How to Hike in the Mountains: Adventure Report from Pikes Peak

It almost feels too self-serving to turn my failed attempt to summit Pikes Peak into some sort of learning or growth moment. Fact is, as of right now, I’m good with what happened and I’ll explain why.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. If I may, let me narrate what happened and what you can take away from it.

(Almost) Perfect Planning

Learning from past hikes, I made sure to do a few things to prep for the worst and know what I was getting myself into.

  • Emergency Gear — Because I’m going on a very well hiked trail, I take for granted that if something bad happened to me that surely someone would find me soon. The fact is, anything can happen, such as sliding of a cliff, getting injured, and then lost. Last year, I got to talking to a lady who was hiking a trail when bad weather rolled in fast, she had one bad fall, and she quickly lost communication with her fellow hikers. She had become disoriented and lost. Luckily she had an emergency mirror to signal the helicopter that came looking for her the next day. 
  • Conditions at the peak — For Pikes Peak and the other 14,000 ft mountains in Colorado, the website 14ers.com contains a wealth of information including recent posts from others who had reached the peak. When I read them, they mainly said despite the long hike, no snowshoes would be needed. Yeah right…

Camping On Snow

I’ve camped on snow for several trips now, and I’m starting to hone in on a few key things to make it more enjoyable.

  • A “bomb proof” tent — I have the Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 tent, which is meant for hardcore mountaineering and alpinism. Although heavier and more than what I need, I felt extremely confident once I had it erected. In fact, on the last night I could hardly sleep because the winds were nonstop and roaring loud. But I felt super confident that come morning, my tent wouldn’t have budged at all. 
  • Boiling hot water in a bottle — Right before I go to bed, I get some boiling hot water, pour it into my Nalgene liter water bottle, and then stuff it down my sleeping bag at the foot. I know I don’t have the best circulation because my feet and hands get cold frequently. The hot bottle keeps my sleeping bag and feet warm all night… just make sure it leak tight!

The Real Deal — Hiking Pikes Peak

I broke up the hike into 3 parts:

  • Day 1 hike 6.5 miles and 4,000 ft elevation gain to campsite.
  • Day 2 hike 6 miles and another 4,000 ft elevation gain to the peak, and then back down to campsite, total 12 miles. 
  • Day 3 hike 6.5 miles out and back to civilization!

Suffice to say, I think my increased cardio workouts over the past couple months paid off because Day 1 and Day 3 were no problem. Also, I practiced a great pace with the mountaineer’s rest step that allowed to take much less breaks.

Let’s focus on Day 2 and what went wrong.

Although there’s a trail that leads up to the peak, the guides sketched out a different, recommended path to get there. So, of course I took the experts advice! It was all going great until I reached the “Snow Gully.” Stretched out in front of me were a couple miles of uphill climb in either waist deep snow or careful ascent on top of rocks. Since I didn’t bring my snowshoes, based on my experience from last year and on recent peak condition reports, going up the middle in snow was not an option. So, up the rocks I went, being very careful with my micro spikes to make sure I had not only good footing but also a path that didn’t dead end into a cliff or a long stretch of snow.

Weather was not ideal (which is not my excuse). Lack of visibility made it hard for me to predict how much rougher the higher I got. Almost two miles up the Snow Gully, winds were getting more fierce and sheets of tiny ice particles were being blown against me with each gust. I kept making short goals for myself, like getting to that next rock 50 feet up, and then again and again. Over time, my fingers got numb and even painful.

Here’s where my planning failed. Besides the lack of snowshoes, I hadn’t planned for hand warmers, which could’ve saved my fingers. Also, my water line had frozen over so I didn’t have easy access to hydrate. Next time, just bring a bottle and avoid the complicated water bag and line.

While hiking, I listened to No Shortcuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs. It was fascinating listening to his adventures from climbing the 14 mountains overs 8,000m (over 26,000 ft). As you can imagine, he went through intense hardships and preparation to accomplish what he did, including at times hiking and climbing for over 24 hours, in the harshest of conditions!

And there I was, at approx 13,000 ft, sheets of wind and ice at my back, fingers getting numb, and a mental battle raging in my mind.

“My second attempt at this well-hiked mountain and I still can’t make it?” 
“So much for all that preparation and training, at the end of the day I still didn’t have what it take?” 
“Is this mental weakness or a real physical limitation?” 
“Is this pain worth the satisfaction of reaching the peak, and at what cost?”

In the end, I stopped and turned around. Here’s a video of me at that moment.

Am I disappointed? Hell yeah.

Am I upset with myself? Sure, some part of me will always question my mental strength now.

Yet, I’m pretty darn happy I’m still in the best physical shape of my life, that I’ve got all my fingers and toes intact, and I survived to try again one day.


GEAR + STUFF

Any Kind of Travel:

  • Nalgene water bottle — Simple and leak-tight. ($12)
  • Phone Mount — Bring one to use in your rental car. Just don’t forget to take it with you! (2 Pack, $8)

Apps:

  • TripIt — A must-have. Forward your email confirmations (hotel confirmation, airline confirmations, etc.) and it knows to organize them all into an itinerary. (Free)
  • Overdrive — Free audiobook downloads! (Free)
  • All Trails — Download trail maps and track real-time with your phone’s GPS. In the past it worked great and helped me stay on the right trail. Recently though, the map just won’t load. It’ll still track but finicky map details. (Subscription plan)

Camping and Hiking:

Enjoy:

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