Sunday, August 24, 2008

Pikes Peak, the (sorta) beautiful

Pikes is probably Colorado's most famous mountain.
It looks like it.
Welcome to the Las Vegas of mountain climbing.
Pikes Peak, in Colorado Springs, was my last guided climb of the year, and so I took a group of eight to the top Saturday. It's not Colorado's tallest mountain (at 14,110 feet high, it's a mere 31 out of the 54 14ers. It's not the most climbed every year. But it's certainly its most commercial.
It's the most visited mountain in North America, and only Mount Fuji gets more visitors per year.
The first time I climbed it, in 2003, I was nearing the summit, by myself, when a tourist spotted me.
"You know," she said, without a hint of mirth on her face, "you can DRIVE to the top."
A train carries 250,000 a year to the summit. Tens of thousands more drive to the top. And, oh yeah, a few hikers attempt it as well. About 15,000 a year. That's a big number, but many other 14ers see more.
Yes, the 14ers are popular, and many of their trails will have at least a few on them when you climb one (I have done them all, and I was never alone, not once), but you're still climbing a mountain, not playing kickball at recess.
Many of the roads to their trailheads are rough enough to cause iPods to skip, bruise your thighs or shake shake shake the shocks out of your passenger car. The only food you eat comes out of your backpack, and the only water from your bottle or a filter (unless you want to spend too much of your time on the throne). And thunderstorms, terrain and the long trips can beat you if you let them.
Pikes Peak is downright luxurious, sort of like the Bellagio if you compare it to, say, the Imperial Palace. Halfway up, Barr Camp provides Gatorade and Skittles for sale, a sparkling bathroom and cushy camping spots, with a fire, picnic tables and a party-like atmosphere. When I found my way into Barr's main cabin, a guy was playing a guitar. It sounded folkish. So I left.
At its summit, there's a geeky gift store (but aren't all gift stores) that sells cheeseburgers, pizza and these amazing donuts. After hiking all day, they might as well be serving garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus and a rare filet. When a massive thunderstorm hit 20 minutes after we made the top, we took cover in the shop rather than dash down and hope the bolts didn't hit us.
A beautiful, wide trail ushers you all the way up.
But, as I told the group at 5 a.m. before the climb, Pikes is one of the easiest 14ers, but it's also one of the hardest. It's 13 miles to the top and you gain more than 7,000 feet. On many 14ers, you'll gain around 3,500 feet, so hiking Pikes takes twice the effort of many other mountains.
I left the house at 2:30 a.m. because I had to take what I figured would be a slow group of inexperienced hikers. I am, after all, a guide, so I certainly wasn't expecting Everest climbers.
It was a tough day, harder in some ways than I expected, but everyone did make the top on a clear, hot but sunny day at 2:45 p.m. Once again, I felt proud to be a guide.
At the gift store, we got a taste of what it felt to be an Olympian, perhaps. Some looked at us with a little bit of awe and others wrinkled their nose at our stink. I"m no athlete, so I have to admit, both expressions were fun.
And, perhaps best of all, you don't have to hike down, if you don't want to.
We didn't want to.

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