Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Incline

Climbing the Incline is Perfectly Legal

These are pictures from my climb in late October 2012

The Incline

I climbed the Incline today (October 25, 2012). You won't be around Colorado Springs very long before you hear about "The Incline."  People speak about it in hushed tones, and they never mention it unless followed by "I do it every day/week/whatever in (impossibly short amount of time)." Climbing the Incline used to be illegal, but it became so common that the city worked out a deal with the owners of the land to allow people to use it.

The herd is thickest at the bottom

I don't mean to belittle those who do The Incline.  It is a truly forbidding climb.  It's just one of those things in Colorado, which certain groups of very enthusiastic outdoors types use as a kind of measuring stick on whether they are worthy.  It's kind of like fire-walking, the pay-off is in saying you do it, not really in doing it - though I'm sure the real hardcore types get a rush from mastering it.

What is The Incline?  It is a set of umpteen amount of railroad ties cut into the side of a mountain in Manitou (off Ruxton Street - just go there and park wherever, you'll see The Incline from the street) that forms a sort of stairway.  It goes practically straight up in most places, with very, very few places to stop and rest.  It rises about 2000 feet in a couple of miles.  There is a sign at the beginning saying that this is an "extreme trail."  It's kind of like the Bataan Death March; once you start, you either finish it or you fall by the wayside.

Never having done The Incline, I still had it in the back of my mind because I have heard about it so much.  I just needed a spark to set out and conquer it.  That happened the other day, when I was getting a haircut.  The young lady wielding the shares mentioned it out of the blue.  Incline enthusiasts tend to do that, it's not like the weather or something that everybody brings up in the normal course of the day.  "It's supposed to rain tomorrow, and I'm glad I did the Incline yesterday."  Doesn't usually go like that.
Colorado Springs

I noted jokingly that I had heard that some people were insane and could do the thing in 45 minutes, and of course she soon let slip that she herself could get up and down in an hour.  That is an insane pace, and if you're not actually running up it (which she denied doing), you're sure running back down.  Now, she is by far not the first one to brag about her prowess on the Incline.  I worked with a guy who, virtually every time he saw me, would tell me about his most recent adventure on it.  Why?  Who knows?  That was just his thing, he associated me with The Incline for who knows what reason.

Anyway, back to the haircut.  She got me thinking.  The weather currently is turning quickly toward winter (I did this on October 19, 2012), so it basically was do it now or wait six months (I'm not climbing it for the first time in snow or ice or 30 degree weather, no sir).  I decided just to do the damn thing.  Right now.
Very pretty light during the late afternoon

I procrastinated all day, and finally got there a little before 5 p.m.  It certainly was not an ideal time to start out by any means, especially  with full sunset coming well before 7 p.m.  However, I knew if I put it off, the weather might turn, and I would have to re-motivate myself.  Who knows, it could even snow.  Colorado is funny like that.  So, I just decided, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.  You know, "just do it."
Some people run up this - good for them - not me

I parked a bit away from the start, down a steep hill, so I already was a bit out of breath even before I got to the trail itself (there's a parking lot at the trailhead, but my helpful haircutter said you have to pay there, and I wasn't in the mood to do that).  Being tired at the outset was not the best of omens.
Looking up from about a quarter of the way up

Looking up at the thing, which is like a jagged scratch straight down the mountain, was sheer intimidation.  I mean, it practically goes vertical in the middle and especially at the end.

The trail follows the route of an old cog railway that since has been replaced by new track elsewhere that continues on much, much higher than this railway did, all the way to the top of Pikes Peak.  The railway still owns the right of way followed by The Incline, so technically climbing it constitutes trespassing.  They are working on eliminating that restriction.  I'm sure the railway only cares because of liability concerns, which certainly must be addressed somehow.  Every year, you read of some poor soul being airlifted out of there after impaling himself on a stake.  But it is a perfect trail, and it's like a community open secret, well-maintained and with warning signs and so forth, so onward and upward.
Garden of the Gods over there

I started out with several others, but didn't try to keep up with anyone.  That is a fool's game.  I trudged along at my own pace and had no problem at all letting people pass.  The climbers were mostly couples (one female-female).  The few doing it solo like me seemed to be the real regular types, head down and churning up there at a steady pace, no stopping and no slowing down.  The couples tended to stop and rest almost as much as I did.
The herd thins out about halfway up

So, I stopped multiple times on the way up, you know, "to take pictures."  Go twenty steps, stop and rest, go thirty stops, rinse and repeat.  I would have keeled over if I hadn't, the mere act of continually raising your legs to the next step and hoisting yourself up really wears on you if you aren't used to it.  I was out of breath practically the entire way, even after resting, and I'm in fairly good (not great) shape.
These guys were turning back

I stopped and rested more and more the higher I got.  One couple fell behind me, then another.  Both ultimately quit about two-thirds of the way up, where it basically goes vertical until the summit.  Believe me when I tell you that every step as you approach the peak is an endurance test, and the steps can be very high.  There are occasional drainage pipes crossing the trail that can be tricky to clamber over as well.
This couple didn't make it

Naturally, there were folks running back down the whole time, invariably listening to Ipods.  I didn't see anyone actually running up, but there were obvious regulars who climbed briskly, and I'm sure on busy weekends (this was a Friday) you get the real freaks who probably run up two steps at a time and make everybody look like slackers.  One guy had his dog, whose tongue was hanging out as it led the way.  The lady at the salon mentioned someone who carries his bike up on his back so he can ride the Barr Trail back down.  Well, different strokes for different people.
Looking out over Manitou

It was getting darker and darker, but I was making steady progress.  You can see the top all the way, so you always know roughly how close you are.  "Close" in this context is an extremely deceptive word.  The summit may only be a few hundred yards away, but those yards are at something approaching a 60 degree angle (maybe more).  Nearing the top but a bit further from it than between my usual rest spots, I stood up and went for it in one last lunge.  I made it, but immediately paid the price.  For the first time on my climb, I got a stitch in my side that thankfully soon went away.
People fall on rebars poking through and have to be air-lifted out

Standing at the top was kind of a mystical experience.  The crumbling foundations of the old cog railway station are there, kind of like the remains of an old Mayan altar at the top of a Mexican pyramid.  You walk around on a kind of peak, but the views, while nice, are not any better than the ones you saw on the way up, and in fact are more obscured by trees.  The Barr trail to the top of Pikes Peak continued further on, and it sure looked inviting.  Maybe someday....
Garden of the Gods in the distance

I recalled that the salon lady had said that only once had she continued up to Pikes Peak with some friends.  It took them five hours, which also is insanely fast, and a friend met them at the top and drove them back down.  That really is the only way to do it.  Her expression told the story for her, though.  Unlike her sunny recollections of climbing The Incline, she mentioned the Barr Trail with a dark look that said, "And there wasn't a minute of fun the whole way, and I'll never do it again unless I have a gun to my head."
The steps are like climbing a ladder in places

Anyway, you get a real rush having completed the climb.  Even if you turn right around and head back down - as everyone else did - it feels good.  You have tangible evidence of success, and you are standing on it.  The Summit.  The particulars about what is actually up there are incidental.
The timbers are not all in the best condition

With darkness closing in fast, I decided not to go back down The Incline.  It just involved too many tricky steps, and there are rebars poking up along the side everywhere, just waiting for you to slip and fall on them.  Even in broad daylight, people coming back down pick their way carefully, step by step.  I could have made it, I'm sure, but it just seemed like a risky play: one mis-step, and you are asking for trouble.  I decided to be prudent (my ex-girlfriend would say I'm just chicken, fine, honey) and went down the Barr Trail.

Going back down the normal Barr Trail couldn't be bad, I thought to myself.  Right?  Down I went.  The trail was really steep and gravelly in places, and I slipped and fell on my dignity about three or four times.  No damage done, though, and it was my fault for wearing tennis sneakers.  The lack of light had little to do with it, but sure didn't help.

The sun went down.  It gets dark fast in the mountains.  I spent another hour picking my way down the trail in total darkness.  Along the way, I met one guy riding his bicycle up the trail (total insanity, with no light except his caver lights on his hat), some couples walking back down like me but going a bit slower, and a lady running down using caver lights as well (she must have gone up The Incline like me).  I asked her if she did this a lot, and she replied "Yes ... when I can."  It's funky running into people in the pitch dark, you can see the fear in them at seeing someone loom out of the darkness.  I tried to be reassuring, and moved on quickly while trying not to seem rude.
Looking north toward the highway

You find that on a lot of popular trails.  People will climb them at night and so forth.  It's just odd seeing someone just starting out at twilight when you are relieved that you are done.  Not sure why people climb at night, maybe they just like having the place to themselves.
This last stretch is like a rest stop, but you'll be exhausted by now

Without further incident, I made it back to the parking lot and then my car.  My time up The Incline was an hour and 25 minutes - at least a third of that was sitting and resting - and my total time, car-to-car, was just under three hours.  Nothing I'm going to brag about.  Perhaps all right for a first-timer, though I'm sure many first-timers can do it faster than that, too.  But the time didn't matter to me.  The point was to do it and chalk that one up as done.  Mission accomplished, baby!
At the top are ... ruins

Now, when someone brings up The Incline, I can casually mention that I've done it, too.  Welcome to the club.
Garden of the Gods from the top of- the Incline

I admit to being proud of myself.  Despite the difficulty, I did The Incline!  I'm a true Coloradan now.

Sunset in the Rockies

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