As fellow SP member Aaron Johnson has remarked, it’s hard to fathom a trip report of Pikes Peak but here goes…
Having summited Longs Peak the previous year, my hiking partner Jeremy and I wanted to do more 14ers and our goal for this trip was to do the remaining five in the Front Range. Being that we had a week vacation we planned accordingly. We would start south in Colorado Springs with Pikes Peak and work our way north through Bierstadt, Evans, Torreys and Grays. So, we arrived in Colorado Springs and settled into our campsite. I had watched the weather forecasts the week prior and it didn’t look promising. Early in the night the rain started and so I catnapped all night to the rhythm of rain hitting our tent. My alarm clock went off at 3:45. The rain had yet to stop. I set my clock for 4 and waited out the next 15 minutes. I listened to the rain slow to the point where it was a slow drizzle when my alarm went off again. I awoke Jeremy who takes a while to come to in the morning. He saw me peeking my head out of the tent and said, “I don’t want to hike in the rain.” I told him that we were a ways from the trailhead, so we didn’t really know what the weather was going to be like there…it could be better, it could be worse. We decided to drive to the Crags trailhead and see for ourselves.
We had now been in Colorado little more than 12 hours, thus our acclimatization had merely just begun. Looking back, I would not recommend that flatlanders like myself jump right into a 14er. We should have started with a hike that had less elevation gain to ease ourselves into a 14er. I knew that Pikes via the Crags was only rated a class 2 and so we thought it was going to be easy. What we failed to recognize was that although it was only a class 2, it still rose to over 14,000 ft. and gained over 4,000 ft. to do so. This for anyone who has not adjusted to altitude is not a light undertaking.
We arrived at the Crags at 6. I had been wearing my headlamp that morning in the tent and still had it on. I took it off, putting it in the car’s console thinking there was no way I’d need it today. We were on the trail soon after. Our moving at first was slow going. We took a lot of breaks and lengthy ones at that, snapping photos and enjoying the scenery. I knew that we were going to have a circus waiting for us at the summit but thus far the hike had been peaceful and there wasn’t the caravan of people on the trail as there had been on Longs. Those who we did see were always passing us. We continued on above treeline and came to the Devil’s Playground. A sign nearby said that this area was named such because during electrical storms lightning was known to bounce from rock to rock. This sounded foreboding. As we crossed the road to the other side, I posed as a hitchhiker for a picture, which would come back to haunt us. Soon we came to the Bottomless Pit. What a remarkable view! It also gave us an excuse for another lengthy break. The weather thus far had cooperated. There were clouds in the sky but they didn’t look to be any cause for concern. The last section took us a good clip of time. We stopped at every few cairns for a breather. Jeremy applied some moleskin to an ailing blister. He should have also applied some sun block to his nose!
We reached the summit at 12:15, a lot later than I had hoped for. We were thinking that it would take us 4 hours to get up the mountain. But with our lack of speed and frequency and length of breaks this was a substantial underestimation. I did not like being on the summit at the noon hour, but we decided to join the hoopla for a short while then head down. Still goofing around, I had a cheesy picture taken of me at the summit sign, and Jeremy went in to the store to buy a teddy bear for his son. We were on top a half hour before heading down.
Shortly after starting down, we realized that the sky was starting to grow really dark in the distance. We kept going. Around the time we got to the Bottomless Pit, conditions were worsening as lighting was starting to splinter the darkened sky. We also realized that our route had us heading directly into the storm. We picked up the pace and made it to the edge of the Devil’s Playground. Remembering the sign from earlier about lighting jumping from rock to rock, there was now a major cause for concern. Knowing that we didn’t want to go in this direction, we started to veer off course going with the road, trying to skirt the storm. We arrived at a switchback in the road, and realized a imminent decision had to be made. We peered over the edge of the road and located a little building way down the road. It looked to be below treeline and so that’s where we decided we needed to be. Neither of us knew what would happen once we left our intended course down, nor how we would get back to it, but we didn’t feel sticking around to wait like sitting ducks for the storm was an option. The terrain was steep and loose, so we pretty much slid down the mountain from switchback to switchback. A few times we walked along the road for a while. Urgency and adrenaline sped up these walks and we soon found ourselves running, and then sliding down more switchbacks. People in cars passing by looked at us through their windows as if we were nuts! I thought we were never going to get to the building, but after cutting one more switchback and getting below treeline we finally arrived. Relief.
It was now about 2 and we were at the Glen Cove, a little stopping off place for people driving up the road. The place had a little gift shop, restaurant, and bathrooms. We sat on a bench for a minute or two collecting our thoughts about what had just happened, and began to wonder what now was going to happen. There was a ranger at the gate nearby, so I explained to him our situation. After telling us that we had done the right thing by getting ourselves down off high on the mountain, he basically told us we could hitch a ride back up to the Devil’s Playground when the weather quit and finish our hike back to the Crags trailhead, or we could hitch a ride down the 16 mile road into Manitou Springs.
I liked the first option best, so we took seat in the little restaurant. We ate a hamburger that tasted more like a charred piece of crap as we waited. I kept checking on the weather outside, and I started to realize that the storm wasn’t letting up nor did it look like it was going to anytime soon. It also dawned on me that I didn’t have my headlamp on me. Not knowing how long it was going to be before we would be able to head back up the mountain and how long it would take to get back down, I didn’t know if we’d be able to do it in daylight. We started to work on plan B’s. We briefly entertained the idea of calling Enterprise to come pick us up with a second rental car so we could go get our first! However, plan B, we decided would be to walk the 16 mile road. I didn’t like this option at all, as it took us further away from our car.
After we bought a couple overpriced waters, this, however is what we resolved to do and so we set on out down the road at about 4. We talked about hitching because even if we walked at a good pace of 4 miles an hour, the road would take us 4 hours and that would put us merely in Manitou Springs, which would still leave us a good distance from our campsite. Before we had any more time to even think about hitching, a guy and two girls driving a black S-10 sized pick-up truck stopped and asked us if we needed a lift. We said sure, jumped in the bed of the truck and off we went. As we sat there, I thought it was ironic that on the way up I had played like I was hitching a ride and now here I was a few hours later doing that very thing. Awhile down the road, the girl in the middle up front opened up the cab window and asked us where we were heading. Not really knowing, I asked her where they were heading. She said Denver, which meant they would be taking Hwy 24 over to I-25, thereby going by our campsite. I said if it wouldn’t be too much trouble it’d be great if they could take us there.
We hopped out of the bed at our campsite at 5:30 and thanked the three of them profusely. They seriously bailed us out. Jeremy and I started towards our tent, but realized there wasn’t any use going there as everything we had was in our car. We just stood there pacing, not knowing that our second dose of generous help was on its way. A guy came out of a little building and asked us if we were lost. I explained our situation. He said he ran a tour company and offered to let us borrow one of his vans to go pick up our car. Not really having any other options, we hopped in his 14-seat tour van about an hour later and drove off to the Crags. Two hours later we arrived back at our campgrounds again and this time we had our car! This second act of Colorado kindness, like the first one, saved our ass!
Indeed, Pikes Peak for us was not trailhead to trailhead as mountains go, but campground to campground! Although we had never intended to do so, we actually took a tour of Pikes by going up one side and coming down the other. It was an experience and a day that I won’t soon forget.
1- Always take your headlamp with you no matter when you set out of the trail. You never know when you’ll get back if you run into any trouble.
2- Know of possible escape routes so if you run into trouble you know where to go. Not every mountain is going to have a road and shelter as Pikes did. I didn't think so at the time, but with our lack of experience we were lucky to have been on Pikes. Thank God it wasn't on Longs where there aren't really any escape routes. I will now make it a habit to look back often as I’m ascending so that I know what the terrain will look like on the way back.
3- Don’t dilly-dally…keep moving. Each minute is precious when heading into the high country. If we hadn’t messed around so much we might not have found ourselves in this predicament.