| Alone on America's Peak
Pikes Peak via Crags Trail
I started at the crags trail at 4:30 AM. It was cold and dark and moist. The air temperature was below freezing and some rain/snow had hit the peak overnight. As I chugged up the trail my breath lit up my headlamp like clouds of steam from an old train. I felt so very isolated on the crags trail as I climbed the hillside. The full moon was behind clouds, making it very dark. My headlamp lit up a small swath on the trail. The wind was calm and it was very quiet and still. As I started to gain the ridge the ground was firm and grippy, as the sandy mud was frozen. I could see my friends above me on the ridge, their headlamps flashing and winking in the early morning darkness. When the trail flattened out I quickly closed the distance and met up with them right before the "rock gates".
It was nice to meet up with my friends and slow down for a little while- chatting as we went. They were moving at a respectable pace but after about 15 minutes I bid them farewell and took off. I had a little more than 1 hour remaining for my goal; I knew that I had to move quickly now.
As the sun rose the clouds also rolled in, which made for some amazing pink, orange, and finally yellow displays. It was fairly unique to anything I had experienced, and it certainly helped make this upper portion feel special despite the asphalt road right next to me.
The trail was much easier to follow than I had anticipated in the upper portions- it's flat a lot of the time. The only sketchy part was the boulder "cone" near the end. The temperature was right near freezing and the boulders were covered with a thin layer of frost that made them slippery. With my worn-down running shoes I had to be careful as I ascended, stepping up to flat rocks. Checking my watch, I put the hammer down and finished off the false summit and the final push. Out of breath, I checked my watch next to the "research shack"" 2 hours, 51 minutes.
I quickly walked around the summit, shrouded in fog and iced over. There was (almost) no one around! There was a park ranger and some people who had driven up early for training, all lounging inside a building. The fog only added to the feeling that the summit was huge as much remained hidden.
Truly, I was the first to summit at 7:21 AM. It was a combination of 3 factors; early start time, decent ascent time, and not taking the Barr trail. This is a Saturday morning in September. Not only that, but I would later learn that over 500 people would climb Pikes Peak that day- but I was the first! (sidebar- Pike's Peak Challenge Climb reported over 450 entrants).
The rest of my friends showed up just before 8 AM, and we enjoyed strong coffee and fresh donuts in the summit shop near the window. I wouldn't head down until 9:10 AM.
Again, I wanted to be fast, so I decided that 2 hours sounded like a good descent time. Forgoing the boulderfield scramble, I started down on the road, rejoining the trail directly below the boulder cone.
I reached the middle of the Devil's playground after the first hour, and realized that I would really have to accelerate my pace to achieve victory (over 4 miles to go). Just after I entered treeline, I lost the trail. I decided to cut across the hill and find the trail instead of turning around and going uphill. I was off trail for maybe 8 minutes and lost valuable time. I had to stop and listen several times for nearby hikers so I could get my bearing. All told I would pass at least 78 hikers on the way down.
Near the bottom my time was quickly running out. I was jogging more and more as the trail became more runnable. About 13 minutes before the deadline I saw a couple carrying a baby on the trail ahead. I tripped on a root and plowed into the ground hard, taking the impact on my palms and on my knees. I spun the the left and came up running and didn't stop. They probably figured I am crazy and asked "are you alright?". "I'm fine!" I shouted over my shoulder as I plowed on down the trail. 8 minutes left. 3 minutes left! I was now at a full run; rounding the corner I saw the bridge and finished my run. As I skidded to a stop next to the trailhead sign, I checked my watch. 1 hour, 59 minutes, 10 seconds! As I reached my truck in the parking lot, I surveyed the damage.
All in all I think this was a wonderful trip, technically solo, with interesting weather and a nice peaceful summit to myself, before the store was open (which is at 8AM, in case you were wondering). And Pikes Peak is pretty scenic despite all the man-made distrations.