The couple a few steps ahead of us are having a hard time. They abruptly stop, panting, hands on their knees. They gaze up — and up and up and up — at the stairs that seem to rise to the heavens. Their weariness is so palpable that my own limbs begin to tremble.
“The next time we do this, we’ll be smarter about it,” the man says to his female companion. “But this is the last time we’re doing this.”
Like us, they are climbing the Manitou Incline, a staircase in Manitou Springs, Colo., that rises 2,000 vertical feet, with 2,700-plus steps, in just under a mile.
Originally, a cable car track ferried pipeline materials up to Pikes Peak. When the pipelines were finished, in the 1920s, the path was turned into a tourist attraction in the 1920s. For the next six decades, cable cars ferried guests up the mountain to an elevation of 8,550 feet, where they could drink in sweeping views of nearby Colorado Springs and the Garden of the Gods, a National Natural Landmark. Then, in 1990, a rock slide damaged part of the track. The cars were pulled off the mountainside and the tracks were yanked from their moorings. The attraction was no more.
But the wooden railroad ties were left behind, to prevent erosion. Chipped into the mountain’s flank — at first neatly, then somewhat haphazardly — they appeared as a jumbled pile of matchsticks tumbling downhill.
This crazy stairway began luring hardy locals, who used it for redlining workouts. Eventually, word spread about these nearly vertical steps that humbled even the fittest. And people from around the globe began streaming to tiny Manitou Springs.
There was just one problem. A clutch of private owners held the land, so hiking up the steps was technically illegal. More concerning, the owners were not maintaining the steps for public use. That problem was solved in 2013, when the owners sat down and hammered out a deal putting the city of Colorado Springs in charge of the Incline. That same year, it formally opened as a public attraction.
Today, well over 300,000 people hike up the Manitou Incline annually. Competitive runners, cyclists, Olympians and military personnel often use the stairs for training purposes. Celebrities are sometimes spotted; Kevin Bacon was seen climbing the Incline when he was in town filming “Cop Car” a few years ago. But most people climb it simply to prove to themselves, and the cosmos, that they can.
It takes most folks 30 to 60 minutes to reach the top. The fastest known ascent times are, incredibly, somewhere in the 16- to 19-minute range. Although my husband and I are in good shape, we’re middle-aged. How will we fare?
Sitting on the shuttle en route to the start, we quiz mother-daughter duo Lynn and Katy Grieb about this iconic local attraction. “I’ve been climbing it off and on for 20 years, maybe once per month,” says Lynn Grieb. “To me it’s a very intense, but quick, workout. I could hike 10 miles, or climb the Incline.”
Katy Grieb climbs it mainly for soccer conditioning. She warns us there’s a false summit about three-quarters of the way up. And she says no matter what, don’t push it in the beginning.
Once at the Incline’s base, we wave off the Griebs, make sure we have water, sunglasses, hats and sunscreen and begin the climb.
Although the trail’s average grade is a staggering 41 percent, it starts off with a gentle slope. Yet it quickly begins cruelly marching straight up the mountainside. Ed and I heed Katy Grieb’s advice and walk slowly, yet at a consistent pace. Our quads are soon burning. It doesn’t help that in many places the steps are recklessly placed, causing us to zig and zag to find the surest footing.
And then, despite the sweat pouring down my back and the relentless over-thumping of my heart, something magical begins to happen. We become one with the swell of people around us, all determinedly trudging upward. Men and women, old and young, people of every ethnicity, culture and fitness level — we are one hiker pushing upward. And the higher we climb, the stronger the feeling of unity.
Now a cheerful buzz bubbles up around us. People begin calling out to one another, whether they’re passing others or being passed.
“Nice work, girl!”
“You can do it!”
People hold out a hand to steady the weary, offer sips of water, welcome others into their tiny, shaded resting spots. The positive energy pushes us up past Bailout Point, a spot about six-tenths of a mile into the climb where you can slip onto the Barr Trail and head back down. This not only shortens the climb, but lets you avoid the final stretch, where the incline stiffens to a muscle-searing 68 percent.
The cheers and positivity levitate us past the false summit, and then up the final 300 stairs. Our watches read a respectable 41 minutes. Panting, sweaty and a bit dizzy, we revel in the cheers from those who reached the top before us. After having our photo taken at the top of the stairs, we turn to enjoy the majestic view. Unfortunately, it’s washed out under the midday sun.
No matter. We did it. We conquered the Manitou Incline. Ed and I fist-bump, salute those still laboring upward, and then turn onto the Barr Trail for our descent back down to earth.
Melanie Radzicki McManus’ book “Thousand-Miler,” about hiking Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, has recently been released. She lives near Madison, Wis.