Stranded (Part 3 of 8)

May 25, 2008  •  Leave a Comment

The Colorado Springs Loop extends 220 miles across US 24 west to the top of Pikes Peak, then over the Rocky Mountains and south on US 285 into Pike National Forest, then along US 50 and the Arkansas River and back to Colorado Springs. My first stop on the loop was the 1300+ acre Garden of the Gods Park, a Colorado Springs City park. The park consists of massive and impressive red sandstone formations carved over the millenniums by nature’s forces. They are not unlike those found within Arizona’s Navajo Monument Valley. The noticeable differences are that the park is free to enter and you can get up close and touch the monoliths, some of which can be climbed. While walking through the park admiring the massive formations, I witnessed three people getting ready to scale the face of one. The huge formations have appropriate names. Names such as, Cathedral Valley, Siamese Twins, Kissing Camels and Balanced Rock.

After leaving the park, I traveled along US 24 west and my next stop was the cliff dwellings in Manitou Springs. These dwellings were built in the 1100’s by the Ancestral Puebloan, formally known as the Anasazi, but moved to the present site during the 1800’s. They show how the population lived within the side of the mountain. This site allows you to experience how they lived in the past by allowing you to walk through the rooms without hindrance. It’s odd to think these people were called primitive when they were able to build these homes without all the modern machinery that we have today. After spending a couple of amazing hours photographing and walking through time at the cliff dwellings as well as The Garden of the Gods Park, I moved onto my next adventure.

The previous night, I was debating if I would go to Pikes Peak, a mountain that has a 14,110 foot summit. I was reading over a brochure for Pikes Peak’s Cog Railway, a railway that moves people to the summit. I could see from the base of the mountain that the top was snow covered and had clouds hugging the summit. In the city below, the warm weather prompted my wearing shorts and a tee shirt. I knew I was not dressed to experience the ride up the Railway and I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to drive up the mountain. That morning, I left the motel with no intention of going up that mountain, but after leaving the Cliff Dwellings, I saw a sign for the entrance to Pikes Peak Highway. Pikes Peak was the inspiration behind America the Beautiful. It is the “purple mountain majesties above fruited plains.” As I drove past it, I convinced myself that a trip to Colorado would not be complete without going up the mountain, so I decided to drive up the length of the highway.

As I was paying my entrance fee to the park ranger, he told me that the weather at the top had drastically diminished visibility and I wouldn’t see anything off the mountain. Since the point of driving to the summit is to say that you drove to the top, I was fine with not being able to see the city down below. The 38 mile round trip started with a warning. At least a half a tank of gas would be needed to make it back down the mountain. I looked at the gas gauge and I had three quarters of a tank left. Plenty to make it back. I started the steep, winding and hairpin curved ascent. At first the road was paved, but shortly became a gravel road without guardrails. With every turn and mile, the temperature got colder and the wind picked up as tiny snow flurries began to fall. As I continued my drive up, I saw the mile markers increase incremental. At the half way, mile nine marker, I started the count down. Ten more miles to go.

While looking out the window, I saw the vegetation starting to get more scarce and the towering evergreens not being as tall as they were a few miles lower. As I continued up the mountain, I began to see nothing but dirt, boulders, rocks and snow on the side of the road. The environment was so harsh that nothing grew. Then I started to notice the dense low clouds moving in and not being able to see the oncoming cars or the taillights of the car in front of me. I slowed to a crawl as a looked outside my right window and saw the edge of the cliff as I rounded up the mountain. I could hear the wind pick up and slightly rock my Jeep as I inched around the winding miles. By that point, I closed the windows and turned on the heat as I continued to count the remaining miles up the mountain.

At mile 18, a mile below the summit, the fog cleared a little and I could see blue sky. A perfect picture. I pulled my Jeep as close to the edge of the road that I could. My camera was on the front passenger seat. I opened my door, flipped the switched to unlock the doors, then exited, closing the door behind me. I walked around the front of my car and pressed the passenger door handle so I can get the camera. The door was locked. I knew at that second that instead of unlocking the other three doors, I somehow locked all of the doors. With the key in the ignition and the engine still running, I quickly ran to the driver’s door and my worst fear materialized. I was trapped outside my car in near freezing temperature at about 13,000 feet wearing shorts and a tee shirt. Although I knew I was screwed, I tried each door again. I even checked the tailgate. They were all locked. At that moment while the wind continued to gust, the fog moved in again. I would learn later that the outside temperature was 35 F degrees. Thoughts of stories of unprepared hikers dying of hypothermia filled my head. I continued to struggle with the doors and to think of my options. I had declined the insurance coverage on the rental so breaking the window was not an option, at least not at that moment. To escape the gusting winds, I moved away from my car and closer to the mountain wall. I thought to myself that the doors couldn’t be locked so I tried them again. They were still locked.

Shortly, two hikers, a man in his forties and a boy around ten dressed in winter hiking gear, were coming down the mountain, and I told them that I was locked out. Again, I was thinking about ill-prepared hikers not telling people about their location. I then pointed out my attire to them and they agreed that I wasn’t dressed for the weather and they continued to walk past me. About five minutes had elapsed and the combination of the cold, wind, fog and the lack of oxygen at 13,000 feet resulted in my mouth drying out. Shortly thereafter, a car carrying a group of people started to come down the mountain. I moved away from my car and waved them to stop. The driver was hesitant, but I approached his car to make him stop. At first the driver did not open his window. I told him that I was locked out of my car. He seemed to not understand me. Because of the dry mouth, I then found myself having difficultly speaking. I repeated that I was locked out of my car and asked if he could take me down to the ranger station. In broken English, he told me that he needed to make additional sightseeing stops while going down the mountain.

In the meantime, an SUV made its way down the from the summit and was about to drive around us. The car I had stopped started to move on. I waved at the SUV. I saw a woman in the passenger seat and she smiled and started waving back to me as the driver continued to drive. I then changed my wave indicating that they stop. The car stopped and the woman opened her window. Because of the combination of the dry mouth, wind chill, cold and altitude, not to mention the thought of hypothermia, I found difficulty concentrating on forming a sentence. In my own broken English, I explained my predicament and that I needed them to drive me down the mountain to the ranger station. Their SUV was also packed with people, but the woman gladly said that they would drive me down. She got out and told me to sit in the front with her husband and that she would squeeze in the back with her family. They introduced themselves. Her name was Ann and her husband was named Chris. They were from Minnesota, but he is in the Army and stationed in Colorado. The people in the back were family and were visiting, so they decided to go to the mountain.

While they drove me down the mountain to the ranger station, my thoughts were no longer about dying of hypothermia, but of my car running out of gas. The 18 mile drive down lasted about 40 minutes. When I got to the ranger station, I told them what happened. They offered to unlock the door but advised against it since it has side air bags. They suggested a tow or a locksmith. I called a locksmith who said it would take him 45 minutes to get to the base of the mountain. As I hung up the phone, I started to do the math. The car would be idling for at least 2 hours. It was 40 minutes down the mountain. 45 minutes for the locksmith to get there. 40 minutes to get back up and then the time needed to get the door opened and get back down the mountain and into town. I started to have second thoughts. I probably would have needed a tow more than a locksmith, but it was too late to cancel.

I waited for the locksmith. As he promised, he arrived 45 minutes later in a van. He asked me if I needed a ride back up. I said that I would, thinking to myself that I hope he was better at opening up locks than asking dumb questions. Little did I know, the fifty year old locksmith had his thirty-something “lady friend” in the passenger seat. The van’s back had no seats and was packed with tools on shelves. He told me that there was space in the back for me to sit on the floor. As we started our climb up, speeding, the thought of what could happen to me entered my mind as I sat on the floor without a seat belt, below all of his heavy tools, as the van rounded all of the curves in the fog and wind. Dying from Hypothermia may have been better. We got to my Jeep in about a half hour. To my surprise, the Jeep was still running and it still had a half a tank of gas, enough to get me back down the mountain and into town for a new fill up. After a few attempts in strong wind gusts and the fog using different tools, the locksmith was able to open the door for a fee of $85. I then got in, determined to finish my trip up to the mountain top. To brave the elements, I put on a pair of sweats that I had in my luggage. I also securely attached the spare key to my belt, where it stayed for the rest of the trip. I drove up the remaining mile to the summit to experience being on top of the world. Although I wasn’t excited while the events were being played out, it turned out to be a thrilling ride and experience. I can say I survived Pikes Peak.

My plan to drive the 220 mile loop back to Colorado Springs ended on Pikes Peak. I returned to Colorado Springs using the same road I traveled that morning. The loop would have to wait for the following day.


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