The Old Man and the Mountain
I'm getting a late start. It's 0745 and
I'm just now putting foot to trail. The parking lot was full, there were
no hikers behind me getting ready. They had all shown up at 0500 and began
their trek before the sun began its blistering ascent. That's OK, I was
one week late already. I had planned to hike the peak on Friday, 18 July
1997, my thirtieth birthday. Duty called, however, on that day and I had
to be content with a slightly postponed adventure. At the advanced age of
30 years + 1 week I set out to vanquish Pike's
Peak, trading physical comfort
for a few moments of mental cleansing.
Before starting, the engineer in me takes over and I spend a few moments taking a quick survey of the Manitou Springs Hydroelectric Station that's next to the trailhead. The station has been in service since 1905. C. Springs had power before many other parts of the country, no doubt due to the influence of Nikola Tesla. Couldn't see much except the substation out back of the plant. Hmmm. Electric power generation is one of my special interests but I force myself to stop looking at the big power transformers and start my hike.
I start up Barr trail. A few moments later, I realize I haven't stretched. A few pulls on the hamstrings and some quad squats and I'm wishing I'd worried about it a few minutes ago. Never mind, there's a mountain to climb. I move out, meeting a few people coming down. We exchange pleasantries, I pet their dogs, and we all keep moving. A familiar refrain invades my brain:
You know what they say about being nice to the right people on the way up
Sooner or later you're gonna meet them coming down
Yeah, there ain't no going back when your Foot of Pride come down
Ain't no going back
- Bob Dylan, Foot of Pride, the bootleg series, vol. 3
A rusty metal sign, passive, without emotion, neither admonishing me to continue or to TURN BACK WHILE THERE IS STILL TIME!, tells me that there are 12 miles to go to the summit. That makes 1 mile behind me. I dig the watch out of my pocket. Nineteen minutes have past. This section of the trail, the first 4 miles, in fact, are called The Incline. Now I know why. Relentless, unmerciful, calf-stretching trail. Quickly gaining altitude at the start, perhaps as a Test. I dig out my water bottle, toot my harmonica, survey the valley below me, listen briefly to the water rushing to the power plant, set my Panama Jack hat at a protective yet debonair angle, and push forward. Up, always up.
I meet an older woman, equipped with fanny
pack and YMCA shirt, coming down the trail. She quizzes me, conveys Idiot
Status on me for trying the climb, and walks me through the proper way to
prepare for the ascent. She tells me there is a group of teenagers on the
trail that are ruining it for everyone and have no business In Nature. I
thank her and continue. Some people are never happy in their own skin.
Before the 3 mile point I come across one of the teenagers. A few moments of conversation and I'm educated about their plight. They belong to a church youth group from Vandalia, Illinois. Warning bells go off in my head: Flatlanders. Tennis shoes on the trail. Most of them have never hiked before. Now I see why the old woman was shaking her head and clucking her tongue. I bid my informant adieu and set my jaw. They aren't fully prepared for this trip but I'm not either.
At the 4 mile point the trail breaks over from Impossible to just Steep and I look forward to the fresh air above 8,000 feet. A group of Boy Scouts, coming down, spots me and relays "HIKER!" along the line as they make room for me. I learn as we hurriedly pass that they have been up country for 3 days, sleeping at Barr Camp, hiking to the Bottomless Pit and the Summit. I tell them I have hope for myself and humanity.
Small, delicate flowers begin to appear at the trail side. The conifer forest makes room for aspen. I spot a few chipmunks, scurrying among the rocks. Peace descends as I'm left alone. I miss Laurel's lectures on wildflowers as I wonder what manner of beauty I'm seeing. I recognize a few flowers, struggle to remember their names, and come up with gibberish. I have a lot of Latin to learn before I get to doctor on people.
Barr Camp, the 7 mile point, beckons and I push forward. I spot a chipmunk crossing the trail, and I watch him on the near bank of the trail. He's the Landlord and I silently thank him for allowing me passage. He reaches under a pile of pine needles and withdraws his lunch. I hope he remembers where all the goodies are stored this winter. When I reach Barr Camp, really nothing more than a collection of cabins and a lean-to or two, I gobble some provisions, hydrate, and sign in with my familiar refrain. A few members of the Vandalia gang and their leader are there, some heading down, some planning to push forward. I fix my feet with some mole skin, take a picture in the rain, pet the dog that gets to live at Barr Camp, and start on the next 6 miles.
A few minutes out of Barr Camp and the lightening starts. Then the pelting hail. I'm thankful for my rain jacket and wide-brimmed hat. The rain lets up about the time I come across a teenage girl, looking a little confused and lost. Her group left her behind because she was slowing them down a little. She was waiting on their group leader to come along. After several minutes he had not shown and she was concerned. I reassured her he was behind us somewhere and would be along. That was little comfort to her, and rather than leave her behind, I offered to help her keep going. We tagged along, resting and talking, until we eventually caught up with her group. I wished her well and pushed on. Up, always up.
The trees fell away at the 10 mile point, around 11,000 feet, and the trail became open Alpine tundra. Beauty in front of me, beauty all around me, as the Navaho prayer goes. The valley below, filled with storms and lightening, confirms that I am a small creature crawling along a rocky sphere as it plummets through the cosmos. With three miles to go I start wondering about the time. The first mile of the last three goes by in about 40 minutes and feels like 2 miles of torture. I'm panting, my heart is a trip hammer in my head, and my fingernails have a slight blue tint. Hypoxia, the intoxication of oxygen depravation. I rest, hydrate, and wish I'd never been born with a demon of wanderlust. I also revel in the rocks, patches of moss, and dainty yellow, blue and purple flowers. This is why I came.
The next two miles are gained through force of will and at the price of pain. I pass more groups of 17 year-olds. First the group that left at 0630, then the ones that set out a half-hour earlier. I feel only a little superior because they are Flatlanders and I have the folly of age to overcome. No prisoners. I sing the Oscar Meyer Wiener song and realize I'm nauseous from lack of oxygen. The feeling passes after rest. A metal plate hammered into a rock is a memorial to an 88 year-old woman that died at the tree-line after her 14th accent. I'm humbled. The 1-mile-to-go point takes an impossible 45 minutes more to achieve. The sight of the train pulling into the summit house brings no relief because I realize the vertical distance yet to go. More steps, more rest, no good options except finishing what I started. The lack of training hits me smack in the face as I refuse to give way to common sense.
A plaque near the top exalts (and rightly so) Fred Barr, builder of the trail. He labored from 1914 to 1918. Four years, roughly the same amount of time it feels I'm taking to climb his creation. The last 100 yards of the trail are infinitely harder to gain than the first 100 yards. The top brings relief. Clouds rushing in obscure the view of C. Springs. I am above the clouds. The mountain and I decide to call it a draw. I'm allowed to bum a ride and retreat down the hill. Peace and accomplishment have had to wait until the morrow, sitting on my old patio, looking at the clouds shifting across the eastern face of the Peak. I have been up there. I have come back down.
Thou who wouldst see the lovely and the wild
Mingled in harmony on Nature's face,
Ascend our rocky mountains. Let thy foot
Fail not with weariness, for on their tops
The beauty and the majesty of earth,
Spread wide beneath, shall make thee forget
The steep and toilsome way. There, as thou
The haunts of men below thee, and around
The mountain summits, thy expanding heart
Shall feel a kindred with that loftier world
To which thou art translated, and partake
The enlargement of thy vision.
- William Cullen Bryant, Monument Mountain
John Berry, 26 July 1997
Colorado Springs, Colorado
View of Pike's Peak National Forest from near the top of Pike's Peak.
P.S. - I have since learned that the girl I met on the trail and most of her group made it to the top just fine! So much for the wisdom of age overcoming the strength of youth.