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The Complete Guide To Climbing Pikes Peak

Posted by Susanna Haynie on July 10, 2014
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Barr camp Barr Trail Pikes Peak

One of the greatest thrills we have living in Colorado Springs is access to the peaks and trails of the Front Range and one of the first things you see here when looking out across the range is the infamous Pike’s Peak, a mountain once deemed “Un-climbable” by its namesake, Zebulon Pike in 1806.  The peak ranks 31st of the 54 Colorado 14ers and with the road and the infamous Barr Trail, it remains a fairly trouble-free ascent provided you have the right equipment, stamina, and attitude.  And while there are multiple ways to get to the top (trains, cars, sneakers, climbing gear, bikes…) we’ll focus on the Barr Trail ascent that begins in  small parking lot in Manitou Springs since it’s the most popular and navigable trail.  And suck it, Zebulon.  My kids have climbed your little mountain.

First, you need the right equipment and the amount and type largely depends on the time of year.  I am a bit of a minimalist so I try to keep the weight down to just the essentials.    It is a 14er and you’ve probably heard that weather changes constantly so you should be prepared for temperatures to drop about 20-40 degrees below the starting temperature.  Rain, snow, hail, sunshine…you’ll likely see all of them year-round!  So here are some of the essentials to help get you in the right mindset:

    1.  Wear just light footwear (flip flops a no-no..and don’t laugh because we’ve seen them…and church shoes??  Really?)  Heavy hiking footwear is not necessary…just use comfortable shoes with sturdy laces and tread.  Every unneeded ounce you have to pick up and put down equals more force through a distance (equals more WORK…which requires more energy).  Science.
    2. Shorts are fine in the summer, but in winter long pants are better.  Go with sturdy nylon that move freely vs. jeans or heavy cotton that can stay damp.
    3. Water is key but here’s a tip…take just a camelback about 2/3 to full and refill at Barr Camp using a filter.  No sense slugging ALL of your daily water consumption when you can break it up.  Also refill on top of the peak if necessary.  There are water fountains and Gatorade available.
    4. Trail food is smarter than a large lunch and again, just enough to get you to the peak where you can re-charge on doughnuts.  High calorie, fast burning bars are good as is the standby trail mix…but throw in fresh fruit (bananas/apples) for variety.
    5. Sunblock/hat/sunglasses will make the next day more comfortable!
    6. Smart Phone!!  With a GPS app loaded, tunes, and memory available for selfies and wow moments in the Aspens and the peak.  Your photo of the big horns will not come out well…so just enjoy watching them.

So you got just the essentials figured out…now lets talk about conditioning because everyday people set out to climb thinking you can drop in from Georgia at sea-level and hoof it up…well, you can do that but you will suffer and miss out on the exuberance of bagging the peak, focused only on feeling sorry for yourself.  So lets do it this way…work your way up to it with some warm ups.

  1. Build your endurance.  Hiking 5-10 miles to begin with and then aim for 10-15 miles on varying terrain.  It doesn’t have to be strenuous…just walk.  Get those muscles and tendons used to constant movement for a number of hours…get your shoes broken in…figure out your food and water consumption…learn to navigate…get your head in the woods because you will be far from civilization for most of the journey and you need to be comfortable on your own.
  2. Go climb Stanley Canyon on the Air Force Academy.  It has some boulders and uneven terrain to scramble over, plus some steep sections to gauge your endurance.  The last part of the Barr Trail is pretty rocky so this is good practice for a little scrambling.  Plus, it’s a gorgeous hike with a rewarding reservoir at the end to throw rocks into!
  3. Feeling spry at this point, so now ready for the graduation exercise which is the Manitou Springs Incline.  I’m sure some go-getter has thrown this challenge to you already, snarkingly bragging about the record time they climbed it.  Pshaw!  Take the challenge and be prepared for an a$$ kicker.  The point is to push yourself and get your heart rate up there to get you through the last several miles of the Peak climb.  My trick is to never stop nor look behind you while climbing.  Save the rewarding, amazing view, for the top!  The big learning point is to just be prepared to “push through” when you are feeling tired.

So you’ve figured out your gear, got your legs looking like the Hulk, minus the torn purple pants (purple, really?) and found a hat that doesn’t say Life is Good (please don’t wear this hat…too cliché), time to work on that attitude, Sparky.

The peak will test you, mostly because:

  1.  It just goes on and on and ooooooonnnnnnnn…..  it never seems to level-off nor indicate just how close you are to the top.  For all the struggle and perseverance, it’s just one step after the next and your brain wants to be on top LONG before you actually get there.
  2. It’s thin-air up there…especially above the tree line and this is important.  Doesn’t matter how conditioned you are, the altitude will affect you…it’s just physics, nothing personal marathon-man/woman.  You don’t have to train up there, you’ll make it OK…just know that you will likely feel sluggish, winded, light-headed.  Water, and plenty of it, will help with this.

Public Service Announcement:  Always, always drink water!!  Hydrate the night before (plenty of pee places along the trail!) and keep putting it down throughout the trip.  It’s lube for the gears, keeps the blood flowing more easily, it prevents headaches at altitude, and waiting until you are thirsty means you are already behind the consumption curve.  You don’t have to pound water on every step…just a little more than usual and keep bringing it up in your group as a reminder.  It’s like insurance because you do NOT want to have to haul somebody’s lame sick self up (or down) that mountain.

Bottom line, you need to just stay positive and hopeful throughout the trip that each step gets you one step closer (it really does!) and all you have to do it make it to the top and you are done.

And finally, just some helpful information bits you don’t learn until you do this once.

    1.  You can hitchhike down from the top without worry.  Just be selective and friendly when you approach the old couple from Billings, MT, if they would be so kind as to return you to Manitou Springs (they are going through there anyway!!) We’ve never been turned down and we meet nice folk.
    2. Try NOT to hate the train dwellers that arrive at the top the moment you do, all bouncy and perky and wide-eyed wearing flip flops and carrying purses.  Just let them live.  I struggle with this one! (Since the cog is closed for the foreseeable future, that’s okay for now https://www.cograilway.com/)
    3. The big horn sheep are docile and interesting and not a bother.  Just admire them.
    4. If you are in a group, loosen you grip and let people go at their own pace, especially at the top where the lines tend to get stretched.  Everyone is in their own private Hell so leave them to figure it out.
    5. Stop for a spell at Barr Camp (about 6-miles up the trail), fill up on water (remember!?), ask to pack out some trash (maybe get a candybar for the effort) because you have lots of room having only packed the essentials.
    6. Kids can do this climb…but be smart.  Maybe plan on overnighting at Barr Camp (lots of sleeping options!) and make it a 2-day trek.
    7. There’s going to be a shuttle service soon as the Pikes Peak Summit Complex is being redone: http://www.koaa.com/story/38317269/shuttle-service-begins-to-pikes-peak

OK, trying to keep this short and informative…FAIL!  Hope it works out for you and your crew.  Say it with me now…  This Mountain is NOT unclimbable….Zeb!