*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on July 11, 2017. It can also be found online here.
The Manitou Incline’s rules do not prohibit downhill traffic. They should.
On the Fourth of July, I ran up the Incline through a herd of holiday hikers and just below the top a group of six downhillers nearly knocked me off the steep trail. Jarring, but, this was to be expected on a day when I passed 23 people going down in my 24 minutes going up.
If evenly distributed, this wouldn’t have been too bad – I might’ve only had to dodge one per minute. But they weren’t; each seemed to emerge from nowhere, above my line of sight, 23 threats that left me off balance and convinced it’s time to put a stop to this dangerous practice.
Our first responders agree. The very same day, the Manitou Springs Fire Department issued a warning that it was overburdened responding to “hikers in distress” on the Incline, which a spokesman said can take “two to eight hours” from their volunteer-based company. In April, the El Paso County Search and Rescue’s (EPCSR) response to the injury of a 10 year old girl prompted the agency to issue a forceful statement expressing their position on the matter: “the Incline is for UPHILL traffic only” and a downhiller’s fall “could seriously injure an uphill hiker.”
So far, these first responder preferences have gone unheeded; downhilling the Incline continues.
But injuries to uphill hikers aren’t the end of potential consequences. In any collision, a downhiller at fault would likely face punitive legal action through an act of negligence almost as clear-cut as driving the wrong way. Other Incline enthusiasts might even lose access in serious litigation. The city and citizens are perhaps the biggest losers because limited public safety resources for all are hijacked by the misguided actions of a few.
Just one example is in order. My young daughter suffers seizures. Our doctor has instructed us to administer her emergency medication five minutes into a seizure to halt an attack before it causes serious damage. We’re then required to call 911 so medical professionals are on hand to determine whether the emergency medicine has been successful.
This exact scenario occurred earlier this summer. The Manitou Springs Fire Department was at our house in about seven or eight minutes; a well-trained paramedic attended to our daughter; we safely made the transition to the ambulance and hospital.
What if her seizure had happened this past weekend, when the Manitou Springs first responders were tied up with calls to the Incline (some likely caused by downhillers)?
Still, defenders might argue these are risks worth taking. It’s easy enough to dismiss the counterpoints of the shirtless downhillers seeking extra sun exposure, or those that just don’t know any better. But others contend downhill traffic on the Incline is a core part of records and “Fastest Known Times.” While noteworthy, these arbitrary and unofficial pursuits clearly endanger others. Or, as the EPCSR put it, while seeking some personal prize, a downhiller’s “ego and hubris could get someone injured, crippled, or killed.” No record is worth such potential harm, a strange thing to have to emphasize amongst outdoor enthusiasts that generally embrace “leave no trace” ethics.
Others might counter by pointing out perceived inconsistencies. Why not stop all distractions, like headphones and smart phones? Just as we allow some devices in cars for convenience, entertainment, and safety – this is not the same as permitting driving into oncoming traffic. “But dozens of people get hurt on Barr Trail and no one tries to change the rules on there,” as one skeptic put it. Yes: different terrain, different trail, different rules.
And, a personal favorite, If you’re going to limit what people can do, what’s next – are you going to start restricting who can use the Incline?
No; to climb is a personal decision, not a conduct issue. Like someone behind the wheel, the issue is not who is driving based on personal characteristics like age or weight, it’s their conduct while driving and the threat they might pose to other drivers (or hikers) that governs this rule. We can all agree the Manitou Incline is a unique treasure and an opportunity to inspire physical fitness in a society that desperately needs it.
And if those that want to hike downhill on a steep slope wish to continue this activity, then they ought to consider organizing to build another parallel trail (the “Decline”) or lobby for specific downhill days (i.e. Mondays).
But until those come to fruition, the reasonable approach is to ban downhill traffic on the Incline. Besides, the Parks, Trails and Open Space manager recently suggested this might be “outlawed” someday.
That day has come.
Maj. Matt Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army strategist and nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. He lives in Manitou Springs.