Nine years ago, at the somewhat shocking age of 25, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Every year, I’m increasingly thankful to be alive and more or less healthy. I don’t remember all of the dates of my 9 surgeries, but summer and fall leave me feeling weird. I’ve always felt a little sick in April when I was diagnosed, celebrated in May when I had my surgery, and remember around the 4th of July that I went to the parade in 2002 with a camo bandana on my bald head. Since that summer was so grey and weighed down with nasty treatments, I’ve had a hard time coming up with a good reason to celebrate anything about them. This year, though, I realized that the anniversary of chemo being OVER was a really good reason to go do something fun.
For the last year, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the stripe of bare rock up the side of the mountain just north of Pikes Peak.
It’s very distinctive and can be seen for miles, but it took me a while to figure out what it is. It was built in 1907 to support the construction of a hydroelectric plant and then renovated into a tourist attraction. It was boasted to be the longest and highest incline on the globe, climbing for a little over a mile at a 68 % grade. It has changed hands several times, finally ending it’s life as a railway in the 1990’s after one too many rockslides damaged the tracks. For the last twenty years, it has been used as a hiking trail.
I do use the word “hiking” loosely. The Incline is really a mile of rough-edged, irregular wooden steps dug into the side of the mountain trail, which climbs straight up over 2,000 feet. Some steps are as low as an inch or two, the highest ones involve throwing a leg up and over and praying nobody is watching too closely. The entire ordeal tested my will, endurance, and ability to tune out every muscle in my body screeching at me to leave them alone. I overheard one rather heated discussion between a native and an unsuspecting visitor on the “hike”, in which the words “torture” and “insane” were used. I think there is a level insanity required to think that attempting the climb is a good idea.
Whether from being slightly crazy or blissfully ignorant, I designated the Incline as the “thing” I was going to do to celebrate the end of chemotherapy.
Saturday dawned bright and clear and perfect for hiking. I headed off to the Incline, having adequately prepared the night before with two glasses of wine, three plates of nachos, and about four hours of sleep. Greg gave me several cheerful lectures on the way, including my favorite of “If you trip, you probably won’t fall very far”, which if you know me well, tripping is an almost constant concern of mine. We made it to the Cog Railway parking lot, where he dropped me off, after reassuring the employees that he was leaving. The Cog Railway technically own part of the Incline and are gracious enough to turn a blind eye, while giving hikers just a little of a hard time. I, along with thousands of other insane people, offer my most sincere thanks to the Cog Railway for their patience and understanding!
I waved goodbye to the boys and started off at the bottom. I was determined to make it to the top, but I had no idea what I was in for. It starts off innocently enough, not feeling harder than any other hike.
It didn’t take too long, about a hundred stairs, before I started to wonder what in the world I was doing. Since I wasn’t racing the clock and my only goal was to not die, I decided to take it slow, resting every 200-300 stairs.
Here I am about halfway up, looking quite rested and happy. Look in the background and you can see how steep the stairs are getting.
Not too long after I took this, it got really, really hard. And, since I don’t do well with the altitude, the struggle began in earnest. I had to stop and rest much more frequently than I wanted to, but it was either stop or pass out. I took this picture before I decided I needed to stop trying to look backwards.
The stairs themselves up to this point had been fairly consistently placed and were more or less the same height, but to make things more interesting to an oxygen deprived body, the footing gets a little strange.
Things like this are thrown in to make sure I was awake. To give you some perspective, I had to step all the way into the rusty metal tube since it was too big to clamber over. It was not the moment I would have chosen to wonder if my tetanus shots were up to date.
About a thousand years later, I was starting to wonder if Purgatory involves an endless flight of stairs and if I somehow had not only died but changed religions without noticing. Then, I would stop, look around, remember why I was climbing this ridiculous thing, and I couldn’t stop smiling. During one of my longer rests, I looked down Garden of the Gods, which looked small enough that it could fit in the palm of my hand. I couldn’t even find downtown and Kansas seemed close enough to touch. It was an amazingly beautiful day and even though I could barely breathe, I felt very alive.
I set off again and gutted my way up to the false summit. I was so very thankful that I found out that what looks like the top…
…is really the point where the girl in white is standing…
…and I had at least another five hundred steps to go. If I hadn’t known that what looked like the summit wasn’t really the end, I think I would have cried. A lot of people bail out at this point and take the trail back to the parking lot. I was not going to go home without seeing the top, so I took another rest and talked with a few other hikers, who were waiting for their companion whose swears were being yelled up to us. They all hike the Incline twice a week and were very encouraging of my progress when they found out it was my first time. My cheerfulness quickly turned into arrogance when I found out the swearing hiker who begun throwing rocks was a three-time Boston Marathoner.
I had already noticed, but this interaction really brought it home, that the people climbing don’t bother with being friendly or silly things like talking to each other. The camaraderie I felt was much more on the base level of “this sucks, but we’re all in it together”. Trail etiquette is strictly adhered to and it was the only time where people lurking in the bushes, breathing heavily, wasn’t creepy. They were just being nice enough to get out of the way to catch their breath.
After a few tips from the frequent flyers on the Incline, I decided I was done with resting and fell into the rhythm of taking twenty steps, stopping for ten deep breaths. Which sounds so ridiculous, but believe me, it was all I could do to keep going.
After an hour and twenty minutes of climbing, and trying to banish the thought that some people run the stinking thing in twenty minutes, I made it to the top. And found a place with as few rocks as possible to collapse for a few blissful moments and enjoyed the view. And my goodness, what a view!
After my jelly legs started to cooperate again, I decided I needed to get down the path since I had another four miles to go. If going up was torture, down was sheer joy. Parts of the Barr trail is rather casually marked in places…
…and requires controlled sliding (so much fun!), and I was a little unsure of where I was going. I saw some beautiful rocks, clouds, and the view was spectacular. I would show them to you, but, honestly, I was having too much fun running flat out down the trail.
I took a very long drink from my camelback, waved and shouted a few words of encouragement to those just starting off, and went in search of as much food as I could find.
Even though I was a little sad that I hiked the Incline by myself, I wasn’t alone. I carried with me the words, encouragement, support, and love, of my family and hundreds of friends who prayed and helped me through my cancer and who rejoice with me now! I love you all so much and am grateful for each and every one of you.
And, who knows, maybe a few of you will come with me next year as I try to not kill myself again. Pikes Peak, anyone?