Last Saturday, I skied Pikes Peak for the first time. A few years ago, I would have balked at that sentence; Pikes, the triumphant patriarch of Colorado Springs (if we’re going to be assigning genders to mountains, Pikes is definitely male) is no bunny hill. I would have thought that to descend a line on Pikes requires technical skills, adventurous gusto, well-executed planning, and superb physique well beyond what I have acquired.
But the truth is, it doesn’t. At all. Most obvious point: there is literally a road to the top of this 14,115-ft mountain. The paved, relatively easy-to-drive road is open year-round, provided you chalk up a $10 per-person fee. This was no feat of mountaineering. We read a guidebook the morning of the ski. We did no formal avalanche testing and minimal hazard observations. We barely broke a sweat. At the start of the hike, a tourist asked if he could take a selfie with me in my ski gear. We had multiple miscommunications that could have resulted in disaster had we been in the real wilderness, rather than an area of high-level infrastructure (with the additional, and thankfully unneeded, safety net of 40 Search and Rescue members training on the mountain).
Pikes Peak is a towering contradiction. Few other mountains of its scale are complete with multiple all-access routes to the summit (the road and the Cog Railway, which you can pay $38 for a ticket), where there sits a donut shop and a gift store. Climbers, mountaineers, and hikers tend to balk at the commercialization of Pikes. Mountains, they feel, should be kept as sacred wilderness, requiring work and skill to ascend. The summits aren’t the same with buildings and crowds of people; they should be left to the few who are willing to put in the effort.
Others disagree. Why should these areas of wild, inspiring beauty be saved only for those who have the equipment, stamina, physical ability, and time to ascend them? Under this argument, the issue becomes one of equal public access: if Pikes is truly something we feel is valuable and transformative, shouldn’t it be shared with as many people as possible?
Pikes Peak was, of course, not always an easy-access attraction. It was revered by Ute tribes who inhabited the area since before 500 A.D., calling it Tava, meaning sun. They called themselves the Sun People.
This deeply intertwined view of the mountain’s connection with the area’s inhabitants was (unsurprisingly) ignored when Europeans reached the area. They named the mountain after Zebulon Pike, an explorer who tried, and failed, to climb it. It was eventually summited by someone else, years later. And in the late 1880s, when Colorado Springs was a boom town due to mining, a carriage road to the top was constructed. It was during this era that Katherine Lee Bates wrote the patriotic anthem “America the Beautiful,” purportedly inspired by views from the summit.
In 1915, thanks to funds from local philanthropist Spencer Penrose, the road was widened into the Pikes Peak Highway that we know today. The history of Pikes after that seems to be a story of development without much preemptive debate—or really, not much discussion at all. The only serious challenge came from a 1998 suit by the Sierra Club because of gravel deposits from the road, which only resulted in more paving. “America’s Mountain,” as it was so dubbed, became the site of an annual road race, and the subject of T-shirts that boast the wearer’s successful maneuvering of their vehicle up to the top. It’s one of Colorado Springs’ biggest tourist attractions.
The reality of Pikes, however, can’t all be painted in patriotic colors. Pete Lardy, guide and owner of Pikes Peak Alpine School, jokingly calls it “Colorado’s Sacrificial Mountain.”
“I’m first a mountaineer and a climber, and I love the wild pristine places and going to the summits that nobody’s on,” said Lardy. “But I also think it’s pretty cool that people that can’t go to the summit of a mountain can see these amazing views… it can give them maybe some perspective on those of us who are doing that.”
Though Lardy sometimes resents the crowds, he appreciates the unique “Chamonix-style” that Pikes offers to climbers and skiers. As Lardy points out, there are 52 other 14ers in this state with doughnut-free summits, waiting to be accessed by the hardcore among us. With Pikes, we just may have to sacrifice solitude for a different kind of gung-ho, over-populated mountain culture. Pikes Peak has been intertwined with infrastructure for so long it’s difficult to imagine it otherwise. There are hardly any active objections to its current state—in fact, a new visitor’s center at the top is slated for construction in 2017.
However, the easy access does present some problems in terms of people who might get themselves stuck in tricky situations. “I’ve heard of many people that have skied Little Italy [a prominent couloir] and other bigger lines on Pikes Peak without any experience,” said Lardy. “On the Barr trail I’ve seen people way out there that just shouldn’t be out there, people who’ve taken the cog up and hiked down and lost the trail and ended up stuck near tree line. Those guys wouldn’t have been lost in the forest without a cog train.” This can create more problems and put Search and Rescue teams in unnecessary danger.
If things had gone differently last Saturday, for example, my friends and I could have easily turned into one of those examples. As safe as it may seem, populated though it may be, outdoor activities on Pikes can still have the same grave consequences of any mistake made in the mountains; the forces of nature can still topple human arrogance.
Despite that awakening, I’m still a bit resentful of the commercialization in principle—I can’t quite see how the view from the summit of a 14er has the same deep, awe-inspiring meaning for those who have driven up it as compared to those who have engaged in a challenging climb. But perhaps it can provide something close to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience it. And for us stingy wilderness purists, it can be an experience in its own right.
Pikes dispels the all-too-common notion that mountains are symbols of power, set to be conquered by the few. We’ve only “conquered” Pikes in the sense that we’ve made it everyone’s effortless conquest—and the summit itself is thus conquerable to no one. It’s not quite wilderness, not quite civilian. We thus have to go to great lengths and purposefully avoid the easy option by skiing, climbing, and hiking in order to get our dose of adrenaline. Are we really searching solitude in the first place, or just glory? Are we trying to connect with nature, or get Facebook photos to boost our own social status? Pikes serves as a reminder of the multiple reasons we might go outdoors: a strange amalgam of blurred lines between humans and nature. We adventurers might not be so different from the common tourists in many situations. So before we demonize the doughnut shop, let’s take a hard look how we ourselves treat outdoor pursuits.