Watch Gazette reporter Seth Boster live at 8:30 a.m. from the Manitou Incline reopening.
For the past 15 weeks, Clovis Johnston has felt uneasy at times, fidgety like an addict without medication.
The Manitou Incline closed for repairs in August, leaving the 76-year-old to seethe over a number: 1,191 - the times he's made the heart-pounding trek up the series of railroad ties that rise more than 2,000 feet in roughly a mile. He's been counting his trips since June 1, 2007.
"How can I put it?" he says of his withdrawals. "It's frustrating for one thing, knowing that the longer it takes to get up there, the worse condition I'm gonna be in."
His wait and that of an Incline-crazed region ends Friday. The trail reopens with a manicured lower level two years after a first phase of repairs cleaned up the middle portion and added timber structures to ward off erosion on the grade averaging 41 percent.
For Johnston, his 1,192nd try on the Incline will be different. "It's gonna kick my butt," he says, expecting his time on the trail to be longer, just as it was after the construction hiatus of 2014.
And the hike will look different.
"Think of an old backyard that needs a total renovation, and a landscape crew comes in and makes it look brand-new," says Erik Mondragon, project manager with Timberline Landscaping. "That's the look here."
Mondragon showed off some 380 steps with new, bolted-in anchors, all running along a thick, stabilizing cable. Nine water chases have been built across the trail. Four electronic pads to count hikers have been installed under one step. Impossible to miss on the first quarter of the climb are the many stone check dams that have been built to divert drainage. A strip of boulders stretches almost 200 feet - "rock armor," Mondragon calls it. And spanning the hillside is a carpet of biodegradable straw,
also intended to control erosion and also acting as a germinator for the seeds planted in the topsoil beneath, to grow into erosion-fending grass.
More touches of man have arrived to the Incline, against the wishes of some who'd prefer an utmost natural and rugged experience. So continues the city of Colorado Springs' implementation of its site master plan, crafted soon after hiking the abandoned tramway was legalized in 2013. The city now has spent almost $4 million on repairs, with a bulk of funding coming from grants.
"I have to say, when you build a trail on a slope that's pushing 72 percent, sustainability is a big concern," says Sarah Bryarly, overseeing the Incline's maintenance with Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.
A third phase of repairs centered on the trail's upper level is expected in the near future. After that, the city could consider a user fee on the Incline to help pay for future maintenance - a measure that was included in the master plan but not immediately enacted due to liability concerns over the site's state of disrepair.
Pay-to-play could incite angst of the sort seen in September, when Manitou Springs City Council adjusted parking regulations on Ruxton Avenue. Parking on the street leading to the Incline will cost hikers $10 an hour on weekdays, with the weekend reserved for residents who have long complained of the ruckus that's come to their neighborhood. City officials hope the move will encourage hikers to park for free at Hiawatha Gardens, east of Manitou's downtown, and take the free shuttle to the trail.
"It's gotten out of hand," says Mark Spinuzzi, 57, a local who in 2004 married on the Incline when it had a "NO TRESPASSING" sign. He and his wife don't hike it as much as they used to, as they long for those less-packed days on the steps.
Amid the changes, the Incline remains a source of inspiration. Joyce Graham has hiked it at least twice every week that it's been open for the past five years, ever since she survived a bout with breast cancer.
Rounds of radiation left her feeling weak, and she needed to feel strong again. She tried to reach the top for months before she finally did.
"It's my therapy," says Graham, 50.
It is, she says, her way of repressing any fear of cancer's return.
"I always call it my alone time, and people laugh at me because obviously you're surrounded by all these people," she says. "But it's my time to clear my head and just do what needs to be done."
Johnston will do what needs to be done this weekend on his attempt to complete climb No. 1,192. He fights off Father Time on the hard ascent; and on his way down, he picks up trash.
He wants the Incline to last.
"I'm only gonna be able to do it a few more years, if that long," he says. "But it's an excellent tool that should always be there for people."
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332