You have to risk going too far to discover just how far you can really go.
– Jim Rohn
I first caught a glimpse of the Manitou Incline in October of 2016. I was riding with Merril, who holds multiple roles in my life…suffice it to say, she’s like Gayle is to Oprah. We were on our way to Molly Lord’s “Tuned In” workshop, and Merril pointed out a line of stairs on the side of the mountain. At first glance, I couldn’t see the sense in climbing stairs to a summit…why not a trail with switchbacks and varied terrain?
Yet, the Incline whispered to me in the back of my mind over the next few months, and when I returned to Manitou Springs, Colorado, for a ten-day working retreat in January of 2017, climbing it was on my agenda––and I knew I had to do it alone.
Preparing for the Climb
During my first day in Manitou, suffering from an altitude headache, Merril suggested we hike to the base, just so I could get a glimpse of what lay before me and begin acclimating. The incline is just a twelve-minute hike from Merril’s front door, and over the next few days, I visited the base several times to peer up at the challenge that faced me. Each time, I hoped the butterflies in my stomach would settle down. Instead, the fluttering intensified.
The Manitou Incline was once the track for a cable car that took folks to the top of Rocky Mountain. According to Pikes Peak County Attractions, the Incline consists of approximately 2,744 railroad tie steps covering a mile. While that might not sound bad, the challenge is that the average incline is 41%, with 68% at its highest, and a 2,000-foot increase in elevation!
On the morning of my climb, I had a mini-meltdown, a pattern that I notice occurs when I’m about to do something monumental and life-changing, like defending my master’s thesis. Merril came back from some errands to find me with tears streaming down my face. I had some doubts about my ability to do the climb. I lived at sea-level and had for almost two decades. My lungs weren’t used to thin, dry, cold air. And even with a consistent yoga practice that included several sessions of hot and power yoga each week, I hadn’t been working my cardio as much as I probably should have. I worried that my lack of preparation might sabotage my success. However, I was determined not to let fear stop me. That’s a vow I made to myself long ago, after spending far too much of my life trapped in my fears. Reasonable risks are always considered, even when my excitement is dampened by the nagging “what-ifs.”
I planned on leaving at noon, giving the sun some time to melt the snow on the stairs. I estimated that since residents could do it in forty-five minutes, I could probably make it in an hour and a half. Double that for my descent, and I’d have a three-hour outing for the approximate 3+ mile round-trip hike.
After making sure Merril had my kids’ contact information and vice versa, I donned my camelback filled with three liters of water, apples, and power bars, and set out. Merril walked me to the head of the trail, nervously wishing me luck as I began my trek.
The First Step
At the base, I noticed that some of the men who had arrived just ahead of me had stopped to put on their crampons, and I hesitated, wondering if I should do the same. I opted to begin the climb without them, given that the first section was snow- and ice-free.
Hiking alone allowed me to ascend at my own pace. Usually, I struggle to keep up with those I hike with. I’m the “runt” in the family and my children and many of my friends have longer legs than I. Their one-step equals two or three of mine. I vowed to honor my body, stopping as often as I needed, and even veer off at the bailout at Barr Trail if my trek had become too strenuous.
A day or so before, I had climbed to a “marker” I set for myself, the section where the first set of rough-wood handrails began. My goal was to get to that place and pause. The sun was shining brightly, and the temperatures were in the high forties. When I reached the railing, I took in the scenery and acknowledged that I had indeed begun my adventure. As I sipped some water, I chatted with a few women who were tackling the incline together. Ahead of me was a couple. He seemed eager to push on, while his partner rested on a boulder, mirroring the two-sides of myself as I looked upward and assessed my challenge from this vantage point.
Forty-five minutes into the climb, I met a man, likely in his mid-sixties, lean and fit, sprinting back down the Incline. He sported a bright red jacket and shorts, and greeted me with a hearty “hello.” I said, “I bet it’s not wise for me to ask how far I am from the summit.” He chuckled, “Probably not.” I wondered if I was halfway, and apparently, from his response, I wasn’t.
Breathing was difficult in the first half of the climb. I stopped every ten steps or so to catch my breath and sip water. Every thirty minutes, I rested by actually sitting for several minutes, chewing on energy bites.
The day before when I visited Angler’s Covey to check out fly fishing possibilities for future trips, retail manager, Cody Ensanian, said, “Be sure to turn around and see where you’ve been.” Sage advice, whether climbing the Incline or striving to reach any goal. The view was breathtaking. My heart stirred. I was pleased with what I had accomplished thus far.
Time for a Pause
Pausing is always good for reflection and that’s what I did. I mentally meandered over the last few years of my life, living in the midst of an urban neighborhood in San Diego, the polar opposite of where I had been living prior to my move six years ago, in Arroyo City, Texas, where it took nearly an hour to drive to the nearest grocery store. I loved my new neighborhood. It called to me as I searched for my new home after staying a few months with my daughter and her family upon my move. I could walk to my hairdresser, to Whole Foods, Balboa Park, restaurants, and more. I loved my neighbors and built friendships. The place had served me well.
And yet, as I sat on the stairs of the Incline, breathing the thin, cooler air, and looking out over the expansive landscape, dotted with evergreens and snow-patched roofs and hillsides, I felt the tug of yet another change. David Whyte speaks of such moments in Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, when he says just when you get that last box unpacked and you sit down with your tea, there comes a knock at the door, and you’re off again.
I didn’t want to acknowledge that knock on the door at that moment, so I diverted my attention to the task at hand…my climb.
I looked ahead and noticed that the next section was snow and ice-covered, so I opted to don my crampons. A wise move. As I continued, the steps became more difficult for my short legs to maneuver. There were times when I was on my knees, clawing my way to the next step, firmly planting my poles in the step above and pulling myself up. Not only were the steps a little slippery, but they were also oddly spaced and higher than a comfortable stretch for me.
Never Really Alone
Throughout my ascent, I sent texts to my base camp, alerting them of my progress, and receiving well wishes and encouragement. My children and friends were with me in spirit, even though I was on my own. The climb mirrored how I feel about my life right now. Journeying solo and yet surrounded by amazing people––family, friends, and strangers who show up to give advice, lend a hand, offer inspiration.
About an hour into the climb, I reached the crossroads. To the left of me was the Barr Trail, my last opportunity to call it quits and go home before I stepped over into the land of no return. I paused, looked at how far I had come, assessed my energy level, and without a second look at my escape route, set my sites on the yet invisible summit.
A short time later, the air became much cooler and the steps much more treacherous. I moved to one side or another of the stairs as seasoned hikers whizzed by me. At one point, with my heart pounding in my chest, and my breath difficult to catch, I turned around. I was at the steepest part of the Incline. My fear of heights rose to the surface, and I had a momentary freak that could have grown into a full-blown panic attack. I quickly squashed it. I had no choice. While there were a few people on the Incline, I knew that if I flipped out, rescue would be difficult.
I physically and emotionally muscled my way up the next section, noticing that not too far behind me was a young man who had military written all over him and who was struggling as well. While comparison can be dangerous, his difficulties gave me some comfort. When he caught up with me, we chatted for a moment. “My girlfriend has been on the top for forty-five minutes.” He said, glancing upward. Then we watched two young men breeze by us, deep in conversation. “I don’ know how they can talk and do this,” he said. I chuckled, as he moved on.
The two-hour mark drew near, and I mentally made a note that it perhaps should be easier and faster to descend since I had decided to do Barr Trail rather than climb back down the Incline. I had three-plus hours of good daylight left, and I wanted to be off the trail before it was dark.
Surprisingly, breathing became less difficult, and my energy increased, even though I was nearing 8,000 feet. I was hearing voices ahead of me, not labored by breathing, but laughing and with an essence of celebration. The treetops marked the goal. I was getting really close.
Reaching the Summit
At 2:12 p.m. Mountain time on January 18, 2017, I touched the sign marking the Manitou Incline summit.
I made it!
Meandering away from the young couple who reunited at the top of the mountain, I found a large concrete platform surrounded by evergreens. I took off my pack and dug out my fresh, dry clothes. Stripping my sweat-drenched top layers off, the cool breeze brushed across my bare back and belly. Instead of cringing, I savored the sensation. Accomplishment rested well upon me.
After biting into my apple and drinking some water, I snapped a selfie or two and sent the text. “I made it!” My emotions were wild. No other words were necessary. I felt grateful that I didn’t let doubts about my ability to keep me from tackling this challenge and also grateful that I had just set an example that I hoped my children would follow…
Set your sites and go for it.
I did this as much for them as I did myself. I wanted my kids and my grandkids to know that even when goals seem far outside our reach, taking one step at a time, even on our knees, we can do whatever we set out to accomplish.
The sun was dipping into the horizon. It was three o’clock and time to head back down the mountain. I slipped my pack on my back, grabbed my poles, and set off. Minutes on the trail, I noticed I was struggling. One foot was slipping out from under me. Something wasn’t right…I glanced down. One of my crampons was missing. I had a choice––either push on or go back and try to find it. I retraced my steps, quickly, knowing that sunlight was a precious commodity and waning fast. By the time I reached the top edge of the Incline, my hopes were dashed that I’d find it. Climbing down the steps was not an option without it, so I whirled around and headed back down Barr Trail.
Like life, there were sections of the trail that I breezed through, enjoying the scenery and relishing the fresh air. Then there were ice-covered areas where I had to consider every step carefully or risk a fall. Most of the time, I walked with the crampon-less boot on fresh snow on the side of the trail and the other firmly planted on the ice-covered trail, hoping my poles would hold me if I slipped. As daylight faded, I was slightly reassured by the number of runners passing by. One man glanced straight at me, looking for a moment like he might say something. I later found out that Merril, who had begun to worry, had asked a friend to watch out for me. He reported that he saw no damsels in distress, and thankfully I was not.
Nearing five o’clock, I rounded a bend and saw rooftops and heard the rushing water of the stream below. A sign told me I had a mile to go to the trailhead. I texted Merril. “Be home soon.” In my effort to take advantage of every moment in Manitou, I had invited Molly Lord for dinner––one that I was to cook. Our plan was to brainstorm a co-facilitated workshop over a home-cooked meal. I also texted Merril some prep instructions for some of the ingredients for dinner.
I shed the one-remaining crampon at the trailhead and picked up my pace through the parking lot and then back to the trail that led to Merril’s house. Darkness was near. Reports of mountain lions had surfaced over the last few days, and I really wasn’t interested in having an encounter. Once on the trail, I kept my eyes and ears on high alert. I rounded a corner and glanced down. My breath caught midway on inhale, and my heart skipped a beat. A fresh lion print. I pulled my pepper spray from my pocket and began waving my walking sticks, making as much noise as I could. I glanced around––above me and behind––as I sprinted through the wooded trail.
The light of Merril’s house was like the beacon of a lighthouse on a stormy sea. I wasn’t about to claim victory yet, but I was well within reach of completing my trek, as the moon rose in the sky and the light of day slipped away.
Breathless, I bound up the steps, opened the door where Merril and Molly awaited, both looking immensely relieved.
While I did the Incline alone, it was nice not having to celebrate alone. That night the merits of friendship were driven home, as I recounted my journey, and we turned our sites to another goal, a co-facilitated workshop.
Reflecting on that day, I became aware of how the climb up the Incline mirrored other areas in my life.
There were too many times where I had believed that I didn’t have what it took to succeed…and there were an equal number of times where once I committed to doing something, I achieved “it,” almost effortlessly. People and opportunities aligned to assist me. And like all goals, it took longer to accomplish than I realized––2 hours and 12 minutes up, and 2 hours to descend, not the three I had planned.
Mostly I realized, I really wasn’t alone. Knowing my base camp believed in me, fueled me during those times when fear and doubt attempted to sabotage my efforts. Holding the sabotage at bay, provided the perfect scenario for discovering just how far I could really go.
A week or so ago, I paid a visit to the Incline, affectionately called “the beast” by some locals. I didn’t have any plans to climb it, but I wanted to visit. It was a sunny April morning, and I needed some fresh air and exercise, as the weekend was wildly and wonderfully filled with events and meetings. I sauntered on the path, eating my apple and listening to the birds. No one was near, and it allowed me to focus just on my surroundings. Twelve minutes later, at the parking lot, I paused and looked up at the Incline––now devoid of snow and ice––and populated with many people. I momentarily resisted the urge to set my feet on the steps again, but then couldn’t think of a reason why I needed not to at least stand at the base. Once my foot hit the bottom step, I knew I was going to go up to the “marker” I had set more than three months earlier.
There was no fear this time––more the feeling of being welcomed into a friend’s home. As I leaned against the railing and inhaled, the mix of pine and lilacs filled the air. Magpies screeched under the trees nearby. The steps, the mountains, and the trees embraced me, and I sensed I was paying a visit to a trusted mentor.
As I turned to begin my descent, a bit of sadness tugged at my heart. I briefly glanced upwards. “See you next time, dear friend,” knowing that these stairs held their own magic and there was more to learn about them, about life––and about how far I could really go.