Some background — we decided earlier this summer that we would take a trip out west. J decided that he needed a new exciting hobby. I suggested Jujitsu or Tae kwon do. He went with mountain climbing. For the past few weeks, he has been training on the treadmill with the incline set to max, wearing hiking boots or mountaineering boots while also wearing a weighted backpack. I have occasionally walked on the treadmill and sometimes wore boots. We decided to take the girls, Lil (17), Lay (15.5) and G (7) to hike Pike’s Peak. Because we are crazy. Or as my friend Barb says, we suffer well.
Chapter One: Travels
I worked until 3:30, then headed home to finish packing everything up. We got a later start than we had hoped (as usual) but we were on the road by 7:00. We headed west in a car loaded down with me, J, Lil, Lay and G, backpacking stuff, snacks, sleeping bags, etc, etc. We drove to Illinois, turned west on I-70 and made it to St Louis, MO about 12:30. It was dark but we had to get out and see the arch. Lots of selfies were made. A park ranger on a bicycle fussed at us but then gave us a lot of info about the arch. We tried to get rooms in several towns. One sounded great but when we tried to check in, he said that the room limit was 4 people, not 5. Ugh. Several accommodation fails later, about 3:00 am, we stopped at a Super 8 in Colombia, MO, which was really great!
In the morning, we got up about 9:00 and headed further west. We stopped at the Bluebird Cafe in Kansas City, MO. It was amazing. So good. So fantastic. Yum. Kansas City isn’t anything like I thought it would be, although I don’t know that I ever really thought about Kansas City at all. So it’s hard to say what I thought it would be like. It’s definitely worth it’s own visit, not just a drive-through. Putting that on my list of things to do that I will forget to do.
Headed westerly again. Then, Kansas. Just Kansas. For a long time. So much flat and fields. The windmills were cool. We listened to a lot of podcasts.
We made it to Colorado Springs about 10:00pm. It was dark, so we couldn’t see the mountains while we were driving in. An issue with the hotel again. We had booked through Expedia, which meant the hotel would hold a bunch of money out of our account. We would be left with not much for the next 4 days. But Kevin at the desk was really awesome and really went out of his way to help. We got the room (really nice, clean, pretty room) and managed to keep the money in the bank. Yay!
Big breakfast. Big big breakfast before heading to climb a freaking mountain. But… I didn’t make a list of stuff to pack for G, so of course I forgot important things like a warm layer. We went to Target for water bottles (SmartWater or LifeWater 1 L bottles are great for putting in a pack…) and a cute sweatshirt for G to wear under her jacket. We left Target and headed to Manitou Springs.
Chapter 2: Pike’s Peak
To the trail! Manitou Springs was a super cute little town. Parking for the trailhead when you plan an overnight stay is damn difficult. We ended up parking in the free parking area and taking the free shuttle to a stop near the trailhead. Then we got to hike up a steep ass street for about half a mile to the trailhead.
The first 3 miles were torture. Seriously. It was really, really hot and all in the sun. The sun and I, we don’t get along. I like the fact that we have plants and green things and our planet isn’t a ball of ice. But I don’t like being out in the sun. It sucks out all my energy and burns my skin and makes me tired. We saw a lady fall right on her rear end on her way down. Lots of people passed us, but they were all heading back down.
The trail got much prettier once we got into the trees. That part was much more promising and we didn’t all want to die anymore. There was an area along the trail where we stopped to refill our water bottles in the stream. (Then sterilized it with our Steri-pen. I’m not dealing with giardia or cryptosporidium. Nope.) The girls played in the flowers in the nearby field. Getting started again was hard, but we eventually did it. We got to Barr Camp just a little after dark.
Barr Camp was amazing! It’s staffed full-time by volunteers. They stay up there 24/7 with no electricity and no plumbing. The 2 volunteers that met us were Bailey and Zach. Zach’s family was visiting. They were from PA. And so, so nice. A friend had stopped by (by “stopped by” I mean, hiked 6 miles up a damn mountain) and made homemade chocolate mousse. They made enough cups that they had just enough to include us! No only did they make the dehydrated meal we purchased, they gave us dessert! (By the way, that was the BEST pasta primavera I have ever had. I doubt that had anything to do with the fact that I was exhausted, really hungry, and tired of Clif bars for the moment.) We had super nice conversations over tea by lamplight.
It turns out that Zach is an amazing athlete. He won (FREAKING WON) the North Face 50 mile Endurance Championship in California. This guy was totally unassuming and talked to us about what to expect on the next half of the hike. We talked about how amazing people who run the Pike’s Peak Marathon are. This guy casually mentioned that he had run it before and that it is hard but that he was sure we could do it sometime. He never once mentioned his training, his abilities, or how much he ran, never bragged about his races or acted like we commoners could never do something like that…
Another super nice couple spent time talking to us about the stuff that we have done. They are ultra-marathoners who moved to Colorado Springs from PA and love it in CO. They frequently hike the Pike’s Peak trail and other 14-ers (those are mountains over 14,000 ft high; we’re so cool now that we just refer to them as 14-ers). She has done the Pike’s Peak marathon a few times and they have done some pretty difficult ultra marathons in Utah and around. They lived in South Africa for awhile. Super interesting people who were so supportive and friendly. They are the ones who told us about Zach’s amazing abilities and they offered for us to stay at their house next time we are in Colorado Springs. (That trip will definitely happen. I’m not sure when, but it will. We love that area!) We talked for a good half hour, then we headed to change out of the sweaty clothes from the day and get in bed.
The girls were afraid of bears, so instead of the 5 of us sleeping in 2 lean-tos, we slept all 5 in one lean-to. It was… cozy. We spent a good 10 minutes trying to remember the name of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s family’s name. (Buckets. They were called the Buckets.) Because we were them that night. We all had to turn over in unison. Bears were no longer a danger because if they had tried to pull one of us out of the lean-to, they wouldn’t be able to. We were tightly packed in there. For safety.
Grace lost her mind because there was a mayfly in the lean-to. She might have woken the entire camp, but they were all very nice about it.
We were all prepared for cold alpine nights. It was not cold, even though it was an alpine environment. It only got down to the mid-50s. We were all burning up. I opened up my sleeping bag and mosquitoes ate me alive. I did not sleep well.
First thing in the morning, a mule deer doe was staring at us, wondering who these sweaty creatures were all piled up like sausages in a little house. Yes, that is what she was thinking. It was obvious. Plus, I am a veterinarian, so I know.
We wriggled out of the lean-to pile and started gathering up our stuff and re-packing. We filled up our liters of water (and sterilized them bit by bit) and went in for pancakes. Delicious whole grain pancakes with apples and cinnamon were filling and tasty! We checked the weather for the climb and thanked everyone at Barr Camp for their kindness, then started toward the top of the mountain. We knew altitude would start to be more of a problem, especially since we would be gaining altitude pretty quickly. We planned a slow and steady approach.
Why are those bags so damn heavy?!?
J found a perfect walking stick and gave it to me. (Spoiler alert: It ends up saving my life. Pretty much.) It helped SO much and we all regretted not getting trekking poles. The hike was beautiful and the temp was about 70 degrees. Gorgeous. We made it to the meadow with the A-frame in time for a quick lunch just before the storm hit. We all climbed into the A-frame to wait it out. It was much bigger on the inside than we thought. (It was probably secretly a TARDIS) Once the storm rolled by, we all crawled out and refilled our water bottles from the stream, since it was the last water before the summit.
We hiked above the tree line and after another 30 minutes or so, the effects of the altitude hit me. Hard. We did have a chipmunk friend who followed us back and forth along the switchbacks for a half mile or more. Marmots fussed at us from the rocks and mule deer stared at us like they were puzzled. J and G even saw a pika, who stuck his head out and yelled at them when they walked by.
You can’t really tell where the trail goes until you get right up on it. Because everything just looks like rocks. Lots of rocks. And rock walls that go straight up a few hundred feet. I wasn’t breathing very well. G was tired (being 7, even just carrying her sleeping bag was a lot to ask) so J took her pack. I attached it to the back of his pack and they started up again, holding hands. He told her she was his battle buddy, just like in the Army, and they had to help each other get through no matter what it took. So she had to help him and he would help her. (My heart melted every time I looked up and saw my husband and little girl helping each other up a mountain. But that’s the way he is, always.)
I started again and realized that, nope, my body wasn’t having any of that nonsense. I took 2 steps and had to stop to breathe. This is where the walking stick saved me. I had to lean on that damn stick like an old woman in a fairytale. I couldn’t sit down or I wouldn’t be able to stand back up again, so instead of sitting down, I leaned. I counted my steps. Every 100 steps, I allowed myself to stop to breathe, take a sip, and lean. Lil and Lay were ahead, helping each other along — because that’s what sisters do. J and G were holding hands and helping their battle buddy. It was heartwarming — and I was terrified that they weren’t going to reach the top in time to catch our scheduled train down and before the storm coming up behind me hit with no cover for them.
I just couldn’t believe how hard it was for me to breathe. It seemed to have hit so suddenly. I kept assessing myself to make sure I wasn’t showing signs of Acute Mountain Sickness. Altitude Sickness I could handle, even with the mild nausea, but I wasn’t sure how to descend quickly if signs of AMS showed up. And I’m not sure my perfectionist, stubborn, Ironman personality would do the right thing and let me go back if early signs started showing up. 100 steps. Stop. Drink. Lean. 50 steps. Stop. Drink. Lean. Worry about the time. Worry about the storm. Where the hell is the damn trail? oh. there it is. 50 steps. 30 steps. 50 steps. 100 steps. Stopping. Drinking. Leaning. WTF?!?!? We have to go ALL THE WAY BACK ACROSS THE SOUTHERN FACE TO THE OTHER SIDE? I’m going to be SO mad if I die after all this but before I get to the top. Step. Step. Step. Pant. Well, shit. My water bottle is empty and I can’t reach my extra one without taking my pack off and we all know that if I do that I will never get it back on and omg it’s getting so late. Ok 100 steps for real this time. Fuck. I can only do 60. Ok. Now 100. Thank god! It’s the golden stairs. I think. Are these the golden stairs? I don’t know. They seem like what the guide books called the golden stairs. I know everyone hates them and they’re hard, but I really hope this is them because that’s the last bit before the end and omg I only have 15 minutes before the train leaves. Yay! Lil and Lay are at the top. They can ride the train and I don’t have to worry about helping them hitchhike back down. This is not good. I’m catching up to J and G. I hope they can make the train. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. Stop. Pant. Lean.
I made it up to the summit as the train was signaling its departure. I felt like I was finishing the Ironman again (just about to vomit and everything), but I made myself hobble/run to the train. I got to my seat just as my vision started to get tunnel-y and sat down with my head between my legs. My sweet little 7 year old mountain climber was terrified that the train would go fast and she was sobbing. Lay wasn’t on the train because she was still in the gift shop. It started raining and she made it on board just before the train pulled away.
Lay had been like a mountain goat the entire trip. The altitude hadn’t touched her at all and she didn’t seem to struggle in the least. She was always waiting on us (patiently) and helping G. But she tends to get motion sickness. It might have been the sudden change in altitude up and then down again or the motion or a combination of both, but she got pretty sick on the train and didn’t feel well for the rest of the night. Everyone on the train and the shuttle cheered for us since we summited the mountain, and Grace got special applause on the shuttle when they found out she had climbed the mountain too.
It was pouring rain and whipping wind and crazy lightning as we ran from the shuttle to the car — which was mercifully still there and had not been towed. Everything was wet. Everything we were wearing was soaked. The luggage bag on top of the car had water standing in the folds, now that it was mostly empty, so that poured out onto us and into the car door when we tried to open it. We shoved a couple of packs into the luggage bag and made the girls hold the rest on their laps. Except that Lay had to keep getting out to get sick 😔 . We thought we might camp that evening, but no way were we going to set up tents in the pouring rain with all that wind and lightning.
We ate pizza at Hell’s Kitchen (except Lay — she got hers to go) and found a room at a really awesome, really old motel called the Silver Saddle. I realized just before we went to the hotel that my walking stick had been left at the train station. I was not going home without her. She was my new walking stick and she had saved my life and I was going to take her home and name her and maybe even paint her. We went back to get her and stuck her in the car, between all the kids.
Then to the Silver Saddle. It had not been updated in awhile, but it was clean, had a shower, had wi-fi, AND had a king bed in a separate room from the 2 queen beds. Perfect. We got all our stuff out of our packs and laid everything out to dry. We slept pretty well, but wanted to sleep much longer than the 10:00 alarm.
Chapter Three: Pike’s Peak the Easy Way — easy-ish
Packing everything up that morning was tricky and a pain in the ass, but we got everything re-packed pretty well. Moira (my stick) got strapped onto the luggage rack behind the luggage bag. (Yes. Moira. She named herself, so I had to go with it.)
Lunch/Brunch was at Adam’s Mountain Cafe in Manitou Springs. It was ah. may. zing. SOOOOOO many vegetarian and even vegan options and they were all so delicious. And the portions. They were HUGE. This is saying a lot coming from someone who just climbed a damn mountain.
J and I dropped the girls off in town so they could do some shopping in the super cute town at all the super cute stores. G was really excited to be able to walk around with just her sisters. J and I headed to drive to the summit of Pike’s Peak, since we hadn’t gotten any pictures or souvenirs the day before (as we had breathlessly stumbled to the top in a storm while the train was practically pulling away from the station…) We also needed to spread J’s granny’s ashes since she had always wanted to go to Colorado and we wanted her to have a good view.
I am used to driving on curvy, frightening, narrow mountain roads. They don’t bother me (as long as I am the one driving). But this was a HARROWING drive. No guard rails in most areas and steep drop offs. I was fine, but J was not. He was scared and I have NEVER, EVER seen him scared before. Ever. He doesn’t do well with heights. He did fine with the climb up and was even able to look off into a 1500 foot drop on the hike, but being in a car headed up this mountain with sheer drops on his side and cars coming down the mountain on my side, knowing that burned out and failed brakes are a thing was too much. Plus, we were both affected by the altitude again when we reached the summit and got out of the car. We decided it would be best for him to ride the train back down again. (This was a wise decision. For him and for me. He was freaking me out.)
We shopped around in the gift shop and took a lot of pictures from the summit. We took some group pictures for a family from Indiana who had flown into Denver a few days earlier and were having trouble with the altitude too. We told Granny that we had all climbed this mountain and we love her and then we spread her ashes in a place with a beautiful view, away from everyone. The wind was whipping around in all directions, so even though I thought we were upwind, ashes blew into my eyes. Of course they did.
I bought a doughnut (they are homemade at the summit) and a huge Mountain Dew and started back down. As I was getting the doughnut, the summit employee (the gift shop employees are almost all also EMTs — good call, Pike’s Peak team!!) announced that a big storm was a few miles away and “if you are standing out here on this mountain, YOU are the highest point in the area. You need to take cover in the building or your car until the storm passes.” Hahaha. Very true. We were the highest point. I might have been giddy from the altitude or the anticipation of the doughnut, but I giggled.
He wasn’t kidding about the storm. Just as I headed down (in my lowest gear; I’m no dummy), the storm hit. And when I say it hit, I mean it pummeled me with golf-ball sized hail and huge wind gusts. I just had my windshield FINALLY replaced before the trip after years of putting it off and all I could think was “please don’t crack my windshield!! I was really glad J was on the train because the descent plus the storm plus all the warnings about failing brakes would have been torture for him. And me. As it was, I pulled over a few times to take pictures. And once to let an SUV fly down past me, then watch them continually hit their brakes every few seconds. It took a while to get down.
I wished I had bought a dozen doughnuts. The one I ate an hour earlier was really good and I wanted another one and I wanted everyone to be able to taste them!
At the brake checkpoint, the ranger smiled and said, “Wow! 78 degrees!! Keep it up!” These are the kinds of things that make me proud. Like when my urine is really dilute and I’m like, “Yay! I’m so hydrated!” Or when I’m like “I remembered to pay my bills!!” Being an adult is stupid.
J took the shuttle to meet the girls who had taken shelter in the Tavern Inn restaurant and had eaten some dinner. We went to a few shops and bought more stuff (art — Darth Vader holding 2 kittens!!!, ice cream, T-shirts. You know. The usual)
More pouring rain, lightning, wind… We got settled in and headed south to Pueblo. Apparently there was some sort of a convention in the area that week and we got literally the LAST room at the Comfort Inn. It was nice! Soft beds, clean. The kids and J were hungry and wanted to find food. At 11:00 pm. They found a cool diner to eat at, but I stayed in the room and took a LOOOONG shower, read a book, and enjoyed the quiet bed! Because I am an adult and being an adult is stupid. Also because I am an introvert and had been with people non-stop for days. Except for the couple of hours when I couldn’t breathe and thought I might have to help everyone hitchhike down a damn mountain.
Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter! Chapter Four: Pueblo and Taos and We Didn’t Get Murdered in a Teepee!