a group of men who were brothers and friends from the Springs. In fact, three generations were represented in one family with a son, father and grandfather. I chased dinner with a few shots of Baileys from my flask and settled in for the night. Before sacking out I remembered that the following day was Palm Sunday and felt a little more than guilty for missing Mass on one of my favorite Holy Days. I read the Passion of Christ from the gospel of Luke and my good ‘ole Catholic guilt was assuaged a bit.
I slept like a rock until 2 a.m., then took what seemed like 20 catnaps until my alarm went off at 5 a.m. I was glad I brought my ear plugs. Alan said that there were some major snorers in the bunkhouse, but fortunately my plugs blocked them out. We hit the trail just before 6. The start of the trail was ice covered and I was afraid we would spend the day on this, but it quickly changed to snow as we went higher. We had our snowshoes strapped to our packs, but only encountered solid snow that we could easily walk over. The Barr is a trail of a million switchbacks. At times we would question the route that old Fred Barr chose, but I’m sure his love of switchbacks on a heavily used trail has saved the mountain a lot of damage over the years.
About a mile above camp we came to the junction where the Bottomless Pit approach branches to the right and the Barr begins a traverse to the south/southeast to treeline where the A-frame shelter is located. We could tell that the winds were picking up and that we would feel their wrath much more once we were above the trees, so we stopped to gear up with our hardshells … and still no snowshoes. As we were buffeted above treeline we struggled to stick to the trail and eventually lost it around 12,500 feet. I had my GPS with waypoints plugged in, so I knew that we were close to the northernmost part of the route and the beginning of the second traverse across the east face of the mountain. We picked our way over and around boulders until we could see the trail and the second traverse. Once back on the trail we traversed back over to the southern part of the route and across the sloping gully across the center of the face. This gully would later prove to be our best friend. From this point we were able to stick to the trail for the most part until we reached the sign for the “16 Golden Stairs.” There were no stairs to be found, but I’m sure they were there under the snow. From this point we chose to go straight up … and still no snowshoes. Alan had his new outrageously large Sportiva mountaineering boots on that he was breaking in for Broad Peak and K2, so I generously allowed him to kick steps for me. We rest stepped over the final 500 vertical feet as we could hear the sounds of the Cog Railway train blowing it’s whistle and gearing up for another trip down the mountain loaded with trinket toting tourists who could now say that they made it to the top of Pikes. As we crested the ridge just below the summit house the conductor of the train asked us if we wanted a ride back down after getting something warm to drink. Alan politely told him, “No, we’ll walk back down.” I know it sounds arrogant, but I loved the feeling I had walking past the train and the admiring eyes of the tourists who had just seen us reach the summit after they had reached it sitting on their diesel propelled butts.
We dropped our packs and entered the summit house restaurant. Other than a few employees we were the only people there and we were whipped. Alan and I each downed a pizza and rehydrated with water and Gatorade. We seriously contemplated taking the next train down to Mountain View station and hike the 1 ½ miles back to the Barr Camp, but quickly came to our senses. We got our legs back after an hour on top and started our decent. Looking down the east face we could tell the gully would be our most direct route. Although it was about noon and the skies were clear, the snow was still solid enough to support us without postholing … or needing our snowshoes. We decided to head straight down the gully until we crossed the traverse part of the trail. This rocked compared to the endless switchbacks over the east face and we were sorry we did not take the snow-filled gully on the way up. We made great time down to treeline where saw the errors of our ways earlier in the morning and wondered how we ever lost the trail at that point.
We arrived back at the Barr Camp just before 4 p.m. Teresa was waiting for us on the deck and said that she could see us descending the gully with her high-power binoculars. We dropped our packs and quickly found ourselves back on the deck sunning ourselves with Teresa serving us hot chocolate. We were the only guests that she and Neal would have for the night. Dinner was her world class chili and cornbread as we sat by the wood stove and relaxed from the day. Teresa and Neal are the type of people that you could sit and listen to forever. They have been the caretakers for the Barr Camp for almost a year and shared countless stories, mostly about stupid Texans, that they had helped rescue off the mountain. It was a great night sitting in a warm mountain cabin with good food and good people. Once again, I chased dinner with some Baileys and went to bed.
Alan and I were up by 6 and ready to eat by 7. Again, we were spoiled by Teresa and Neal, this time with awesome pancakes and coffee. We hit the trail by 9 and made quick time down the lower 7 miles to the trailhead where my lovely wife picked us up just before noon. I got a kiss from her despite the 3 days worth of smells emanating from my showerless body.
As I said before, I had summited Pikes once before by the Crags route on the other side of the mountain. I had also hauled friends and family from the east up the road to the top of the mountain that Zebulon Pike had gazed upon, but never summited. This time was much more special. I did 26 miles of hiking and climbing over 3 days to the top of “America’s Mountain” with a close friend who enjoyed being spoiled with me by the good people of the Barr Camp. I felt that we would have made Zebulon proud … and we never used our snowshoes!