Before the city of Colorado Springs opened it to the public and began the three-year, multimillion-dollar construction that ended this month, tending the Manitou Incline was the self-appointed task of outlaws.
They trespassed with the crowds because they loved the workout of 2,000-plus feet of elevation gain in less than a mile. And they trespassed because they wanted to make the trail sustainable - however uncertain recreation was on the railway that closed in 1990.
Now it's the national attraction that reopened Wednesday. For 3½ months, Timberline Landscaping built erosion-mitigating structures on the trail's top stretch, the heavily damaged portion that caught the most attention of regular "Incliners" in the early 2000s, Fred Baxter recalls.
"If the repairs wouldn't have been done by volunteers at that time," he says, "it probably would've washed away before any of this."
He and his twin brother, Ed - veritable Incline legends for their long, avid use - would lead tool-wielding groups up the steps. Baxter says hikers spent "quite a lot of money" on rebar that they would stick in front of ties, to prevent them from falling out. In the surrounding woods, they gathered rocks and dirt to fill holes and channels.
"They were putting a Band-Aid on it," says Manitou Springs Mayor-elect Ken Jaray, a lawyer who then was mediating negotiations between interested hikers such as him and the Incline's landowners: the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, Colorado Springs Utilities and the U.S. Forest Service.
"The biggest thing was just how dangerous it was," Jaray says. "It definitely needed the work, but it was being ignored."
So began "a clandestine kind of operation," says Paul Cohen. He was in the secret circle of Incliners who quietly organized workdays. Tensions were high since the discovery of runner Matt Carpenter's Incline Club.
"Everybody was flying below the radar and trying to get (repairs) done without getting caught," Cohen says.
He was inspired to help after noticing an eccentric man sweeping the scree-covered steps with a broom - "the best broom I could buy," Bert Balzer says from his Springs home.
He was in his 60s and weighed a fit 163 pounds from all his climbing. By his estimation, the Incline "was in very bad, bad, bad, very bad, bad shape."
"So I thought, 'What the hell, I like it, so I'll clean it up,'" Balzer says in his thick accent. "I bet 99 percent of people don't know it was Bert Balzer from Germany who started it!"
He remembers hiding a pick and sledgehammer in nearby bushes to use when installing ties on the trail's bare spots. He worked alone for hours at a time during the summer of 2000 - soon before groups like the Baxters' caught on.
Much to his dismay, Balzer doubts his health will allow him back on the Incline to visit what is now the remodeled top. But he was on the trail a few years ago to see what professionals did below.
"They did a very good job," he says. "Oh, yeah, I would say I liked it very much."
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332