Originally, my plan of posting these blogs concerning the history of Edwin James was to follow a linear path and doing so on a reliable timetable. I guess I write blogs like I climb mountains: slow and with a lot of distractions. Thus, this second installment concerning Edwin’s climb of Pikes Peak will mostly set the stage to help the reader understand the challenge faced when he and two companions began their historic journey.
“We now began to credit the assertions of the guide, who had conducted us to the foot of the peak, and there left us, with the assurance that the whole of the mountain to its summit was covered with loose sand and gravel; so that, though many attempts had been made by the Indians and by hunters to ascend it, none had ever proved successful” — Edwin James
In the fall of 2015, I climbed to the 14,114 foot summit of Pikes Peak following the Barr Trail leading out of Manitou Springs. Keeping me company was my nephew, Garrett Adrian and his father, Ken. The Barr trail rises 7500 vertical feet over the space of just under 13 miles. In the middle is a little cabin called the Barr Camp. They offer lodging in either the cabin itself or a campsite nearby. The Barr Camp has the feel of a mountain chalet where weary hikers can trade mountaineering stories beside a warm fire, drinking tea, and eating spaghetti. Dinner at the Barr Camp is exactly the same meal every day, all year long: spaghetti. In the morning, to send you on your way to the summit, the Camp serves the exact same breakfast all year long: pancakes.
On my short backpack trip to the top of Pikes, I had my usual lightweight gear, to wit, my Kelty backpack with plenty of hip and shoulder padding, sleeping bag, tent, Jet Boil stove, water purifier, solar powered reading light (Thanks to my kind nephew Garrett), and all kinds of modern synthetic materials to keep me cozy and warm at night. Of course, we spent two nights at the aforementioned Barr Camp eating our spaghetti and listening to Cat Stevens songs provided by a fellow mountaineer on a dusty guitar found in the corner of the cabin.
To make things even more decadent and comfortable, my wife, Patricia and her sister, Betty, drove to the summit and were waiting for us with beer and sandwiches. So, why climb? I figured if Edwin James could attain the summit of Pikes Peak in 1820, and I intend to do a photographic project marking the bicentennial year of his climb in 2020, then the least I could do is climb the mountain myself and get a feel for the adventure.
Let’s wind the clock backwards to July 1820. The Barr Camp, spaghetti, and pancakes are all gone. There is no tent, no sleeping bag, no map, and certainly no solar powered light. Edwin’s boots were probably heavy leather and there is some question as to whether footwear from that era distinguished the right foot from the left. Historians are reasonably certain that no one was waiting for Edwin and his companions at the summit with sandwiches, chips, and beer. His only comforts were a wool blanket and a shank of buffalo meat. For all purposes, what we call ‘fun’ in this age was a grueling test of courage, strength, and endurance for the James party.
The Long Expedition was camped at a place just south of present day Colorado Springs. They could easily see the “High Peake” from their vantage point. James noted “… all but the upper part was visible, with patches of snow extending down to the commencement of the woody region.” As a mostly scientific expedition charged, in part, with identifying plant and animal life, the decision was made to climb the mountain and investigate the terrain above the “woody region”. It would appear to be a spur-of-the-moment decision as opposed to a planned mountain expedition.
Climbing Pikes Peak in 1820 put Edwin James and his companions as the lone individuals to successfully summit a mountain above 14,000 feet in North America. It would take another 34 years, in 1854, to break Edwin’s elevation record when Elias Pearce and eight others climbed Mount Shasta (14,179) in the Cascades for the first time. And, it was yet an additional 14 years before John Wesley Powell claimed the next fourteener, Longs Peak (14,255), in 1868. Edwin’s achievement was remarkable considering that the decision to climb Pikes Peak was not planned as an expedition, but literally, as the expression goes, “because it was there.”