The Pikes Peak Spirit

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on July 12, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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“We took leave,” 22-year-old Dr. Edwin James wrote after lunch on Thursday, July 13, 1820 near modern Manitou Springs, “and began to ascend the mountain.” The next day, James and his two companions—baggage handler Zachariah Wilson and US Army Pvt. Joseph Verplank—had climbed so high they could almost see into Spanish territory. On this, the first recorded ascent of Pikes Peak, Edwin James struggled mightily, learned much, and displayed a relentless, rugged optimism that’s still alive and well in the region. Two hundred years on, his exploits and expedition can tell us a lot about the role America’s Mountain plays in shaping the people that live in Pikes Peak’s shadow.

Ascending America’s Mountain

The Louisiana Purchase expanded America westward an additional 800,000 square miles in 1803, momentarily owned wholly by the US government. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun’s orders in 1819 to US Army Maj. Stephen H. Long were to “explore the country between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains,” so they might “acquire as thorough and accurate knowledge as may be practicable, of a portion of our country, which is daily becoming more interesting, but which is as yet imperfectly known.” The mission mattered to the young US, with colonial Spain just to the west, and Britain and Russia jockeying for position to the north.

Long’s team included 22 in total, with a zoologist (Thomas Say), naturalist (Titian Peale), and an artist (Samuel Seymour). Cadet William H. Swift was given leave from West Point, and temporarily granted the title of “lieutenant,” to serve as the expedition’s topographer.

Vermonter Edwin James was a late addition, and served as the biologist and medical doctor. On return, he edited the Expedition’s official report (which is the source of all this essay’s quotations).

The Expedition departed on this stage of the journey on Tuesday, June 6, 1820, from near modern Omaha, following the Platte River west. They spotted the Rockies by June’s end.

On July 10, they crossed from the South Platte River to Monument Creek at modern Palmer Lake (with intent to head south to connect with the Arkansas River). Here, while the Expedition lunched, Edwin James hiked into the foothills and discovered the Rocky Mountain Columbine, which eventually became Colorado’s state flower.

The Expedition continued along Monument Creek until they camped just south of modern downtown Colorado Springs. It was there that Seymour sketched and later painted a watercolor—“View of James Peak in the Rain”—believed to be the first image of Pikes Peak.

Thomas Say noticed a “pretty little bird” he found “in the manner of the American goldfinch.” He called it the “lesser goldfinch.” He named a crimson-colored cousin the “house finch.” They’re still around—our family sees them daily nibbling away at our window-mounted birdfeeder.

The Expedition camped for several days. This provided the opportunity for an assault on the mountain marked “Highest Peak” on maps made that year. Early on Thursday, July 13, James and four others (Wilson, Verplank, Swift, and guide Joseph Bijeau) left Expedition basecamp and traveled to the mountain’s base.

Lt. Swift calculated the mountain’s height. Zebulon Pike’s 1806 estimate was 18,541 feet, which required an update. Swift’s calculation was 8,500 feet above base, which, had he known the base to be a little over 6,000 feet, would have provided a fairly accurate 14,500-foot estimate (the actual height is 14,115 feet). Not bad for a 19-year-old cadet.

After leaving the horses with Swift and Bijeau, James wrote that his ascending party of three each took “a small blanket, ten or twelve pounds of bison meat, three gills of parched corn meal, and small kettle.”

They also carried a courageous optimism that knows the way is entirely uphill, married to a simple faith that still places the next step forward. It’s likely that several others had the same guts to take on Pikes Peak even farther back than James and his two companions. Perhaps they used a different name for the mountain, like “Tava,” or “El Capitan.” While we cannot know the names of these other adventurers, the good news is that James’s account helps us imagine what these early steep scrambles up were like. The first ascent of Pikes Peak—or any 14er, for that matter—wasn’t easy or a sure thing. And it was just getting started.

Pikes Peak inspires us

Pikes Peak captivates us. Ever since the report, “Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains,” was prepared by Edwin James and published in 1823, Americans have been drawn to the West.

Pikes Peak is a beacon, the most prominent point for the westward bound. Of the 50-plus 14-thousand foot mountains in Colorado, it’s the farthest east. Not only that, Pikes Peak is one of the world’s roughly 1,500 “ultras,” or ultra-prominent peaks, defined as a measure of the summit’s independent rise of 4,900 feet or more. This prestigious list includes Everest, K2, Kilimanjaro, Mt. Olympus in Greece, among others. In Colorado, only Mt. Elbert, Pikes Peak, and Mt. Blanca count as ultras (in that order).

Pikes Peak is nicknamed “America’s Mountain” for good reason. It’s surely welcomed and held more Americans than any other major mountain in the country. Considering the hikers, runners, Pikes Peak Highway, and the Cog Railway (when it resumes), it’s likely next year there’ll be around a million visitors on Pikes Peak.

Pikes Peak possesses an unseen tractor beam every bit as powerful as gravity itself. It drew William J. Palmer and ‘Pikes Peak or bust’-ers by the wagon full. In the wake of World War I, the US Army even sent a tank to the summit on a mission.

In 1858, Julia Archibald Holmes, just 20-years-old, became the first American woman to get to the top. And in 1893, Pikes Peak lured Katharine Lee Bates. In her journal, Bates wrote, “We stood at last on that Gate-of-Heaven summit…and gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and the sea-like sweep of plain…When I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there.” She published a poem (“Pikes Peak”) about this ascent, later modified into the immortal “America the Beautiful.”

Today, of course, Pikes Peak still looms large in America’s collective imagination through car commercials, the most dangerous car race in the country, and even features prominently in one of the highest-grossing movies of all time (2015’s “Furious 7”). New York has the Statue of Liberty, London’s got Big Ben, and Paris, the Eiffel Tower—here, our sky-rising symbol is Pikes Peak (nearly ten times taller than all three combined).

*****

Edwin James might have wished he had a car, a road, or even a trail as he hiked. The three, James wrote, “found…the ascent extremely difficult.” They feared “being thrown over precipices,” and kept on until sunset. Ever the scientist, James recorded the temperature as 54 degrees over the “uneasy night.”

Departing at daybreak on Friday, 14 July, the party left most of their provisions at a cache site, “except about three pounds of bison’s flesh,” and then “continued our ascent.”

Trouble emerged in the early afternoon. Wilson fell behind. James and Verplank went on but later took a break to give their struggling partner time to catch up. The slowdown meant it would be “impossible,” James assessed, to summit and return to their camp before nightfall.

At 4 o’clock, James and Verplank summited. Remarkably, James recorded 7 new plant species on the trek. Then, somehow, a revived Wilson caught up with them on the summit. The party stayed less than an hour, enough time to record the top’s temperature at 42 degrees (on the same day, Expedition basecamp measured a scorching 96 degrees) and jot down some observations for map-making.

The descent began at 5 p.m. They reached timberline a little before sunset and halted. Without food or warmth, as James wrote, they couldn’t continue without facing “imminent danger.”

As stirring as Pikes Peak may be to the soul, there’s still the climb. Even for these three early ascenders, such a hike is always easier said than done. It’s fortunate that the Pikes Peak region is home to so many that both say, and do.

Pikes Peak pushes us

The Peak pushes us. Pikes Peak-bagging tales are all around us, so much that National Public Radio’s local affiliate (KRCC) has recently aired stories on the imprint America’s Mountain has left on the region in a series called “My Mountain.”

There’s the British woman who moved here and has since climbed Pikes Peak 106 times (as of the end of 2019). The broken-necked Paralympian that now cycles to the summit. The high-flying high schooler who says the lofty peak focuses him to “become better.” And the local woman whose father brought her as a little girl, that now pays the favor forward by towing her two daughters to the top.

Then there’s the mountain’s undisputed champion, ultrarunner Matt Carpenter, 18-time winner on Pikes Peak (12 Marathons, 6 Ascents; record-holder for both races). Born in North Carolina, raised in Mississippi, Carpenter moved to Manitou Springs so he could have a better view of Pikes Peak and make it easier to train. His motto: “Go out hard; when it hurts, speed up.”

Pikes Peak pulled them all in. It changed their lives. Drawn by the mountain, people like these have turned Pikes Peak into a physical fitness goldmine. Informal foot-racing started earlier, but the Pikes Peak Marathon began in 1956, making it the third-oldest 26.2-miler in the country. Not only that, the race has the distinction of the being the first official marathon with a female finisher (Arlene Pieper in 1959, nearly a decade before women ran the Boston Marathon).

It’s no wonder that Colorado is the fittest state in the US, and the wider West is the fittest region in the country.

*****

Back in 1820, our three climbers likely weren’t feeling so fit after a 38-degree night without blankets or cover. They skipped breakfast and hiked for three hours on Saturday morning, July 15, when James recalled, “we discovered a dense column of smoke” where “we had left our blankets and provisions.” James worried the fire’s smoke “might attract the notice” of nearby Native Americans “who might be tempted by the weakness of the party to offer some molestation.”

From their provision’s charred remains, they scrounged “a beggarly breakfast,” and hiked until they reached modern-day Manitou Springs where they “indulged freely in the use of its highly aerated and exhilarating waters.”

Their return to basecamp later that day prompted Maj. Long to write a forceful argument for naming the mountain “James’ Peak.” He reasoned that Pike “only saw it at a distance” and his elevation estimate was “very erroneous.” In comparison, “Dr. James having accomplished this difficult and hazardous task, I have thought proper to call the Peak after his name” because James held “the fairest claim.” Thus, Expedition maps marked the mountain “James’ Peak.”

The Long Expedition departed the next day. In coming days, James noted their “sufferings from thirst, heat, and fatigue were excessive.” Having achieved a high on Pikes Peak, the scenery after was a letdown—he called it “dreary and disgusting” and that the “soil is scanty and of incurable barrenness.” The Expedition soon split into two, explored separately, and reconnected in September at Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The Long Expedition cost the American government about $20,000 (in today’s money, a little less than half a million dollars). In addition to the 1823 report, the Expedition produced significant learning: evidence of more than sixty new or rare animals; thousands of insects; four- to five-hundred plant species; Seymour did 150 landscapes, Peale made 122 sketches. On return, these scientific observations made their way into many popular and academic journals.

As well as recording the customs and languages of the Native Americans they encountered, they mapped new lands and labeled the open plains the “Great American Desert.” This crucial “Desert” description—which typically meant “deserted” or “treeless” back then—signaled the enormous rainfall drop-off heading west across the continent, which highlighted the difficulties eastern agriculture practices would face in the newly-acquired West, and so gave the young country a much better understanding of itself.

Pikes Peak shapes us

Can a rock—even a big one—change people?

The evidence for Pikes Peak is pretty persuasive. People don’t just live a certain way by accident.

Locality shapes mentality. To paraphrase Churchill, we’ve met our mountain, and afterwards, our mountain has made us. Pikes Peak inspires and provides a focal point for our identity. After all, what would “Olympic City USA” be without its own “Mount Olympus”?

While Denver’s been molded by the rail lines at the end of the endless plains, Boulder by its university, and Pueblo is still the “Steel City,” around here, we’re Pikes Peakers. We hike on, we climb up; and when it hurts, we speed up—just as Edwin James and company did two hundred years ago.

May Pikes Peakers never lose this relentlessly optimistic spirit. Ever onward, always upward.

 

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