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268 A Breathing Challenge 2010-08-16

hikers high on Barr Trail

A friend recently told me of a co-worker of his who was going to climb the Barr Trail in the Pikes Peak Challenge. The co-worker has climbed Kilimanjaro and might know more about mountaineering than Messner; but it is a good time to re-visit altitude and the famous Barr Trail.

The Pikes Peak Challenge is a fundraising event that benefits the Brain Injury Association of Colorado. It is a one way climb to the top of Pikes Peak.

The Barr Trail was built by Fred Barr in the years of 1914 to 1918. The trail was built as a tourist destination. The trail is long and at times steep trail but none the less a trail as it climbs 7400 feet in 13 miles.

A few years ago I climbed the Barr Trail with my friends, Mark and Ray. Mark lives in Colorado and had a friend who was coming to visit him. The friend wanted to climb Pikes Peak by the Barr Trail. I had never climbed Pikes Peak and soon invited myself on the climb and then persuaded my friend Ray to join us.

Coming from Tennessee, Ray and I were in Colorado a few days before we were supposed to meet Mark for the hike. We began acclimating by hiking higher each day; but still sleeping low. Soon, we were feeling strong. We were ready.

Mark's friend, Tom (not his real name - the name was changed to protect the innocent!), was also from Tennessee. Tom brought his teenage son, Junior (not really), and his brother Jerry (not really) who lived in Florida. They flew in to Denver rented a car and drove to Colorado Springs. They were to meet us at the trailhead the next morning.

We left the Boulder area and went to Manitou Springs, sleeping at the trailhead parking area (I think camping in the parking area is now prohibited). Mark and his ensemble arrived early. We talked for a minute and and were soon on the trail. They were eager.

As soon as we left the trailhead on the Barr Trail, we knew that we were climbing a mountain. The trail ascends steeply right from the start. At least the elevation is low which diffuses the effort of the grunt. After a few miles the trail eases off a bit and transforms into a pleasant stroll. Along the way we separated a bit and Junior walked with Ray and I.

Junior was a very nice young man. He played soccer in high school and was fit. With ease he kept up with our pace. You could tell he wanted to walk even faster. I kept trying to swap packs with him. My pack looked heavier than his and I thought that would help slow him down.

At Barr Camp the two groups officially separated. Mark's group was only going to the top, they were going to ride the cog train down the mountain. Where as, Ray and I were going to do a round trip. Like it or not, we were going to have to increase our speed.

The trail was a delight to walk. Soon we above tree line gawking at the scenery. The trail made long traverses across the slopes as it continued to climb at a gradual rate. Near the top, the mountain lets you know it is a mountain again, as it climbs the Golden Stairs, the steepest section of the hike. The Golden Stairs are short switchbacks as the trail climbs through sandstone cliffs.

After the Golden Stairs it is a short distance to the top. Suddenly, people are everywhere. We crossed the train tracks and entered the gift shop. It was crazy.

We stayed on the top a for a short while and then started down. The only thing worse than a 13 mile, 7500 foot ascent is a 13 mile, 7500 foot descent. We plugged along.

On the final long switchback we met Jerry (Tom's brother) and Junior. They were trying hard; but Junior was no longer doing well. He hurt. He had lost his lunch a couple of times and was a nice shade of Munster green. They asked about the route and continued.

About a half of a mile behind them we met Mark and Tom. Tom was struggling. On any other mountain, the correct answer would be, you are as high as you can go, it is time to turn around. But on a one way hike to the top, they were one mile from their goal or twelve miles back to the start. Yikes!

Thank goodness they all made the top and without major complications. After coffee, donuts, and a train ride, they were back at their vehicle and in good spirits.

We made it back to our vehicle too. Barr Trail was a good effort.

Ray on Pikes Summit

Ray on the Summit

Some notes and hints for climbing Barr...

  • Ray and I were acclimated, Tom, Jerry, and Junior were not. If at all possible give yourself three or four days to begin acclimating.
  • Junior was probably the most fit person of both groups; but he was probably the sickest. AMS (acute mountain sickness) does not care if you are fit or not.
  • At 14,000 feet the atmospheric pressure is almost half of what it is at sea level - 8.5 psi to 15psi.
  • For a summer climb start early. I think the next year when Amy and I did Barr Trail, we started at 3:00. The trail is above treeline for a long time.
  • If you can't hike 26 miles (or thirteen for one way) in a day on a relatively flat trail, then you probably will have trouble trying to hike the same distance in the mountains.
  • Drink lots of water, then drink some more. When you are hiking also drink before you are thirsty. Know your body.
  • Set a pace you can walk at all day without taking a break. If your heart is racing, slow down, just keep moving. Don't forget to breathe.
  • Walk efficiently, save all the energy you can. Use the rest step. The Golden Stairs are at the top waiting for you!
  • Trekking poles help, going up and down the mountain.
  • Carry the essentials; but not the extras.
  • Gingko biloba and aspirin help some folks to acclimate faster. Diamox is supposed to help; but I have never used it.
  • Electrolyte tablets help maintain balanced body systems.
  • Heartburn and gas tablets help balance the pressure differences between your body and the atmosphere.
  • Gels are easier to digest than hard foods. My wife takes the gels like medicine, a dose every hour or two.
  • Remember to pack sun screen, sunglasses, a brimmed hat, rain gear, and a warm layer. Wear reliable, tested foot gear.
  • Carry Sportslick or a similar product to prevent rashes and blisters. Don't forget to use it!
  • Keep a positive attitude and have fun.

Happy Barr trails.


My friend, Jon, sent me the name of his co-worker who is hiking the Pikes Peak Challenge, Stephen Kulinski. If you are able to make a donation open the link to the Donation Page and select his name from the drop down menu.


To Breathe or Not - another entry on altitude


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