Tag Archives: mountains

Cheyenne Mountain

My last substantial hike was Barr Trail last October. Before that, it was when I got altitude sickness between Mt Cameron and Mt Lincoln on the Decalibron loop. So realistically, it has been almost a year and a hip surgery since I last really hiked. Over the weekend, I finally returned to a challenging trail.

When my husband decided he wanted to start traversing the Colorado 14ers, we began with Pikes Peak, the mountain that greeted us at the end of our street every day. When we returned to hiking after my surgery, we chose another in our backyard, another in which we are always in the shadow. Cheyenne Mountain.

Cheyenne Mountain is not a 14er. At what we assume was the summit of the hike, we were only a little above 9600 feet. However, the trail is rated difficult to extreme on several sites and by the trail signs on the route.

Knowing the length of the hike ahead (and how slow we go on the upper portion of a 14er), we began at 5am when Cheyenne Mountain State Park opens.

The trail to Cheyenne Mountain begins counterintuitively. Not that we could see much of it with our headlamps. We started on the Talon trail, which wanders in serpentine lazily through the meadow in Cheyenne Mountain Park. Instead of moving directly toward the base of the dark mountain with the twinkling towers of NORAD on top, the path lead us out in the grass, looping us to approach the mountain from the south.

As we moved through the valley, the air alternated between frigid and warm pockets. We listened to the helicopters wandering the sky from nearby Fort Carson. The trail is flat for the majority of Talon. When we turned onto Talon North, we finally saw some incline. Though it remained gentle. We slowly climbed to look down on the city and the sunrise.

By the time we were in full daylight, we reached the Dixon trail that would take us up the side of Cheyenne Mountain. In the light, we discovered that the trails are very well marked, with colored signs and distances. In the valley, there are even trail map signs at all intersections.

Once we began to climb, it felt like real hiking. However, it took over 3 miles to just reach the Dixon trail. From hiking Mt Harvard, we knew that a long, steady return hike can be even more daunting than a steep one.

The Dixon trail was touted as the challenging portion of the ascent. The trail wound us up the rolling hills that steadily climb towards Cheyenne Mountain from the south. We could still hear the helicopters and Reveille call from Fort Carson, but those were the only sounds besides our footfalls and chatter. The trail was peacefully vacant.

The views became more picturesque with each switchback. Colorado Springs sprawled out below us as we climbed higher on the side of the mountain.

We began to successively summit each small hill and see the western face of the range. Then the trail would alternate back to the eastern face and city views again.

Dixon trail is relatively mild for the first few miles. I would liken it to Barr Trail south of Barr Camp. It definitely reminded me of Barr Trail south of the Incline multiple times, which makes sense considering it overlooks the same city. After 2.5 miles, the trail changes, and bikes and horses are no longer permitted. It becomes “extreme.”

Past this sign, the mild ascent of the groomed dirt trail transitions into steeper grade peppered with rock staircases. The articles I had read on the trail before made it sound extremely challenging if not perilous. I would not agree. While the grade was intense and I had to take a few breathers, I would not liken it to anything I have seen past treeline. Perhaps the extra oxygen helped. It also did not last terribly long. When we broke into the aspen meadow, I turned to my hiking mates and said, “was that it?”

The top of Dixon opens into an unexpected field. The grass (and spiny thistles) tickled at my shoulders. Here, the trail is not exceptionally worn. If not for the constant stakes and flags (often tied to clumps of grass), it would be easy to think it was not even a trail at all. Barely into the meadow is the famed plane crash from 1957.

We did not know what to expect from the plane crash. After being on the mountain for so long, we did not know how much would remain. On the one hand, some 60 years later, it is surprising any of the wreckage remained. On the other, it is a fresh trail for dedicated hikers, so perhaps there should have been more left undisturbed. Even though the remains were small, it was still interesting to examine up close. We could pick out debris among the vegetation for a good distance as we continued to hike.

Among the aspens, we intersected the Mountain Loop trail. This pleasant walk would bring us to our destination.

We wandered through the sprawling field then among the aspen trees with massive trunks. Their roots pressed up through the dirt of the trail, revealing the network between the entire forest. We were spoiled by the laziness of the trail, such a contrast to the brief steep section we had just completed.

The Mountain Loop is only a mile and a half. After another section of incline and expansive views, we found ourselves at the top.

Locating the top was more challenging than on a 14er. Past treeline, identifying the summit is simple. It is also usually littered with cardboard signs for selfies. We settled on one rock formation before continuing on to locate what we believe was Robber’s Roost. It was as close as we could get to the antennae farm of NORAD without going off the edge or over a fence. So we called that our summit.

After staring at the red, blinking antennae atop NORAD my entire life, it was surreal to see them from an entirely new perspective. They actually looked small once we were so close.

Since the ascent was significantly easier than we had anticipated from our research, we decided to add the Dragon’s Backbone to our descent.

On the Dragon’s backbone, we found the challenge we had been expecting from the extreme rating. We also found even more spectacular views.

The trail began similar to its intersecting counterparts at first, wandering along toward the ridge. After some clear views from the perceived safety of enclosing rocks and trees, the trail becomes much more technical. Despite the clear trail markings and cairns, we still managed to deviate from the path several times and almost crawl across the face of the crags.

The trail narrows, becomes entirely large rock stairs and drops. The trees and surrounding rocks recede so that the path is like walking along a backbone, with one side as the steep fall off the side of the mountain. Navigating it got the heart pumping for multiple reasons. Even at less than a mile, it was the longest part of our journey.

The Dragon’s Backbone dumped us back into the aspen field, and we began our long descent. Aside from the backbone, none of the trails were hard to come down. It was more the relentless accumulation of the miles. The sun baked down on us once we left the trees on the steep park of Dixon. By the time we reached Talon, we and our bodies were just over it.

The hike was no longer challenging, but the last 3-5 miles just dragged on. Our feet hurt. Our legs were tired. Our back were knotted. We were just done.

That feeling lifted when we reached the car and the 16.5 miles were behind us. We were relieved to discover the hike only recorded at 16 miles rather than the forecasted 18.  Another two miles may have pushed any of us over the line.

Cheyenne Mountain is a beautiful hike. Long but much easier than advertised, if you are accustomed to gauging by 14ers and all the suck that exists past treeline. With all the hype of finally being able to summit this famed and familiar mountain, I was surprised to find the trail largely vacant. We encountered one other group of hikers past where Dixon gets extreme, and we only encountered a handful of people in Cheyenne Mountain Park itself.

Perhaps traffic will increase the longer the full trail is open. Mountain Loop could definitely use some foot traffic to fully establish the trail through the field.

It felt good to be back on the trail, and Cheyenne Mountain was the perfect place to start. I love walking to my car, looking west, and thinking, “I was up there.” Just like I do for Pikes Peak. I have now pointed out Dragon’s Backbone to my kids.

If you want to try Cheyenne Mountain, this article on Springs Magazine gave us flawless directions.

This year will ultimately be largely an off year for hiking for me. We are going to descend Pikes Peak (I’m so excited; I love downhill) in a couple weeks, but I don’t know if we will tackle any new 14ers before the fall snows descend. It may just be something we return to next year, more healed and better planned.

Christina Bergling

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Ascending Pikes Peak

Yesterday, I hiked my first 14er.

At some point, my husband got the idea to do all the 14ers (mountains with summits over 14,000 feet above sea level) in the state. There is debate; however, the most agreed upon number is 58 14ers in Colorado.

We decided to start local with the mountain that sits along the west edge of home: Pikes Peak.

We started in Manitou Springs at 4:30 in the morning, headlamps and the glowing moon illuminating the lingering night. We parked downtown and made the trek in the dark to the parking lot at the base of Barr Trail.

I have experienced the terminal miles of Barr Trail numerous times descending from hiking The Incline. I have run it, walked it, fallen on my ass on it. I have made my way down in broad daylight and the dark and in every kind of weather. Yet, in the darkness, in the opposite direction, the perspective on the trail was extremely altered. Everything looked different, felt different yet familiar simultaneously.

Immediately, my younger sister and her party took off up the trail. Yet from the first few crunching steps, my husband began lagging. He set a very slow, methodical pace. I assumed it was from his lungs and the altitude (he has a history of pulmonary aneurysm, pneumonia, and altitude sickness). So our small group began a rhythm of hiking up and then regrouping.

As we carved our way up the side of the mountain through the battered trail of switchbacks, the sun gradually began threatening the horizon. Beyond the twinkling city lights below us, day menaced. At one point, the bright moon still lingered over the peak we would climb as the sun broke into the sky opposite it. For the a brief and surreal moment, we cast two shadows on the gravel.

By the time daylight fully broke over the mountain, we had passed both the bail out and the turn off points for The Incline. We were officially in uncharted territory for three out of four of us. The path showed far less abuse from far fewer boots. And the sun ignited fall all around us.

Fall is my favorite season. And fall can be potentially disappointing in a place like Colorado where it is summer then winter then they alternate and then repeat. Most years, it seems like it goes from hot to snow and unfortunately back again. Lazy, meandering transitions like fall in the South amazed me. Yet on the side of Pikes Peak, fall was all around us.

 

Leaves crunched beneath each of our footfalls. The sweet smell of their decay played on the air. A thin razor chill hung on the edge of the air. The sun blazed through the quivering golden aspen leaves around us. It was quintessential fall, and it was fucking euphoric.

As the naked peak began to loom grander and more ominous over us, we meandered along gentle rolling trails through an aspen valley. I caught myself just floating, lost in the mountain air and the seductive scenery. It was undoubtedly my favorite section of the hike.

My husband continued to struggle even through the flat or declining sections. Despite the fact that he is not an avid exerciser, this performance was very uncharacteristic for him. The previous year, he ran a 15K with zero training nearly as fast as I did running 3 times a week and sometimes over 10 miles. I, of course, feared for his lungs again, yet he said his legs were just not working. That it was just a struggle that it should not have been.

We made it to Barr Camp at the halfway point (6.5 miles from the base) and broke for an early lunch. My sister and her party had stayed waiting for us an hour (to make sure my husband was still alive). They broke off again, and we started as well after food, water, and rest.

The trail changed after Barr Camp. The gradual, curving stroll through the aspens began to actually climb the side of the mountain. The switchbacks stretched long to the point of annoyance, where at every crest there was more of the same length of trees.

The trail did not really become hard, but at this point, it did become more boring to me. I was too enamored with the mesmerizing aspen sunrise. Thin gravel carvings between mirrored trees just could not compare. We continued our steady pace of climb and regroup as the sun began to heat the chill off the mountain.

We reached 10,000 feet and kept plugging along.

Treeline proved an elusive mistress. Every row of trees appeared to be the last only for another set of siblings to appear behind them. The monotonous switchbacks just wound back and forth slowly. We could feel the air thinning with each cut across the mountainside.

While the views around us became more pedestrian forest, the views below us grew more impressive. We could pick out the other mountains we knew, Garden of the Gods, the parts of town we lived in, the east edge of town, Kansas itself.

Then treeline and the A frame finally happened.

At this point, we stopped for another legitimate break, taking off the packs that were drawing tension up in our shoulders and knotting in our lower backs. I could tell the instant my body needed calories. My legs got heavier while my head got lighter. I felt like a new person after some energy blocks every time.

The hike became a different trail after treeline. I regretted wishing to get there. The first 10 miles were a delightful easy little stroll up the mountain. The last 3 miles were not.

Looking back, my body is exactly the same with a half marathon (I have officially run 2 and several training distances that long). A 10 mile run is great. At multiple points in my running life, it has been my absolute favorite distance. However, 13.1 miles has always been horrible. I’m great for the first 10 miles; then the last 3 are an absolute struggle every step. Maybe my body just wants to stay under 10 miles.

Unfortunately, for my husband, his entire hike was a forced battle for every step.

The temperature was obviously hotter after treeline, in the direct sunlight, yet the drafts were colder and more abrasive. Though even at the worst of moments, we got impossibly lucky with the weather. The weather was literally perfect. Cool enough with barely any snow toward the top. Finding an October day like this in Colorado is nothing short of a miracle.

The views below were breathtaking, but the scenery around us was barren and mundane. Rocks and boulders stacked forever to the summit.

Our pace slowed and slowed. The air thinned and thinned.

The first mile past treeline was fine. It was slower, but it was not terrible. Not exceptionally steeper. However, the last two miles were hell. I really have no other way to say it.

No longer did three of us wander ahead then wait to regroup. Now, everyone was requesting breaks, taking a step they could not follow through with movement, breathing deep against a dizzy spell. I do not know if it was the altitude or the over 11 miles already stacked on our muscles or that it was the first 14er summit for all of us. Perhaps it was all of the above.

The hardcore people passed us, of course. This is Colorado. People run this route annually for the Pikes Peak Ascent half marathon then up and down for the full marathon. In one of the fittest cities in the country, even a compulsively active person can be proved completely out of shape. We marveled at the fact that any body could perform such a feat multiple times, and one of us removed participating in the event from their bucket list.

We trudged on. That is the most apt way to say it. The steps were slow and heavy. The breaths were deep and labored. The muscles burned. The thoughts revolted. And yet, we trudged on.

The absolute worst part (for EVERYONE) was the very final stretch, horrendously dubbed The Golden Stairs. At this point, we had made our way to the final boulder field approaching the peak. We could hear and see the cog railway moving along the top of the mountain. We could even hear the tourists milling about above us, most likely spectating our sad ascent.

The switchbacks jagged severely and rapidly across the waning mountainside with larger and more fierce rocks to overcome. These 16 “steps” felt like they were never going to end. For an eternity, it felt like we were so impossibly close and so depressingly far from the end. Like we could reach out and touch it yet never actually reach it.

Then it was there. The summit. The end.

We had fucking made it.

Directly at the terminus of the trail, the four of us circled together in a group hug. Some of us may have cried (me absolutely). I said how proud I was of them. And I was. So proud of all of us.

In all honesty, on that hike, our group enjoyed the perfect chemistry. No one got irritated or bitchy, even at our lowest moments. The levity was an appropriate balance. The support was amazing. No one got left behind.

My sister and crew finished a good two and a half hours before we made it to the top. It took us just over 10 hours to go about 14 miles from car to summit. Thankfully, we had two separate pick up cars.

Looking back at the hike as a whole, it was not hard. It was actually quite easy as far as hikes go. Base to treeline was easy. Everything until the last two miles was tolerable. (The last two miles were HELL.) It was just long. So long. Over 13 miles just in up. Yet that all just managed to accentuate the accomplishment.

In the wake, I find myself changed. I have such a completely different perspective on something that has loomed over me most of the days of my life. I grew up in Pikes Peak’s shadow. I have been up the highway to the summit plenty of times. Yet nothing was like actually learning the mountain the way we did with each step, actually experiencing the entire length of something I saw every day, something I ignored many days.

I have had many experiences in my life that utterly shifted my perspectives on everything. Accepting being bipolar. Going to Iraq. This was the first one that occurred entirely externally. It felt like a metaphor, like a physical experience of all the perspective shifts I have experienced on the inside. I was able to see something familiar from an entirely different angle. Everything changed, and everything stayed the same.

I have a pretty decent view of Pikes Peak at the end of my street, and every time I have been outside today, I am just dumbstruck thinking that only yesterday I was up there. Right there at the top. I walked up that entire mountain.

And what is the one thing I have no mentioned? My hamstring. That’s right. I have not mentioned my hamstring because it was a nonissue. It is a nonissue. There were certainly moments of discomfort and tightness along the trail. I did not sit very often because it hurt. Yet my hamstring was not a hindrance. That is a HUGE change from earlier this year when I could cry rolling over in bed or standing up out of my car.

Today I find that I feel like nothing happened. My hamstring does not hurt at all. I am not even sore (though that could be waiting for me in the morning). I must be doing something right with all these workouts. It must be doing something.

But none of that matters as much as the fact that my hamstring does not hurt.

Christina Bergling

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Back on the Slopes

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I have been following in my father’s ski tracks my entire life. Not much has changed. My father put me on skies when I was three years-old; then I spent winter mornings in ski school until I was able to ski blue runs fluently.

So many ski trips are burned into my memory. Packing up before dawn and heading out toward the mountains. A pack of licorice and the ski cassette tape of classic rock, so used that it began to unravel. Aching ankles, sore legs, and full body chills into the nap on the way home.

I haven’t skied in YEARS. The last time I attempted to ski, I never even saw the slopes. I was pregnant with my (now two year-old) son and had debilitating morning sickness. I puked the entire drive up to the resort, on the side of the road in heavy Denver traffic. Then I spent the day vomiting in the lodge. The entire day. I passed out on the table then stumbled into the bathroom to lose the sips of water I had taken. The sickness, puking, and cramps were so serious that I was honestly concerned I was going to lose my baby.

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This time, I brought my five year-old daughter for her first time skiing, and, just like my father before me, I deposited her in ski school in the morning. Establishing and continuing family traditions.

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The day did not start out well for me. After my daughter was all squared away and I launched off with my father and sister, I found my ski boots very uncomfortable. I had them before my two children and apparently my feet changed substantially in that time. When I wrestled all the bindings closed, they pressed on my ankle in some way that was just excruciating. My toes went numb; it felt like the side of my foot was tearing.

I tried to power through. I told myself to breathe through it. I told myself it would loosen with time. I popped a couple bindings. Yet, on the lift, I had to counsel myself out of how much it hurt.

On the first run down, I found skiing to be very difficult, harder than I really remembered. I wobbled. I was slow and cautious. It was just unpleasant. I did not feel like myself at all. I thought perhaps it had been too long and I had forgotten my technique over the years. By the bottom, I decided to just go rent new boots.

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New boots were like a whole new world. Without the pain, everything became easy again; muscle memory returned. My mind even cleared and returned. After months of dealing with the constant hamstring pain, I simply could not process additional pain signals; I could not deal. Yet without the pain, skiing was awesome again! Even with my gimpy hamstring, I blazed down after my family, carving around moguls and bouncing over powder.

I forgot how good it felt to whip down a mountain, to hear the snow compacting under me, to feel the flakes in the winter air on my face. I felt that familiar euphoria and remember why I loved it so much.

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We laid down some good runs in the morning. The Loveland win bit hard on the high lifts, but otherwise, we rode the mountain under clear skies and high sun. The hamstring only balked when carving through ice or deep powder and only when turning left when I really had to lean down into that left leg.

We took lunch and then back to the slopes. Somewhere in the afternoon, we accidentally ended up on a black run. Black runs are not out of any of our ability; however, with my father’s spinal stenosis and disk cyst and my 5 months injured hamstring, it was not in our plan for the day (I wonder where I get my tendency to ignore pain and do whatever I want in spite of my body). We all survived, but the run pretty much winded down our day.

We migrated from the Basin back to the Valley to have some drinks waiting for my daughter to be done with ski school. I was curious to see how she did, but she loved it and did fantastic.

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We took her on one final run to end the day. She did so well. I was impressed at her ability after one short day and amazingly proud of her. For a child who often whines and attempts to get people to do things for her, she was calm and determined and brave, even after 5 hours of ski school. She wanted to keep going; she outlasted the adults.

In the end, it was a great day. Plenty of exercise that reminded me of why I love the sport and another opportunity to introduce my daughter to an activity I enjoy. It will definitely not be years before I return to the slopes.

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