Twenty years ago, when serious discussions about paving the Pikes Peak Highway began, the dedicated motorheads who had kept the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb alive for decades passionately opposed any change in the highway surface. Paving would kill the event, they claimed, and put an end to one of America's grandest automobile races.
Those of us who supported paving argued that change would help the event regain its international stature, since similar races in Europe were contested on paved roads.
Two decades later, we have a completely paved highway, and, to everyone's delight, a renascent Hill Climb. So popular is the paved surface that organizers now expect the event in 2013 to become a two-day extravaganza, the better to accommodate all the new competitors. It's a happy end to an ancient fight.
So what's next?
Last year, more than 500,000 visitors reached the summit of Pikes Peak. The highway and the Cog Railway accounted for most of them, but thousands of hardy souls either hiked or ran to the top.
Once there, the views are great — but the immediate surroundings are hideous.
The summit includes a single-building strip shopping center and doughnut shop (aka the Summit House), plus a tin-roofed military installation, a railroad platform, an often-muddy parking lot, a sewage plant, a padlocked communications building bristling with antennae, four coin-operated "optical viewers," several bronze memorial plaques, the ruins of a previous summit house, a propane tank farm, a garish monument to Katharine Lee Bates, miscellaneous other junk, and two 1960s-era photo-op structures, each identified as "Pikes Peak Summit."
America's Mountain — or America's junkyard?
It's a dreary end to an inspirational journey. It's especially dismaying when you consider that comparable sites (e.g., the Garden of the Gods, the Air Force Academy, the U.S. Olympic Complex) all have splendid visitors centers.
Can we sweep away the junk and build a new Summit House? Yes, we can. But for the summit landscape to change and for a new vision to be realized, all the major players on the mountain — from city government to the Army to Aramark, the Peak's sole concessionaire — will have to come together, bury their differences, agree on a future, and come up with the cash.
"The 1999 Pikes Peak Master Plan gave paving and a new Summit House equal priority," says Jack Glavan, who directs the city-owned Highway Enterprise, "but the Summit House kind of went on the back burner. The plans are still there, about 60 percent complete. I'd love to see it built — we'd have a whole floor for interpretation. It'd really be something."
In 1998, Congress appropriated $1 million to plan and design a new Summit House. Local architect Clifford Taylor drew up preliminary plans for a 31,000-square-foot structure, including a spacious restaurant and a panoramic viewing area on the second floor. All the current users were to be housed in the building, which was to be located near the center of the summit plateau. Also, 3,000 square feet were allocated for an optical and infrared observatory.
Architectural renditions show a sprawling two-story building that wouldn't be out of place at any Colorado ski area.
Taylor would be glad to re-engage.
"The work we did was highly technical," he says. "The summit is a rock glacier [defined as tumbled, irregular boulders held together by permafrost], so building there is a challenge. It was a great project. We sited it in the center of the summit so that it wouldn't change the mountain's profile from below."
There may be some money available to jump-start the project, according to recently retired District Ranger Brent Botts of the U.S. Forest Service.
"There's a great opportunity that we have here," Botts says. "I'm excited. There's still money left from the 1998 appropriation — I think we have around $200,000 to $300,000, and the highway may have some as well. We may need to have a charrette, bring all the interested parties together, and begin a new process."
Even Mayor Steve Bach is interested.
"It's an intriguing project," he says. "Why don't you head it up?"
I'd forgotten the old Army maxim: To suggest a project is to volunteer to do it ... so maybe I'm stuck.