Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs and the Barr Trail to the summit: 13 miles, 7500 ft elevation gain (to over 14k ft) and the last few thousand feet fighting snow and ice. Many folks who do this trek take 2 days choosing to overnight at the Barr camp about 7 miles in from the trailhead. Why make it easy, we decided to do it all in one day stepping off promptly at 6 am. 10 hours later (including breaks) we made the summit which was no small miracle. I have often said that a cornerstone to preparedness is mental toughness because when the chips are down and all the cool gear purchased at REI is lost and the realization that nobody is coming to save you sets in, the mental game begins. Only those who can steel their mind and push through the suck will persevere, and the older I get the more of a reality that becomes.
We would step off at 6 am, take a 5 to 10 min rest stop at each mile marker and a 20-30 min stop at Barr camp to refuel on ramen noodles and hot cocoa. We had our small backpacks with the essentials and crampons for the snow and ice that awaited. Everything going as planned the summit would be hit before the road closed at the top and we would catch a ride down around 3:30-4pm. Back in town for dinner, no big deal.
I knew there would be struggles with the altitude, especially above 10,000 feet and admittedly I’m not as young as I once was but I’ve made it through worse in my military career. What could go wrong?
Mile 6 is when I started to feel the ache in my knee, an ache I hadn’t felt in many years and originally developed at a rather rigorous military school I had attended in my younger days (torn meniscus was the end result). I could push through I told myself, discomfort and “hurt” are different than “injured”, I had to keep going. By the time I reached 13,000 feet I was almost dragging my right leg and trying not to get caught in the snow or move laterally, otherwise stabbing pain would hit. I resorted to walking in a peg leg fashion, more hips and almost no knee bend. The go was slow and the pain, if I slipped or stumbled into deep snow, was terrible. All this time my hiking buddy was stopping to throw up every few hundred yards between bouts of dizziness (he had flown in from sea level), we were a hot mess.
Someone to Lean On
If you haven’t done work at altitude I’m here to tell you there are very few folks, probably sans Olympic type athletes, who are immune to the thin air. Physical prowess and how “in shape” one is usually doesn’t matter, your body just has to work super hard to complete the most basic functions. It’s exhausting and some do throw up, fight dizziness and have other debilitating symptoms.
As previously stated I was fighting knee pain and my buddy was hurling his lunch at every opportunity, we suffered and persevered together. It was surreal, for a few hundred feet I would be motivating him as we moved along. Another 50 feet, let’s get to that next bend in the switchback. We can do it. Then seemingly the tables would turn and I would be in pain struggling to walk, he would take the role of motivator despite stopping to hug a rock. Heck, we both would stop to lean on big rocks every 50 feet or so to catch our breath, especially the last 1500 feet up which took us almost 2 hours to complete.
There was very little celebration when we got the top, we were just glad it was over. Bear in mind this isn’t something we typically do, and other mountains in CO over 14k have trailheads that start at much higher elevations, so a much quicker hike. Pikes Peak made us earn that one but I did have some thoughts on the whole experience.
- Age is just a number: FALSE. Broadly speaking I tend to disagree with the whole age is just a number. If that’s the case why don’t we see any 75-year-old NFL players, or 3-year-old stockbrokers, or issue driver’s licenses at 8 years old? You get what I’m saying. As we get older the body is capable but not quite as capable, my 40-year-old self is definitely not my 20-year-old self. As Toby Keith said, I’m not as good as I once was…but I’m as good once as I ever was.
- No such thing as a one-man army. I made that climb because my buddy was with me, I have no doubt about that. I have often said that the whole one many armies is a fallacy, after all, you have to sleep sometime (think security). In addition when the times get tough having someone to help motivate is absolutely critical. Buddy team for the win.
- The Bugout on foot fantasy. “When the SHTF I’ll leave my suburban home, toss my BOB on my back (that I’ve rarely worn) and hike into the woods – live off the land and cover 20 miles a day.” Right. I don’t care if you are a hardcore Infantryman who has done countless road marches in a controlled environment the reality of the wilderness would no doubt be different. Combine that with other factors like altitude and injury and all of a sudden that sweet plan just turned sour.
- Mental Toughness. I cannot emphasize this enough and I believe that as I have gotten older and my body has worn down my capacity to push through mentally has indeed enhanced. Those of us who have been around for a bit have the experience to call upon and a mental toughness that has been forged in the fire, it really is an asset that can be called upon.
The Bottom Line
Get out there and challenge yourself once in a while physically and by that, I don’t mean going for a PR on the bench at the gym. Do something that pushes your personal limits for an extended period of time, understanding each of us are at different places in our lives. I climbed Pikes Peak which wasn’t exactly easy but others might scoff at that and need to do something much harder. Or maybe you are that guy who has 40 lbs of beer gut hanging off the front end who carries a gun because hey, 1911 solves everything (or so one might believe). Maybe a walk around the block is in order. In any event, I think solely relying on supplies as a preparedness strategy without giving thought to the physical and mental is a massive miscalculation. Take care and stay safe.