Waking up at 2:00am on the Sunday of the weekend St. Patrick’s Day festivities in a drinkin’ city seemed a strange way to begin a trip. I needed to go from the North side of Denver, through the South side, without incident – and then far beyond.
Plan: ride the bicycle from the back door to the Barr Trailhead ~90 miles away in Manitou Springs, CO and immediately begin the 13 miles hike up to the summit of Pikes Peak, for a winter ascent of a Colorado 14er, before it ain’t winter no more (mere days away). And of course carry all the gear that’s probably going to be needed. Which is really unrealistic, so just take what’s absolutely necessary. Which probably means, a different pair of shoes.
Then, steal a few winks and ride back home, in perhaps a bit more scenic (read: more difficult, mountainous, less boring) route.
Out of the door by 3:00 am and traffic seems to be surprisingly tame. …not sure what I expected CHAOS!). I am tired. Sleep was a nice idea, but the alarm, sorry: alarms went off about the same time I finally dropped off to slumber land.
I ride through Denver without incident, and onto Sedalia, to pick up CO 105, which should take me to Palmer Lake and from there, Monument, CO to pick up a bike path? Trail? Something – through the Airforce Academy and – wait. Can you actually do that? Aren’t there security checkpoints? Too late to check that out…. (details, details) And into Colorado Springs to pick up supplies (FOOD, large amounts of FOOD) and to the trailhead.
CO 105 turns into one of those picturesque lazy roads, filled with faux ranches that don’t ranch nothin’, and rolling hills, with a nice ever-changing front-row seat to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Well, it would, if I could see anything. The sun won’t make an appearance until past 7:00am, and by 7:00am, I’m at Monument – finally for the first time seeing the object of today’s energetic excursion: the summit of Pikes Peak – itself glistening with a billion ice crystals, just poking through the nearby foothills. Hmm, a little more snow than I had anticipated. I anticipated actually: none. I can see Pikes Peak from the house, and it looked more green than white. Damn atmospheric perspective…
It doesn’t take long for Pikes to once again become hidden behind (much) lesser peaks, and I pick up the Santa Fe Trail, and I roll closer to the range. It’s a dirt track, which will work. Work better than the Interstate, which is illegal, but not below me.
I switch off my lights and there are runners milling about the trail. I pass a sign that says something about the air force academy, but I’m trying to make time, so ignore it. What could it possibly say?
The trail gets a little to exuberant in its changing of directions. I make the decision to exit, as I have no idea where I’m going (first time down here), and I see a road, and maybe that road takes me to the frontage road that parallels the interstate. It’s gonna be a long day, and “Conservation of Energy” are the words of the day. Days.
The road turns out to be the main entrance to the academy and I pass the checkpoint entrance going the wrong way, and then straight into an exit onto the Interstate and well, that won’t work. I backtrack a bit, but don’t want to deal with going through the gate, or backtracking too much, or checking… I dunno: a map, or talking to the guard – whatever it is, I gotta do.
I spot a random two track that goes south – my direction, so I take it. For a few miles. It dead ends into a barbed wire fence and a sound barrier between the interstate and a random neighborhood, on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. I retrace just a few and hop the fence, directly into someone’s back yard, which is a no-no – especially here, where people are apt to be a little more gun-lovin’ The fence has a sign I read once over the fence. “No trespassing, airforce property, penalty of-“, blah blah blah. I gotta get out of this yard and back on a road, before a neighborhood dog sounds the alarm.
And I do.
Grab some grub at an Albertsons. Horrible selection, what was I thinking going to an Albertsons?! I pass some more familiar grocery stores – three, in fact, on the way to Manitou Springs, which is just up the road. It’s now 10:00 am. The trailhead is buzzing with people – trail runners, mostly in their trail running groups talking trail running things, with their garish, trail running outfits on. This sport seems to be in its “Loud and ugly” fashion phase, I don’t know what to think about it. It’s such a simple activity (put on shoes, run – preferably not on pavement), and Minimal is the Mantra, but there’s a million ways to Personalize the Experience(tm).
And so then I put on my own trail runners (a modest pair of Montrails), some running tights, a pair of running shorts, a long base layer top, and a light wool hat – all black: as I just look goofy overly accessorizing. I look goofy by default, so its hard for me to pull off anything too loud looking. There’s trail runners around me that are workin’ it, I admit. All kinds.
I change out of the bike gear outside and behind of the bathroom area, as the queue of people requiring it is an always evolving mass that doesn’t quite reach a critical level. It’s like being in France at a grocery store. For already being up for 7 hours – most of it in the sensory deprivation state of pitch black and below freezing, it’s just too much information to take. Funnily Colorado Springs – a fairly major metropolitan center for at least the Front Range of Colorado is spitting distance and trail heads do tend to be a little close to population.
I begin up the trail.
The trail starts out as a never-ending set of switchbacks for miles. I’ve hiked 14ers that have far less total mileage than these switchbacks to the top. It’s completely mobbed with trail runners. And all of them are going down. Like racing down. Bounding down. Young ones, old ones, portly and svelte. I either missed the time where it’s allowed to run up this trail, or there’s a secret trail everyone else is taking up (and there was!) that must be many times more important to run up, that you would never, ever run down. My entire time to the summit, I’ll pass three other people going up, and no one that goes all the way to the top. This is madness to me.
The Barr trail, once up the switchbacks (pray), is what you may call, “casual”. “Why didn’t I bring the bike?”, was the question I kept asking myself. I stripped off my top and became the Shirtless Man, for all the trail runners. A few hours from the start of the hike and I’m at Barr Cabin, mile #6.5 ish. I start drinking my energy replenishment drink (a 20 oz Coke) and mill about the outside of the cabin. I peek in for a touch, and try to make small talk to the two cabin-watchers and a guest. I am not quite at 100%, but not completely gone, as I at least know I’m not making much sense, every time I talk. “I better just keep going…” I think to myself. So I say, “so long!”, and they reply back with, “Have fun trail running back down”, and I don’t turn around to correct them, as I’m still planning on going up. Not many people today decide to keep going up.
From the cabin to the A frame shelter at treeline, I pass one guy (of the three). He’s complaining about lack of fitness, so he’s stopping at treeline. “Bah”, I think. Mental fatigue has already set in. I know I’ll be hallucinating, soon.
The wind is picking up. It begins even to lightly snow. Off and on – you know, how Colorado normally is above 7,000 feet, most of the time. The trail though, is largely lost through drifts caused by the winds. The summit is obvious enough and I’m dumb enough to just start going straight up, instead of taking the second stretch of endless switchbacks. The snow is in poor condition: just these windpacked areas, with a thin top coat of newly-fallen powder, a thick, almost icy crust and then corn crap underneath. It’s classic, “you’re going to start an avalanche” conditions, but there’s some many boulders, that I tell myself that’s not going to happen. Which… is how people die. (BAH!) And the snow isn’t all that deep. It’s actually pitifully scarce. This winter was bad for precip. and this summer is going to be a rerun of The Shit is on Fire show, unless it starts dumping down and gets the show canceled.
500 feet from the summit and the days activities are starting to take a little hold of me. I am well over hour #14 of almost constant moving, knowing full well that the summit is close but isn’t that close, and afterwards, I still have to get down. Then it really starts to snow.
I get to the top of my own route and summit. “Cripes, what am I wearing?”, I think to myself. I have running tights and rain pants on, trail runners, and my top is two polypro undershirts, and a rain coat. And a hat. Not even gloves: little underglove things . It’s winter, I’m over 14,000 feet and it’s snowing.
I don’t dilly dally long at the top. Tried to take a photo, but every time I stop for more than 30 seconds, anything wet (shoes, gloves, hat, etc) freezes, so I just bail at properly documenting the ascent, to the chagrin of my future-self, as I type this out. From the summit though, I know where the trail ends, so I can hopefully follow the true trail downwards and not get lost.
This plan works for about 30 meters and the trail has been erased. The wind and snow pick up and I realize that visibility is starting to lessen to less than 30 meters. Sometimes class 1 hikes near cities can get a little fun. I modify the plan I use to summit (go straight UP) and start simply to go straight DOWN and do that thing that happens when you don’t know where to really go: cliffed out. Cliffs to the left, to the right and directly below. The wind lulls and I’m treated to the beautiful rock cliff formations of pink Pikes Peak granite. I skirt gingerly over the rock bands and bound down where I think slipping on the snowy parts won’t take my too many several hundred feet down, in a slightly over my comfort level speed. Of all the times to not bring an ice axe. I’m literally in a text-book example for saving yourself by self-arrest. I’m keeping that damn thing in my commuting bag. Just, everywhere from now on.
The cliffbands chill out. Finding myself on more alpine than cliff face, I breath a sigh of relieve, but two new problems present themselves. First, no trail and I, uh, I’m not quite sure what drainage to go down – there’s TWO choices and if I pick the wrong choice, I’ll end up in the wrong county (albeit with much hilarity to whomever picks me up, hitching), and also, I’ve got a half hour of daylight left to make the right decision. Dark is going to equal much lower temperatures and, well, that’ll be some good times, right there. “What am I doing?” I incredulously think to myself. “Well, exactly what I wanted to do!”, I audibly answer to myself.
And it’s true. No one does a century bike ride, only to hike up a 14,000 foot peak thinking, “Hey, you know what, this should be 100% without incident!” And I go to the task of finding the right drainage down with aplomb. There’s two strategies: find the trail and follow the trail, or find the A Frame shelter that’s at treeline and go towards it, as the trail also skirts the shelter. And there’s only two real ways to go: North or South. South looks like a general avalanche path, but north has a strange ridge I have to go up, and over to gain the other side of the drainage. Why anyone would put a shelter at the bottom of an avalanche path is beyond me, so I start climbing to the small gain. Tiny trees are starting to make an appearance in my path, and they trap snow – the postholing ensues.
I turn around to see if I can spot any sort of remnant of trail. From the high vantage point though, I see clearly the A frame shelter, close to where I started out making my way to the South, well to the North. Or at least I think I do. I’ve been thinking I’ve been seeing the A frame shelter all over the place, but I’ve been hallucinating boulders to be buildings. I’m not tired enough to be scared of my own mental failings, but it’s almost playfully fun to watch my visual cortex short out.
The A frame proves to be very real, and I find the trail at treeline and from here, it’s three hours of slogging back. It feels like eternity. I pass no one. The last endless array of switchbacks come into focus and I contemplate running down them, like all the fresher people 8 hours ago. I try, but I’m also at hour 16 or so of Constant Movement and nothing in my body quite wants to give it a jolly go down. Especially in the dark, so I relegate myself to simply walking it.
Colorado Springs comes into view, with all its glimmering lights, then houses and structures of Manitou Springs, but nothing seems to get bigger – it just stay the same tiny, model-like size, even as I’m quickly losing altitude.
Everything in my vision is turning into something else. Rocks become injured animals in my path. Tree branches are elk antlers. Snow and ice patterns on top of the rocks become horrific, spider-like alien creatures. I’m waiting for figures in the shadows to come out, try to jump me, rob me, and then kill me. Aspen Tree groves become impenetrable wooden fortresses that have instantly sprung up out of nothing. It’s all entirely incredible.
And it finally ends, as the trail finds its beginnings.
And luckily, I also find my bike, locked up to a somewhat hidden utility box of some sort, in fine shape. Of any 14er trailhead, I get the least good vibe on this one – CO Springs is just too close and kids here are too bored. I wagered that St. Patrick’s Day festivities would help keep these people inside, hungover, sleeping, and eating pizza. It’s now 10:00pm and I make the decision that sleeping about 8 hours is what I now need to do.
Consuming far too little calories for what I need to be in the black on that front, I sort gear and fix up the sleep kit and pass out, fairly illegally, at the back end of a little picnic area, next to the public bathroom and the trailhead. I need to get up early enough to escape being found out by the local police authorities, who are inevitably going to be making a round to check up on suspicious activity in the trailhead parking lot (lots of car break ins), but not so early that when I get up, there’s no where in my path to get some food.
I opt for six am and get up, highly refreshed. The police do come by at around 6:45, but don’t even notice, as I’m about to roll out. I keep forgetting that sometimes when one isn’t in a car, one is invisible. I don’t fit the description of a car thief, or a ramble-rouser free camping anyways. Things I’m wearing match – and I don’t smell of booze. I start on up the road towards Woodland Park.
And at Woodland Park, there’s The Hungry Bear – a teddy-bear themed breakfast joint, that’s also biker friendly, incidentally. Like, Motorcycle Enthusiast, friendly. In my travails, I’ve noticed that such establishments also don’t mind catering smelly bicyclists and the people are usually nice, as well. The only weird looks I’ll get are from the motorcycle enthusiasts themselves – however real or weekend-warrior they are. And usually it’s the form of transportation I’ve picked, rather than my odor or savage looks. I guess once you take on a motor, you never go back. I digress.
I order $10 of food and barely am able to finish it. Target hit. I’m off, up HW 67 to some sort of connector, up near Pine, CO, that I’ll figure out later. I’m not sure how it works out – but it’s a goal for the day to uh, figure it out.
HW 67 is a picturesque and lazy scenic ride – I think it may be the best road in the Front Range to take a loaded bike on. Mountains you never knew existed poke out of the canyon’s various phantasmagorical rock formations and then are hidden again once you turn a corner and the canyon’s steep walls block the view. Fisherpeople playing hooky are dressed in their fisherpeople uniforms getting shit for bites.
There’s uphills and downhills and burn areas. Ice, and snow sit on top of the shallow river. You cross the Colorado Trail: singletrack that beacons you to Durango – about 500 miles away. The road turns to dirt and and the only vehicles that pass are 4wd. It gets a little country, as most permanent structures are in disrepair and everything else is a propped up RV or something.
I take a hard right and the key to my escape of this drainage area (and into the one to the north) and I’m climbing out of the canyon and over whatever it is I need to climb out of, to get onto, “Pleasant Park Road” (nice name, huh?) and home. The houses get massive again, as the income level dramatic rises to meet the road.
The final grunt up makes today’s elevation gain over 6,000 feet, which is a tidy sum, for weary legs – and a little bit of surprise. I’m not one for exact planning. The wind today has been blustery and coming from the wrong direction (towards me), which doesn’t make the climbing any easier, or funner. But, you get what you get and I’m happy to be outside.
Rocketing down Pleasant Park to High Grade wasn’t as fun as I had hope, and I get this strange feeling that I’m not very high in elevation as I thought I’d be. Usually, when making a trip UP this hill, I feel quite lofty, once making it to the top. The perspective thing, again. A few more downhill turns, and I’m back on the plains, back on the bike path and closing the loop of my ride just yesterday. All that’s left is to go from the Southern ‘burbs of Denver, to the Northern ‘burbs and to home.
Hitting the wall is a funny thing to do on the easiest part of the track, but that’s exactly what’s happening. Pedaling is slow and the landscape around is hyper familiar and nothing seems very eventful. I get acquainted with traffic and instantly hate it with the burning fury of a thousand suns.
Everyone in a motor vehicle seems overly aggressive. It’s close to rush hour. Cycling is such a more civilized mode of transportation. Cars here just seem far larger than utility would find it reasonable and my mind begins it’s usual loop of, “happy I live a car free lifestyle” and general prejudice for motorized travel. It’s not exactly useful, or productive to think this way, but when tired, the mind does what it does. I’m just happy the hallucinations are over. I spend my time waiting for lights to change, announcing the names of the SUV’s I’m stopped in back of, in an overly dramatic voice: “Chevy TaaaaaawHOOOOO!”, “GMC YoooKON DINAWWWWWLEEE!”
My thoughts turn to food, as I have a caloric deficit to work on – part of why I’ve hit this wall. I make it home alright, and start my food intake – after a shower, with half a pie. Less the 48 hours from when I embarked I’m back home to overly familiar settings, a little sad I guess that I couldn’t play outside just a little bit longer. Spring will come soon, and then summer, and this little trip will seem to be just like a warmup for some quite longer adventures, I’m sure.
Hikin’ down and hallucinating, lost, snow and wind
Gettin’ home. Climbing! Wind!