August 28th, 2002, my friend Johann and I pull up to the Barr Trail trailhead at 8 am. The temperature is 68 degrees. Our mission today is to run 12 miles up the Barr Trail to reach the top of Pikes Peak, then back down for a total of 24 miles. Pikes Peak is one of Colorado’s 14er’s with an altitude 14,110 feet, which is almost 2.7 miles of elevation.
We slowly chug up the mountain, wearing shorts, a light long sleeve t-shirt and carrying a water bottle. With 3 miles to go, at about 12,000 ft of altitude, the game really changed. The partial air pressure is so low that we can’t seem to get enough oxygen to saturate our lungs. We are hypoxic. The best way to describe the feeling of hypoxia is to quickly run up 5 flights of stairs with your nose pinned together and only breathe out of a straw through your mouth. The air is so thin that trees no longer grow there.
On the 16 Golden Stairs: “Whoever named this section was under severe oxygen deprivation or had a sick sense of humor.”
With 1 mile to go Johann and I were really struggling. We had been running for 2 hours 40 minutes and were searching for the magical 16 Golden Stairs which were supposed to lead us to the top. This is very misleading because there are a lot more than 16 steps. According to the guide books it refers to the amount of switch backs. There are actually 32 switchbacks. I think whoever named this section was under severe oxygen deprivation or had a sick sense of humor. To make matters worse we had run out of water and a storm moved in, dropping the temperature from a cool 68 degrees to cold and windy 31 degrees. It started snowing. This was not good for us sea level, Miami boys.
At this point we were in really bad shape. Our core temperature dropped and we were shaking. We were going into hypothermia. After the final 45 minutes of swtichbacks, high winds, and snow flurries we reached the summit.
What is the moral of this story?
Dress for success. Plan for the unexpected. And above all to get to the top doesn’t take superhuman strength, tremendous leaps, or short cuts, all it takes is the commitment to take one more step.
When you encounter an obstacle, are feeling overwhelmed, or want to give up commit to taking one more step.
PS – There is a restaurant at the top of the mountain. We rested there for about an hour in order to warm up and re-hydrate. It took us almost as long running downhill as it did going up because the decent was so steep.