Pikes, as seen from near our home
August 1, 2009
Pikes Peak (14,110’)
NW Slopes starting from Glen Cove
Who's pumped for Pikes?!
Preparation for this climb started months ago with a casual Sunday evening phone call. I asked Dad if there was anything in particular he wanted to do for his upcoming 60th birthday and, to my surprise and delight, his response was “I think I’d like to hike up Pikes Peak!” What a great idea, to mark a milestone birthday by testing your mustard on America’s mountain!
Dad has been coming out to Colorado from Virginia for ski trips each January for years now without ever really struggling with the altitude. So, I was sure he would be able to acclimate fairly easily. But hiking to 14,000-ft would be taking it up a notch compared to gliding down the ski slopes from 12,000-ft, so the training began. A good mix of cardio and weight training, including plenty of time on the stairmaster was the recipe. I suggested combining an hour on the stairmaster with breathing through a plastic straw to simulate high altitude (kidding), but we both agreed that was a situation the fitness trainers at the YMCA in Virginia wouldn’t like to deal with. Karen and I jokingly refer to our garage as R.E.Ohl as we’ve accumulated enough gear over the years to outfit a small army of climbers spending a week or two in the backcountry. So, Dad would only need to pick up a few things on his own such as a pair of comfortable hiking boots, socks, and some non-cotton clothing to supplement what he already had for hunting and skiing.
Our planned route to the top
As for our route to the summit, Pikes offers several good choices for day trips ranging mostly from long to painfully long. As a part of my Pikes Project I had become interested in finding a suitable route out of Glen Cove, eventually joining up with the NW Slopes route to finish. Glen Cove, and the bowl and couloirs above it create an ideal playground in the winter and spring for backcountry skiers and climbers. Glen Cove is also a popular destination for tourists visiting on the Pikes Peak Highway. It offers a rugged view of Pikes northern features for those with heavy feet to admire while waiting for their brakes to cool down to driveable levels again. The downside of planning a route that starts at Glen Cove is working around the operating hours of the Pikes Peak Highway. FYI, uphill traffic is allowed through the gates between 7:30am and 6:00pm during the summer. On an ideal weather day I wouldn’t be too concerned, but the default summer forecast of 30% chance of thunderstorms after noon in the Rockies makes for a hasty climb starting that late. To overcome this problem, we had three options: A) run all the way to the summit B) start our hike from further up at the Devil’s Playground trailhead or C) camp Friday night at Glen Cove to get an earlier start. Considering Option A held a 99% chance that both Dad and I would end up riding back down the Pikes Peak Highway in an ambulance, I took the liberty of eliminating it without discussion. Option B seemed the most reasonable choice, but seeing as how the trailhead is basically at 13,000’ I wanted Dad to be sure he felt like he really earned the summit. So unless we just had a particularly bad forecast for the birthday weekend, Option B became Plan B. I think Dad assumed I was joking when I suggested over the phone that we’d need to camp overnight at 11,500’, but it would add to the adventure and he seemed to take it in stride. Camping at Glen Cove would allow us to start as early as we wanted, so we could set a comfortable pace and take more breaks along the way. In addition, it gave Dad a better chance of acclimating to the higher altitude by spending 8 hours or so above 11,000’ before starting the hike. Now that the plan was set, we just needed the weather to cooperate.
In an effort to be a responsible guide, Karen and I made a trip up Pikes in July to scout out the route I would be leading for Dad. Baring unforeseen weather challenges, the scouting trip assured me that we had chosen a good route for the trip.
Mom and Dad arrived in Colorado Springs on Wednesday afternoon and preparations continued. Proper hydration would be key, so I made sure that Dad was drinking plenty of water. Thursday morning brought another light rain storm, but it subsided enough that we were able to go for a training hike on Thursday morning in a soggy Ute Valley Park. Within the first quarter mile we had both added about 2 or 3 pounds of sticky mud to the bottom of each shoe – see, cardio at altitude, plus weight training too!
The Presidential Suite, below some lingering snow on Little Italy
We're up there in the clouds, thankfully with the tent already set up
Camping at Glen Cove was a bit of a question mark for me, regarding whether exactly it was legal. Pikes Peak is on National Forest land, but the sometimes aggressive rangers that patrol the road raised some concerns. Websites for the Pikes Peak Highway mention that camping “along the road” is not allowed, but what exactly constitutes “along the road” is not explained in detail. I had seen a group of people setting up camp there in the spring, preparing for a trip to Mt. Rainier. And after a phone call to the local ranger office I felt comfortable that as long as we were at least 150-ft from the road and somewhat out of sight, we wouldn’t be hassled.
We packed up the car with our overnight gear and headed for the Pikes Peak Highway, reaching the gate closure at 5:30pm and driving the 12 miles up to Glen Cove. Karen and Mom dropped us off at the sharp left switchback just above the parking lot and wished us well. They would be heading back down to town for a pedicure and warm, dry beds. Saturday morning they would drive back up the highway to meet us when we reached the top. Not wanting to have any confrontation with a chance ranger passing by, we scurried off to a ditch beside the road that headed up toward the north facing couloirs above. About 200 yards up the ditch, just past the large avalanche chute to the west, we found some nice flat areas in the trees that had obviously been used for camping before. Pleased to have found a spot close to our starting point the next day, we quickly set up camp before the next evening rain storm moved overhead.
The welcoming committee
We walked around the area surrounding our camp to take some pictures as clouds were moving in against the evening light and enjoyed some Neopolitan flavored styrofoam ice cream for dessert. The welcoming committee, 3 mule deer, stopped by as we snacked and after a cordial introduction, went on to show us the best places in the neighborhood for eating out. We happened to be in a prime spot just in front of some trees and stayed perfectly still while we watched them pass by grazing for about 20 minutes before they moved on. The experience certainly made me feel much more removed from civilization than we actually were. Darkness came and we hit the sacks just after 8pm. Neither of us slept very well, partly because of the anticipation of the next day’s fun, but mostly because Dad had been successful in getting himself extremely well hydrated. Storms moved in off-and-on early during the night dropping a good bit of hail and rain for a while. Isn’t camping just like you remembered, Dad?
Summit day started for us at 5am with clear skies overhead and temperatures in the 30’s – unfortunately the heater in the Presidential suite was broken. Dad had had enough of the local facilities during the night and opted for a warm-up hike a quarter-mile back down the road to see if the gift shop’s facilities were open. Meanwhile, I stayed back at camp and prepared a backpacker’s breakfast of champions – dehydrated bacon and eggs in an aluminum bag. Who needs Denny’s? Unfortunately, the restrooms were closed and Dad came back to the trees to answer the call of the wild. Your camping experience is now complete.
Making progress above treeline
Warmed up and packed up, we headed for the start of our hike at 6:20am. Not wasting any time, the first 1000 feet to reach the top of the bowl surrounding Glen Cove did not offer a gentle introduction. The old avalanche chute we ascended was just plain steep so we switchbacked our way up the path of least resistance. The cliffs around us were glowing in the early morning sun while a layer of clouds below us at ~10,000-ft created a surreal effect.
An overcast day in Colorado Springs made for great views for us above the clouds
The bacon and eggs were serving Dad well as we were making steady progress up the slope with an occasional stop for a photo-op or trying to spot the Pika squeaking at us from amongst the talus. A few hundred feet below the top of the bowl I turned to take a picture of the Chimney and Little Italy couloirs and noticed a significant amount of something white beyond them. Snow in August is normal, right? Angling to the north as we crested the top of the bowl allowed us to follow more gradual tundra and avoid some annoying talus.
We turned back to the south and over the top of broad Pt. 12,543 before contouring around the western side of Pt. 12,792. Dad learned that pacing yourself is important after some fine crack climbing up the stacked pancakes on top of Pt. 12,792, but a quick power nap on top fit the bill.
Ahh, snow in August
After playtime we continued southeast to join the NW slopes route and about a dozen hikers who had come up from the Crags trailhead. The summit came into view and I was genuinely surprised by how much of the terrain above 13,000-ft was white. Just before Devil’s Playground Peak we stopped for a food break and I called Karen to let her know we were making good time and were ahead of schedule. I was happy to see that Dad was still feeling good and smiling despite the steep climb out of Glen Cove. The next two miles offered a chance to recover as the route became much more gradual before the final push to the summit. Cars were already on their way up the road, but little did we know the road was closed at mile 16, which was creating a bit of a panic for Karen and Mom on their way up to meet us. You can always count on the wind on the western flanks of Pikes and today was no exception. It’s normal to be wearing long underwear and gloves in August, right? We continued to make steady progress as the summit slowly grew closer.
Ready for the homestretch?
We debated about making the short jaunt up to the summit of Little Pikes for extra credit, but made a wise decision to take a nice break off the trail to refuel for the final 1000-ft to the main summit instead. Our break also gave Mom and Karen a chance to catch up to us on their way up the road and they spotted us about 700-ft below the top. With a couple of inches of snow covering the final stretch, the introduction was over.
Slippery, never-ending talus
The route through the talus to the top can typically be a bit tricky to follow. Eyeing the cairns is the key, but the anticipation of the summit seems to make the last 700 feet go on forever. Dad had been moving well but tiring muscles on the now slippery talus were creating some anxious moments for him. The summit that had seemed to be in the bag was asking for more. Dad continued to persevere and followed my lead across the tricky spots finding safe wedges for our feet and reassuring hand placements. We broke down the remainder of the route to focus on making it to the next cairn and Dad met the challenge each time. The slope finally relented and we could see Mom and Karen waiting for us just beyond the last switchback of the road, cheering us on to the finish. Dad took the lead on the home stretch and crossed a crepe paper finish line right at noon all smiles and to the tune of “Happy Birthday” from some fellow hikers. Time for the victory lap, Dad changed into his Miami University shirt and hat and we headed over to the true summit to make it official, topping out at 14,110-ft. Way to go Dad!! The summit house was a complete zoo, but we took our turn for a picture in front of the sign and then managed to find a spot to sit down inside and enjoy some fine alpine hamburgers. The temperature on the summit registered a balmy 35 degrees! Thankfully, the hard part was over and thanks to Mom and Karen, a four-wheeled descent was in order. A quick stop on the way down to collect our overnight gear and we headed back to civilization and a celebratory dinner. What a day!
The proof Well done Dad!
It’s hard to express how proud I am of my dad and what he was able to accomplish on his 60th birthday. I knew he could do it, but it was natural for him to feel a level of doubt and anxiety along the way. But, as prepared as I felt to lead him to the summit, his success came down to his own preparation, trusting his guide, and a determination to overcome the next obstacle toward reaching the top. What a great metaphor for life!
This trip will always be one that I will never forget. Not only because of what dad was able to accomplish, but because we got to do it together. Happy Birthday Dad, and thanks for a great memory!
Congratulations and Happy Birthday Dad!