Scouting Out the Crags
I fell in love with Pikes Pike the first time I saw it three years ago as I drove into Colorado Springs. Here was “America’s Mountain” towering over The Springs and I could not wait to climb it.
Later that spring, after moving my family to Colorado, I reached the summit by the Crags route. Trinket-seeking tourists who had driven their cars or ridden the Cog railway to the top looked at me with curiosity and wonder. A hypoxic old woman with blue lips reminded me that there was a road. A year later I reached the summit by way of the fabled Barr Trail with my long-time climbing partner, Alan. We took the leisurely approach as we stretched the ascent out over three days with two nights at the ever-popular Barr Camp. Upon reaching the summit we passed a Cog train full of tourists who waved and took our pictures as we came over the rise below the tracks. A tradition of spring ascents was starting to take shape for me.
Alan and I and our good friend, Robert, who joined us for a summit of Mt. Rainier three years ago, are in the planning stages of climbing Pico de Orizaba at the beginning of 2008. We have a busy summer of Colorado 14er climbing ahead of us for our Orizaba training, so we decided to start our season with an assault on Pikes Peak.
The original plan was a pre-dawn start from the Barr trailhead with the goal of summiting that morning and descending back to the Barr Camp where we would collapse for the night. It would be a 19 mile day with the final 7 miles back down the next morning. While I always look forward to my climbs with Alan and Robert, I can honestly say that I was not looking forward to a marathon first day of 19 miles, but time constraints made this our only option if we were to attack Pikes via the Barr Trail. We agreed to set the day for the last weekend of April.
Three weeks prior to the trip I did a day hike up to the Barr Camp. After a cup of tea with the caretakers, Neal and Teresa, I headed back down to Colorado Springs. While taking a break sunning myself on a rock with the summit above, an intriguing idea came to me. What about doing a traverse of America’s Mountain? We could start at the Crags trailhead on the west side of the peak, go to the summit and then descend the east face down to the Barr Camp. It would still be a long day of 11+ miles, but would pale in comparison to the 19 miles that was staring us in the face. The following day we could descend the final 7 miles to the Barr Trailhead to complete the traverse. While I sat there and contemplated the summit above, the idea of a traverse started to take on a life of its own. As soon as I got home I shot off an email to Alan and Robert with the idea. They both overwhelming gave their approval and thought it was a great idea.
I started to study the Crags route. It had been a few years since I had been over the trail and it was later in the spring with significantly less snow than this year after the brutal Colorado winter we had. I knew that route finding would be the crux of the climb, so I decided to scope out the beginning of the route prior to Alan and Robert arriving. The previous Friday I followed the Crags route up to treeline and punched in a ton of waypoints to my GPS. It was a challenge to stay the course, but I managed to get to treeline without too much difficulty. After 11,000 ft. there essentially was no trail due to the snow, but I was able to follow a series of pink ribbons that some kind soul, perhaps from the Colorado Mountain Club, had placed along the route. I went home feeling confident that I would be able to guide my pals over the beginning of the Crags route. Once above 12,000 ft. the climb to the summit would open up in front of us.
Ascending the Crags
Alan at treeline on the Crags Route of Pikes Peak. Snowshoes were mandatory this day after a typical Colorado April blizzard just 4 days before our climb. April 28, 2007.
I watched the weather closely the next few days. After initially calling for a warm dry week, in typical Colorado fashion we were hit with a one day blizzard that dumped 1-2 feet of white stuff on the Pikes Peak area. I knew that the route would be even more difficult. I did not need my snowshoes on my scouting trip, but I was convinced that we would have to don them for the summit attempt after the blizzard.
Alan and Robert arrived at my house in The Springs the following Friday evening. It was “Mexican” night at the Vall household. We washed down an excellent fajita dinner prepared by my wife with some fine Colorado microbrews. After being entertained by my two youngest and very animated daughters, we hit the hay.
Shannon drove the 3 of us to the Crags on the other side of Pikes the following morning. Due to the heavy snow we could only make it safely a ½ mile above the Menonite Camp. We would have to hike the remaining mile of the road to the trailhead.
As we made our way up the road I started to go over in my mind some of the escape options that we would have along the route. If for some reason we were turned around early we could head back to Rt. 67 until we were in cell phone range and beg Shannon to come rescue us. If we made it to Devils Playground, but could go no higher we could hike down to Glenn Cove and beg a ranger to take us down to Cascade. Finally, if we made the summit too late in the day to descend to the Barr Camp safely, we could bivouac in an alcove adjacent to the summit house. None of these options seemed likely, but it was comforting going over them in my mind.
We were blessed with an incredibly beautiful day. There was hardly a cloud in the sky and the temps were warm. Despite the recent snow, I climbed in two thin wicking layers most of the day. Shortly after passing the famous “three pipes” of the Crags route we slapped on our snowshoes. Being a snowshoe novice, I struggled with my straps for the first mile until Alan straightened me out. I’m convinced that Robert, on the other hand, sleeps in his snowshoes during the winter months. The man could probably tap dance in them if he chose to do so.
Shortly after passing 11,000 feet we came across fellow SPer, Mots010. I had a brief discourse with him on the Colorado forum a few days before concerning the trailhead conditions. He was heading down for the day after getting off course just below treeline, but pledged to come back the following week. Shortly after saying goodbye we followed his snowshoe tracks to where I could tell they veered far off course. It was a good example of how challenging the start of this route can be and I was thankful for my foray of the previous week and even more so for my Garmin GPS.
It was above treeline at 12,000 ft. that I felt myself struggling. Alan noticed it as well. He felt that I was rushing myself and trying to keep up with Robert, only to fall farther behind. I would push myself with a quick series of steps, only to stop and catch my breath. I needed to find my rhythm. It was my first time in snowshoes outside of my local park and I was struggling to adjust to them. Alan told me to slow down, take shorter steps and find my pace. After taking his advice, I started to move smoothly and feel better and I was able to keep them within shouting distance. It was the perfect example of how it is a pleasure to hike and climb with people you know and trust. I have been climbing with Alan since 2002 and I continue to benefit from his mountaineering experience.
The Devils Playground
Robert and Alan just above treeline on the Crags Route of Pikes Peak. April 28, 2007.
We made our way up to the saddle at 12,700 ft. just west of the Devils Playground, so named for the way lightening bolts jump between its rocks during summer storms. It was here that the summit of Pikes first came into view a long 3 miles to the east. The Pikes Peak Highway was closed above Glen Cove, which was a few miles below, so we had the road to ourselves. Normally hiking on the highway is forbidden, but it was obvious that we were by our lonesome selves, so we took our chances and followed the road. It was far from the most aesthetic route, but we knew that we could make the best time on it. From this point the highway was a series of long sloping switchbacks that never seemed to end. The afternoon was starting to get away from us and I started to get concerned that we would not make it to the Barr Camp in time for dinner. It’s amazing how your stomach can govern so much of your thinking.
Rock Stars on Train Tracks
Alan following the tracks of the Cog Railway just below the summit of Pikes Peak. April 28, 2007.
An hour and a half later we reached the base of the summit block where the road intersects with the Cog railway. Sure enough, just as the year before when Alan and I reached the summit, a Cog train was leaving the top. It would be the last train of the day and it was packed with your typical tourists loaded down with fudge, shot glasses and t-shirts from the summit house store. Many of them waved and took digital pictures of us while seemingly looking upon us with awe and wonder. I know it sounds arrogant as hell, but I felt like a rock star. People wanted to take my picture to show a disbelieving Aunt Milly back in Iowa and I felt like I was on stage for her. I needed to realize that for many of the passengers this would be their only chance in life to reach an alpine environment and take in its beautiful views; otherwise they would be relegated to pictures in Aunt Milly's coffee table book. Rather than looking down on them, I was the one who needed to be humbled by the opportunity that has been given to me to do what I love to do.
At that point we decided to forsake the highway and follow the Cog tracks to the top. Normally, this also would be forbidden by the powers of Pikes, but we knew that the last train was most likely gone and it certainly was the shortest path to the summit. Again, I led from the rear and followed the steps that Robert and Alan had kicked in the snow.
We reached the summit just before 4 p.m., far later than we originally planned. The football field size summit of Pikes was deserted, save for the remaining employees of the restaurant and gift shop who were shutting down for the day. They offered to call a ranger to take us down to the town of Cascade, but Alan, Robert and I all wanted to finish what we set out to do. We wanted to complete the traverse. The manager of the summit house took pity on us by filling our Nalgenes and giving us free hot chocolate. It more than hit the spot. We made our obligatory cell calls to loved ones to let them know that all was well and that we would soon start our descent. We knew that we still had plenty of sunlight left, but doubted that we would make it for 6 p.m. dinner at the Barr Camp. I figured we would be relegated to freeze dried dinners of pasta primavera.
The Summit and Our Descent
Alan and Robert descending the gully on the east face of Pikes Peak. April 28, 2007 Alan and Robert on the summit of Pikes Peak after our ascent along the Crags route. We would finish the traverse of the mountain by descending the Barr Trail. April 28, 2007.
The beginning of the descent from Pikes east face is one of my favorite alpine climbs. When filled with snow there is a gully right down the center of the face. Rather than sticking to the Barr Trail that endlessly switchbacks across the east face, you have the option of plunge stepping down the gully, which is drastically faster and literally cuts miles off your descent. Once again, I led from the rear and realized that I could move faster if I made my own steps rather than following Alan or Roberts. We were able to do this without our snowshoes, but I did posthole one time and did a spectacular face plant in the snow. Fortunately, my pals did not see it.
After reaching treeline we followed tracks down to the A-Frame. This is a shelter just above 11,000 ft. that many stay in overnight prior to morning summit attempts. After I post-holed above my waist we quickly threw our snowshoes back on. We could see a sign for the Barr Trail on the ridge above us, as well as tracks below us into the woods. We figured the tracks would intersect with the Barr and chose to follow them and avoid climbing the small ridge up to the trail. This was our only significant mistake of the climb. Rather than intersecting with the Barr, the tracks wandered off into the woods and ended. We were left to explore in the general direction of where we thought the trail would be, only to find ourselves snowshoeing up and sliding down numerous treacherous small slopes. After more than ½ an hour of this we finally found the trail and started to make good time towards camp. It was already after 6 p.m. and I figured we had missed dinner. I could taste the pasta or chili that I was sure Neal and Teresa would be cooking and hated the thought of settling for freeze dried whatever out of a bag. We were pushing a 12 hour day and I wanted to eat and I wanted to eat good food!
Finally, just before we lost our light the Barr Camp came into view. We had made it. All that remained to complete the traverse was the final 7 miles down that we would finish the next morning.
A Night at the Barr Camp and the Final Descent
Robert, me and Alan at the Barr Camp the morning after our traverse from the Crags route on the other side of Pikes Peak. April 28, 2007.
We walked into the main cabin where Neal greeted us. Teresa was visiting relatives out of town, so he was on his own caring for his guests. My heart sank as I noticed that he was busy cleaning up the kitchen from the mess of dinner, but then he made my day. He asked if we would be needing dinner and that he could have pasta and spaghetti ready in short order! I lied when I said, “Oh, we don’t want to bother you, … but that would be great if you did!” We dropped our packs in the bunkhouse and then dropped ourselves on the couch in the cabin where we started to hork down dishes of Neal’s best. Once we were bloated I retrieved 3 bottles of mini Baileys from my pack. Alan and Robert and I toasted our climb and the reality of what we had done started to set in. This was one hell of a climb and I was more than glad that it was over, but that ever present post-summit satisfaction that always leaves you hungering for more started to take a hold of me.
The Baileys quickly sent me to my sleeping bag. The bunkhouse was mostly inhabited with a group of jovial 20-something types who had hiked up for the night. They tried to deal me into their hand of Uno illuminated by the bunkhouse Christmas lights and their headlamps, but I was spent. I went over my pictures from the day then listened to some tunes on my MP3 and quickly fell asleep. Other than the usual tossing and turning, I slept better than I usually do.
Breakfast was at 7 sharp and consisted of buttermilk pancakes that we washed down with Neal’s coffee. I was amazed to find a copy of the Colorado Springs Gazette Sunday morning paper in the kitchen that a hiker had brought up for Neal. I grabbed the sports page and fell in love with the Barr Camp and Pike Peak all the more. The NFL draft was the previous day and I had enough of being “removed from it all.” I wanted to know how my long suffering Cleveland Browns had done the previous day.
It was a warm and beautiful Colorado Sunday morning. We donned our packs and started our leisurely climb down the end of the Barr Trail. Somewhere along the line we decided to descend the infamous Incline at the end of the Barr. This would shorten our descent by 3 miles, but would require losing 1,900 ft. over 0.9 miles. This Colorado Springs icon was packed with weekend warriors, most of who were making their way up the Incline. I have always found it so ironic that this old abandoned incline train track is well marked with no trespassing signs, only to have it smothered with everything from blue jean clad Texans making the climb of their lives to Olympic athletes training for much higher goals. As we picked our way down the countless steps I had the good fortune of snagging a tiny Yorkshire terrier who had escaped from its owner and was hell-bent on beating everyone to the top. I had done my good deed for the day, which I rationalized made my trespassing justified.
By the time we reached the bottom of the Incline the 3 of us had what Alan called, “Elvis knees.” We were spent, but more than satisfied as Shannon picked us up on the other side of the mountain from where she had deposited us the morning before. The tourists who were taking our pictures the previous afternoon were already making their way back to Iowa to tell Aunt Milly or Tilly or whatever her name is about the crazy mountaineers they saw on top of Pikes Peak. We were rock stars … very old rock stars.
Though I would like to claim my idea of a Pikes Peak Grand Traverse as an original idea, I’m sure some other brighter mind down through the storied history of America’s Mountain has traversed this great peak. I know that we most likely followed in their footsteps. Still, I ask myself how many more times and how many more routes will I follow to the top of this grand peak over the course of my life and my love for this mountain sweeps over me once again.