Uphill all the way

hen Theodore Roosevelt saw Pikes Peak while cam- paigning in Colorado Springs, Colorado a hundred years ago he said that the scenery “bankrupts the English language.” It still does, which is fine if you’re climbing the mountain on foot, since you won’t have enough breath to talk, anyway. In an effort to make ourselves look like our driver license photos, JD Futch and I recently climbed Pikes Peak by way of Barr Trail, which runs 13 miles from Manitou Springs to the summit, with an elevation gain of 7500 feet, and includes a total of 20 feet of downhill grade. The rest is uphill, most of it pretty steep. The scenery, as Teddy observed, is indescribably beautiful, although we didn’t see much of it. We spent most of our time inspecting the dirt between our boots. I choose my hiking partners very carefully, especially for overnight trips in unfamiliar country at high altitude. When I decided to climb Pikes Peak I considered all the options, the terrain and length of the trail, the difficulty involved, and the amount of gear that would have to be carried. After careful thought I decided to ask JD to go with me, partly because he owns his own backpack, and partly because he was the only one who didn’t run away when I mentioned the trip. Besides, I thought I might be able to outrun him if we were attacked by a bear. I also invited Gordo Gipson, but he had other plans for the weekend, such as breathing. He did, however, give me a little knife, the kind that hangs around your neck on a lanyard. He told me it would be handy in case I was attacked by a bear. The blade is only about an inch long, but he said it would work fine if used properly. He said that if we saw a bear I should stab JD in the foot with the knife and run. JD and I were in high spirits when my wife dropped us off at the trailhead. We were looking forward to a refreshing walk in the woods, followed by a breezy campout at timberline and a vigorous hike to the summit the next day, where our wives and children would meet us. We each carried about 60 pounds in our packs, which turned out to be about 55 pounds too much. Barr Trail was built over about three summers by the man whose name it bears, Fred Barr Trail. The sign at the trailhead says that it takes eight hours to reach the summit at “a brisk pace.” I am convinced that what is meant by “a brisk pace” is “a dead run.” JD and I could not have maintained “a brisk pace” for more than fifteen yards, after which we would have required hospitalization. I highly recommend taking the train. The main problem is the altitude. The elevation of Manitou Springs is about 6600 feet, which is about 4000 feet higher than JD and I are used to, so we were short of breath when we started. From there the trail leads ever higher into ever thinner air. Altitude sickness causes headaches, nausea, insomnia, and probably athlete’s foot. And we got the whole dose. With frequent rests, during which we admired the views and tried to convince ourselves that we were having fun, we walked the first seven miles, reaching Barr Camp in about nine hours. The camp consists of one big cabin and a few smaller ones, and is staffed by volunteers. There were about 25 hikers there, planning to spend the night, and the staff was cooking supper. We paid seven dollars each for all the spaghetti we could eat, and then started on up the trail in a hail storm. “All you can eat” turned out to be about three and a half dollars too much for JD, as he spent the next few hours getting rid of the excess. At full dark we were still about half a mile short of timberline, where we planned to spend the night in an A frame cabin, three miles up the trail from Barr Camp. We were delirious and nauseated, suffering from hypoxia, and we both wanted to stop, but somehow we kept going until we got to the cabin. The A frame is used on a first come, first served basis, so we had planned to sleep in a tent, but, surprisingly, the cabin was empty. It sits at 11,500 feet in a small meadow shaped like a giant thumbprint in the side of the mountain, and the front of the cabin is open to a spectacular view of Colorado Springs. A spring feeds a small brook which tumbles merrily along beside the cabin in a series of small waterfalls, making its way between the granite boulders which dot the meadow. We decided the reward was worth the effort it took to get there. The only thing missing was oxygen. The next morning we started up the last three miles to the summit, breathing hard and stopping now about every 100 yards to rest. We left the trees behind, following the trail over and among huge boulders, every step a painful, torturous experience. Before long we were stopping every fifty yards, wondering if we would be able to reach the top at all. The only thing that kept us going was our embarrassment, as children and old ladies frequently passed us, wearing shorts and jogging up the trail, sometimes helpfully commenting that our packs looked a little overstuffed. We had already figured that out. When we finally got to the top we were way past exhausted, barely able to stagger into the Summit House. We each bought shirts that say “Got Oxygen'” which seemed funny when I had ridden the train up the year before, but was now a very serious question. The answer was no. If you plan to climb Pikes Peak, remember that the summit is 14,110 feet above sea level, and that airplane pilots use oxygen masks whenever they fly above 10,000 feet. There is a reason for that but, due to recent brain damage, I can’t seem to remember what it is . . . Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist who didn’t listen to ANY of the advice he got from John O’Brien, who has climbed Pikes Peak several times. Write to him at PO Box 564, Mason, Tx.

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