ML Cavanaugh

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

It’s post-race Monday, so thousands of readers are ripping open the paper and looking online to check the times put up by the thousand-plus Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent finishers. But instead of checking in on a race time for the 64th running of this classic race, maybe now’s a good time to step back and take stock of the state of the human-powered routes up America’s Mountain.

They’re bad. And getting worse. It’s time to fix Pikes Peak’s trails, before natural erosion enabled by human apathy threatens racers and hikers going forward.

Let’s focus on the Barr Trail (the route the Marathon and Ascent races use) and the Manitou Incline. To varying degrees, both are worn down, gutted, rutted, and dangerous in patches. This isn’t a shock—simply the natural result of the immense amounts of traffic these trails see in a given year. The Incline now gets over 350,000 climbs per year, which means we’re rapidly approaching one million footfalls that kick dirt loose with every step.

And what happens on the Manitou Incline doesn’t stay there. When Incliners reach the top, they’re supposed to hike down the lower Barr Trail, and so the fates of these two premier trails are inextricably linked.

Make no mistake, erosion of all kinds will continue to carve out these two trails until they’re not fit for running or hiking. This past week, a powerful anecdote came from the longtime director of the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent, Ron Ilgen. He was discussing whether this year’s elite runners (including Spaniard Kilian Jornet and local Joseph Gray) had a shot at breaking legendary Manitou Springs champion Matt Carpenter’s records. In considering the factors at play, Ilgen said the current sorry state of the Barr Trail reduced the chances of a race fast enough to break Carpenter’s marks. As Ilgen put it, “No doubt about it, it was a much nicer trail 26 years ago [in Carpenter’s active racing days].”

That’s what erosion inevitably does to trails. And that erosion is fueled by public apathy and disorganization.

Key stakeholders are divided. Manitou Springs has been too timid in tackling the problem (which is to be expected, given its size relative to its massive eastern neighbor). Colorado Springs, as the far larger entity, has lost focus on the Incline issue. Too distracted, perhaps, with other projects including the development of an additional northern bailout trail for the Incline without meaningful coordination or buy-in from other important stakeholders (an idea as bad as adding an enormous second story to a house with a rotten foundation). And other interested parties, including trail groups, have also lacked focus, organization, clout — or all three.

Yet there seems to be a growing consensus for action. Over the past few years, our first responders have sounded the alarm that status quo is already creating conditions that are unsafe and unsustainable. Resolution No. 1119 has been presented to the Manitou Springs City Council, calling for the city to work with the city of Colorado Springs to manage “both the negative and positive impacts” of the Incline.

Most importantly, the original organization responsible for fixing the physical and legal issues surrounding the Manitou Incline — the Manitou Incline Task Force—can simply be called back into existence. That organization foresaw this increased traffic and the corresponding need to take action to sustain these important trails.

In the coming weeks, the mayors of Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs (along with other partners, including the U.S. Forest Service) should joint call to reinstate this Task Force with a somewhat wider mandate that includes the Barr Trail and other trail initiatives on Pikes Peak. Choose a chairperson with clout: Matt Carpenter, as a former race champion and ex-member of the Manitou Springs City Council, would be perfect. Who could ever challenge his care and commitment to preserve the mountain routes he so dominated for decades?

Empower this Task Force 2.0 to come up with new ways to protect, resource, and manage the unique natural gift we’ve inherited in the Barr Trail, Manitou Incline, and other footpaths that feed Pikes Peak.

To paraphrase Hemingway, we’ll lose our precious mountain trails two ways—gradually, then suddenly.

That is, unless we come together again. Let’s hope that happens before the 65th running of the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent, so we might get to see year 66, and beyond.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, Ph.D., is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point and a professor of practice with Arizona State University and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, “Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict,” from Potomac Books.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, a professor of practice with Arizona State University, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict, from Potomac Books.

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