So, on the eve of my second Pike’s Peak ascent, I thought it appropriate to explain the awfulness that was the first time we tried to do a Pike’s Peak winter ascent.
First off, we checked the weather (the National Weather Service predicted 15-20mph winds and 30-50 degrees over 11,000ft) and conditions reports on 14ers.com (there were two within the last two weeks and they both enthusiastically said NO SHOWSHOES NECESSARY, THE TRAIL IS PACKED TO THE TOP). So, we casually packed our bags, did not bring snowshoes, and headed to CO Springs with my 18yr old sister and my dog in tow.
We were taking the Devil’s Playground trail up, anticipating 6 miles to the peak. The trail was packed hard until treeline. At treeline, we took a snack break in the sun and played on the rocks, it was lovely. If you’re familiar with Pike’s, you’ll know that you hit treeline relatively early in the hike then there’s a lot of horizontal hiking, some ups and downs as you head to the peak for the last ascent. As we set out to continue, it was immediately obvious that the trail was completely gone. We headed in the direction of the peak. At the time, the snow was only up to our ankles. We were still in high spirits.
The wind was picking up, and our feet were cold, but we were still fine. Then we came to a really epic boulder field. Which obviously was not a part of the trail. We decided to cross it because we thought it would get us back on track. It was icy and terrifying, but we all made it. Back in the direction of the peak. Now the snow’s started getting deeper. Much deeper. Soon it’s knee deep and in some places hip deep. At this point, I’ve started worrying about frost bite and have put my extra wool layers on my dog. We’ve been above treeline for hours, and Abby’s gps watch says we’ve gone almost 8 miles and we’re not even close to the peak yet. Did I mention the wind was hitting us so hard that the snow it was kicking up was shredding our faces and almost knocking us over? We see the road, and head for it. I’m thinking: dear god I hope the ranger station is open and if we can make it to the peak we’ll be okay. We finally get to the road and start hiking directly up it…and it takes us at least ten minutes to realize: this road is NOT CLEAR. Obviously, no one’s driven on it, and it’s not even passable. Because we’re hours over schedule, we’ve gone almost all the way through our food. Now is a good time to mention that I forgot to pack our sandwiches. But. I thought we’d be okay because we had packed TONS of food.
Now we had to decide. Do we hike down the road and *hope* to hitch a ride back to our car (which would have been a very long ride, not to mention there were three adults and a dog that would need picked up). The trouble I saw was what if we can’t get anybody? We’d be significantly further away from the car. So, we attempted to head back. The wind had already blown out any chance of finding even our own tracks. The first section was obvious, but when we got through the valley and to the big rock gateway…none of us had the slightest clue which direction we came from. One of us would see something that we thought we recognized, then we’d get there, and there would just be miles of snow ahead of us. Just when we really believed we found the right way back, we came across an epically steep rock field. By now, we’re all exhausted. And it’s been 5+ hours above treeline. We were at the stumbling, somewhat delusional point. My poor sweet dog had snow frozen to her fur everywhere.
A few hours of stumbling, worrying about our impending death, using an emergency blanket for the first time, and exchanging disdainful looks later…we made it back to treeline and eventually found the trail again. Too exhausted and overcome with altitude sickness, we stumbled down the mountain in silence…not even talking (or even thinking!) about fueling down.
The point is, we made it out alive. This was the only time in my life I worried about frostbite, hypothermia, or death by exposure. It was a good lesson in preparedness. We should never have trusted the internet and headed up there in trail shoes and yak trax, we should have had better equipment with us just in case.
I’ve never before been so humbled by nature (and believe me, I’ve been humbled by nature many times). “You don’t have to dominate the mountain, it is much more powerful than we are. You have to try to understand it, to learn to love it, and run with it, letting it help you.” Killian Jornet
Tomorrow, Pike’s Peak, I try to understand you. I learn to love you. I run with you, and let you help me.