Tim Downs: On Climbing Pike’s Peak

Tim Downs is training to climb Kilimanjaro. So he climbed Pike’s Peak. Here’s his story.

tim downsaNewDomain — My morning started in the hotel at 1:00am. I had gone to bed at 8:00pm but was only able to drift to sleep for an hour or so, either in anticipation for the climb or the nagging cough I had assumed was an airborne allergic reaction to something blooming in the unseasonably wet Colorado Springs ecosystem.

I checked my bag twice: cold weather gear, wet weather gear, headlamp, three liters of water, plenty of gooey packets of instant energy two hard boiled eggs, 4 tortillas, and a bag of plain mms.

Feeling confident if not a little sleepy, I made my way to the Barr trailhead at the parking lot above the Pike’s Peak cog railway, bought my 24 hour parking pass, turned on my headlamp and gps and headed up the trail at 1:30am.

pikes peak tim downsThe first mile was uneventful, except for the sudden realization that it was very very dark and my headlamp only lit a small patch of trail immediately in front of me causing me to frequently scan my surroundings at any sound.

A few locals had put the fear of mountain lions in me which left me on high alert through the entire dark period of the hike.

I trekked all over the Sierras in my twenties so I am fairly comfortable around black bears. Yet though I’ve heard of cougar attacks in the San Francisco Bay Area,where I’d lived most of my life, I’d never so much as seen the flash of a tawny tail.

So this was a new and disconcerting feeling.

My headlamp, an old one borrowed from my son, had been flickering from the beginning of the trek, but went completely out at the intersection of the Barr trail and the “incline,” leaving me alone in a world of inky blackness, and a heightened sense of dread with every rustle in the surrounding brush.

I had replaced the batteries in the headlamp before setting off for this hike, though I had noticed it accidentally switched on in my backpack at one point, “were the batteries dead?”

“Could the contacts be oxidized by years of sitting stagnant in my 13 year-old’s sock drawer?” I wasn’t sure, but I knew I needed to get to an open area where I could troubleshoot the problem.

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I pulled out my iPhone and switched on the flashlight to try to continue down the trail. The Incline was clear and almost glowed in the moonlight, but I could not decipher where the trail picked up on the other side of the intersection to save my life.

Knowing the light on my phone wouldn’t hold out till dawn, and unable to move forward down the trail without light, I decided to take the incline extension to the top of the incline where it crossed the trail again around the Mile 2 marker.

Okay, this may have been the best decision, but the incline is no joke. It’s a 68 degree grade that rises 2,000 feet in about a mile on railroad ties chained together as stairs. I was only tackling the top half, but with a pack and with only the light of the moon, it was a tense ascent filled with several mini breaks to catch my breath.

I reached the top of the incline and looked for a place to sit down and dissect my headlamp, I walked toward what appeared to be a large rock, but came to realize it was a sleeping hiker covered by his or her bag, crashed out in the open–I no longer feared a mountain lion attack, this person was a much easier meal. I found a broad rock and took apart my headlamp, cleaning the contacts by the light of my iPhone.

Success!

I loaded up and searched for the continuation of the upward trail. Spirited, and with a new energy from the rest time, I bounded down the clear, wide trail.

The walking was easy here, and the breeze through the fir trees was peaceful and I was now much more comfortable in the dark.

I reached Barr Camp, roughly the halfway point to the summit, at dawn.

I was behind the time I had paced myself for but only by a few minutes, so I was still very positive and excited to sit down for a few minutes and eat my breakfast.

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A funny thing about boiling eggs–it is just about the easiest thing one can do in the kitchen, but done wrong leaves the rumbling stomach, rumbling. My eggs came from the free breakfast at the hotel the morning prior to the hike, and apparently these eggs were never dowsed in cold water after boiling so the eggshells were impossible to separate from the egg white leaving me with just a small yolk, two tortillas and some coffee flavored power gel for nourishment before tackling the top half of the mountain.

I could see several other hikers in Barr camp getting ready to make their summit attemps, but to this point I was the only hiker on the trail to my knowledge.

I set out up the trail, feeling refreshed, if not a little hungry and overjoyed to now be hiking in the fresh light of morning.

The trail from Barr Camp was wide and beautiful, the morning breeze softly whispered through the treetops and I tried to absorb as much of Nature’s peace as i could. Every sense felt heightened as I walked quickly up the path.

The going was easy here and I considered popping in my headphones and listening to an audiobook I had chosen for the trail “Shadow of the Silk road” by Colin Thubron.

I hike a lot and use audiobooks to help make the slower or less spectacular parts of my hikes go faster, but today was very different.

Possibly because this was one of the longest hikes I’d ever attempted, and the excitement of the accomplishment was filling me, or perhaps there is something magical about this mountain, either way, today I was happy to let the sounds of nature be my playlist and I was eager to take it all in.

I had not seen another person on the trail yet, and I was perfectly happy having the mountain to myself, but around mile eight I was overtaken by a trail runner who had been camping at Barr Camp.

He came upon me as I was bending over my pack changing clothes from my black down jacket to a lightweight long sleeve shirt.

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With this awkward silhouette, he was startled, fearing I was a bear, but my “good morning” set him at ease and we walked together for about a tenth of a mile chatting. He mentioned several people he had talked with the day before could not summit because of snow at the top. This was the first I had even fathomed not being able to summit for a reason other than my own ability, so I took a quick inventory in my mind of my equipment, I did have waterproof pants and boots, but was I willing to go traipsing around the steep cliffs of the mountain in virgin snow?

My mind was buzzing as he pushed on at a faster pace than me.

I noticed the sound of a quick moving stream to my left and remembered watching a youtube video of a fifty-something guy complaining that he had lugged five liters of water for the hike, when, with the abundance of fresh water available it would be wiser to bring just a couple liters and a water filter to save weight.

This seemed reasonable to me but reminded me to check how far much was left in my camelback at my next quick break.

I have been a hiker all my life, and I am pretty skilled at reading a trail, but somehow between mile 8 and 9, I lost the trail.

It was a subtle thing, and I didn’t realize I was off track until I was well off track. I turned around when I noticed the ground below my feet was soft and not the well packed earth of the trail, but as I looked back, I saw no signs of the trail whatsoever. I climbed a nearby boulder to gain some high ground in hopes of seeing a break in the pattern of the trees to locate the trail, but it was futile. I was deep in the forest and every inch of the ground looked untouched by man.

I have only once in my life been lost. I was four years old and had failed to keep up with my cousins on a trip to the market one summer. I was in an unfamiliar town visiting family at a lake house in Michigan. Even at four, I must have realized that thinking rationally about your surroundings and using one’s memory of small things to find your way back is far better than lying on the ground in a heap, bawling.

I was able to find my way to Uncle Ossies house by heading to the end of the line of beach houses then one by one inspecting their stairs from the shore to the house, as I could remember Uncle Ossie’s stairs perfectly, and that worked.

I would do the same here. Well, I would do that immediately after I checked my GPS. Technology would be the thing to save me, right? Wrong, my 25 year-old GPS stopped recording after mile one, so as i turned it back on. There was one nice, totally useless straight line linked the switchbacks of mile one to my now completely lost location.

I put the GPS back in my bag and pondered how many useless ounces of equipment I was toting to 14,100 feet.

I resolved to walk a zig-zag pattern downhill from the creek hoping to cross the trail within a few hundred yards.

I never found the trail.

I sat down on a rock, now winded and in need of a break to think through my next move. I opened my bag of mms and immediately bit down wrong, releasing a temporary filling. A new exhilarating feeling overtook me. With every breath, cold air rushed across the exposed nerve of my tooth. This was not on my list of expectations for this hike.

I felt a bit nervous, I couldn’t believe I was in this predicament, and certainly did not want to be someone rescued, or worse, not rescued on the mountain.

I decided to find a bearing to the peak and bushwhack my way up the mountain, assuming by the time i reached treeline, I would either find and rejoin the path, or be the biggest badass I know for climbing Pike’s Peak without a trail. With this new determination and a spring in my step, I moved quickly through the trees. I spent about 75 minutes from the time I realized I was lost until the point I spotted a hiker in a valley north of me filtering water. I dropped down into the valley and told him I was looking for the trail, he pointed up to his party on the ridge above.

I hiked up to the northern ridge of the valley to join the trail where two men sat humped in exhaustion. “Hi boys, how are you hanging in there” “pretty tired” the oldest man responded. The youngest of their party who had been filtering water from a small offshoot of the stream joined us. It was clear the two younger men were brothers. Jim and Ted, who were fairing much better than their father Bill. They were Texans from just east of Dallas.

They had camped at Barr Camp and were attempting the summit. Their bags, boots and brand new gore tex trekking pants gave them away. These guys were not mountain climbers, they were city boys off on adventure together and trying to keep the father son bond they clearly had, through this trip to Pike’s. only Bill, about 50, was suffering. Their packs were overloaded and Bill’s fitness was not up to the task. I talked with them for the duration of their rest and learned they had an early train back down from the peak and though the day was still young, at their slow pace, they may be at risk of missing their ride.

I didn’t want to chance taking too much time on my ascent because I wanted to make the round trip but, after calculating my time and subtracting the wasted time I spent lost, I decided to stick with the Texans for a while to help encourage them where I could. We walked slowly taking breaks often as group after group passed us on the trail, but I had already grown an affinity for these guys so I stayed near. We leapfrogged on the trail for about a half mile as I didn’t want them thinking I was doubting their ability, but I was.

At about mile 9.5, we started seeing people coming down the trail. First was the trail runner who mistook me for a bear. I asked if he’d summited, “Nope, too much snow above treeline, I couldn’t make it the last 2.5 miles.”

I tried not to show my concern as I saw the Texans a few yards back but decided to venture a bit further ahead to see if I could get a better feel for how realistic a summit would be, figuring if I saw it was impassable I could come back down and let them know so they could head back down the mountain rather than wasting futile energy on a summit that would not be.

 I was beginning to get thirsty but, due to the loss of time and extended hiking while lost, I had drained my water reserves and was left with a dry camelbak. I resolved in my mind that runoff from snow would be clear of Giardia and other bad stuff  the mountain may have up its sleeve. And so I stuffed my water bladder with snow, caught as much runoff as I could and took a long cold draught of pure water, rested a few minutes and began walking again.
 
I met another trail runner with waterproof shoes and snow gaiters, he also had turned back but had made it to the 16 golden stairs. That’s just a half a mile from the summit.
But more people had passed on the trail so my hope was that someone had made it through the snow covered cliffs and switchbacks and that our summit could still happen today.

But, as I began to cross a snowy path just above treeline, my foot, placed carefully in the boot fall of an earlier climber, shot down through the slushy snow. I fell about four feet twisting my knee as my foot caught the mountain below.
The mountain had been heating up and rivulets of water flowed between the mountain face and the snow pack creating a precarious floating ice and snow scenario that my leg had just fallen victim to. I climbed out of the newly created hole and realized my knee was in bad shape. The pain wasn’t excruciating, though, and as I sat on the side of the trail packing ice onto it, I noticed it wasn’t swelling too badly, either. So probably it wasn’t a sprain.
But then, as I began to move it, my worst fears crept in. The soreness was on the outside of my leg, Had I torn my ACL? This is not an injury I wanted to have with three miles and the most technical climbing still ahead.
I waited about 15 minutes and my Texans finally caught up, and without telling them what had happened, I gingerly followed them. Bill was trying to remain positive for his boys but was clearly having a tough time with the altitude and general exhaustion.
More snow fields filled gaps in the trail making it very difficult to know which way to go. Climbers who had made it this far had not all forged in The same direction, some entered the snow and went high, others low, each setting out to find where the trail would meet up on the other side of the snow.

I was walking the dangerous snow paths with one leg and two trekking poles as it was still too difficult to put weight on my right leg, but I made the right choices in the paths I took, and the Texans followed closely. We passed several people who had completely stopped, waiting for others to show the best path, and saw two parties who had set off on paths that did not meet back up with the steep switchbacks and were forced to scramble up the rocky cliffs in search of the trail.

I was feeling more confident now. I was regaining some strength in my knee–enough to pack my poles and use my hands and legs to navigate the last half mile. I lost sight of the Texans as I began to focus intensely on each foot and hand placement as I climbed over sheets of ice, snow and granite boulders.
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I reached the summit at 10.5 hours, three full hours longer than I had anticipated. The loss of my headlamp, getting lost and the knee injury had slowed my progress to a crawl at the top, and there was no way I would be able to head back down as the pain and weakness in my knee were too great.
I stood at the top of the mountain, trying to follow the trail down with my eyes.
It was steep and long, and the trail disappeared quickly in the snow and ice, but the panoramic view of the valley below and the city of Colorado Springs in the distance were awe inspiring.
The day was beautiful and the weather had remained clear and warm. I stood taking in the beauty of the day until I was asked to move as it seemed I was standing in the way of a photo op by one of the many tourists who had ridden the Cog Railway up to the summit.
Brutal irony, but I laughed it off.
I had summited. And soon after, the boys did too! We celebrated at the top with three world famous Pike’s Peak doughnuts each. By the way, the signature ingredient turns out to be nutmeg. Not such a mystery after all.

This was the most elevation I’d ever climbed in one day, 7500 feet, and other than my knee, I felt fantastic at the top.
And there was no altitude sickness whatsoever, which was the most valuable thing I had hoped to learn on this trek.
I phoned a friend who drove the touristy summit road and in a couple hours I was icing my knee in the hotel room and ready for a long nap.
I was now one step closer to Kilimanjaro, and looking forward to my next training climb.
For aNewDomain, I’m Tim Downs.

 

 

 

About the author

Tim Downs

Tim Downs is the New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of “How Computers Work” an an award-winning illustrator, photographer and designer. He’s art director at aNewDomain.