Pikes Peak: A Tough Climb for My First 14er!
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
When I started hiking just about a year ago I heard about the Colorado 14ers from a friend that lives in Denver. I never imagined that I'd get the opportunity to climb one so soon! When my bosses invited me on their annual RV trip to Colorado I was super excited to be able to go on the trip, but in the back of my mind I was secretly hoping I might get a shot at climbing one of the 14,000 footers. At the beginning of the trip it looked like there wouldn't be any time to sneak off for a big hike, but that was totally fine! We did so much fun stuff the 14ers were shoved completely out of my mind. But then I realized that we had a day with fluid plans camped at the base of Pikes Peak and a little light bulb went off in my head.
Hiking Pikes Peak was a bit of a half baked plan from the start. There were lots of logistical issues, and at the beginning I was only aware of the Barr trail as the main route up the mountain. This is an absolute haul at 24 miles and 7,600 feet of elevation gain. Even if I had been in shape and completely acclimated this would have been a stretch, but seeing as I'm a "flatlander" there was no way I'd be able to do that in one day. After doing some research I decided that I could probably handle The Crags, a trail ascending the northwest side of the mountain. This route is 14 miles with 4,300 feet of elevation gain. Not easy but doable.
Next I had to figure out transportation. I asked around some Facebook groups before deciding on a scheduled Lyft as the best option. I booked it for 3:30am on Saturday so that was all set. I figured I would figure out transportation from the trailhead after I was done hiking since I had no idea how long it would take. The last thing I had to do was get a trail map and a pocket knife. I left mine at home because I was planning on taking my backpack carry on and I didn't want it to get taken from me. I refuse to hike any significant mountain without a paper map because it just sounds like a recipe for disaster. I brought all of my other hiking essentials, so those were the only two I needed to purchase. Luckily a local store had both, and just like that I was ready for the hike.
Even though I had all of the necessary equipment and plans made, I still didn't feel ready. 14,000 feet felt impossibly high and I wasn't confident that I'd be able to make it up there. After some encouraging words from friends, I decided that I was going to go for it. The weather looked perfect, I had everything I needed, and I had been at elevation for four days. We had even done a nine mile hike a few days before, so physically I was prepared. The kids even helped me make a sign to hold up for pictures at the summit!
When 3am came around I hopped out of bed full of excitement and nervousness fueling me. After getting ready, I walked out to the front office of our campsite to wait for the Lyft. Unfortunately Lyfts are few and far between in the area so it didn't come until 4:15am. I was dropped off at the trailhead at 5:00 ready to hit the trail. It was pitch black outside, and when I got to the brginning of the trail my stomach dropped. Looking into the belly of the forest I realized I was terrified. I've only been truly scared about hikes a few times. My solo sunrise on Carrigain, that night with the bear at Guyot campsite, Huntington Ravine, and Katahdin's Knife Edge in the rain are the only ones that really come to mind. And even those I was only really scared while I was doing them. I was frightened just looking at the trailhead for Pikes especially because it was dark.
Luckily there were a few other people at the trailhead, so I let them go first and followed behind. I crossed the first bridge and was suddenly on my way. As I walked on the flat dirt path I ran through all of the possible challenging scenarios and told myself that I would bail if any of them occurred. Sudden thunderstorm? Go back down to treeline. Moving too slowly? Turn around. Altitude sickness? Drink water and descend. Mountain lion attack? Well I didn't exactly have a solution for that one but it was pretty unlikely.
I was a little worried about navigation, but following the hikers in front of me made things easy. All of the other hikes in the area were too short to warrant a 5:00am departure, so I was confident we were all going to the same place. I ended up hiking with a man and his young son who were from the area, so it was comforting to have some company. After a few easy log bridged crossings and about two miles of relatively flat terrain, the climb started. The sunrise was beautiful in the valley where I had just hiked from, and I was thankful that I could finally put away my headlamp and see where I was going.
Just as I said to myself "this isn't as bad as I thought," I made it to the series of steep switchbacks just before Devil's Hopyard. When I say steep, I don't mean the traditional definition you think of when hiking in the Whites. This was just a gradually inclined dirt path, but with the high altitude it felt like I was going straight up the mountain. It felt like I was gasping for air every few steps. The wind here above treeline made the 40 degree weather feel like it was below freezing, so I bundled up and kept on moving. I went slowly just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other taking a few quick breaks but not sitting down.
The sun shined up over the horizon when I stepped on top of the ridge and I was greeted by interesting looking rock formations. Devil's Hopyard gets its name from the way lightning jumps from rock to rock during thunderstorms. The rocky outcrops were so cool to look at and I passed through several of them while traversing over to the summit cone. I crossed the auto road at one point where there was a rest stop.
I was told by another hiker that I picked the best day to hike Pikes Peak because it was the annual race weekend where people run up to the summit and back down for a marathon via the Barr trail. This meant the auto road was closed to the usual traffic so it would be significantly less busy. It was then that I realized I had chosen the Mt. Washington of Colorado as my first summit. It's not the highest mountain, but it's the only one with an auto road, a cog railway, and a summit building. As many of you know, I'm not a fan of the Mt. Washington summit whatsoever because of all of the crowds, so luckily I picked the least touristy summer day to climb Pikes.
After hiking alongside the road a bit I came to a set of gorgeous cliffs overlooking a huge ravine dropping hundreds of feet below. Off in the distance there were a few small peaks and an amazing undercast of clouds hanging low in the fields. It was one of the most beautiful views I've ever seen. Getting back to the trail from the cliff was a little tricky with about 100 feet of steep traverse of loose gravel. Losing your footing there had potential to be disastrous, but with careful steps it was doable.
At 8:45am I looked at my watch and realized that I still had a mile and 1,500 feet to climb before the summit. I was really gassed at that point and a little discouraged. These trails were easy, but the altitude was making it extremely difficult. It still looked so far away! I made the mistake of sitting down for a few minutes to have a snack, so when I got up the lactic acid in my muscles made my legs burn like crazy. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to make it up there, but I knew that if I gave up this close from the summit so early on a beautiful day I would deeply regret it.
At that point I was at the bottom of the summit cone looking up at the slope I had to tackle. It was rocky and steep, a dramatic change from the terrain I had experienced all day long. It reminded me of the climb up Osgood Trail to the summit of Mt. Madison only the rock was bright red and smooth unlike the jagged granite so commonly found in the northern Presidentials. I took a deep breath and attacked it expecting to be the most difficult part of the hike. To my surprise, this was the easiest section. Yes it was steep, but it reminded me of home. Others on the trail were struggling, but this was me in my natural habitat! I loved hopping from rock to rock and ascended with ease.
When I reached the summit, I was surprised to find a huge construction site riddled with backhoes and other large equipment. As thrilled as I was to have summited my first 14,000 footer, I was just a tiny bit underwhelmed by the summit. That being said, it wasn't busy and I didn't have to wait for a summit picture with the sign so I was still happy. I went inside the summit building to refill my water and look around, but I returned to the outside area to eat my sandwich and take in the views.
It was a spectacularly clear day and although there was a bit of commotion at the summit because of the race, seeing people finish the half marathon portion of the run was really humbling. I can't imagine running up the thirteen mile trail to the summit of this huge mountain, so I was in awe of the finishers running across the finish line. After hanging around the summit for about an hour I decided it was about time to descend and try to find my ride back to a nearby town.
The descent was really pleasant. The upside of lots of switchbacks is that the terrain is super gradual and easy on the knees for most of the way down. It was pretty gravely so that made it a bit slippery, but to my relief I only slipped twice! There were many people ascending as I was coming down, and they were all cheerful but aggrivated with the blowing winds. I was surprised because high winds are common in NH, but apparently it was much more breezy than usual up here. As I hiked down, I met some nice people who had been camping a little ways down. After chatting for a while, they agreed to giving me a ride to a town only a few minutes away so that I could wait for my bosses to pick me up there.
I hiked down with them for a few miles and waited for an hour while they packed up camp from the night before, but as it turned out that they wanted to go swimming at one of the crossings along the trail. I was starting to get a headache and itching to get back down, so I decided to part ways with them. I ended up finding a ride back to town with the man and his son that I hiked with for a few miles on the way up. It was super nice of them to give me a ride back, and I was glad to sit down at a local restaurant for a hot meal when I was done.
I want to thank Carrie and Kristian, my bosses, for inviting me to come with them on this awesome trip and making it possible for me to do this hike. It was a really big accomplishment for me, and I absolutely couldn't have done it without them. They are seriously the best bosses ever and huge role models for me in every aspect of life. I look up to them in so many ways and hope to be as adventurous as them someday!
Pikes Peak was riddled with amazing views and gentle terrain making it the perfect introduction to the Colorado 14,000 footers. I'm glad I picked The Crags route because it had a little bit of everything from gentle flat terrain to a rocky summit scramble. Although the high altitude made things difficult, proper hydration and preparation made it a great introduction to the world of hiking in Colorado. I can't wait to come back and hike some more 14ers soon!
Pikes Peak (14,115 ft) via. The Craigs Northwest Slopes [16.1 miles, 4700 ft, 9:50].
Follow me on Instagram @lexi.brocoum for more pictures!