Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tried to Climb a 14er and Failed

Despite having grown up in Colorado, I had never gone to the top of one of the state's 53 mountains over 14,000 feet. I thought the list would be a good way to remedy that fact. I had initially thought about doing this back in December, but climbed The Incline instead.

This memorial day weekend, I headed out to go after Pikes Peak with a couple friends. Back in December, I was worried about the snow that had accumulated over the winter and hadn't melted from above the treeline. Unfortunately, this ended up being the case and we heard reports of waist deep snow above the treeline. Additionally, for several nights before our climb, it snowed down in Colorado Springs, which meant it was likely snowing at the top of Pikes Peak, so there was fresh snow as well. Our plan was simply to head out and get as high as we could.

Start to Barr Camp

We got up at 3:45am in order to get to the trail early enough so we wouldn't be out there when storms came in the afternoon. The first half of the hike was pretty uneventful. We started in the dark using headlamps to light our way. It was pretty much your standard mountain hike: good trails, trees, not very tired, peaceful, simply fantastic. We stopped about every mile to just rest, eat, and pee. Pretty laid back.

First break, sun wasn't up quite yet

Barr Camp

Barr Camp is about halfway up the trail (in terms of distance, not time) and has a surprising amount of accommodations despite being at 10,200 feet. There's a little cabin with food you can buy as well as an outhouse. I was surprised to learn that you can camp there for pretty cheap (note to future self).

View of the backside of the camp
There are two caretakers that live there year round. That seems like a pretty solid way to live, I think. Waking up in the mountains every day and spending time talking with nice hikers. Yeah, you probably have to deal with more poop than the average person, but every job has its downsides.

We grabbed some water, a bit of food, and most importantly some info about conditions further up. The caretakers said that above treeline there was consistently ankle deep snow and plenty of spots of knee and waist deep snow. This was a bit disconcerting, but we pressed on.

Sutulas being lazy-pants as always...
We somehow ended up staying here for almost an hour doing who knows what. I still don't know how we wasted this much time here, but it was time to head out again.

A wrong turn

The blue canadian mountie
The next 1,000ish vertical feet were pretty uneventful. Eventually, we came to a spot in the snow where there were tracks in the snow leading both left and right. We took the left path, which was a huge mistake.

This left path almost immediately directed us into waist deep snow, but we soldiered on (stupidly). By following the other footsteps, we could kind of find where the good places to place our feet were so we would stay on top of the snow. But every couple of steps you would place a foot, sink in, and struggle out.

Bob struggling to recover after falling in
I had the least amount of waterproof clothing so, I stayed at the pack and followed in everyone else's footsteps and probably had the easiest time. It was also the funniest position because I got to watch everyone else randomly sink into the snow and swear a little bit each time. We eventually decided that this was either the wrong trail or if it was right, it was going to be very difficult going; so we turned back to try to find the right path.
View from our first turnaround point
Back on Path
We headed back the way we came and found the clear path we should have taken. We proceeded on this path as it started to snow. Or, at least, I thought it was snow. We later learned it was essentially tiny hail. We followed the trail until about 11,700 feet (essentially treeline) when a suggestion arose that we should choose a hard stopping time to turn around so we don't get stuck on the mountain during bad times.

It was about 11:00 am at this point and we started to realize that pushing towards the top was not going to be the safest thing to do. Given the information we had about snow above the treeline, we knew it was going to be hard going. If we got to the top, we were golden, because we had train tickets for the cog railway down. So, the issue was if we didn't get to the top and had to turn around. This decision was where making the wrong turn earlier helped us out because we knew how hard it was going to be to get through that snow.
Just 5 more minutes...
We thought if we pushed on for another couple of hours and turned around at 1:00, it would take us about 6-7 hours to get back down the mountain. This would have been bad news bears because we would be on the mountain during the typical storm time and would potentially also be out there after dark. So, given the low odds of making it to the top, we decided to turn around.

Headed Back Down

Going down was pretty uneventful. We stopped at Barr Camp for about 15 minutes which is where we learned that we had essentially made it to treeline. There were also nice piles of pea sized hail everywhere, so we had lucked out and had gotten the tiny hail and not this deluge. Headed back down was one of those times where time went by so slowly. It ended up taking about 5 hours to go back down, but it felt like it took longer than it had to go up.

Pikes Peak in the background
I was actually feeling pretty bad on the way down because of a growing headache and my foot was acting up. The headache was likely from the altitude and lack of salt in my body (I forgot to pack any salty snacks, so water was just passing right through me) and the foot has been an issue for the past couple of months that the downhills really aggravated.

Once we got below the level where The Incline joins the trail, the traffic on the trail picked up. We secretly hated all these people because they were so fresh and happy. We eventually got back to the truck and headed back. I struggled not to vomit in David's truck and looked forward to a refreshing shower.

Summary (TL;DR Version)

I failed at climbing this mountain. While this wasn't the hardest physical adventure I've done, it was definitely taxing. I gained a great respect for true mountain climbers and have even less of a desire to ever do that sort of thing. Over the next day in the Springs, I had resentment in my heart every time I saw Pikes Peak mocking me in the distance. Regardless of the failure, I got to spend 11 hours with some of my best friends, catch up, have fun, and get in a good hike. This was the true value of the trip. Keeping friends after college is a challenge and scheduling things like this help immensely. I will go after Pikes Peak again sometime, but probably not anytime soon. One thing is for sure, I will do it with great friends.
James and Bob at the top via train the next day

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