Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pikes Peak

I know this blog is about Cade, but I wanted to post about this experience from last Friday. I grew up mostly in Colorado Springs, but I never got around to hiking up Pikes Peak. I hiked down it when I was a lot younger, but never climbed it. That's something that's always been in the back of my mind, so last Friday I got together with my brother-in-law, Paul, and we did it. (Cade will make an appearance later on, so bear with me.) I'm in Union City, TN, this week and my family is in Bloomington, IN, so I've got some extra time to write two blogs in one night.

Before I get too far, please allow me to throw out my three excuses for being a total wuss about this. Number one, since Cade was born two months ago I've not exercised any more than a few softball games. Number two, since Cade was born two months ago a night with five hours of sleep is cause for celebration (including the night before the hike). And number three, and probably most important, I was at sea level the day before (actually, I believe Google Earth puts our house at an elevation of 414 feet); the Pikes Peak summit stands 14,110 feet above sea level.

We got up fairly early and hit the trailhead of Barr trail at 6:40 AM. We had 13 miles and about 7-8,000 vertical feet between us and the summit. This first picture is a mile or two into it looking back at Manitou Springs (where the Barr trail trailhead is).

The first three miles are very steep switchbacks. It's a tough way to start the day, but after the switchbacks you come to a pretty nice stretch of trail. Here's a picture of our first glimpse of the peak.

Here's Paul. We're getting closer. Paul did this hike a couple weeks ago with a disabled gentleman from their church, so this is pretty much old hat for him (if hiking a fourteener can ever be old hat).

We're still getting closer. The scenery was incredible the entire day. About a mile or so before reaching Barr Camp I plugged into my iPod and motored in.

This is Barr Camp. It's seven miles into the hike, and is at an elevation of a little over 10,000 feet. There is a couple that lives here year round. You can stay in the cabin overnight or camp in the woods around the trail. They'll also cook for you. They were a pretty interesting couple to talk to. The wife told me to take however long it took to get to Barr Camp and add an hour and that would be how long it would take to reach the summit. It only took us three hours to cover the first seven miles. I knew the last six miles would be tough, but there was no way it would take four hours. (That last sentence was an example of the literary device known as foreshadowing.)

As we left Barr Camp, I was reminded that we "only" had six miles to go.

The trail out of Barr Camp was still pretty smooth sailing. I was still wondering how I'd fare with the altitude and when it would start to catch up with me. About two miles out of Barr Camp I could tell my strides were getting noticably shorter and I was getting short of breath easier. Here's the best picture of some of the wildlife. This chipmunk was just sitting there watching me go by. He must have been expecting something to eat because he held his ground.

This is where any semblance of fun ended. You reach timberline at three miles from the top. The trail is much more exposed and rocky and the air continues to get thinner.

Here's a self portrait with the summit in the background (over my left shoulder). My iPod was a saving grace that day. A combination of M.I.A., David Crowder Band, and Ben Folds encouraged me up the mountain. A weird combination, I know. But I think I may have gone mad without the small distraction that the music was to my brain. Also, I think that's a vulture over my left shoulder against the cloud. He must be watching me, recognizing me as someone that lives in a state that exists at a lower elevation, waiting for me to collapse.

Uh, oh. The clouds are rolling in. It's extremely important to keep an eye on the weather, especially when you're above timberline. The week before they'd run the Pikes Peak ascent and they had to turn back most of the 1,200 runners that competed that day because of snow and lightning above timberline. This included the ~70 they had to treat for hypothermia. (Let me pause for a minute to say that anyone who runs up this mountain is absolutely crazy.) The temperature drastically decreases with elevation. What was amazing for us was that out of the last few weeks this ended up being the best day to climb. The rest of the weekend the Peak was covered with clouds in the afternoon. We really got lucky. It was in the 50's and windy, but definitely managable for us; way better than snow and lightning.

This was where my I began to break down mentally. This sign marks two miles to the top. My mind was telling me that I'd been hiking for much more than a mile since the three mile mark. Suddenly realizing that I'd only gone a mile and still had two miles to go that would get increasingly difficult was hard to swallow at this point. I was definitely feeling the wear of the past eleven miles and the effects of the altitude.

Between the two and one mile points you make a long traverse across the south face of the peak. It's not a long traverse but my state of mind had me very, very discouraged. I felt like I was going to either puke or cry, and I wasn't sure which it was going to be. I really didn't realize how emotional I would feel in the last two miles. It's hard to describe the effects of altitude to someone who hasn't felt altitude themselves. Every muscle in your body screams for oxygen and your lungs scream for oxygen and you just can't get enough breaths in them to ever seem to satisfy it all. The fact that I came from sea level the day before played a huge role in this, but I know that everyone else on the peak that day was feeling it too to some degree. It really plays tricks on your brain and you start thinking irrationally. When I read mountaineering stories I wonder sometimes why people make the decisions they do, but really your mind is not as sharp when you're not acclimated. So at this point I was extremely discouraged and emotional and I received encouragement in two major ways. First, I got a text message from Cade (told you he'd make an appearance). Susie had been keeping up with our progress. Since cell coverage is fairly decent on the mountain I'd been sending Tweets out. My phone beeped and I saw the following picture with the message "You can do it Dad!" I almost choked up right there. I know it's cheesy, but at the time it was huge.

Like I mentioned earlier, the scenery is incredible. The second form of encouragement came from my iPod. I had sat down to take a break and saw something like the following picture. At that moment I heard David Crowder sing: "My eyes are small but they have seen the beauty of enormous things. Which leads me to believe there's light enough to see that, You make everything glorious." Talk about feeling small. I could identify with that, and I could definitely identify with both the beauty and enormity of my surroundings. It's hard not to praise God for his creation when you're smack in the middle of such a beautiful setting, no matter how crappy you feel. Something interesting to note in the picture: See the shadow from the smaller cloud in the distance in about the middle of the picture? If you look just past that shadow and to the right you can see where we first came up out of Manitou at the trailhead. One thing that makes this hike difficult is the distance you have to cover just to get to the base of the peak. You don't really see it when you're down in the Springs, but it's definitely in perspective when you're looking down from the peak.

I can't believe I had enough energy or enough positive thoughts to get this much of a smile out at this point.

This is my first view of the summit house. It's hard to see from this picture, but I had just finished the traverse across the south face of the peak (coming up from the right of the picture). You can see the corner of the house just sticking out to the left of the summit in the middle of the picture. That was encouraging.

Only one mile left! The last mile took me an hour to cover. I was stopping to rest and drink water or Gatorade probably every 50-100 feet. I would go until one of three things would cause me to stop and rest: my legs would burn too much to continue, my lungs couldn't get enough air, or I'd feel like I was about to throw up. At this point the idea of hiking 12 miles back down honesty didn't feel as tough as the last mile up.

This was a 1,500 foot cirque. It was a little inviting at that point (kidding......sort of).

The last stretch of the hike is the most grueling. It's called the Golden Staircase and you cover the last few hundred vertical feet in an almost vertical fashion over very steep switchbacks. I tried to count the 16 Golden Stairs but there was no way to concentrate enough to do it.

Thank goodness, it's my mom! She had driven to the top (more on driving to the top later) to pick us up. We used the excuse of needing to make it to the Rockies game that night to avoid hiking down but I honestly don't know if I'd have had the energy to do 13 miles back to the trailhead. My mom is in the middle waving at me. That was a major encouragement to do the last few stairs.

Here's the summit house staring me down. I made it! It was 2:30, just a little less than eight hours after I started. It took over four hours to cover the last six miles. That lady at Barr Camp was right. I guess that's why they let her live there.

The summit of Pikes Peak is unlike the summit of any other fourteener. I don't know of any other summit with a road AND a train to the top. And I'm pretty sure this is the only summit gift shop in the world. I guess I have to say the moutaintop experience was a little dampened by the gift shop. The following picture shows people bustling about walking past racks of personalized blinking keychains and pens that have nothing to do with Pikes Peak - just a chance to sell you something with your name on it. Just another tourist trap. The people getting out of their cars and off the train had no idea the energy just expended by the small number of hikers sitting in the gift shop cafeteria and outside on the benches. I was a little taken aback by the scene and the rudeness of the people hollering and pushing and shoving their way around while I was trying to recover. I felt terrible. I'd never experienced altitude sickness before that day, but when I entered the gift shop the smell of hot grease and people sent me straight to the bathroom to get rid of my last few bites of energy bar and gulps of Gatorade. The good thing about altitude sickness though is that it goes away when you decrease your elevation.

Here we are, after conquering the mountain! I guess this post has had a lot of negativity in it. It was definitely a difficult task; my entire body ached the next day. But I already threw out my three excuses for being a wuss, so cut me some slack! :) Overall it was a great experience. I wanted to test myself and see how I'd do, and I definitely found that at my current state of fitness I came close to my limit. I want to hike it again, and climb up and down, but I will definitely do some training first. There's really no way to train for altitude in Kentucky, but I can get my legs in shape a little better than I did before this ascent.

Thanks for reading this post. As you can probably tell, it was a pretty momentous occasion for me. Many thanks to Paul for sucking it up and going with me, thanks to my mom for picking us up, and thanks to those that sent me encouraging text messages along the way (especially Susie and Cade). I realize thousands of people complete this particular ascent every year, so it's really not that special in the grand scheme of things, but it's something that I'm proud of and look forward to doing again.

1 comment:

Andy & Shannon Raines said...

Wow, Matt, that's beautiful! What an incredible experience!