The fries were a highlight of the summit house. The crowd was a low-light. Some of the (nicer) folks were in awe that we’d hiked up the mountain; I could have done with more of these, but still fewer people overall. The density of the room was much more pleasant between the departure of one train and the arrival of the next.
The merchandise in the gift shop was a low-light. Really, how can a shellacked plank of wood with a Pike’s Peak decal on it commemorate this amazing mountain?
The bathrooms were a horror — long lines of unsuspecting people waiting for a cesspool-stinking hell, featuring a slanted floor flooded with two inches of muck. Nature called, so I ventured inside, only to change my mind halfway into the room. My nose is less sensitive than most, as many of my friends insist, but this place was disgusting. But a few minutes later I had to brave it after all. (Nature called back.)
I suffered more ill effects of the thin air and lack of sleep. The best way I can describe it is “spontaneous theta state,” a term I just invented. I sat down to wait for the rest of our crew, and every few seconds I’d hear a voice from a nearby table and I’d have the feeling that I’d just become conscious. It wasn’t a drowsy, sleepy sort of experience. I think my brain was shutting off in protest of abuse, only to be jarred awake partial seconds later by some external stimulus (like a voice), even before gravity had grabbed my head and slammed it into the litter of food-bar wrappers on the table in front of me. I was a little bit dizzy and a lot disconnected. The world seemed very plastic and un-real up there, physically at hand but experientially remote, pausing and restarting as if projected onto my consciousness by a machine with a gimpy power supply. If I didn’t tend to overuse the word bizarre, I’d probably use it here.
At one end of the summit house is an oxygen bar. Of all the junk for sale in the room, this single item had potential to be useful. Fighting through a press of bodies and a funk of gauzy semi-consciousness, I approached the “bartender” and inquired about fees. They charge $6 for 5 minutes, more or less. They provide a nose tube and a seat at the bar. The girl showed me the apparatus — the oxygen bubbles through “flavor” tubes, and the mechanism allows the user to dial up whatever flavor is most appealing. The names scared me; they were a sickly-sweet mix of lip gloss colors and Snapple combinations, like Strawberry-Kiwi-Peach. I asked if I could sample one because I wanted the oxygen but feared that the added scent would make me nauseous. (Plain, odorless oxygen is not an option, in yet-another triumph of marketing over common sense.)
The girl turned on the gas and held the tube up… I took a whiff and staggered back a full step. “Oh my god, that’s disgusting!” I said with a lot more volume than she appreciated. I didn’t mean to scare off the dozen interested potential customers that had gathered around, but I’m sure that was exactly the result. If you end up at the summit house and the oxygen bar refuses your request for a sample, you’ll have me to thank.
Finally I realized that the outside air would be a lot fresher than the murk inside the summit house, which at one end smelled of deep-fried fats, the other of chemical fruit substitutes, and the middle (where the bathroom crowds gathered) of, basically, fermented ass. I went outside to breathe, catch up with my summit partner, and wait for the other five guys in the group.
They came up together, evidence that they’d been supporting one another along the way. They looked good. I was proud of them for making it, because although some had been certain of success, some were not.
One of the five, the group leader and most experienced “peak-bagger,” brought up the rear in silent testimony to his assumed role of coach and cheerleader. He was one of a few who had been committed to hiking back down. My summit partner was prepared to join him, as was another friend, if given a convincing argument. I felt physically strong enough, but mentally and emotionally wiped out after having sat around the summit being dizzy for two hours. I pointed out that even a quick descent would put us back in Manitou Springs after 9:00 PM, too late for dinner, in the dark. It would mean being on the trail for 19 hours. When I’d arrived at the summit, I was looking forward to descending into ever-denser air, but by the time the rest of the group arrived I had convinced myself that the more pleasant descent would be the one in the back seat of someone’s car.
And I guess I ended up convincing the others, too, although that wasn’t my intention. The prospect of rest and food was simply too appealing.
Yes, there’s a part IV…