| Pikes Peak Challenge: Return of the Cookiehiker
Craig Cook (aka “Beanpole”)
Noel (aka “Cookiehiker”, “Scrambled Brains”)
Chuck (aka “Oso Blanco”, “Gimpy Meniscus”)
Earlier this year (probably 4 months ago or more), I saw a post on the 14ers.com Facebook page about the Pikes Peak Challenge. It is an annual charity event that benefits the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado. The idea of hiking a 14er (even if it was for the third time), while also raising money for charity, really appealed to me, so I registered.
At some point, probably while discussing other climbs, I mentioned the Pikes Peak Challenge to Noel (Cookiehiker). She also thought it sounded like a great event, and registered as well. I’ve done Barr Trail solo before, and while it was peaceful, I was happy to have a hiking partner this time around.
However, about three weeks ago, Noel suffered a concussion on Capitol Peak, after a shoebox-sized rock hit her helmet, dislodged by her friend and climbing partner, Chuck, who also suffered a torn meniscus the same day. Several theories have flown about as to what actually happened that day, such as;
A. Chuck accidentally knocked loose some rocks above Noel and yelled, “ROCK!!”
B. Chuck accidentally knocked loose some rocks above Noel and yelled, “LET GO!!”
C. Chuck intentionally knocked loose some rocks above Noel because she didn’t make him hot cocoa before the climb that morning.
It became a day-to-day thing about whether Noel would be able to participate in the Pikes Peak Challenge, as she tried to everything she could to heal her brain. After a couple of practice hikes leading up to the event, Noel finally got clearance on Wednesday, September 4, just three days before the hike. We were officially good to go.
Ascent – 47 minutes, 9.5 seconds
Descent via Barr Trail – 39 minutes, 55.6 seconds
On Friday, September 6, I departed Kansas City at 5:40 a.m., making the terribly tedious drive across Kansas – even more tedious since it was the first time I’d ever driven it alone. Plenty of music from Skillet, AFI, Red, Weezer, Thousand Foot Krutch, and Icon For Hire accompanied me along the way.
At around 3 p.m., I found myself in Manitou Springs, checking into my hotel. I had determined I wanted to try the Manitou Incline, something I’d never done before. Whether this is a good acclimation hike or a torture device has yet to be determined. Apparently it’s not quite as popular now that you have to pay five bucks to park – the parking lot at Barr Trail was over half empty, and I could count on one hand the number of people I met on the Incline itself – all on a Friday afternoon! Granted, it was about 90 degrees outside, but still…
Soaked in sweat, I arrived at the top 47 minutes, 9 seconds after I started, which I thought was pretty good for a first-timer – then a guy came flying up who did it in 25 minutes, 22 seconds! As I stood there amazed, he took off back down the Incline. With nobody else around, I took numerous photos trying to get myself a summit selfie. I have an old iPhone, so I had to turn it backwards and guess where I was at on the screen, with the sun blasting me in the face. After 4-5 attempts, success!
Summit selfies are better in direct sunlight
Then it was time for the descent down Barr Trail. I was meeting Noel and her husband, Don, for dinner at The Loop, and was behind schedule. I took off running, trying to make up some lost time. I made good time, descending in under 40 minutes, and immediately drove back to my hotel to shower. I then met Noel and Don at The Loop in Manitou. Ravenous, I ordered a pick 3 combo: enchilada, taco, and tostada (with rice & beans), and could’ve eaten more. Noel gave me a bag filled with goodies, including chocolate-covered bacon with sprinkles! Worn out and full, I said goodbye and headed back to the hotel, relaxed for half an hour in the Jacuzzi, then crashed.
Some random Incline lessons I learned…
*Don’t do the Incline an hour after driving all day from Missouri.
*Don’t do the Incline when it’s 90 degrees and sunny.
*Bring a debit/credit card to pay the meter – it doesn’t take cash!
Trailhead – 5 a.m.
Barr Camp – 7:30 a.m.
A-frame – 9:23 a.m.
Summit – 11:25 a.m.
My alarm went off at 3:15 a.m. Saturday morning, and by 3:30 I was actually out of bed. I ate breakfast, packed up, and walked outside just as Don and Noel arrived at 4:15 a.m. Don dropped us off at Manitou Springs Memorial Park, where Noel and I checked in and waited for our event limo & chauffeur to come pick us up. Sadly, I guess the limo service was closed that time of day, but we did get to ride in a van to the trailhead, where we started hiking at about 5 a.m.
Wide awake at 4:30 a.m.!
Now, I’ve done Barr Trail twice before – once in late June and once in early July – and both times it was FREEZING when I started. I feared it would be even worse in September, and maybe in a week or two it will be, but on this particular morning, it was most definitely not freezing. Noel and I had barely started up the initial endless switchbacks when we both noted we were sweating like crazy – and the sun wouldn’t be up for another hour! Noel was smart enough to pack deodorant with her – I was not. It appeared I would be owing Chuck an apology at the summit!
Colorado Springs in the dark
We passed many people early on in the hike, keeping a nice, steady pace. Or rather, Noel set a steady pace, and I just tried to keep up. I should note something here about Noel – she may be a grandma, but she’s also one of the fastest hikers I’ve ever seen. After her concussion, all I heard from her leading up to the hike was, “I’ll be slow. If you need to go on ahead, don’t worry about me. Hopefully I can keep up.”
I laughed. Don laughed. Chuck laughed. Noel’s version of slow is akin to power-hiking for the rest of us mere mortals. I like to think of myself as being in decent shape, but I’ll admit now that I was gasping for air long before we ever reached Barr Camp.
The sun brings Pikes Peak into the light
Noel and I had both packed quite a bit of food, as well as 2.5-3 liters of water and a Gatorade – the event website and our packets specifically stated that while there were numerous checkpoints along the route, they would not have food or water. So behold our surprise when we reached Barr Camp at 7:30 a.m. and found two huge tables with both snacks and people refilling water! However, our annoyance was short-lived as we sat down, relaxed, ate some food, and used the facilities.
Barr Camp, woo-hoo!
Noel at Barr Camp
Random funny quotes in the pre-dawn hours
Two guys in front of us walking up to the trailhead…
Guy #1: (Says something I couldn’t hear)
Guy #2: “You mean people actually do this for fun?!?!”
Guy #1: “Yeah, just like we are today.”
Guy #2: “No, we’re doing it for a worthy cause. But people really just like to do this?!?!”
A young couple walking behind us, going through the leaning rocks near the top of the early switchbacks…
Guy: “I’ve never noticed these (rocks) before.”
Girl: “That’s because we’ve never made it this far.”
Leaving Barr Camp as the crowd thickens
After a short break at Barr Camp, it was time to leave the masses that had begun gathering, and head for the hills. Along the way, we came across numerous members of the El Paso County SAR, all very friendly and asking how we were doing. In each case, Noel told them about her accident on Capitol, and how she’d just gotten clearance from a brain injury to hike in a charity event benefitting people who have survived brain injuries. We had deemed our hike the Irony Challenge, and after the first few times Noel told the story, I figured she had it memorized. By the time we reached the summit, I think I had it memorized!
Also, between Barr Camp and the timberline A-frame, we saw something truly inspiring. We passed two young gentlemen; the one in front had trekking poles, and the other kept a hold on the front guy’s backpack. We realized the guy in front was blind, and the other guy was guiding him! They were both absolutely rocking the hike, and Noel and I agreed that we had nothing to complain about after seeing those two kick serious butt.
It was along this same stretch that we reached the mile-long switchback. Don had told us the night before at dinner that it was the longest switchback in Colorado, a full mile in length, directly after the sign for the Bottomless Pit. And even though I’d been there twice before, it still lived up to the hype. It just kept going…and going…and going…in fact, I even started singing revised Barney songs in my head as we went along;
This is the switchback that never ends,
Yes, it goes on and on my friends.
Some people started hiking it, not knowing what it was,
And they’ll continue hiking it forever just because,
This is the switchback that never ends…
Finally reaching treeline
10 miles down, only 3 to go!
We reached the timberline A-frame at 9:23 a.m., and the sun finally hit us full-force. While the sun was warm, we were lucky to have a nice, cool breeze hitting us as well. We trudged our way through the meandering trail above treeline, eventually arriving at the Cirque. While taking a photo break, I noticed there was a way to actually go down along a thin column of rock at the Cirque. We were on a pace that would allow me to beat my previous best time by half an hour, and Noel reminded me of that fact a few times, but I couldn’t resist going down and checking it out.
Taking a break near the Cirque
I'm out there somewhere...
Just beyond the Cirque, we got a call on the two-way radio from Chuck, telling us he had us in his sights from the summit. We looked around, and finally found him up top. We waved, then continued on, knowing we still had a mile to go. Now I was improvising Finding Nemo in my head;
Just keep hiking, just keep hiking, just keep hiking, hiking, hiking…
Chuck searches for us...
Chuck called over the radio and told us to wave
A man was waiting to take our picture at the 16 Golden Stairs sign, and we knew it was time for the final push. I admit it – I was gassed. There was virtually nothing left in the tank. Lucky for me, Noel was there to provide some comic relief. As I looked left to the next switchback, Noel was wandering off to the right.
“Noel?” I said. “NOEL?”
She stopped, looked back at me, and said something to the effect of, “This always happens at least once when I’m hiking.”
POP QUIZ! – What always happens at least once when Noel hikes?
A. She gets off-route.
B. She wanders off to look at the scenery.
C. She stares at pretty rocks.
D. She chases marmots.
E. All of the above.
After Noel came back from whatever it was she was doing, we pushed onward until we met a man from the event cheering us on, telling us we were almost there. He shook our hands, and gave us both a huge heartfelt thanks, telling us that we were the reason people like him could get help. He had been in a car accident, was in a coma for 30 days, had nerve damage in his right arm and couldn’t bend his wrist, had ribs taken out of his body to make him a new jaw, etc. It was people like him that we were hiking for this day, and it was great to be a small part of something so big.
He was also correct in telling us we were almost there. As we turned around the next switchback, we could see the summit sign, event crew members cheering us on, and Chuck, ready with his camera. I suddenly felt invigorated, ready to finish – my mistake.
“My legs suddenly have a lot more energy,” I said.
“Mine too,” said Noel. Then she spontaneously took off running!
Are you freakin’ kidding me! I thought. 13 miles and 7,400 ft. of elevation gain wasn’t enough, now Noel is running.
But after managing to keep up with her the entire hike, my ego wouldn’t let me fall behind now, so I took off running up the final few switchbacks as well. And before I knew it, we were done. We took pictures, the event staff put medals around our necks (that was a first!), and hive-fives were in abundance. I shook hands with Chuck, and we made our way to check-in at the summit.
“The Cookiehiker is BACK!” Noel exclaimed. It was obvious how much she’d missed hiking in the mountains while recovering from her concussion.
Hi-fives all around!
The reason we hiked
I was spent, and all I could think about was one of the famous Pikes Peak…pretzels. No, not those nasty donuts. After I mentioned it, Noel had a craving for a pretzel too. The three of us made our way inside the summit house.
That’s all I could think of as I bought a couple pretzels. We sat and relaxed inside for a while, talking and joking, then went outside for some pictures.
Here’s where things got silly. The Pikes Peak Challenge shuttled hikers back down in the vans, but Noel was skipping the shuttle and riding back down with Chuck. My original (aka stupid) plan was to hike back down the Crags route, since I’d never been on that side, climb two unranked 13ers (Little Pikes Peak and Devil’s Playground Peak) along the way, and have Chuck and Noel pick me up at the Crags trailhead.
Showing off our medals!
Our ride awaits!
But after the Manitou Incline and Barr Trail in less than a 20-hour period, my legs were toast. Chuck’s Jeep was far too inviting for me to want to hike down. However, I was stubborn about wanting the two 13ers – even if it meant cheating. We all hopped in the Jeep, and Chuck, being the awesome guy he is, drove down the road to a pull-off right next to Little Pikes.
Noel and I hopped out, and started making our way up. I think I was becoming delirious at this point, because that tiny bump looked FAR more daunting than the grueling hike we’d just done. A storm cloud had appeared, right over Little Pikes, the wind picked up, and it was almost chilly. We both felt more out of breath than on Barr Trail. It was almost surreal.
“We don’t really have to do this. We’re still close to the Jeep,” I said.
“We’re almost there,” Noel said.
“Whose idea was this, anyway?” I asked.
“We’re almost there!” Noel responded.
And we were. It took all of about five minutes to reach the summit. We laughed about it, took summit photos, then jogged back down to where Chuck was waiting.
Summit of Little Pikes
Noel still wearing her medal on Little Pikes
The next stop was the Bottomless Pit, where we all got out for a group photo.
Standing above the Bottomless Pit
Same picture, different photographer
Group photo at the Bottomless Pit
Then it was on to Devil’s Playground Peak. Chuck parked in the dirt lot, and Noel and I once again hopped out.
“I think there’s a trail around that side,” I said.
“We’re going straight up,” Noel said, meaning business.
“You’re the boss,” I replied.
A couple minutes later, we reached the top, and surprisingly, met two other people there. A woman, who had just finished all 58 14ers on Pikes, and her son. We chatted for a couple minutes, took summit photos, then jogged back down, our day of hiking complete. That was my third unranked 13er in less than a month. I’ve decided that true hipsters only climb unranked 13ers.
Summit of Devil's Playground peak
Noel on Devil's Playground peak
All that was left was a nice, leisurely drive back down the road…
…until we were told by some lady to pull over because the road was closed. Why? Well, because there was a skateboard race, of course! So we waited for the next 40 minutes, as these crazy guys in helmets and leather bodysuits took off riding their skateboards down the Pikes Peak Road one at a time. Apparently, the course was a mile long, and I never did figure out how they got stopped once they crossed the finish line.
Eventually, the mass of skateboarders vanished, and we were able to drive back down the road. Noel called Don, who met us at Phantom Canyon Brewery in Colorado Springs. Noel and I both had the fried chicken & a waffle, but made the mistake of not noticing it all came soaked in lemon tabasco butter. If you ever want your waffles with a little kick, there you go…
Back in Manitou Springs
After dinner, we said goodbye to Chuck, who made his way back home. Don, Noel and I stopped at Mountain Chalet, looked around, then it was time to say goodbye to them as well. They dropped me off at my hotel, where I soaked in the Jacuzzi, then watched Michigan beat Notre Dame.
All in all, it was a wonderful, albeit tiring, weekend. I can’t thank Noel, Chuck, and Don enough for their hospitality. They were the best hosts I could ask for, and I hope to climb with them again soon. There’s already some preliminary plans in the works for next year…
Saying goodbye to Pikes Peak and the Manitou Incline
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