I spent the last two days on Colorado’s handicapped-accessible peaks, Evans and Pikes. I could have bagged both by car in one day, but that would have been cheating, so I did Evans with Bierstadt as an easy day, then did Pikes via the Barr trail as ultra training.
Bierstadt/Evans (6h, 10.3mi, 3900ft)
I had two interesting incidents on the way up US-285 to the south Guanella Pass road (badly washboarded). First, some crazy in an official-looking green truck tried to pass with an oncoming car and, rather than pulling back into his lane, pulled in only halfway, forcing the oncoming car to a complete stop on the shoulder. Both I and the driver ahead had slowed way down, expecting a spectacular crash, so I got a good look at the woman driving the oncoming car as she sat behind the wheel looking shocked.
Second, in a section with fences on both sides, a deer somehow got onto the road, but couldn’t seem to jump back out on either side. Panicked, it ran from one side of the road to the other, approaching the fence and turning back, as drivers crawled by. I’m not sure how things could have turned out.
This was another easy day, though longer than I had expected. The trail up Bierstadt was well-maintained at first, with a much-appreciated boardwalk making the bog-crossing a cinch. It deteriorated above maybe 13k feet, where snow had forced people to choose their own routes. The register was intact, and there had been a half-dozen visitors to this popular peak the day before.
The sawtooth was disappointing: while staying directly on the ridge made it spicy and interesting, there was a use trail on the east side that (with no view) kept it at class 2. I kept to the ridge for the first part, but dropped down to the ducked trail when the teeth got larger. The last part was interesting, with a ducked route along a series of improbable ledges and blind corners leading to an easy class 2 exit to the plateau west of Evans.
Evans was the downer one might imagine with tourists able to drive within 100 vertical feet of the summit, and a graded trail taking them those last feet. There was a register canister (two, in fact), but I didn’t bother signing in. As I had a snack and admired Evans’ impressive north face, one tourist asked another if the canister was a time capsule.
I crossed the plateau and found the use trail down to the bog without too much trouble. The guy I met on the way down the chute confirmed my suspicion that the bog crossing would be ugly. After an hour following animal paths, stomping on willows, and hopping gingerly on tufts of grass, I reached the Bierstadt trail and cruised back to the car.
While cleaning up, I spoke to a man who had done Bierstadt, and who was carrying a cool antique Charlet Moser ice axe with a long wood haft and a leather wrist-strap on a sliding metal ring. Amazingly, it was perfectly usable after 40-50 years.
Pikes (5h14 (3h15 ascent), 25.2mi, 7300ft)
The town of Manitou Springs is unpleasant in a way that makes it popular, and popular in a way that makes it unpleasant. There are two parts of town: the gingerbread tourist section near the trailhead, and the part with useful businesses like grocery stores and Taco Bell. The former is full of lumbering tourists wandering between eateries and kitsch stores, at least two of which include “Taos” in their names to indicate the presence of Authentic Native American Crafts. Parking is tight (a full day in a lot costs $5), so the streets are full of cars circling for a spot. It’s not the kind of place I would visit, but there’s a peak to bag nearby. The latter part of town is like most other suburban cities, but more expensive: the 99-cent menu at Taco Bell cost $1.09, despite the “99 cents, why pay more?” decals on the windows.
The Barr trailhead, on the west end of town, feels more like a gym than a trailhead. There are a fair number of people whose freakish fitness marks them as runners and ultra-runners; I saw one woman who might have been an elite marathoner. But there are also plenty of what could be gym bunnies, with perfect hair and coordinated outfits. The parking lot at the trailhead itself is empty at night, but full by 6AM, so every evening there is a steady stream of people walking back from the gym to cars parked for almost a mile down the street. Everything is normal a few miles up the trail, but it’s weird down below.
After seeing the trailhead circus, I hung out in town until 8:30 or 9, then easily found a place in the trailhead lot to sleep. Unfortunately, doing the Manitou Incline at night seems to be popular, so I got only limited sleep. I gave up at 5, and hit the trail around 5:20, at which point the lot was mostly full. I carried 2.5l water, a pack of strawberry Cheap Newtons (18 x 70 cal, one every 15 min. on the climb), ibuprofen, sunwear, a shell, and a long underwear top.
I thought I might be able to run all the time at lower elevations, but after the first mile or so started walking the steeper sections when I felt myself working too hard. The grade is moderate and consistent, but I’m not quite in shape to run it. I saw the sun as it rose, but it quickly disappeared behind the low cloud layer.
After an uneventful climb, I reached Barr Camp after 1h30, and spotted a fast climber ahead. I caught him after a few minutes and, after learning that he had climbed the Barr Trail 57 times, asked how long it should take to reach the summit. He thought I might take about 2 hours.
Shortly after pulling away from him, I saw a chicken-sized bird in the middle of the trail, and managed to take a couple pictures from 15-20 feet away before it disappeared into the woods. The trail is rougher, but still well-graded, between Barr Camp and tree line.
The trail above tree line was smooth and moderate, but slightly sandy, making it difficult to run uphill. Walking through the strange rock garden between tree line and the summit scree, I finally emerged from the cloud layer, and was treated to warming sun and great views. Around 13k feet, I began running into snow on the trail, but it had well-worn steps and was hard enough not to posthole.
Somewhere between 3 and 2 miles to go (there are signs), I spotted someone ahead on a long switchback. Feeling my second wind, I turned on the gas to try to catch him. Where before I had been walking most of the time, I began jogging flat and even slightly uphill sections. Snow and running water on the trail slowed both of us, but he stayed ahead to the summit. He turned out to be training for Hardrock, one of the toughest 100-milers in the country, and was encouraging about my foray in ultra-land.
After he took off, I spent a couple minutes exploring the gift shop and looking for the highest rock, then took off after him. I caught him shortly before the smooth, sandy section of the descent, and pulled well ahead before the woods. The knees ached later in the descent, but not in a worrisome way. I reached the trailhead without incident in 1h47.
This was both encouraging and sobering. It was encouraging that, after spending my time hiking, I could still run, and that my performance didn’t degrade too badly at altitude. It was sobering to realize that both the men’s and women’s winners of the Pikes Peak race (which starts a mile down into town rather than at the trailhead) would utterly slaughter me, both for the ascent and for the full marathon. Nick Clark, the winner of the Jemez 50-miler, would have beat me by about an hour on the ascent. Matt Carpenter, the record-holder, was almost twice as fast as I was both uphill and downhill.