| 28 hrs on Pikes – Barr Trail
Manitou Springs (dirt parking lot) trailhead: 6,700'
Barr Camp: 10,200' (roughly the halfway point)
Pikes Peak summit: 14,110'
Elevation Gain: 7,410' (summit elevation minus trailhead elevation)
There are some sections of up and down – at least 100' of vert each way, being very conservative, which adds 200'+ total – so Total Elevation Gain: at least 7,600'
Round-trip Distance: 25-26 miles (sources vary)
Note: Many Barr Trail signs have incorrect distances and elevations, and many online sites and book sources vary on the numbers as well. Expect at least 7,400' of vertical and at least 25 miles (less if you use the winter route up and/or down).
Jen and I have climbed Pikes twice from the Crags and we've driven to the top twice, so we thought it was high time to give the Barr Trail a go.
Our original plan was to climb up and then take the train down, but tickets were sold out. So Plan B was to climb up and just hope for some open seats for the way down (we heard that some people do not show up for each train).
About 15,000 people attempt to climb Pikes Peak every year, but that's nothing compared to the hordes of people that climb the Incline (an old cog railway bed that climbs 2,000 feet in just a mile, and connects with the Barr Trail at the top) every day, and then run down the Barr Trail. Unfortunately, the trailhead parking lot only has about 30 parking spaces.
On Saturday, May 16, we pulled into the Manitou Springs trailhead parking lot, which was completely full, of course. We circled around a few times, hoping for someone to leave, but no one did. Then we drove down the road and got really lucky with one spot, but it didn't allow overnight parking. Back up the road we went, and we ended up just sitting in the lot, waiting and hoping for someone to leave. 10 minutes later we got lucky with a spot.
At 1 p.m. we shouldered our 30-pound packs and started up the Barr Trail, just as 10,000 people were running down from the top of the Incline.
Looking down at the cog railway station, shortly after starting up the trail:
Hiking up the never-ending switchbacks below Rocky Mountain and Mount Manitou:
Interesting rock formations and colorful soil across the valley:
Passing through the natural arch:
Somewhere beyond the top of the Incline turn-off, we got our first glimpse of Pikes Peak. It looked like it was many, many miles away. Probably because it was.
Our first good view of Pikes:
Another view of Pikes, reminding us that we had a long way to go:
Typical trailside view:
This relatively flat section gave us some relief, but the mountain didn't seem like it was getting any closer:
Two hours and forty-five minutes after starting we made it to Barr Camp. We were relieved to get those heavy packs off our backs after lugging them for more than 6 miles and up 3,500 feet.
Neal and Teresa, the couple that has been operating Barr Camp for the last four years, were very friendly and welcoming. The camp is open 24/7/365. I don't know how they do it, but they do it well. The main cabin, the camp and the solar toilets were immaculate.
Neal pointed out the tent spots, which were some of the finest tent sites I've seen. A small creek babbled nearby.
Barr Camp, main cabin, elevation 10,200':
Our tent site was less than 100 yards from the main cabin:
The main cabin was cozy and well kept. There was a small kitchen, plenty of seating, and a back room with many bunks.
We were hoping someone would have beta – regarding snow conditions – on the upper mountain, but Barr Camp was the end of the line for everyone we met. When I heard some climbers on the deck talking about their failed attempt on the summit (their second failed attempt in as many days), I went out to ask them about it.
"The snow was really deep," one of them said. "And it was really steep."
After finding out that they started their climb at 10:30 that morning (and just made it back near 7 p.m.), I figured we might have better luck with our planned alpine start. Although, it was still discouraging.
It was nice having easy access to a water source, but this was one occasion where I would have preferred using a filter (over our Steripen) because the water was slightly cloudy. But at least it didn't have any floaties; it was mostly just fine silt.
Purifying water with our Steripen:
For dinner, Neal and Teresa made everyone all-you-can-eat spaghetti and bread. It was fun talking to some of the other overnighters – a family from Nebraska, some Boulderites and some Springers, or whatever they're called.
That evening Jen and I had to make a decision between taking all our gear to the summit in the hopes of snagging a couple seats on a descending train, or leave some of our gear (tent, sleeping bags, etc.) at Barr Camp, allowing us to climb up and down with a much lighter pack. We chose the latter, as the train ride down wasn't guaranteed.
That night was cold but our sleeping bags were warm. Our new Therm-a-rest Z Lite sleeping pads sucked. My hips felt bruised in the morning.
When we started up the trail at 5:45 a.m. it was only about 25 degrees. But that was a good thing, as we were hoping for firm snow.
The trail was bone dry until the junction of the Bottomless Pit, which is where it became mostly packed with snow. There were only a few dry sections from that junction all the way to treeline.
Just beyond the junction to the Bottomless Pit, the trail was mostly covered in snow:
One and a half hours into our hike we passed by the A-frame shelter. We noticed some tracks going up the snow from the A-frame but we chose to stick to the summer route as much as possible.
Shortly thereafter we broke above treeline and saw the routefinding quandary before us. It took a lot of scouting and map work to get on track – and stay on track – but we eventually set ourselves on a solid course.
Above treeline, it was really difficult to find the trail (photos stitched together):
Me, looking for signs of a trail from the elbow of one dry switchback:
Jen crossing one of many short snow slopes:
From here, we angled across the broad gully to the ridge in the lower-left corner of the photo (the South Cirque is on the other side of that ridge):
The sky was blue, the air was still and the sun was hot. We occasionally postholed to the rocks, but overall it wasn't too bad.
Looking back to the northeast. The Palmer Divide is in the distance:
Looking southeast from the ridge. The South Cirque is below, out of frame:
The last section of the climb goes up 32 switchbacks called the "Golden Stairs," but they were completely buried in snow, topped off by a crusty cornice. So rather than going up that steep, sketchy snow slope, we made our way up to the left on our own stairs – steps kicked into the snow. Because the snow was soft, we never needed our crampons.
As we neared the summit we noticed some people watching us from the observation deck. At least one guy now has many photos of us.
Getting close to the summit:
At 10:15 a.m. we strolled onto the summit. It was sunny and abnormally warm.
Rather than descending through all that softening, sloppy snow, Jen and I decided it would be a better idea to take the train down to Mountain View, the halfway point, and then hike the mile from there to Barr Camp. But we had to wait to see if the train had room first, and it was scheduled to arrive soon.
While Jen went inside to snag some food, I met some really friendly climbers on top and learned they had just climbed the southern cirque, which rarely sees any climbers. They were also hoping to catch a couple seats on the descending train.
As we were talking, an overloaded train pulled up to the summit and people poured out like a New York subway at rush hour. I think we were interrupted at least three or four times by people asking, "Did you guys climb all the way up?! Wow! Great job!"
I vividly remember one middle-age guy that stepped off the train, stared at us incredulously and waddled straight for us. He interrupted me mid-sentence and incoherently blurted out something like, "trail … (huff) … climb … (puff) … you guys … (huff) … all the way?!"
View from the summit. Colorado Springs (and Manitou Springs) far below. Cog railway tracks in the foreground:
Looking down the tracks from the summit:
Cog railway at the summit:
After talking to the conductor, we learned that the train was completely full – even the jumper seats – and they had no room for any of us.
The climbers we met decided to give hitchhiking a try. "We usually have good luck with people in pickup trucks," one of them said. We wished them good luck and then weighed our own options.
We could have waited for a later train but there was no guarantee it would have seats. And as the day wore on the snow would only get worse and worse. So we chose to descend the way we came.
As we started walking back down, a college-age girl asked us, "Oh my god, did you guys climb all the way up here?!" Jen replied with a yes, and then I said, "And now we're going all the way back down."
As we crossed the cog tracks and hiked down the ridge, it felt like a million eyes were on us from that observation deck. One woman yelled at her son to get away from the edge, even though the slope wasn't very steep in that area. I overheard another person ask, referring to us, "Where are they going?"
Instead of descending the way we came up, we opted to heel step straight down the snow. At first, it was awesome, as the snow was perfect. But as we descended, it got softer and softer and we began to posthole more and more. Still, we made really good time, and I even made some short boot and butt glissades (it was too rocky for long glissades).
That was about the time we noticed a couple climbers making their way up, way across the slope on the standard route. We were surprised to see people starting up at such a late hour.
As we descended we kept looking for signs of the trail so that we could link up with it, but we couldn't see even one sliver of trail. Knowing that the trail switchbacks away from the A-frame, I knew our chances of linking up with it would become less likely the farther down we went. Eventually we decided to just continue down the gully on the snow and hook up with the A-frame shelter, which is just yards away from a switchback on the trail.
When the A-frame never appeared (because it's hidden really well by trees), we found ourselves in a little pickle. Not lost, just concerned about getting back on the summer trail.
Constantly referring to my map, compass and altimeter, I knew we were close to the A-frame but we couldn't see the damn thing. On an educated hunch, we hung a hard left, went up a slope and popped out right in front of it.
The sight of Barr Camp was a welcome relief, once again. It took us four and a half hours to gain the summit but it only took us two hours to get back down.
While sipping Diet Coke and letting my boots dry in the sun, a couple hikers walked into camp. They talked about how they went up a bit but turned around because the snow was too deep and the route wasn't clear. Then they told everyone how they saw "two crazy people skiing down from the summit." Jen told them that those weren't skiers that they saw, "it was just us."
Hanging out on that deck was relaxing but we had a long slog back down, so we only hung out for a while and then packed up camp. At 3 p.m. we wearily made our way back down.
A look back on the monster we just climbed:
At 5 p.m. we made it back to the parking lot where some people were happy to take our spot.
Almost back to the parking lot, sharks were still circling for spots:
In hindsight, I'm glad everything worked out the way it did, which gave us the chance to climb Pikes all the way up and all the way down – with snow to contend with, no less. It was a great sense of accomplishment to climb Colorado's greatest vertical rise and something that Gerry Roach describes as "brutal."
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):