Saving Ourselves

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Let me start by saying these girls were prepared for this hike.  They’d backpacked this trail multiple times before, and were even nominated by Search and Rescue to earn the Red Cross Lifesaving award for rescuing hikers on this trail on another occasion.  They received that award.  They also train for and participate in an outdoor survival skills competition every year. They are experienced, in great physical condition, “pumped” about going on the hike, and I know them and their personalities well. I trusted their abilities.

For those of you who worry, don’t.  Everyone made it out ok without any injuries that needed more than moleskin and a few Tylenol.  

As always the girls spent the night at my house the evening before the hike. They made blueberry muffins for breakfast the next morning, and stayed up way too late giggling.  I checked the weather forecast for the next day:  83-90 degrees with no chance of rain. AWESOME!!!  We’re always worried about thunderstorms above the treeline. We were so excited it wasn’t going to be an issue this time.  We woke up at 3am and were in the parking lot by 3:55am.  

The parking lot was pretty empty, except for two large passenger vans.  As I was paying for parking I overheard a director surrounded by about 20 people talking about how they were all going to hike to the top today, and their goal was to do so by noon.  He prayed for God to bless their bodies and journey.  I thought a few things:How cool for a church group to hike Pikes Peak!

· They do NOT look prepared for a hike like this.  They are in shorts and none of them look like “hikers”

·  Making it to the top by noon was overly ambitious

·  I wanted to get a start before they did because passing them would take forever!

I quickly paid for parking and ran back to the truck.  We grabbed our gear, turned on our headlamps, and got going.  I said a positive “Good Luck!” to one of the church ladies preparing to hike (she seemed confused when she noticed I wasn’t with her group), and we were on our way before 4am. 

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We’ve hiked Pikes Peak before, but this was the first time we’d done so with small packs carrying just water.  We have always backpacked with 30lb packs, so this was a treat!  We made great time!  We hiked the first two miles in about 40 minutes (which is amazing, considering it’s all uphill).  As always, we enjoyed the view.  No matter how many times I try, I can’t capture the beauty.  I need a special camera. 

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The hike up to Barr Camp was pretty uneventful.  The first 3 miles of incline are the hardest, and then the next 3 are gently sloping. No long breaks were needed beyond shedding layers (it was getting warm, and we were sweating). We saw various new flowers that aren’t in bloom when we usually hike in July or August, as well as a caterpillar nest.

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We made it to Barr Camp at 6am (6.5 miles in 2 hours) and had a heavy snack.

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Most of the campers there were just waking up. One man came up to us and asked about the conditions of the trail.  He said hikers came back yesterday saying the snow was up to their thighs in areas and they weren’t able to summit.  They kept losing the trail and getting stuck in snow, but said you could get pretty far if you “kept going left” and asked if that sounded right?

I told him it made sense, but we had crampons, so we weren’t too worried.  His concerned reply:  “I wasn’t worried about you, I was worried about making it myself.  Do you think I can make it?” I thought this was hilarious! I initially thought he was looking out for us, but he was really worried about himself and his abilities. Apparently we looked like we knew what we were doing.  He was worried he wouldn’t be able to find the trail, so I gave him some pointers.

Around the 8 mile mark we saw patches of ice on the trail.  Right in the middle of the trail to be exact. 

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It was 1 more mile to the A-frame, and at this point we were feeling pretty good.  It was so much easier hiking with just water! We made it by 8:30am and took a look around.  It was not as green as it usually is (probably too soon in the season), but otherwise it was cleaner than normal (kind of… still some trash here and there).  We were met by a marmot living under the frame and a young buck!  SO cool!  We never see deer at 11,500 feet! 

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Just as we were getting ready to leave a man came down the trail.  He looked like an experienced hiker, so we talked with him a bit about the trail conditions.  We asked him if he’d summited yet, and he said he hadn’t.  He’d been trying for the past 4 weeks, but there was always too much snow.  Last week the A-frame had 4 feet of snow around it.  He was hoping to summit today.    He also said he’d seen the church group at about 6am near the top of the incline…it had taken them 2 hours to hike 2 miles. There was NO WAY they were going to summit today, but they still seemed to think they could. They had driven in from Oklahoma at 10pm the night before the hike.  The girls and I had flashbacks of saving those hikers form Kansas, and mentally prepared ourselves to help if necessary.

We said our goodbyes and continued with our hike around 9am.  Immediately after the A-frame we lost the trail due to snow. There wasn’t snow covering the ground completely, but huge piles of it covering large parts of the trail.  We knew which way to go, but it was under too much snow to traverse. 

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We could see large switchbacks further up the mountain, so we decided to just head straight for those and continue with the trail there.  Normally I am completely against going off trail and creating new ones, but we really had no choice:  there wasn’t a trail to follow.  We could see where other hikers had attempted to go up, and tried to follow their tracks where possible (all in the snow, so we weren’t trampling ground cover).  If we found the trail we took it until it was buried in snow again.  Many times we “made our own trail” over the previous one.  

We got really good at confidently making our own solid tracks in the very slippery snow. You see, the problem was we had no way of knowing how deep the snow was.  As you can see by the picture below, one step I was on solid ground.  The next I sank to my waist, and was only able to get out because my right foot was in a stable position.  There’s no telling how far I’d have sunk if I hadn’t had one foot in a solid position.  Yes, I was scared the first time this happened!

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Adding to this was the water.  Water trickles down from Pikes Peak into rivulets and small streams, then continues past the A-frame down the mountain. Some of them run below the rocks, others above.  These streams can be heard the entire time you’re above treeline.  You can see them at points, but you can always hear them.  We knew there was water flowing below us, but we never knew if it was under snow or rocks.  We’d be in trouble if it was under the snow and we fell in!

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There were times when I had to make our own tracks and could see hoof prints in the snow.  I followed those tracks, trusting the Bighorn Sheep or Mountain Goat that had made them…

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Did I mention the Marmots?  We saw more marmots this trip than I’ve ever seen before, and they were quite fluffy…

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There tracks were everywhere too… Adorable!

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We eventually found a way to a switchback leading to the Cirque.  Notice how hard I’m breathing?  It’s really hard to breathe at 13,000+ feet!

Just after the Cirque we followed the trail until we found the 1 mile mark, where it completely disappeared.  We could see the “16 Golden Stairs” sign, so we made our way towards it.  At this point we had to completely abandon the trail and just hike straight up.  There weren’t footprints to follow, or any sign indicating which way we should go. We knew how the trail usually bends, but due to snow were unable to get to those spots.   We also knew we wouldn’t be damaging any groundcover because it was all rocks. 

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It was like rock climbing on ice!  Except there were no footholds, so we had to make our own.  And there was nothing to hold onto except for our hiking poles and the holds we made before lifting ourselves up.  And there were a lot of unstable rocks hiding below the snow causing minor rock fall avalanches.    It was really scary and slippery, but the girls confidently made their own trail.  Oh, and crampons for the win!  Those things are amazing!

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We summited at 12pm. It had taken us 3 hours from the A-frame, the normal time is usually does, but not in the traditional fashion.

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Side note: The man we met at the A-frame was with a group of about 10 male hikers.  They followed our footprints, so basically we made the trail for them.  They didn’t have crampons so they were unable to summit.

We summited about 20 seconds before a cog train arrived, so we booked it inside the summit house to grab a table.  We got donuts!!!  I’ve summited Pikes Peak several times, and this is the first the donut machine has been working.  I celebrated!

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We collapsed at a table to take a well-deserved break.  That hike was insane!  We were so proud of ourselves!  We had never done anything like what we just did:  blazing our own trail and climbing through ice and snow for 3 miles up the face of Pikes Peak!

We also noted how scary we must have looked to everyone else there arriving from the train: you know, the ones wearing makeup with their hair curled.  

As we sat there a “Park Ranger” (I’m not really sure that’s an official title, but there’s always a guy in a park ranger uniform at the summit house) came up and asked us if we’d hiked up.  When we told him we had, he said we were the first this season!  Woot! He then asked us if we’d be hiking back down (instead of taking the train) and told us to be careful:  The other day he had someone lose their backpack looking over the edge and it slid 1500 feet down the slope.

A bathroom stop was on the agenda, but the line for the bathroom was longer than the line for fudge (which had about 30 people in it) so we decided to book it down the trail and go at the A-frame instead.

We went outside for a few pictures.  Everyone who talked with us was super impressed we’d hiked up the mountain.  See how proud we are?  The person taking the picture noted the awesome rain shower in the background…

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We’d just been through a very intense hike, and came up without a proper trail.  This time we were at the summit and knew where the trail down started, so we decided to descend using the trail as intended.  The “park ranger” was standing at the edge where we’d summited, presumably discouraging people from taking that way down. All routes from the top looked impassable, but we knew if we could just get past the snow we’d be able to find our route down.  After all, the snow wasn’t “everywhere” as there were patches of rocks in between, and we’d made it up, hadn’t we?

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We hiked for about 40 feet and knew immediately hiking down was not the same as hiking up.  

This is where I need to pause a moment and let you know how we got into the situation that put us at risk.  I am a serious photographer (intense hobby).  Much to the disappointment of my children I take pictures of everything.  I am rarely seen without a camera in my hand, and indeed summited Pikes Peak this trip one handed (with my Canon Rebel in my left hand… yes, I got a scratch on the lens from a falling rock, but it was worth it). In addition, there was no room in my backpack to hold my camera, so I had to keep it around my neck.

Remember that picture from before where one foot was level, and the other sunk to my waist in the snow?  Well, that happened just as we were descending, except instead of catching myself I was off balance (due to my camera) and slid one foot first, one sideways, 600 feet down the face of Pikes Peak.  Things going through my head at this time:

· This is bad

· Don’t start turning!  Do whatever you can to stay upright and don’t tip over!

· Don’t scare the girls!  Keep calm. Talk to them as you’re going down to let them know you’re not scared and that you’re ok.  “I’m sliding down, just wait a bit, ok?”

· Find a way to slow down!!!

· I’m not slowing down, try something else!!!

· This is really, really bad.

About 600 feet later I was able to slow myself down by making a large “V” with my legs and came to a stop just before a rock outcropping.  I’d lost my hiking pole about 1/3 of the way down (my first attempt at stopping was to try and anchor myself… the hiking pole stayed where it was).  

At this point I was scared.  That “glissade” was NOT on purpose, and now I was separated by my girls by 600 feet.  Not for long however, for they decided to follow me, and without thinking I encouraged them:

I hadn’t fully processed the situation when they started, and encouraged them on. I didn’t want them to know how scared I was, but I also realized there was no other way for us to make it down the mountain:  we could not go up.  We had to go down or stay where we were, which wasn’t an option.

Note:  I don’t have pictures of everything from this point on because there were times when our safety was much more important than pictures, so I focused on getting us down safely.  I needed two hands to navigate and steady myself.  

The girls made it to me and we assessed our situation.  We were in an awful spot!  We couldn’t walk sideways because there was a rock outcropping too steep to traverse. In addition that “rain shower” had turned to snow above us (wonderful weather forecast, huh?) and the rocks were really slippery.  The only way down was to slide on the snow another 200 feet.

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So we did.  The glissade wasn’t pretty, as the grade was too steep to do anything but dig your heels in to slow down your descent.  The girls are all smiles in these pictures (I’ve trained them to smile on cue because I’m always taking their pictures), but I know they were thinking “I’m going to DIE!”  In reality, that was a possibility if they didn’t control their descent.  They were fabulous!

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The first thing Tristina said when we got to the bottom was “I’m glad those rocks were there to break our fall!”  It sounds comical, but she was actually sincere:  the rocks provided us traction and gave us breaks from snow that kept us from sliding out of control.  They also ripped a very large hole in her pants, right where you don’t want a hole. She used her sweatshirt to cover the damage.

I was seriously worried about our predicament at this point, but knew we needed to keep going to save ourselves.  We were at an inaccessible spot on the mountain, no one was hurt, we were all together and we could make our way down.  We just needed to be extremely careful and not make one misstep, or we’d seriously injure ourselves on the rocks.  Or tumble and break something and be in serious trouble.

I knew I needed to be a leader for the girls, so I kept up a positive, encouraging attitude while inside being scared I was leading them into danger. For their part the girls were amazing!  They trusted my decisions completely, followed my footsteps, and problem solved on their own when necessary.  I went first and many times had to direct them on the right path from places they couldn’t see me.    

From here on out we tried to avoid snow patches whenever possible, hiking up and around them as we could.  We spent a lot of time navigating large granite boulders. One of my girls was in shock, and we were all on a serious adrenaline rush. None of us were hurt, but we all knew we should have been.  I knew they were scared, but the girls didn’t stop:  they kept hiking down. 

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The group of 10 guys who followed us up was now descending, so we made our way towards them. They weren’t using a trail, but hiking straight down.  This making your own trail irks me, but in our present situation I totally understood. We bouldered and traversed straight down, using them as a reference point.  It took us about 75 minutes to reach them.  One of the guys in the group started talking to us:  he said their group was being led by someone who placed 2nd in a very popular Pikes Peak run.  Impressive!

We tried to stay behind the group of guys (remember that embarrassing hole in the pants?), but they kept slowing down and taking breaks.  This didn’t make ANY sense!  They were all very fit men who shouldn’t have had to take so many “breaks”.

Eventually we figured it out when they asked us if we were anywhere near the trail:  They didn’t know where they were going!  They asked us for help navigating back to the trail. We knew the general direction so we led the way.  

At one point we came to a large expanse of snow there was no way to navigate around:  we had to cross it.  This time we did so more confidently.  I went first, solidly sitting down and sliding feet first.  The incline wasn’t as steep as at the top, so I was able to make a nice smooth slide.  The girls quickly followed.   This time glissading was fun!

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I heard the group of guys shout “Wow!  Those girls are badass!”

I shouted from below to the guys “feel free to use the slide!”

They enthusiastically accepted and we watched them get a running start, jump and slide, obviously having great fun!

Jordan was the one who eventually found the trail that led to the A-frame, and we were back in business!  The guys continued down to Barr Camp, while we took a bit of a rest and assessed our current situation.  We had just been through a very scary experience most people would have needed to have been rescued from.  None of us was hurt, we’d made it out alive, and we were proud of how we handled everything! We considered this trip a very exciting win!  

I am hiking the trail with another group next week, and we are staying overnight at the A-frame, so I “hid” my jacket so I don’t need to carry it up the trail next week. Then and used the facilities (although it was jokingly commented that might have already been taken care of accidentally on that first slide) and we hiked back down the trail.

The rest of the hike was uneventful.  It rained a cold, biting rain the last 6 miles (once again, great weather forecast, huh? I almost wished I’d have kept my jacket). We were surrounded by rolling thunder but no lightening.

We talked with several hikers making their way to Barr Camp, intending on summiting the next day. They all had snow shoes, and said they’d gotten advice from someone on “14ners.com” indicating they were needed.  We assured them they weren’t.  The girls we met who were hiking up were all intrigued and started in on conversation, asking about trail conditions, etc.  The men all seemed amused and acted like they knew better than we did.  The conversation stopped with them there.  Hmmm….

We also saw a hiker on his way up rather late in the day (6pm) with nothing but skis and a water jug.  He looked extremely fit and like he knew what he was doing, but not prepared at all for sleeping overnight, which he’d need to do in order to reach an area with enough snow to ski.

We never did see that church group on the way back down, and their vans were gone by the time we made it to the parking lot, 13 hours and 26 miles later!

My final comments to the girls:  Remember, you can do ANYTHING guys can do, one handed (I summited with a camera in my left hand), bleeding.  Many times while wearing heels..

Author: Laura M Clark

Mom, Solo Colorado 14er Finisher, Outdoor Enthusiast, Traveler, and Girl Scout Leader with an MBA in International Business and Marketing. I value adventure, growth, courage, wisdom, integrity, accountability, and family. I enjoy yoga, wine, whiskey, traveling, reading, and the outdoors. I strive to be the person who inspires and motivates myself and others to succeed.

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