As well as our author, early pioneers heading west felt the power of the message, “Pikes Peak or Bust”! MaryAnn Gerst
Story by MaryAnn Gerst
Pikes Peak in the center of Colorado State is named for Zebulon Pike, an early explorer of the Southwest United States. Lieutenant (later General) Pike first sighted what he termed the “Great Peak” in mid- November of 1806, though he was only able to climb to the 10,000-foot level before turning back due to a heavy snow pack. The Peak’s proximity to the edge of the Great Plains and its height made it the first sight of wagon train pioneers searching for new fortunes and beginnings in the American West, leading to the expression in the late 1850’s of “Pikes Peak or Bust”. (History courtesy of Pikes Peak Cog Railway.)
It all began with a simple email from my friend Robin on June 1, 2011, mentioning that she and her husband would be in Colorado Springs for a couple of months. My husband and I planned to be in the state during the same time period. She asked if I would be interested in hiking to the summit of Pikes Peak at the end of August. Despite knowing little about Pikes Peak and being only a casual hiker, I immediately answered, “Yes!”
Above the treeline, Barr Trail switchbacks across the upper portion of the trail reveal trekkers as tiny specks on the path below. MaryAnn Gerst
After researching this hike, I emailed her again and told her we might want to rethink this insanity. The summit is 14,115 feet high with almost an 8,000 vertical foot ascent over a 13 mile distance. It was described as a grueling, yet invigorating hike, rated as difficult. Good grief, I’d be 67 years of age in a month and this seemed way out of my league.
After numerous emails and phone calls to discuss the demands of this hike, we decided to give it a try. We found a “28 point per week”, six-week training program on the Pikes Peak Challenge website. This would be our measuring stick for being able to do the hike.
We started our training routine and were able to get the necessary points in the first couple of weeks, but we noticed that we ran out of energy anytime we hiked longer than three hours. We were feeling discouraged! My husband, being an avid bicyclist, told me we weren’t fueling our bodies correctly for the amount of exercise we were doing. We started reading up on energy gels, drinks, bars, electrolytes and recovery drinks. After a quick trip to our local sports stores, we stocked up on various supplements to enhance our exercise routine. On our next hike, we traded in our flavored water and peanut butter sandwiches for these supplements, and were amazed at the difference we experienced. Not only did we go twice as far, but had energy to spare after hiking. We continued to hike higher and longer and decided to go for it … Pikes Peak or Bust!
Looking up at at the top of Pikes Peak, where less intrepid visitors arrive by cog train or car. MaryAnn Gerst
I had an opportunity to be in Colorado Springs on August 9, so we decided to do a practice hike and go half way up the Barr Trail to Barr Camp, with an elevation gain of 4,000 feet and a 13-mile round trip. We were somewhat apprehensive about our hiking compatibility, but we just clicked and finished the trip in fine shape, both keeping the same pace.
Training continued and then on August 12 I tripped while climbing over my doggie fence. My husband rushed me to the hospital where I got 9 stitches in my left lower shin – just two weeks prior to our hiking event. I cried all the way to the hospital as I felt sure this was the END of my hike up Pikes Peak. However, after being treated, the doctor said I should be able to do my hike as long as I stayed off my leg a few days.
Half way to the top, hikers relax and listen to a guitar solo on the Barr Camp deck. Teresa Taylor
Four days prior to the hike, I had my stitches taken out and got the OK from the doctor. Now all we had to confront was the unpredictable weather. All we could see in the forecast was 20 -30% chance of thunder storms. In the Rocky Mountains, this means storms are very probable and weather conditions can deteriorate rapidly. Colorado is famous for apocalyptic lightning storms, some of them life threatening. We were warned not to be above the timberline if a storm started to roll in. We had three miles to hike above the timberline, before reaching the summit.
I drove into Colorado Springs on Friday, August 26. It was raining and Pikes Peak was socked in. Not a good sign! After an early dinner we decided to be on the trailhead at 1:30am, hoping this would get us to the top by noon, before any T-storms rolled in.
Pikes Peak is home to one of Colorado’s largest bighorn sheep herds, frequently seen on the hike or on a Cog Railway ride. Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Teresa and Neal Taylor have been caretaker hosts at Barr Camp since 2005. Teresa Taylor
Robin’s husband dropped us off at the Barr Trailhead and we started our hike on schedule at 1:30 am. Luckily, there was no rain and the stars were out in all their glory. It was a magnificent sight. There was no moon that night and no city lights to detract from a heavenly array of a million sparks of light above us. We were both in awe, awash in a sense of comfort, peace and contentment. We got to Barr Camp, the half-way point, by 6 am. A lot of hikers make reservations to spend the night at Barr Camp and do the hike to the Pikes Peak Summit over two days, but ours was to be a one day affair.
We filtered some water, mixed up more energy drinks and were back on the trail, feeling great. As we started on the second leg of our journey, we could actually see the top of Pikes Peak. It looked a long way off and very high! Three miles beyond Barr Camp the forest fell away with no trees to obstruct our vision. The panoramic view was breathtaking. As we looked down at the pine-tree-laden valleys below and the high, rocky peaks above, we were felt dwarfed by the vastness of everything.
Three miles from the top, there are posted mile marker signs. We were above 11,000 feet. At the second sign reading two miles and 12,300 feet, we were elated. At the one mile sign reading 13,300 feet, we knew the end was in sight. Our last sign read “The 16 Golden Stairs”, the last intense bit before the top. As we started the “stairs” which are really a series of short, steep, rocky switch-backs, we could actually see some “small” people at the top and a portion of the Cog Railway train. And then “THE TOP” – in 10 hours and 10 minutes, with energy to spare! Robin’s husband was waiting for us at the summit to photograph our final ascent and drive us back down.
MaryAnn (in front) and Robin as they make their final ascent. Ted Merritt
We bought Pikes Peak T-shirts, but surprisingly couldn’t find one that said “I Hiked Pikes Peak”. My husband commented that they wouldn’t be big sellers, as most people either drive up the 19-mile road or take the Cog Railway to the summit. But I bought a shirt that said, “Got Oxygen?” That said it all!
Two days after our hike, I found myself feeling a little sad. No more training schedule, no more worries about the weather, and no more Pikes Peak to conquer! What’s next? Tanzania’s Mt Kilimanjaro? Robin definitely has this in her sights within the next couple of years. I think we should do it together!
The cog train leaves the 14,110 foot level of Pikes Peak overlooking the Collegiate Range mountains along the Great Continental Divide. Pikes Peak Cog Railway
The Pikes Peak Barr Trail begins in Manitou Springs, CO about 8 miles outside of Colorado Springs, starting at an elevation of 6,400 feet. It is a well-traveled and well-maintained trail. Barr Camp, www.barrcamp.com, about half way to the summit, hosts day hikers and overnight guests for all but a few days of the year. The summer months are busiest with visitors from around the world. Over 25,000 hikers visit the camp annually, 2,500 as overnight guests. The large deck welcomes hikers to take a break, eat a snack and contemplate the rest of the hike. Learn more about Pikes Peak.
The track of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway is 8.9 miles long; round trip lasts 3 hours and 10 minutes. For complete information on the Railway, go to www.cograilway.com.
In August 2013, MaryAnn achieved her expressed goal of hiking to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Read her inspiring story of that adventure in our Travel Article Library collection.
Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, MaryAnn Gerst is a retired Public Relations professional. During her 30-year career in the utility industry, she wrote numerous customer, energy-savings programs and employee training manuals. MaryAnn is a member of the Albuquerque MeetUp Hiking Group and enjoys hiking several times each month with her hiking companions. Having now ticked Mt Kilimanjaro off her list, for her next challenge, she is looking at hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru.