Working the Ascent to Pikes Peak


 The sign at the base of Barr Trail, which leads from Manitou Springs to the top of Pikes Peak, is not for the faint hearted:



My adventure began with an email, as things so often do with Neal, aka Christopher Robin. This time, it was a forwarded note from his running club, asking for volunteers to help man the upcoming Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon.

“Interested?” he wrote.

YES, I wrote in capital letters. Which he knew I would, because I am obsessed with the mountain at the moment. Don’t ask me why it has happened, that I should fall in love now, after decades of looking at it every day. I was born in Colorado Springs (am, in fact, a very rare third-generation native). One of my father’s jobs was driving a tour bus to the summit, so he drove up the twisting road twice or three times a week, keeping up a cheery monologue. In those days, Pikes Peak was just a tourist attraction, something so banal as to be invisible to me, like the sky. I mean, I liked it. I liked the sky and the ground beneath my feet, too, but I certainly didn’t spend much time thinking about them.

Not so these days. As writers are wont to do, I’ve fallen in love, almost to the point of obsession, with this mountain that has marked my horizon nearly every day of my life. I’m not interested in books about it, or the history of it, and please save all the “conqueror” stories. No man or woman will ever really conquer Pikes Peak, not really. It’s not something to be bagged and brought home. You can test yourself all you like against it, but in the end, we are human, and the mountain is eternal.

I’m somewhat interested in other people’s accounts of their connection to it. Friends of mine hiked the back of the mountain last summer (easier than up Barr Trail, which is the classic route) and I decided to set that as a goal, but I honestly didn’t realize people ran to the top until I met Christopher Robin, and one of the reasons I likely fell for him was that he has run it, in just over three hours. An astonishing feat, no matter how he modestly brushes off my admiration.

CR volunteered us to work above timberline, and the note came back that we’d work Cirque, a mile and a half down the mountain’s face at about 13,000 feet. It’s a stark landscape littered with pink granite and stalwart alpine flowers growing close to the ground. The air is thin, and the station is precisely halfway between timberline and the top of the mountain-a mile and a half either direction. I hoped the weather would be good. Lightning is not something one wishes to see under such circumstances, and it’s especially not something I wanted to see. I’m very, very afraid of being in the open during thunderstorms-because I’ve watched them boil in over this very mountain my whole life.

A word about the race: The Ascent is a quirky little road race, limited to 1800 runners because of trail constraints. It’s 13 miles, with an elevation gain of more than 7000 feet. Technically, the distance is a half-marathon, but the recommendation is to add 20 minutes to your average marathon time.

In other words, a tough race. The next day is the actual Marathon, wherein runners go to the top, then turn around and come back down, which seems brutal to me, especially since some of them are “doublers,” people who’ve run the Ascent the day before.

Anyway, since we’d be at a high altitude all day, without access to food or shelter, we prepared carefully. The weather reports were not promising: thunderstorms in the forecast, which meant the weather could be anything from blazing summer to coldest winter. We’d have to bring our food, too. Christopher Robin said, “We’ll need to bring a thermos, and breakfast and elevenses and lunch and tea.”

Elevenses? I asked. Yes, said he. Like tea in the morning. After second breakfast, according to hobbits.

Ah. Of course.

We divided up our chores: CR was sent to find a good, sturdy thermos. I was to find ponchos and gather food. On Friday night, we spread out our loot and our clothes: oranges, bagels, turkey wraps with cheese, trail mix divided into baggies, Cliff Bars just in case. Christopher Robin spread his everything bagels with marmite and butter. I put cream cheese on my single multigrain bagel. We discussed, at length, the merits of coffee or tea in the thermos, and finally decided upon tea, since we could get the sugar to an agreeable level for both of us. This did require a lot of planning, however, since we would be making tea for breakfast, then coffee to bring in the car to wake us up, and more tea in the thermos. Every electric kettle in the house would be boiling for awhile.

The thermos was a marvel from REI, with a vacuum seal. I’d found heavy duty ponchos for $5 each. We spread out our clothes: a sleeveless layer as a base, then a long sleeved shirt, then a wool sweater (me) and a Gortex fleece (CR), then coats, then ponchos as needed. Heavy hiking boots and wool socks for me, though CR wore his running socks.

It seemed a lot of weight. August is summer, after all, even on the top of the mountain. Not a big deal if you’re driving somewhere, but we’d have to pack these clothes in, down a mile and a half, and back up again at the end of a long day. After some thought, I took the liner out of my coat. The sweater was very warm, and would do fine.

We set the alarm for 3:45 am, and I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t wait get back on top of the mountain again. I looked forward to giving water to runners, to seeing who the people were who would do such a thing. I worried about the possibility of bad weather, and what we’d do if lightning started. What would there be to do? Nothing, really-you can’t desert the runners. I wondered if I should take off all my jewelry.

At last we got up, layered on some of our clothes, drank our tea, ate some cereal, filled the thermos with steaming tea and our cups with steaming coffee, and headed out to Manitou in the pre-dawn dark. A giant moon, nearly full, blazed over the mountain, lending a peculiar magic to the scene of a town transformed by pre-race excitement. Cars lined the streets, and PortaPotties were clustered in a parking lot. The park was filled with room-sized tents for food vendors.

Race headquarters were at the Manitou Springs City Hall building, and as we clomped into the wide open, gymnasium-like room at the back, I remembered going to pow wows there when I was a child. For a minute, I could hear the drums and see the feathered bustles. A good omen.

It was five am when we checked into the volunteer desk, and she sent us over to our group leader. We all traipsed out to the vans waiting to take us to the top. I looked at the street, at the new day, and thought of all the runners getting up in t heir various bedrooms, stretching, maybe feeling butterflies, or a sense of today. I wondered who would win, male and female, and if they had an inkling. We piled into a van with our group. As we drove to the top, on a winding, guardrail-less road, the sun began to rise through tatters of cherry-stained clouds in the east. The rest of the sky was vast and crisp. Christopher Robin commented that the first runners would have good weather anyway.

At the summit, there were crowds already assembled at 6:30. Christopher Robin filled his big pack with boxes of grapes, and I carried our food in my pack, and we walked with our little crew down the mile and a half to the place where we’d set up the aide station. The others talked about former races, other 14ers they’d hiked, other days, other times. There were three or four men past fifty, all of whom had run the race in the past; a trio of thirtysomethings, identifiably outdoorsy by their gear, me and Neal. The only other woman was one of the thirty-somethings, a tall, lean, high cheek-boned blond with a self-confident and inclusive smile. Her expression said we were all great, the runners were great, we were lucky to be here, alive, on this mountain today.

I had to agree. The sun had risen, gilding the green valley far below us, and the sky above blazed in hyacinth blue. The temperature was cool, almost brisk in the shadows. I was glad I’d applied 30 SPF sunscreen to every available surface of skin. I expected I’d have to strip down later.

At the water station, we hunkered down over black trash bags and plucked ten thousand red and green grapes from their stems. The runners would be too tired to tug the grapes off themselves, so it would be our job to hand them six or seven or eight as they ran by. Two big green trash barrels, lined with black plastic, were filled with water, via a hose snaking down 1000 feet from the summit, far, far above us.

We all settled in knots in the springy tundra and took out snacks. Christopher Robin ate his Marmite bagel, I had mine with cream cheese, and we shared a cup of hot, milky tea from the very efficient thermos. In the bright morning sunlight, everyone started stripping down to shirt-sleeves. It was very still, the air as undisturbed as a lake at dawn, and before us spread the vistas-furry green mountains tumbling away to the city, glittering far away. On another day, we might have seen marmots, which look to me like teddy-bear sized prairie dogs, but they were all hiding.

We waited. Through the walkie-talkie one of the men wore, we heard progress reports: the race had started. People at the first station radioed the first runners to pass, then reports came in from Barr Camp, halfway, then A-frame, just below timberline. A young man was clearly leading, a Colorado Springs native who was a sophomore at Harvard. He’s young to win this race-the best performers tend to be a little older-but he’s leading all the way up.

Some of the men had binoculars, and they finally spied the youth in front, way down at timberline. After another stretch of time, we saw his tiny, tiny figure entering a long, fairly level stretch we would watch all day. (Christopher Robin said, in an aside, “The trick to running this well is that stretch, I’m sure of it” and I knew he was remembering the moment when his body refused to run another inch, right there, three years ago, and he had to walk for awhile, thus costing him the less-than-three-hour finish he wanted (by only a little)).

And finally, we could see him, the youth in front. He has a commanding lead. He runs like he’s jogging across the grass in a city park, his body moving easily and without jarring. He’s wearing no shirt and loose dark shorts. He doesn’t appear to even notice us as he passes. Christopher Robin said, “You could have been naked and it wouldn’t have mattered.”

From where we stood, it was possible to see him running nearly all the way, keeping that same, steady, easy pace. Or it looked easy, anyway. It couldn’t possibly be.

As he neared the top, the cheers and screams and yells began, and we could see lines of spectators along the ridge at the top, tiny figures silhouetted against the sky. Music poured down the hillside.

In the small, elite group of leaders, I happened to see one young man hit the wall I’d heard CR talk about: he was running along at a good pace, got through the water station, and he suddenly stopped running. I suspect he was going to just walk for a moment, but in that moment, the will was gone–physically or mentally, it doesn’t matter. He’d hit the wall. He still made a good showing, of course. There couldn’t have been ten runners ahead of him–but I’m sure he was frustrated with himself the rest of the race & day.

Meanwhile, trickles of runners turned into a stream at our station. I passed out handfuls of grapes. We all cheered the runners as they passed, “You can do it!” “Good going, Lady!” At the water station behind me, Christopher Robin called out again and again, very Britishly, “Well-done. Keep moving.”

Around ten thirty or so, I looked up and saw a cloud. And then there were more.

And more. The wind picked up, and I took advantage of a lull to put on my sweater. Then my coat. Everyone else was doing the same thing, adding more layers and more. Far away, in the distance, I heard thunder roll.

The runners kept coming, though I have to observe that after the first, very fit, very elite group of runners who passed over the first hour and a half, no one else really ran at this point, not at such a high altitude, not at such a grade.

They walked.

It was a huge revelation for me. I thought if they ran the Ascent, they RAN it, all the way.

I also thought the field would be made up of very fit, mostly very young, healthy runners. There were a lot of them, sleek and toned and athletic, with bellies like frying pans and thighs with thick ropes of muscles holding up their knees. But there were also people of all other sorts, too. Young, middle aged, old, both male and female. Some stocky, some skinny, according to genetics. Some very well-trained, smiling, even able to make jokes as they filled water bottles; others grimly planting one foot in front of the other, lips gray with effort.

Every one of them amazing. Wonderfully amazing in the sunshine. And even more so as the storm moved in.

I looked up and the top of the mountain had disappeared beneath billowing gray. I dashed up the hill to get our ponchos, and when it started to hail a few minutes later, we were very glad of the protection. Thunder rumbled loudly, and we saw flashes and cracks of lightning around us. I glanced up the hill to Christopher Robin. Deadly stuff, this, but there was naught for us to do but see it through.

And I felt sorry for the runners. It wasn’t big hail, but it was nasty. Stinging and cold and it went on for a long time. They were dressed thinly for the most part, and thighs showed red marks from the ice. Our group leader started outfitting some of them in black plastic trash bags.

We had every layer on, including gloves, and I wished for more. The runners poured by in the misery, heads down, hair straggling, their focus grimly on the finish. There’s no other out. No wagon to sweep by and pick up stragglers. You have to finish. We saw them go up higher and higher and disappear into the mist.

It hailed, then stopped, then blew, then lightning started lashing around again, all around us. Above us. Below us. Cracking so hard it was painful. The hair on my neck stood up more than once. A couple of times, I squatted instinctively. Eerie. I chose not to think about it much. No point. If lightning took me, I guessed it was my day to go.

I did, however, want Christopher Robin to be safe. I didn’t like it that he had his hands in water.

The runners ran. The hail poured down and piled up underfoot in a slick, treacherous blanket on the trail. One of the guys at the end of the path periodically shouted, “You runners are AWESOME!” They shivered through, and I was amazed how many thanked us for volunteering. The powers that be finally made the decision to cut everything off at A-frame, which meant any other runners would be turned back.

Christopher Robin took advantage of a lull to climb up the slippery hill for our elevenses, tea and turkey wraps. Except I forgot to put the wraps in the backpack, so we made do with Cliff bars.

And hot tea. Hot, sweet, milky tea. I could feel the warmth all the way down my esophagus, and I have to admit I felt guilty enjoying it so much. CR got a big kiss from me over it. I wasn’t particularly cold, honestly, and the hail had stopped again, so we had spectacular views of the valley beneath the clouds, and the odd shot of pale pink lightning across the way. Everyone was getting a little giddy after hours at altitude, and we were relieved not to be crispy critters, so the atmosphere got a bit hectic after that. We heard that the road down was closed, thanks to six inches of ice, and evidently, we had much to be thankful for, because the storm had been worse on the north face.

The last runners came through grimly. Frozen, exhausted, glad of grapes and chocolate and Mike & Ike’s and the trashbag raincoats the leader fashioned for them. I started telling the ones with the most miserable expressions to think of the great story they would tell some day.

The runners thinned out. There were, finally, no more. CR and I shared another cup of hot tea and headed up the mountain with a trashbag, picking up Gatorade cups and Gu packets from the slippery slush on the path. I was beginning to feel very tired and hungry-I had enjoyed the day, but enough was enough. We anticipated eating something hot at the top.

But when we got there, the lines for the busses were tremendous. The road had been opened, but only just, and the runners who’d been waiting there for hours were miserable. The runners leave clothes with a committee who trucks them to the top, so at least they could get warm, but the summit house restaurant had been demolished and there was no food. Many dozens were treated for hypothermia, dehydration and altitude sickness, and they were of course taken down first. Christopher Robin and I found some chocolate bars and I found a cup of hot coffee, and we carried it out to a wall overlooking the valley. He pulled out his last bagel, smeared with Marmite and butter, and offered me half. I was hungry enough to eat it, even though Marmite smells (and tastes) like seaweed. Somehow, it was deliciously salty and hearty and my body was highly approving. Christopher Robin poured the last cup of tea out of the thermos and toasted me. He said, “Do I know how to show a girl a good time or what?”

You do, sir. You do.

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