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Peaked interest

A rescue guru explains how to avoid calling him from the side of 'America's Mountain'



With notable gruffness, Steve Sperry delivers a few simple words to explain why he and other members of El Paso County Search and Rescue have to pluck a couple dozen people off the side of Pikes Peak each year.

"You can't cure stupidity," he says.

For what it's worth, Sperry's hardly uncaring. Without hesitation, he and other members of the all-volunteer group will leave their warm beds, loving families and paying jobs to carry you off the mountain with a broken leg, or to bring you the warm clothes you should have been carrying in the first place.

But when the day is done, he'll probably start pointing out what you did wrong.

Stuck in the dark? You probably left too late or bit off more than you could chew, and you should have been carrying a flashlight or headlamp.

Cold? Again, you weren't prepared.

Hungry? Ditto.

Bogged down in snow carrying 20 pounds of guns and ammo, but no snowshoes? You know where this is going.

(And, yes, the group has come upon that last scene.)

We don't want to discourage you from hiking Pikes Peak. If all goes well, you'll have a fabulous time and a good story to tell the family, and the pride that comes with scaling one of Colorado's 54 fourteeners. Maybe you'll even find the poetic sensibility to envision amber waves of grain.

But foremost in your mind on this or any hike should be the goal of not being stupid. To that end, Sperry offers the following pointers.

• Acclimatize. You already know it can be tough to catch your breath in Colorado Springs, which is about 6,000 feet above sea level. Well, it'll get harder on Pikes Peak. The most popular route for hikers, the Barr Trail, starts at around 6,600 feet, then winds nearly 13 miles to the mountain's summit at an elevation of 14,110 feet.

At the top, there's about 40 percent less air than there is at sea level. Unacclimatized hikers get headaches, get sick, and sometimes even develop a dangerous condition where their lungs start filling with fluid. Spend at least three days getting used to Colorado's thin air before attempting the peak.

• Check the weather. The fact that people climb Pikes Peak in flip-flops and descend it on unicycles can give the mountain a casual feel. Don't be fooled: "It can snow up there any month of the year," Sperry says.

So consult a weather forecast before you climb. For most of the summer, remember that rain, thunder and lightning often roll in come early afternoon.

• Dress appropriately. Hypothermia is one of the main reasons for rescues. Hikers get the chills, start shivering, then fumble and tumble around as their body temperatures drop further, leading to disorientation and, possibly, death. Try to stay warm and dry: Dress in layers, avoid cotton, and carry rain gear.

• Bring lots of food and water. You'll need both on your climb. Start with at least two liters of water, and fill up as you go. (There's a good water source outside Barr Camp, but you'll need to treat it or bring a filter.) Carry lots of high-energy snacks, and try to eat them before you feel hungry.

• Plan ahead. Hikers wanting to reach the summit in one day should probably leave by 5 a.m., if not earlier, and they should aim to get there by noon — again, to avoid those afternoon storms.

You can make the hike easier by staying at Barr Camp, which offers meals and a cozy place to spend the night at about 10,000 feet, about halfway up Barr Trail. (Visit barrcamp.com for details and reservations.)

If you want to make it a one-way trip, book a ticket with the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in advance, or coordinate with a driver. (In summer, cars have to leave the summit by 7 p.m., if not earlier because of weather).

Poor planning can be dangerous, and also costly. Colorado Springs now plans to charge $100 or more to tired or hungry hikers who reach the top and call on Pikes Peak Highway staff members for a lift down. But if you're thinking about claiming an injury so Sperry and Co. will come get you for free, think again.

"Now we're into filing a false report," he says.

And that would be stupid.


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