Pike’s Peak Pt Deux (triumph of the human spirit)

On Monday I posted the story of the time we tried the Pike’s Peak winter ascent…and failed.

This is the story of when I attempted to summit Pike’s Peak…and made it.

ahh, the beautiful summit

ahh, the beautiful summit

I didn’t sub out my Monday morning class so I wasn’t headed south until 7:30, which got me to the trailhead just after 9:30 with all the morning traffic. Luna and I ate our pre-hike chia seed/oatmeal porridge, packed up, and headed out just before 10am. [Side note: I thought long and hard about the decision to bring Luna along on what I knew was probably going to be a treacherous hike. The end all is: she is a mountain dog, and if she were able to choose she would always pick adventuring by my side over staying home alone all day. Always.]

Luna, at tree line

Luna, at tree line

We started at the Devil’s Playground trailhead, from the Crag’s campground parking lot off highway 67 south of Divide. The round trip hike is 14 miles, assuming you’re able to stay on the trail and don’t take any detours (hahaha as if anyone has any idea where the actual trail is under all that snow) and gains 4,300 feet in elevation. Below tree line, it was mostly dry and a little icy, as the several feet of packed snow was finally melting then freezing due to the high temps. We made it to tree line pretty quickly. I saw my first and only fellow hiker just before, on his way down (he turned around at tree line); there were two other cars in the parking lot, I never did see anyone from the other car.

The view from tree line

The view from tree line

Still in high spirits at tree line, the weather was beautiful and we set out on a mildly marked trail following snowshoe prints. The wind picked up, but it wasn’t cold and it wasn’t picking up snow and throwing it around. Clear skies and sunshine. Pretty soon, the “trails” collided and I joined the same path as everyone that had come before me. Which is an interesting feeling, following the footprints of the ghosts who walked these mountains. And really, I was using their post holes, so I was exactly following their footprints! The wind picked up pretty hard and I finally put mine and Luna’s coats on for protection. Still wasn’t cold though.

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When we hit Devil’s Playground we completely lost the trail and had to break one ourselves for the first time. From this point on, we never actually found the trail, although we’d occasionally find footprints again but they seemed just as erratic and lost as we were. Somewhere in this section, after we crossed Devil’s Playground but before we reached the final rocky ascent to the summit, I got miserable and almost turned around. I don’t remember if it was wading through the snow in the valley or navigating the rocks in the snow and ice (which was treacherous at best). Once you cross the last peak and head down into that little shoulder part before you ascend up to the summit, you get a view of what you’re in for and it seems so epically far away that summiting suddenly seems impossible. We stopped to eat and snuggle and find some serious morale to keep going. This is where I began talking directly to the mountain, which I would continue for the rest of the day.

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Now, I know I was struggling with altitude sickness a little by this point because I had a slight headache. I don’t remember what all I said, but I definitely remember asking Pike’s Peak to protect us. I’m pretty sure I talked almost constantly during the final, grueling, soul crushing, scramble of an ascent. Climbing like a spider over the large rocks, desperately avoiding breaking a leg in the snow filled crevaces between them, and probably moaning desperately, I kept my eyes one foot in front of me. When I finally reached the 10 feet or so of snow after the rocks end and you approach the real, actual summit I looked up and couldn’t believe it. I crawled, literally on hands and knees, until I reached bare ground, laid my head down, and cried.

From the summit, right after I got my shit together, stopped crying, and stood up

From the summit, right after I got my shit together, stopped crying, and stood up

What I think is really tragic about the fact that Pike’s Peak Highway goes up to the summit, where you’ll find a parking lot and a gift shop, is that what do these people gain from the view? By the time you summit a mountain on foot, you are a part of it and it is a part of you. And the view from the top is sort of the infinity that you are together, the mountain and you. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. But the view from the car seems approximately like looking at a photograph: many things that exist in nature are beautiful objectively, but just seeing the physical outline of them is not the same as the experience of being a part of them.

I knew that I was well behind schedule so once PP and I had our sweet moment together, I set out to look for the registry and the signs that you find at the summit of fourteeners. Now, since they had to plow the parking lot there were huge piles of snow everywhere in addition to the cars and it was difficult to see everything. I was in a hurry, so after some unfruitful looking around I went into the gift shop and asked the ladies behind the counter. They didn’t know what I was talking about. “The hiker registry-it’s usually in a capsule next to a big pile of rocks” “Wait, did you hike up here?” “Yes” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, do you know what she’s talking about?””Registry? No”. Sigh. I took another look around. There was a long line of people taking pictures at the Pike’s Peak Summit sign (14,110 feet!). Ultimately, I had to head back down before I lost the weather or the daylight, so I gave up and began my descent.

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So the descent is when things got really weird. Sometimes I would just sit down in the snow and think “if only I could just take a nap.” And it would take me five minutes of saying out loud “Sarah you need to get up. Get up. You need to get up. You need to keep going.” The thing about fourteeners is, you’re miles into the middle of nowhere, and at very high elevation. Once you’re out there, you have no choice but to come back (or to lay down in the snow and die), you can’t just give up. Getting back across and to treeline was a big struggle. But from there, it was only a couple more miles down and the altitude sickness started getting immediately better. I sang out loud the last two miles or so. It’s kind of funny realizing what songs you know all the words to (and what songs you think you know all the words to but clearly don’t). The trip took almost 9 hours all said and done. When I sat down in the car I just said “we made it.” No big deal. We fueled down at McDonald’s because that was the first fast food place we saw (Coke and fries, and you’d better believe Lu got a few fries, but I also had some fuel down peanut butter for her).

Snowblindness. Did you know that’s a thing? My PSA for you: WEAR SUNGLASSES ALWAYS. Snowblindness (also called Surfer’s Eyes) is when the clear layer over the colored part of your eye gets sunburned because of the UV reflections off of snow (or water). It is just as painful as it sounds, and I literally spent all of yesterday in bed because I couldn’t open my eyes.

Pike’s Peak (the time we tried and failed)

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.

pike's peak hike

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.

pike's yoga

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.

Obviously taken when we were still warm and happy and not worrying about Luna freezing to death

Obviously taken when we were still warm and happy and not worrying about Luna freezing to death

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.