Friday, September 22, 2006

Part Two - The Hike

Wake up call, get dressed, eat breakfast, no problems. I even get to have M&Ms as part of the breakfast since I need all the sugar and energy I can get to hike nearly 7,500 vertical feet. No morning coffee, since that can help to dehydrate you. This can turn into an issue as I am a certifiable caffeine addict, to the point where I can develop headaches if I do not have coffee or team within an hour after waking up. I would get a headache later on, but for a different reason.

I start hiking a fairly steep stretch at the start of the Barr Trail, beginning at 6,700 feet and remember why I was told last year that the start of the hike is great for getting your heart rate up and the rest of your body in gear. Mine definitely went up, but I did not have to gasp for breath at the beginning of the hike. This was huge because it made me feel like my midweek conditioning, weekend hikes/bike rides, and acclimization (sp) hike the day before really paid off. Barr Camp is halfway through the trail, and basically halfway there from a standpoint of vertical feet gain. I made it in three hours, a kick-ass clip of over two miles an hour. When I first started hiking in 1998, I could barely hike fairly flat parks near Boston at that rate. This was close to 4,000 feet climbed at the quick pace.

While last year’s Pikes hike was extremely rewarding, one thing I would have done differently is not spend 45 minutes there while refilling water bottles, eating a 9 am lunch, using the facilities, you name it. This year it was get water, user facility, stretch, eat, put on sunblock, and go! 25 minutes this year. Why is this important? I’ve found that if I take too long of a break, it takes me a lot longer to get going and feeling strong again. Being too (relatively) idle slows me down for a long while, basically. While I most definitely was not under a time schedule, hikers had until11:30 to get to Barr Camp before the cutoff (for safety) time and I was back on the trail before 9:00. I didn’t want to be on the mountain forever either.

The one fairly non-descript part of the trail is between Barr Camp and A Frame Shelter. Just a multitude of switchbacks. All I’ll say is I started getting a headache around mile ten or so. UH OH. This was a lingering concern, coming from sea level less than 48 hours earlier. But I knew how to get through it without disrupting the hike: drink more water to hydrate even more, then drink my 32 ounce Gatorade at A Frame. Bingo! Headache gone.

A Frame shelter is 3 miles from the summit, but with 2,400 or so vertical feet or so from the summit. Thankfully, it was still sunny because once you get here, you’re past treeline. Wide open, beyond gorgeous views, but very exposed views at that. There is ZERO protection and/or shelter from the elements once you wander above treeline. To top it all off, you cannot tell if there are dangerous clouds coming from the other side of the mountain from the A Frame area. But with the warming sun, onward! 3 real tough miles ahead, but this is all about the journey and the cause.

I’m getting tired at this stage but with the headache one, it was time to make the move towards the summit. I think I had more conversations with more people between 3-1 miles to go than the rest of the hike put together. Everyone’s getting so tired that they don’t hike as far without slowing down, hence they talk more. Talked to a couple who just moved to Colorado from Iowa this summer, and were hiking their first 14,000 foot peak. They were doing very, very well. Another couple was from Colorado Springs via Minnesota, others were local area hikers. I didn’t get to what I call “Five steps, stop, four steps, rest” territory until was maybe one and one half miles from the summit. This hit a bit later in the hike than it did last year, so now I really knew a lot of the spinning classes paid off!

Thirteen miles down, one to go, but here come the darker clouds!!!! About 20 minutes earlier I decided to just keep my ski cap on even if the sun peeked through the clouds. It had started to get chilly so I put the cap on to keep heat in around my head area. No headaches, but needed more water nonetheless at this altitude to keep on keepin’ on. Everyone was slowing down their pace by this point, regardless of fitness and hiking levels. I was just hiking as quickly as possible without pushing myself to the point of risking injuries or cramps. But it wasn’t very fast!

There are staff volunteers at every checkpoint of the Pikes Peak Challenge. Some checkpoint volunteers have fun gimmicks to make people laugh. At the one-mile-to-go marker, keeping in line with the summer movie scene, one of the volunteers dressed as a pirate, all the while reciting pirate lines. He was funny, my “we have a weather situation, nothing to do with me of course” Johnny Depp imitation, not so much. D-. From one mile to one half mile to go, you lookup at the Summit House and think you are so much closer than you really are. Ouch! Walk. Stop. Ouch. Drink Water. Repeat.

Speaking of one half mile to go, I get one last picture taken of me pointing to the summit (I’ll get these developed as soon as I can). I had to ask the El Paso County Search and Rescue officer if I had time because as I approached this checkpoint, I heard the infamous Emergency Broadcast System buzz alarm. The thunderstorms were for the Black Forest area, northeast of Colorado Springs, since Pikes is on the far southwest side, bingo! Onward again after the picture.

The last half mile was agonizing from a physical standpoint, but otherwise beyond awesome. Realizing I was a half mile from completing this hike, and thinking about all of the heartwarming stories about brain injury survival, adrenaline kicked in. There is one final set of steep switchbacks called 16 Golden Stairs. Some of these switchbacks look exactly like stairs, some do not, but everything is tough at this point. Finally, after eight hours of hiking time, the end of the hike appeared at the last switchback. I made it! Two years in a row!

Now for an emotional moment. Everyone gets a medal presented to them at the end of the hike. The presenter was a brain injury survivor from Oklahoma who has hiked the trail before. I met his son at one of the checkpoints, he drove all the way from Stillwater, OK to volunteer for the event. Another brain injury survivor received his medal right before I did. When him and his wife received their medals, it was very difficult for me not to start crying. This was the most heartwarming moment of the vacation for me by far. When I received my medal, I was congratulated by the presenter. I turn congratulated him and then some. Him and others are the ones that deserve praise, not me. What he went through to get to where is he today, hiking mountains like this, after his injuries, was far, far more daunting than my hiking Pikes Peak, heck anything I have ever gone through. Just seeing everyone who has survived some of these horrible injuries is what will keep me hiking Pikes Peak annually, for the Brain Injury Association of Colorado, until I either die or cannot physically hike it anymore. Should the latter hit, I will volunteer for the Pikes Peak Challengein another way.

I need to give a big shout out to all the Pikes Peak Challenge Volunteer staff, and the El Paso County Rescue. I cannot even describe how hard they work to make this event happen.

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