There we were on a mild December morning, gazing up with a mix of anxiety and exhilaration at this ramshackle and ice-covered row of railroad ties.

In the vernacular of Colorado outdoors lovers, you don't "hike" this particular trail. You "do" the Manitou Incline. It's the region's steepest and most popular trail, 2,700 steps and 2,000 feet elevation gain in a mile.

Over the next 72 minutes, I would think of many more colorful things to say about this trail. I would fight the urge to quit. I would question my fitness level as people 20 years my senior flew past me. I would hate this trail.

This is the Manitou Incline experience, as told by a first-timer.

Excuses, excuses

It was always easy to find excuses not to do the Incline.

Until Feb. 1, 2013, hiking the Incline was illegal. Though thousands trespassed on the trail each year, legality worked fine in the excuses department. After a deal to open the trail was struck, parking difficulty and crowds were my excuses. But after more than 4 years as the outdoors reporter at The Gazette, I am moving on from Colorado Springs, and there seemed to be no more excuses.

So on Dec. 18, I met Kathleen Heninger McElhiney, a reader who answered my Facebook call for other first-timers.

"I keep saying, 'I'm going to do it.' I keep saying, 'My friends are going to come out and do it with me,' and you were my best offer," she said.

She admitted some nervousness, but, she said, "I love a challenge."

A deceptively easy start

The day started at the parking meter. The city of Manitou Springs has eliminated free parking in the Ruxton Avenue corridor so I had to decide how much time to give myself.

Better play it safe, I thought, and paid for three hours.

The trail rises gently from the Cog Railway's parking lot. "This isn't so bad," I remarked, wondering what all the fuss was about.

The grade began to get steeper as Manitou fell away at our backs. Breathing became more labored. The shirtless men and paper-thin women flying past me seemed possessed and intense, breathing loud and saying nothing.

Instead of marveling at the views of snow-covered forests, I saw only my feet. And I was pleased to see they were still going uphill.

The bailout

For some first-timers, many of them tourists, this extreme trail can be too much, especially if they are out of shape or not used to being at high altitude.

Fortunately, there's the bailout, where the trail abuts a switchback of Barr Trail, providing an easy downhill return to Manitou.

It was somewhere around here I met "Incline Joe" Monger, on his 526th climb of the Incline in 2013.

Maybe he sensed that McElhiney and I were struggling. Don't try to go too fast, but also don't stop, he said. And breathe, he said, "in through the nose, out through the mouth."

He was on the way down but said he would see us at the top.

He was doing the Incline twice.

200 feet of hell

I wish I could accurately describe the next section of the trail.

I have no notes. No interviews. I saw only the tangled mess of railroad ties, damaged by September flooding, that in places required hand-over-hand scrambling. Torn-up pipes waited to punish any misstep or slip on the ice.

The Incline Friends group is trying to raise $200,000 to match state grants for repairs to the trail, especially this stretch.

The grade hits an astonishing 68 percent here, and no amount of repairs will make it easy.

My heart pounded in my ears. My breathing seemed too fast. Sweat stung my eyes.

I dared not stop or look down. A fall here would be dangerous, with rescue a long way off. To stop would be to give a beachhead to the voice in my head screaming at me to quit, wondering why I would embark on such painful folly.

And then it was over.

The false summit

I knew about the false summit, likely the most famous in Colorado. The steep part hides the fact that, when it levels out, several hundred feet remain. Though I knew it was coming, I couldn't help but feel disappointed.

But I finally could see the top! I could see people up there, and I felt an incredible jealousy. They were no longer going uphill. I was. Having left my climbing partner behind, I summoned one last burst of strength and plunged on.

Some people say this is the toughest part because you're so close, but in terms of pain and misery, nothing tops that 200 feet of hell I had just left.

The real summit

It was over.

I felt relief more than anything else as I stepped over the final ties and collapsed onto a cement ledge in the ruins of the old train station. After catching my breath, I looked around.

The views up here are nice, but nothing spectacular in a city with practically endless hiking options. I don't think that's why people do the Incline.

I had climbed 31 of Colorado's 54 fourteeners, peaks above 14,000 feet, but never encountered such steepness, such elevation gain on foot in such a short time. It's a fitness challenge, a quick calorie-burn easily accessible from town, a way to train for higher and longer feats.

And to some, it's much more.

Not long after I had caught my breath, "Incline Joe" reached the top for the second time that day, climb No. 527 of the year.

The Incline, he said, "just saved my life." He lost his wife in 2011 and set out to conquer the trail at least 500 times in her memory.

"It fixes the mind, the soul, the body. Just a good reset mode," he said of climbing the Incline.

A few minutes later, my starting partner arrived breathless at the top, letting out a triumphant cheer.

"It was harder than I thought it would be," she said.

But would she do it again?

"There were two points where I said, 'I'll never do it again,' but I'll do it again now," she said.

As we walked down the connector to Barr Trail, Pikes Peak popped into view, so much larger and more majestic than it appears from town. Here was the payoff for me, such a view only 72 minutes' climbing - a time that includes a few stops for interviews - from town.

The Incline was a challenging and, the next morning, painful novelty for me, one I probably won't do again. It was also a reminder that every summit is a false summit until we decide to go higher.

In Colorado, there usually is something higher.

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