I worked Basic Cadet Training at the Air Force Academy throughout the month of July and a few days in early August. I got off of work early Friday night around 7:00 PM and got back to my dorm room where I started planning for my days off on Monday and Tuesday, when I was planning to go climbing with a friend from West Point. I also decided, since I didn’t work again until 1:00 PM on Saturday afternoon to try and climb Pikes Peak in the morning. Being overly ambitious and hoping to accomplish my goal of reaching a 14er summit at or before sunrise, I set my alarm for a 1:30 AM wakeup. I got my pack ready, printed off the trailhead directions and trail info, and then went to sleep for a few hours. The drive was uneventful, except that I did not pay quite enough attention to the specific trailhead directions ….
The directions say to go 3.5 miles from the highway on the Crags Campground Road and it will end in a little loop with a trailhead, or so I thought. What I missed was that after passing Rocky Mountain Camp, you must turn left off of the main road to get into the actual campground. In my situation, having never been to the trailhead before, I started to see people camped on both sides of the Forest Service Road and assumed I was in the campground, thus missing the left turn. I continued to the end of the road, which unfortunately ends in a small loop with a few spots to park and what looked to be a trailhead at 3:00 AM in the morning. The mileage also came out to within .1 miles of the 3.5 mile target, so I was not at all concerned with my location. I put on my boots and headlamp, donned my pack, and started up the trail, hiking past a few tents. After about 10 minutes, it didn’t look and feel right, so I pulled out the map and trail description, which clearly discusses finding pipes on the left and crossing a log bridge at a fork. The map also indicates that the trail starts up a valley. Knowing that I had heard water right at the beginning of my departure, and that I was in an up sloping valley, I continued to assume that I was in the right area. I returned to the trailhead, doing my best to not disturb the campers, and set out again. Of course, no pipes or log bridges were to be found and the trail led into a large meadow where it disappeared into night. Stumped, I decided to look for trails out of the meadow, and found two. I followed each for about a ¼ to ½ mile before deciding that each was indeed not correct. Sitting for a few moments, I reread the trail description (not the trailhead) and decided to once more return and try again for anything that I might have missed in the dark. With no luck, of course, and after an hour and half of wasted time, I sat down to think things out. It seemed I was at the trailhead, but that the trail itself was nowhere to be found. I carefully reread everything before noticing the mention of the left turn into the campground. Realizing the error, I quickly returned to the car and drove to the correct trailhead, noticing that the mileage would nearly work out either way, an unfortunate irony.
I left the car for the real trail a little bit before 5:00 AM and quickly sped up the now obviously correct trail. Delayed, I missed my goal of being on the summit for sunrise. I was still able to view, however, the shadow cast by the Pikes Peak Massif to the west, which was equally unique, my first chance to see such an occurrence. The sun rose when I was around 12,300 feet and just a little after 6:00 AM. I didn’t see any other people until well after Devil’s Playground, passing the 13,600 point to the east; there was a couple about 300 yards in front of me. Also by the point, there was a small group of yearling Bighorn Sheep. After passing the sheep, I decided to hike on the road as the only traffic had been a fuels truck and it seemed the road was not yet open for motorists. Also, after hiking for a while, I decided the road would be a faster way to summit, rather than climbing the summit block from the west. I passed the couple on the road around 13,500 feet and continued on, reaching the summit just before 8:00 AM when the road was opened to a rush of traffic. I stayed on the summit until 8:30 AM when a retired couple from Missouri who had taken me a picture offered me a ride. I rode down to Devil’s Playground with the couple, where they kindly dropped me off, saving me time on the descent.
The trail was fairly crowded going down past timberline, including a group of high school football players that did not look too happy. I returned to the car around 10:30 AM and left to drive back to USAFA and Basic Training. Driving back gave me a chance to reflect on the errors of the morning. While experienced at night navigation off of a trail, night hiking is relatively new to me, but I still did what I think was right, though I made mistakes. Due to terrain similarities, I assumed I was at the trailhead and started hiking. Also, in the Rampart and Pikes Peak ranges, the ground is very gravely, so lightly traveled trails can look major. All of these and the absence of light led me to incorrectly believe that I was in the right spot. Yet, the trails did not seem right. I tried not to be rash and to think everything out and be thorough. I tried each of the trails out of meadow before deciding they were both out of place. But, I still should have been more thorough from the start. I guess the moral is, know the trail information very well and trust the information, not terrain traps that could lead you to believe otherwise, like I did.