Pikes Peak, Colorado (14,115 ft.) With Greg,
Class 2 with snow,
14.4 miles round-trip,
Abt. 4,550 ft. elevation gain
Greg's Trip Report @ 14ers.com
Pikes Peak needs no introduction. In fact, it is its popularity as a tourist attraction that prompted me to want to climb the mountain in winter, when it is not nearly as crowded. Having moved back to the northeast about six months ago, I was surprised to hear Colorado was having an ugly winter compared to the past several years. Even as I started my trip to the Centennial State, the temperature on Pikes Peak was a chilling -22F with wind gusts of 35 miles per hour. It would be a rare break in the weather that would allow me to climb the mountain as planned, along with Greg, who saw my post on 14ers.com and agreed to drive to the trailhead.
The Crags Campground road was plowed and drive-able just a little bit beyond the Mennonite Camp. At 5:45 we parked and started to hike the rest of the way up the snow-covered road to Crags Camp. The air was chilly but not bad at all for February. It took us 40 minutes to hike to the trailhead, and we were relieved to find a packed trail in the snow continuing in the direction we wanted to go.
We silently praised those skiers and snowshoe-ers who preceded us, because aside from the packed trail the snow was several feet deep and all powder. We decided to stay with the trail, even as it veered off-course from the route to Pikes Peak. We did not feel like any unnecessary wallowing in the snow, and decided instead to find the easiest route to timberline and go from there.
After a while, the trail disappeared and we had to don our snowshoes for some post-holing uphill
to timberline. However, it did not take us too long until we were standing on mostly dry ground. With the trees and the bulk of the snow below us, we continued straight up the steep slope of grass and rock. We could not yet see beyond the slopes above us, but we had plenty of scenery with the Collegiate Peaks to our west and the impressive sandstone crags in our immediate vicinity. We were both feeling at the top of our game and making great time to this point, but we still had a long trip ahead of us.
When we finally arrived at an impressive wall of crags at what we thought was the top of the hill, we realized we were merely topping out on a rib of a much larger ridge to our east. We knew we were well off-course at this point, but most of the snow from here on would be solid and easy to walk on, making our detour completely worthwhile.
Eventually we worked our way northeast up to a large plateau, which was the end of the long ridge we knew would eventually lead us toward Pikes Peak. Still, we had a lot of uphill to gain the main ridge. As we started up from the plateau, we were hit with some nasty gusts of wind that chilled us immediately. It had been mostly cloudy and calm so far, but we had come prepared for the forecasted 20-30 mile per hour winds. We found shelter behind some large boulders and put on some more layers in anticipation of a windy journey the rest of the way. But surprisingly, the wind and cold would be short-lived.
I caught my first glimpse of the summit, still astonishingly far away, as we continued to ascend this out-of-the-way ridge. Because of an ugly cornice and dropoff on the east side, we had to veer right and skirt the ridge-top to the west. Finally topping out on another boulder-strewn plateau, we could see our intended route ahead of us. It was now easy to see the trail we wanted, ascending to the saddle to our south. We stopped here for some grub, happy to know we were finally getting a little bit closer to our destination. Unfortunately for Greg, the PB&J sandwich he ate there decided to hold a grudge against him for the next couple of hours. For me, the altitude would begin to take its toll, but I still felt a lot better than I expected I would.
Route from Devil's Playground
Now on the trail, the route was straightforward, up the natural bench and through a neat notch among the rocky crags. The wind had completely abated and the sun was out in full force. This is February???
Eventually the trail rounded the corner and took us across a field of hardened snow to arrive at the Pikes Peak Road at 13,000 feet. I was kind of disappointed to see the road open to traffic, but we had only seen a few cars so far. A Tuesday in February, even one as nice as this, is certainly not peak season for tourists.
After crossing the road we continued to follow the trail wherever we could see it between snow drifts. After passing Devil’s Playground we came across a herd of mountain goats, but they were too far away to get a good picture. Pikes Peak stayed in view, but it remained well out of our reach.
At one point we had to cross a slope of hardened snow that had just enough of an angle to it to make us wish we had brought crampons. However we made it across safely and proceeded to finish off the easy hiking up to the base of the final slope.
We followed the steep switchbacks up the final 500 feet of rock and snow, slowing considerably as the altitude began to set in. At last the summit house came into view, and a few more steps brought us to the summit plateau. We had both been here before, but we were ecstatic to have made it today with all the variables that could have kept us short of the summit.
It had taken us seven hours to summit, but we were in no rush as the weather was simply incredible. We talked to a ranger for a short time, and he told us the temperature was a spring-like 36 degrees, with a breeze no worse than two to three miles per hour and sunny skies! I tracked down the USGS marker and we took a number of pictures.
For a short time there was no one else on the summit, and at most there were maybe two cars while we were there. I also walked over to the observation deck with large plaques commemorating Katharine Lee Bates and America the Beautiful, all the while admiring the view that inspired the song.
After 45 minutes on the summit, we decided to start down. The descent was arduous and painful for me, as my right knee started bothering me like it has been lately. Additionally, a monster headache from the altitude had crept up on me while we were at the summit, and it would not let up until we were nearing the trailhead.
We made good time on the trip down, but the snow near timberline had softened and caused us some brutal post-holing for a short section. Fortunately the rest of the trail remained solid all the way to Crags Campground, but the road below this seemed to stretch on forever. Eleven and a half hours from when we’d left it, Greg’s truck finally came into view, but we saw we were not alone. A guy had gotten his rental mini van stuck in the snow trying to outdo even the snowplows in his attempt at the road. Fortunately with a little ingenuity Greg was able to pull the van loose and we were all able to get out of there as darkness set in.
For all that can go wrong with such a short window of opportunity this time of year, pretty much everything went right for us. Even the weather decided to give us a break for a day. I greatly enjoyed my trip to Pikes Peak, and even though I now live two time zones away, I’m already looking forward to my next trip to Colorado.
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