Pikes Peak or Bust

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Colorado Springs to Denver, CO

At the top of our agenda today was driving to the summit of Pikes Peak, known locally as "America's Mountain" because Katherine Lee Bates is said to have been inspired to pen America the Beautiful after visiting the top of the mountain in 1893.  Considering what road conditions and transportation were at that time, we should be thankful her hymn to America wasn't called America the Hazardous.

When we arrived at the pay station at the base of the mountain road around 9:15, the temp was about 40°.  Upon learning that we are from Georgia, the ranger on duty asked whether we were accustomed to 18° days, his subtle way of informing us of the temperature at the summit.  'Bring it,' we thought, as we paid our $12 per person toll and began our ascent.

Consulting our 'current elevation' app, we were surprised to learn that we were already at 7,700 feet. Since we began this trip a week ago in Chatom, Alabama (elev. 170 ft.), our increase in elevation has been so gradual, we would not have guessed we had reached such a rarefied atmosphere.  We continued up the road with pine trees on either side until we reached Crystal Reservoir at 9,200 ft.  After parking the car, we lit out in search of a letterbox just a short hike away, according to the clue.  So we foolishly took no water, no bear spray, no bear bell...but, hey, we did have our letterboxing equipment.

The setting was beautiful and the 35° temperature felt pretty mild with no humidity.  The hike turned out to be about six tenths of a mile, maybe a bit more after we wandered around trying to decipher the clue.  Our confusion began when the clue advised that we examine the map and note that the reservoir was shaped like a W.

Apparently, the author of the clue was working with a different alphabet than the one we're so familiar with.  "Notice that the reservoir is shaped like a pipe wrench" would have made a lot more sense to us.  Nonetheless, we eventually found the box with judicious use of what we call the dummy method.  In this case, we looked at all the small rock formations near the tree line until we found the box.  Though the clue hinted nothing more specific than checking the rock formation to find the box, rocks piled up against the base of a stump caught our eyes immediately.  Would anyone notice this besides letterboxers and geocachers?

On the way back to the car, with the letterbox-induced adrenaline waning, we found ourselves trying to avoid any uphill slope.  Later we checked the altitude.org web site and learned that we were struggling because at that elevation, we were getting only 72% of the oxygen available at sea level.

Back in the car, we continued our automotive climb up Pikes Peak.  It wasn't long before the mildly winding road through a forest became a steep course with switchbacks followed by hairpin turns followed by more switchbacks on a shelf like road hanging on the artificial ledge.  Now we saw a W; it was the map on the GPS screen.  Only in the sharpest bend of a turn was there an occasional bit of guardrail.  This was truly a road which commanded respect.

A little more guardrail, please
Until October, 2011, the second half of the 19-mile trek to the summit was on an unpaved roadway.  Ironically, the asphalt surface was extended to the top in response to a lawsuit from the Sierra Club over the amount of gravel and sediment regularly washed off the road into the adjacent alpine environment.  No doubt this has simplified maintenance for the city of Colorado Springs, which operates the highway as a toll road.

Clearly not enough!
When we reached the summit at 14,115 feet, we felt like Elvis Presley—all shook up—and we learned a little something about altitude sickness.  Among all its other Pikes Peak-branded souvenirs, the summit gift shop offers signs, bumper stickers, key chains, and other such items with the slogan "got oxygen?"  For good reason.  Because we experience a 6,000+ ft. elevation change in a relatively short time, our bodies were feeling the reduced air pressure which was delivering only about 60% of the oxygen available at sea level (compared to 97% at home).  Nausea, lightheadedness, rubbery legs, and just a slight malaise assailed us as we got out of the car.  The symptoms subsided once we gave our bodies a few minutes to adjust to their new reality.

Then it was time to descend the mountain, an even more harrowing experience than climbing up since gravity was making every effort to speed our journey at a faster pace than was safe.  "Hot Brakes Fail," signs warned, as we wondered whether we should have ridden the cog railway to the top instead of driving.  With Ken's steady hands on the Acura's downshift paddles, we made it back down safely.

More than half a million people make the pilgrimage to the summit of "America's Mountain" every year, either by car or by rail.  Though peeking at the peak was never was on our bucket list, we can now check it off anyway. 

Pikes Peak Stats:
  • Height:  14,115 ft
  • Length of road to summit:  19 miles
  • Composition:  granite
  • First recorded ascent:  1820
  • Neighborhood:  Front Range of the Rocky Mountains
  • Relative height:  31st tallest mountain in Colorado
  • Average high temperature at summit:  25.8° 
  • Average low temperature:  11.9°

Crystal Reservoir
Was that bear scat we just saw?
Looking down
A little snowy above the tree line
Iced-over reservoirs seen from the top