Barr Trail looked great. There were patches of snow and ice, but gravel had been kicked over the slick spots. My footing felt secure. The hike up the Incline had been a little treacherous, but the climb was doable, so long as I paid attention.
From the Incline summit I made my way down the connector trail to Barr. So far, so good. I picked up my pace and settled into an easy stride. One bad step might end with my butt making a rapid acquaintance with the side of the mountain, so the plan was to be smart, take it easy.
The rhythm of my breathing and the views of Colorado Springs and the plains stretching to the horizon lured my attention away. I thought about work, fishing and summertime plans, as I mentally drifted along on a bliss cloud.
And then ... impact. I saw the ice, but can't recall trying to avoid it. I simply didn't sense the danger there. In a second, the trail seemed to tilt straight up — like a wall — and I smashed into it.
Much cursing ensued, with creative verses of cuss words yelled out in an untidy order. I sat up, embarrassed by my graceless fall to earth, with a bloody gash in my knee and bruises in places where I never realized I had places. But otherwise I was in good health.
It could have been worse. And for many it often is. Take a hike along our foothills trails this time of year and you'll experience Colorado in its frozen splendor, with deep-blue skies and sunlight cutting abstract patterns through the trees. And then you'll hear the crash, and the cussing. And you'll likely see an El Paso County Search and Rescue (EPCSAR) team lugging an injured hiker down the trail.
Anna Meehan's phone rings a lot in the winter. A volunteer with EPCSAR, she says the trails are taking their toll on hikers and runners.
"We've had several rescue calls in the last few days due to slips on the ice on Barr Trail and Incline with several significant ankle injuries," she says.
The trouble is compounded by short, cold days. Once the sun dips behind Pikes Peak, temperatures drop quickly. "Many of the folks we help end up getting hypothermic," Meehan says. "They go from being dressed for significant exertion and sweating to having to sit still on cold ground until rescue help comes, or they move super slow getting themselves down the trail."
The conditions can be tricky to read, and added traction to your hiking boots or running shoes is vital, says Ryan Johnson, president of the nonprofit organization Incline Friends.
"I've been on the Incline sometimes where I forgot traction, and I literally had to slide on my butt because it was so slippery that I couldn't step at all," he says.
There are a couple of great options for increasing traction. The cheap way is to buy sheet metal screws and screw them into the soles of your shoes. Mountain runner Matt Carpenter and many others have used the "screw shoe" trick for years and it works well. The problem is that the screws will fall out, and the heads of the screws (which provide the traction) will wear down on rock and gravel, and you're back to slipping and sliding.
Other veterans of icy trails prefer the form-fitting Kahtoola MICROspikes, ICEtrekkers or Yaktrax. After slipping last year I've become a fan of the MICROspikes.
Even with added traction, Colorado's bullet-proof ice can be dangerous. Bethany Garner, a longtime trail runner, found out the hard way on Christmas Day. She was wearing ICEtrekkers and tumbled in the snow and ice.
"On obvious icy patches, I slow down, shorten my steps, shuffle and look for the more snowy sections," she says. "I actually stepped on what I thought was a snowier section which just happened to be ice disguised as snow."
Johnson says those who have never climbed the Incline should consider waiting for warmer weather and ice-free trails to make a first ascent. "It is so easy to slip and break an ankle or a wrist, even for experienced, weathered Incline-savvy folks," he says.