A fire crackles in the gas stove hearth as a woman dusts off the inch of snow packed on her suede UGG boots from a seven-mile climb up Barr Trail. Between her camouflage Under Armour hoodie and her circus animal cracker hiking snack, two things are evident: one, she is completely out of her element, and, two, she didn’t realize what she was getting herself into by climbing up Pikes Peak.
It is not unusual for tourists to venture up the peak without proper gear. In fact, during the winter these hikers tend to draw more attention than usual—perhaps their neon Victoria’s Secret backpacks with speakers bumping twangy Tim McGraw songs are a dead giveaway in the surrounding serene, snow-blanketed national forest.
This woman is accompanied by a man who is wearing shorts and a t-shirt in 20-degree weather and isn’t shy to admit that he is also, quite obviously, from out of town. The two tourists indulge in Barr Camp commissary purchases. Charging $3 for a can of soda and $1 for a cup of coffee, the Barr Camp commissary feeds off the donations of desperate out-of-towners who didn’t think to bring things like water, energy bars, first aid kits, or other hiking necessities. A significant source of revenue for the camp, naïve tourists willingly blow money on $3 Gatorades and are just one of the different hiking archetypes one sees daily on the Barr. Zach Miller, a formerly profiled member of the Barr Camp team, fills their requests with a friendly face.
Miller is accustomed to experiences with underprepared and overwhelmed tourists. As the groundskeepers at Barr Camp work in coordination with Search and Rescue, Miller and his co-hosts frequently receive calls to help lost tourists. Miller noted that there is a distinctive trend amongst the tourists he rescues during the winter: “[It’s usually] in the dark. The winter ones tend to be in the dark,” he said. While Miller reflected that there are fewer hours of the day, he added that tourists in the winter tend to hold off on calling for help until they are in actual trouble.
The man and the woman in the corner of the cabin, sipping $6 worth of Diet Coke and discussing how they didn’t realize that they would be expected to hike down the same number of miles as they hiked up, interrupted Miller to ask how much it would cost them to get emergency Search and Rescue aid off the mountain. The two then proceeded to deliberate whether a $500 emergency Cog Rail Train is worth sparing them the two hours of discomfort on the way down the trail. Spring Breakers, according to Miller, tend to need the most emergency Search and Rescue of all the tourist groups. “It’s the most dangerous time of the year,” Miller said. Furthermore, Miller commented that many college students attempt Barr Trail during this time, thinking it’s a relatively easy backpacking experience with little gear during Colorado’s somewhat temperamental spring.
Spring Break season tends to be the busiest time for the Search and Rescue teams, as well as the groundskeepers, as a result. Miller laughed at the surprising circumstances in which he has found some spring breakers. “We had some spring breakers last year who tried to hike down from the summit, and they got off course and ended up way out over below the Elk Park Trail, which was pretty remarkable,” Miller said. Considering this trailhead is located on the opposite side of the Pike National Forest near Devil’s Playground, these spring breakers’ trek was a significant detour from a clearly marked trail—the only trail that continues at a steep incline up the mountain. Miller further recalled that the spring breakers’ call came in around 11 p.m., adding to his point that the winter calls tend to be at night.
Trembling under the icicled cabin roof, the UGG-booted woman and the underdressed man settled on hiking back down the trail as quickly as possible. They thanked Miller for his hospitality and collected their belongings to leave the gas stove hearth, which they had grown to call sanctuary.
As these travelers gallivanted off down the trail, slipping and sliding, two more things became certain. First, as “Parks and Recreation” character Ron Swanson says, “Nature is amazing.” Second, as amazing as nature is, perhaps there should be more warnings for tourists, so they aren’t found shaking and petrified in the dark.