Friday, February 28, 2014

Pikes Peak Barr Trail Winter Expedition

Route: Barr Trail, East Slopes
Trailhead Elevation: 6,700 ft.
Barr Camp Elevation: 10,200 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,110 ft.
Hike Elevation Total: 7400 ft.
Hike Mileage Total: 22.55 mi. (my GPS)

Trip Report

Thursday, February 27

Start Time: 8:14am
Barr Camp Time: 12:35pm
Mileage: 6.22 miles
Elevation Gain: 3500 ft.

We went through some excellent discussion this winter as to which mountains to tackle during our quick 4-day trip.  In the past we have hiked on some of the easiest winter 14ers: Quandary, Sherman, and Elbert.  One of our initial thoughts this year was to step it up a notch and go after one like La Plata Peak.  Its still relatively safe from avalanche danger if you follow the right route.  But then we stumbled upon this idea of hitting the Barr Trail in winter.  Its a route that rarely has avalanche danger, and though it is long, an overnight stay at Barr Camp in the middle makes it into a manageable hike.  And thus, we settled on Pikes Peak for this year's winter climb.

We flew into Denver the night before and drove down and stayed at Manitou Springs. We enjoyed a nice hot breakfast at the hotel and then made our way to the Barr Trail's trailhead at the edge of town.  It was a real challenge deciding what clothes to pack and wear to start the hike. We knew the first stretch heading up to Barr Camp could possibly be warm (40s). We also knew the Friday summit push could be freezing cold. As it turns out, the weather would reach almost 50 degrees this day in Manitou Springs.  

I started the hike with two thin synthetic layers on the top, plus a gore-tex jacket, and zip-off pants on the bottom.  We made decisions based on recent trail beta to leave the snowshoes in the car (a very good decision) but to bring our basic traction gear like microspikes.

You would almost think it was summer with shots like this. Ironically, it was in the 40s as
we ascended while it was a freezing 10 degrees back home in Michigan.

The beginning switchbacks on Barr Trail went fairly quickly.  This was the first time we had seen them in daylight.  The last time we hiked on Pikes was 2010 and we hit the trailhead just after 4:30am in the dark.  The air temp was about 32 degrees when we started but it quickly warmed up as time passed.  About 20 minutes in I was already taking the leggings off my zip-off pants.

At just over two miles in we hit our first major patch of ice.  The surface was smooth and slippery and we could see the initial portion only lasted for about 25 feet.  We clumsily made our way across it in just boots and quickly questioned whether we should have just pulled out the microspikes.  Just a few moments later we encountered an uphill that was just as ice covered and this time the spikes came out.  We noted it would be a handy thing to simply keep the spikes accessible at all points on Barr Trail at this point in winter.

Microspikes definitely help on this
Around 10:45am, about 3.3 miles in, we found a nice level clearing and we stopped to grab some bites to eat.  I had a Cliff bar and some Teddy Grahams on the way up and not much more.  After leaving the clearing it wasn't long and we put the spikes on and pretty much had them on for good the rest of the way to Barr Camp.  We would learn on this trail that even when there is no snow or ice its just as well to leave the spikes on.  Popular thought is they are strong enough they won't wear down too quickly even on regular gravel and dirt. 

For the last mile or so into Barr Camp the trail remained pretty much completely snow and ice covered.  The spikes made this easy work and they are pretty much the perfect traction device on this terrain.  We arrived at camp at 12:35pm, a 4 hour 20 minute ascent.  There were a handful of other guests in there at the time as well as the caretakers Anthony and Renee.

We met them and were almost immediately offered some hot drinks.  These guys were awesome!  They showed us the bunkhouse where we could drop our gear.  The bunkhouse had 20+ mattresses all laid out which offered us plenty of space to re-situate gear. 
We spent time time in the main room visiting and asking questions of Anthony & Renee.  They were offering some advice on the trail ahead leading to the summit and the timing of heading up there.  We also munched on some of our food as a light lunch.

As an afternoon activity we headed up trail around 2pm to explore the first mile or two to the summit.  Admittedly, I had carried with me some crazy aspirations in the morning of seeing whether we could summit today, but after reaching camp well afternoon those thoughts were quickly put to rest.  We hiked up to the trail junction for the Bottomless Pit trail.  We had considered this an option until we learned that the snow on the trail was almost untouched and snowshoes would be helpful there.  Dad turned around at this point to save his energy for tomorrow.  Matt and I headed on for another fifteen minutes along a south traversing switchback. Then Matt stopped to make phone calls (the cell reception was much better here than at camp) and I went on another 10 minutes to the end of the switchback where I turned around as well.  We ended up getting another 3+ miles and 1100 feet of elevation in with this afternoon hike.

We lounged around at camp again until supper time arrived promptly at 6pm.  A new friend of ours Jeff arrived in this time and we enjoyed getting to know him.  He was somewhat of a regular on the Barr Trail as we learned a number of the visitors, and overnighters, to camp are.  Supper was the traditional Barr Camp spaghetti and garlic bread.  The spaghetti was with a vegetarian sauce with a protein supplement but you would have thought it was meat it tasted so good.

We chatted for some time after supper until Anthony & Renee pulled out the Bananagrams.  This was a variation of Scrabble where players make their own words and connections and seek to use up all the letter pieces in front of them.  We ended up playing more than a dozen rounds and the group had a blast together.

At 9pm Anthony & Renee pretty much shut everything down.  Us campers headed into the bunkhouse and they locked the door heading back into the main cabin.  The outside door to our bunkhouse always remained unlocked so we could head in and out as needed.

Overnight I slept in my polypro bottoms and winter pants, plus polypro, two synthetic layers and a fleece layer on top.  In my 20 degree bag I stayed pretty comfortable as the air temp dipped to around 20 degrees.

Friday, February 28

Start Time: 7:12am
Summit Time: 1:02pm
Descent Start: 1:23pm
Barr Camp Time: 5:08pm
Ascent Mileage: 5.23 miles
Descent Mileage: 4.88 miles
Elevation Gain: 4100 ft.

  (Normally this would be about 12 miles roundtrip, but with the small switchbacks the GPS doesn't get it all, plus the snow shortcuts we took, the mileage shows much shorter)

As usual with a first night at real altitude (10,200), I didn't sleep so well.  Actually I woke up with a squirrely stomach as well.  Anthony & Renee had a wonderful pancake breakfast for us all but all I could eat was a single small pancake. In our talks of timing yesterday we came to the conclusion we'd like to have breakfast at 6:30am and then head out.  A&R were kind enough to move breakfast up just for us.

I decided to start the hike wearing my polypro top, as well as my two synthetic layers and a gore-tex jacket. On the bottom I had a polypro bottom and winter pants.  We were concerned about the high winds and lower temps up top so the more clothes the merrier.  As it turned out, I would drop the polypro top about 20 minutes in, but the rest of it stayed put.

We found the trail through the trees all the way up to the A-frame area to be in excellent compacted condition and easy to follow.  We did learn however that if you step off the two foot wide compacted snow you could easily posthole up to your knees in an instant.  

The A-frame
As we neared the A-frame the trail became more difficult to follow in the shorter switchbacks.  On one northerly traverse we missed a hard left turning switchback and continued straight on what appeared to be good trail.  We ended up off track and in our efforts to find the trail again ended up looking back around to where we had initially lost trail.

Route-finding the Snow Covered Barr Trail near the A-frame 

As we worked through deeper snow to find trail we quickly learned that we should have brought our snow gaiters.  We had foolishly tricked ourselves into thinking we wouldn't need them as we hadn't needed them on the lower sections of Barr Trail.  We would pay for this mistake with wet socks and boots the rest of the day.

Above treeline the trail was more dry but the winds picked up with ferocity.  We instantly grew cold where we had skin exposed and spent time getting more gear out to cover up more. 

Around 12,500 the snow thickened once more and we quickly lost trail as it moved to the north on a long switchback.  As I worked uphill to find trail it donned on us it would be easier to simply make a bee-line uphill to gain the long south traverse.  This brought us into small patches of deep post-holing snow and a little more effort to work uphill, but the short-cutted distance ended up evening things out.

Windy & snowy conditions at 12,800 on Pikes

Once on what appeared to be the trail we had a pair of relatively steep snowfields to traverse.  There were faint signs of tracks in them but to gain good purchase with just microspikes and boots I was kicking some steps in to feel comfortable. We pulled out ice axes here to protect ourselves as the slope was steep enough to send us on a quick slide into rocks.

Hard to beat views like this
As the long traverse neared 13,000 feet the trail began to get much more clear and it would stay this way for the rest of the traverse.  The traverse ends on a ridge and the sign for the Cirque which provided some fascinating views.  From there the snow covered the trail but we used the GPS to follow some short windy switchbacks up to a northerly traverse higher across the face.

As we looked to the northern end of this latest traverse a large snowfield coming out of the couloir and cliffs above covered a large section of the face.  We shortcutted up the slope just before this field to gain the switchback heading south once more.  One more switchback led us to the bottom of the Golden Stairs.  They were snow-filled but fairly straight forward.  Above them we encountered one more snowfield to be traversed with ice axe and this led us into a few remaining switchbacks to the summit.

Ice ax travel in the snow just below 14,000 ft.

As we neared the summit the winds really picked up with a vengeance once more.  I gained the summit first and hung on to one of the summit-marking poles for dear life as I waited a few moments for the other two to join me.

All quiet on top, just the sound of the wind blowing a freight train

Our "less" windy spot on top
On one hand we were disappointed that the summit house was closed for the winds and that we would not be able to retreat inside for refreshment.  On the other hand, we had the summit of Pikes Peak to ourselves which would seem to be a rare occurrence.  I hiked over to the true summit amongst the rocks in the middle of all the parking.  We found a spot out of the wind on the east side of the buildings and had a very quick lunch.  Having my gloves off just for a few minutes brought my fingers to near numbing cold.

Traversing steep snow with ice ax
As we got into the descent the fingers warmed up nicely, and once we were out of the wind I was even able to take off my heavier winter gloves.  For most of today's hike we got away with just wearing a glove liner.  At the windier times we put on the heavier winter gloves and even at times had no gloves at all.

During our work along the north traverse across the upper east face we ran into Renee and Jeff as well as Ling, whom we met for the first time there.  We had been told she would be hiking up with Jeff and so we knew she was coming.  Ling and Renee were doing well and they did end up summiting behind us.  Jeff ended up turning around as he just wasn't feeling it

When our descent brought us back to the initial snow fields just below 13,000 feet we found some good slopes to glissade down.  The snow surface was just firm enough and we had safe enough run-outs (in case we would lose control) that we made 3 good glissade runs of about 50 feet.

One of the more gorgeous views of the day
Back in the trees we followed the GPS more closely, plus using the advantage of looking at things from above and had no trouble follow the trails through the switchbacks.  Once on the clearer obvious and longer switchbacks we pretty much put the hike on auto-pilot the rest of the way out.  It was 5:08pm when we returned to Barr Camp making for a total day of just under 10 hours.

The other three returned just at 6pm for supper.  Spaghetti tasted fantastic again tonight and we surely ate our fill.  Anthony & Renee's nephew Tim joined us for supper and games as well.  Our after supper activity tonight was a raging game of Farkel.  It was fun seeing the different personalities and play-styles play out.  Tim and Ling were surely the two risk-takers. 

Saturday, March 1

Barr Camp Time: 8:29am
End Time: 11:38am
Distance: 6.23 miles

The morning routine was to get packs ready.  We were mostly all up with the sun about 6:30 or so.  It was a task getting all of our stuff, which had mostly covered an entire bunk, back into our backpacks to hit the trail.  Breakfast was again at 7am and the menu the same ole pancakes.  Today I was much hungrier and had a good helping of the tasty treats.  The batter they used was of a darker color than regular pancakes and its hard to describe the different taste.  They did have small nuts and possibly some small diced fruit in it as well.  They had a Pure Michigan syrup which was a nice connection to back home.

During and after breakfast we ended up spending almost an hour talking with Ling and the others.  Ling was telling us about all of her adventures and the adventure service she works with.  She just hit her two-year anniversary of summiting Pikes Peak once a month.  She also told us about trips to Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp.  She and Jeff are working on a trip to Macchu Picchu next year.

We made great connections with the others and had some fun group pictures as we prepared to hit the trail.  It was 8:29 when we finally made our way out of Barr Camp.  It was pretty chilly and dark clouds were brewing to the west of us over the summit.

For clothing this morning I just started with the double synthetic layer and a gore-text jacket, zip-off pants on the bottom.  About a half-hour down trail I took off the jacket layer as well as the leggings for the zip-off pants.  Temps may have been nearing 40 degrees.  We kept the spikes on pretty much for the entire first half of the descent.

Icy trail conditions
About half way down we were impressed with a thick cloud deck that was below us. It was pretty at first, but as we neared it and entered it the air grew much cooler.  As we descended further and neared the junction with the top of the incline trail it began to snow lightly.  This would continue for the remainder of the hike.

In the section below the Incline junction we must have been passed by 50+ runners who had ascended the Incline and now were descending Barr Trail.  Some of them weren't phased by the cold and light snow, some looked frozen.  We didn't stop to change clothes but I made it to the bottom with shorts and my regular tops.  Since we were moving the only part of me that grew cold in the freezing air was my fingers.

It was 11:38am when we finally hit the end of the trail.  Just more than a dusting of snow had fallen on the trail as we had made it out and the air temps in Manitou Springs were down close to the teens.

A successful expedition to be sure on Pikes this week.  Several groups coming up on Saturday morning were hoping to summit that day but the weather was surely going to put a halt to that.  We were fortunate to have had mostly clear skies and just the wind.

Our trio at Barr Camp the morning we left


I have Tracks and waypoints from our hike all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk):

My Tracks

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