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Pike’s Peak, East Side from Crags Campground


Author: Gary Clark

Participants: Gary & Lynn Clark, E. Chris "8000m" Horley

Chris called us up to say he had recovered from our Alaska trip and was ready to put one more goal in the bag — completing the Colorado 14ers. (If you are reading this in Tasmania, Colorado has 54 mountains that reach 14,000’. They are called the 14ers, and it is a popular game to climb them all.) He had saved the best for last -mighty Pike’s Peak, one of the more difficult summits to reach unless you have a car or the money to buy a seat on the tram. The 14ers game has rules though, and these preclude being hauled up by internal combustion or electrical energy, so we discussed the alternatives, and there were some good ones. We could either walk up the Barr trail (at 12 miles and 7500’ one-way, a guaranteed major workout) or the trail from the Crags campground on the East side, at 6 miles and 3900’ one-way, a bit more reasonable for a day trip. We didn’t make any firm decision over the phone and I said we’d come prepared for anything.

When we met for the drive after work on Friday, Chris said he had decided on the Crags approach. Sounded fine to us, but we hadn’t read any of the description. No problem, Chris is an experienced mountaineer and conqueror of 8000m peaks (OK, peak) in the Himalayas. We knew we were in good hands. However, when we arrived at the campground around midnight, I began to have doubts. It was raining outside, and he began whimpering piteously while testing the front seat of our van to see if he could sleep there rather than getting out in the rain to set up his tent. I have never seen Reinhold Messner behave like this.

Morning came. The opportunity for an alpine start had long passed when we finally crawled out of the bags, slam-dunked some nauseating nondescript food, and started up the trail. Our spirits were high with a blue sky and the sun boiling clouds of steam up off the trail to create a highly photogenic scene. I trundled along behind trying to capture it on film while Chris and Lynn jogged ahead. We were having a great time, laughing and joking about how the boots and Gore-tex jacket Chris had worn on a majority of the 14ers would certainly end up some day in a display case at the Old Climber’s Home Museum. We thought he should have the boots bronzed, or at least waterproofed — they were looking a bit worse for the wear.

After an hour or so of such frivolity, we came to a fork in the trail and Lynn suggested we get out the route description, particularly since neither she nor I had even glanced at it yet. It read

"Hike the trail from the campground a scant 250 paces to a set of three pipes. 50 paces beyond the pipes exit to the right on a faint climber’s trail . . .


By the time we had walked back to find the correct trail, it was time for brunch. Gray jays joined us at trailside hoping we’d leave a few crumbs behind of the stomach-filler type-A we were ingesting. Chris’ credentials as a guide were discussed at length, and I began wondering whether we had blown it totally. The weather report was not great and there was still hail and snow on the ground from yesterday’s storm. Could we get 6 miles and 4000’ before the pattern recurred? Nothing to do but try . . .

Something was wrong with me. Each time we started out I would huff and puff and watch Lynn and Chris accelerate up the slope. It would only take about 5 minutes before they were out of earshot, and every hour they’d have to stop altogether to await my pathetic struggles to catch up. The spirit was willing, but the legs and lungs were on strike. It was one of my poorest performances ever on a mountain. Nevertheless, we finally all reached the road crossing. This was an amazing sight — literally hundreds of cars crawling toward the summit. There are no guardrails, but the road is wide and well graded. Drivers were clearly intimidated, though, as evidenced by their timorous pace.

Once the road had been crossed, the fun hiking was largely over. In contrast to the pleasant alpine atmosphere of the lower east side slopes, we were now never far from the sight, sound, or smell of the traffic. The trail parallels the road closely for a while, leaves it to cut behind a hillock before crossing again, then finally goes straight up the ridge to the summit area. The final 500’ is fairly steep and affords good views of the impressive couloirs on the North side. These are popular snow climbs (advanced) and skiing (extreme) objectives, reachable quickly from the road. We’ll probably return to check these out on a future date.

We had a proper celebration on the summit; Lynn had carried up a small bottle of champagne (I should have loaded her down with a Magnum). Drinking champagne at 14,000’ is a unique experience that reminded me of some chemistry lab experiments I had botched back in high school. Chris brought a T-shirt listing the names and elevations of all 54 14ers, which he put donned to the cheers of the rest of the team. We took lots of self-timed photos of ourselves, which entailed running back over the boulders from the camera in time to be in the photo after drinking the champagne, After the party Chris headed down with a friend from Boulder who’d met up with us near the summit and graciously agreed to drive him back to the trailhead.

The summit area of Pike’s Peak is unique among all mountains we have climbed. It is very large and flat, but that’s not the big deal. It’s the fact that you can purchase a cheeseburger, coke, and fries (only $9.75), any number of souvenir T-shirts proclaiming "I survived the drive to Pike’s Peak" or "Guardrails are for wimps!" etc., coffee mugs, disposable cameras, and all the other baubles that a tourist’s heart could desire. I settled for a cheeseburger. While eating it, several groups came to our table asking: "Did you walk all the way up here?" I don’t know what tipped them off: the clothes, the packs, or the fact that I was treating the cheeseburger like a grizzly treats a ground squirrel. The final visitor was a ranger, warning us that seriously dark clouds were coming in from the West. I shoved the rest of the cheeseburger down my throat with my ski pole and we bolted for the door.

The storm was imminent, all right, and we needed to hustle to beat it. Powered by cheeseburger, I was now functioning more normally and we made good time via glissading and talus running on the upper slopes. When we reached the road crossing, however, we could sense trouble. A police car pulled up with the officer inside motioning to us imperiously to come over to the car. He wasn’t about to get out into the wind, so we stood alongside while he conducted a bizarre radio conversation with other authorities up and down the road. He was intent on rescuing us from the impending storm and simply from being outside of a car on a 14,000-foot mountain, an unusual and dangerous situation to be sure. It took about 5 minutes to dissuade him from the notion that we needed to be rescued. We bolted down the bank to avoid any further encounters of this kind and to make serious downward progress before the lightning show began. As we reached the crest of the plateau and started down the east side, snow and sleet plastered our parkas and wind pants. Full conditions! This was the best part of the trip for me; the teeth of the storm, lightning on our heels, a Gore-Tex kind of day. Guardrails are for wimps, indeed!

We reached the Crags campground before Horley arrived via the road, to find one of the new Forest Service Usage Fee envelopes on the windshield. Just say no.

Synopsis: East side of Pike’s Peak from Crags CG. 4 hours up, 1-3/4 down. Recommended. Don’t forget money for the top. The cheeseburgers are every bit as good as McDonald’s , at only $3.75.


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