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Looking back at America’s mountain 217 years after Zebulon Pike

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On the anniversary of Zebulon Pike's endeavor up what is now known as Pikes Peak, residents of Colorado Springs share the relevance of the mountain in their everyday lives.
Photo: Chase McLeary, RMPBS

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Wells Fargo Tower in Downtown Colorado Springs may be the tallest building in the city, but as any Colorado Springs resident will tell you, only one landmark dominates the skyline: Pikes Peak, the 14,115-foot mountain that looms over the city.

The cloud kisser goes by many names, including “Heey-otoyoo” (the Long Mountain), “Montaña del Sol,” (Mountain of the Sun), “El Capitán,” (the Captain), “Grand Peak,” “The Highest Peak,” “James Peak,” and “America’s Mountain.” 

On this day 217 years ago — November 15, 1806 —  Zebulon Pike, the American explorer who was exploring territory recently acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, is said to have first laid eyes on the majestic massif.

The peak measures about 4,300 meters (about 14,115 feet), not including the Pikes Peak Summit House, the mountain-top visitor center known not only for its breathtaking views (if hikers and out-of-staters still acclimating to the altitude have any breath left), but for producing about 700 donuts per hour as well. 

To Pike, the idea of getting up the mountain at all, much less enjoying a few deep-fried delights at the top, seemed impossible. It stood as an impassable foe and one that bested Pike on multiple occasions.

“Zebulon Pike, who [the mountain] is named after, never got to the top of Pikes Peak,” said Summit, a tour guide for Adventures Out West and long-time Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs resident. 

“He got up on Mount Rosa here and said that ‘mountain will never be conquered’… but now, the world’s highest donut shop’s up there.”

Summit has enjoyed Pikes Peak his entire life and now shares the view with others as a tour guide. “Pikes Peak. America’s Mountain… I’ve looked at it my whole life, and it always looks different,” he said.

Summit, a Colorado Springs tour guide and lifelong Pikes Peak admirer, takes off on a tour around the city. 

Photo: Chase McCleary, RMPBS

Many share Summit’s enthusiasm for how the mountain changes. 

“It’s still the same, but every time I look at it, it’s like looking at it for the first time,” said Jack Kremer, a Colorado Springs native. 

Kremer stood with Robyn Gold and Justin Apploff at the bottom of the Barr Trail, the beginning of the more than 12 mile hike from Manitou Springs to the Pikes Peak Summit House. 

Growing up, Kremer enjoyed camping trips on Heey-otoyoo, excursions that helped him grow closer to his family. “I connect with my family more, my Dad’s side… because they have stories of the mines and the gold mines.” 

Gold, also born and raised in Colorado Springs, remembered fatherly and family bonding on Montaña del Sol. “I remember as a kid my Dad taking me down every little trail on the mountain… and helping me walk all the way up,” said Gold.

Whether or not Kremer or Gold fully subscribed to the “Dad dragging us on a hike,” theme, they appreciated the sense of accomplishment that came from reaching the summit. 

“It’s really pretty cool,” said Gold, “It’s kind of a superman feeling.” 

Apploff, the newcomer of the trio, sympathized with Gold’s sentiments.

“It’s a little enlightening,” said Apploff, “because when you really get up there, you realize, ‘I can do anything’.” 

Despite having arrived in the Springs from Florida only a couple of months ago, Apploff has frequented the trails on and around El Capitán, including conquering the daunting Manitou Springs incline. 

“It was very difficult, but when I reached the top, it’s such a beautiful view,” said Apploff. “I’m ready to go again.” 

Robyn Gold (left), Justin Apploff (middle), and Jack Kremer (right) look up at Pikes Peak before heading up the Barr Trail.

 Photo: Chase McCleary, RMPBS

Nikki Setser echoed The Highest Peak’s alluring qualities. 

“I absolutely love working here at the airport because we get such a gorgeous view out the window,” she said. Setser commutes from Pueblo to her job at the Colorado Springs Airport where she enjoys daily views of the mountain. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Setser had to leave work. That meant leaving the mountain as well. 

“I missed it every day,” she said. “The minute I got the chance to come back, I did.”

Setser moved to Colorado Springs from Ohio, a place she described as being “gray and blah from November to May.” 

She remembered feeling welcomed by the snow-capped peak framed in the floor-to-ceiling windows of Gate 7. She told her now-husband that this was the window view she never wanted to leave. They moved to Colorado Springs shortly after, and seven years later, Setser is still marvelling. 

“Absolutely nothing compares to the sheer beauty of the Rockies,” she said.

Nikki Setser stands by one of many Pikes Peak window views in the Colorado Springs Airport.
Photo: Chase McCleary, RMPBS

Across town at the UCHealth Interquest Medical Center, Marilyn Willoughby underlined the impact of a James Peak window view. 

“When [the] view that [patients] have is something as impressive as Pikes Peak, it can’t help but inspire,” she said. “You can never underestimate the power of a window.”

As a Colorado Springs resident for about three decades, Willoughby has witnessed the growth of the city. “’s one of the grounding elements of Colorado Springs,” she said. “Sometimes it can feel like the hometown feel is… kind of slipping through your fingers… I definitely think [Pikes Peak] is the long standing element of the Springs that makes it home.”

“Everything about [Pikes Peak] symbolizes the Springs,” said Graham Iverson. Iverson and his friends were skateboarding at Panorama Park. He sat in a folding chair facing America’s Mountain, a mountain he’s proud to call his own. 

“I rep everything about the peak,” Iverson said, smiling. 

Iverson has moved houses around the city, yet Pikes Peak has remained a constant. “I’ve always been in front of the peak,” he said. “It wouldn’t be Colorado Springs without it.” 

Graham Iverson rides a rail at Panorama Park. 

Photo by Chase McCleary, RMPBS

While many may be divided by the mountain’s correct name, its shared meaning resonates throughout the land it overlooks. 

More than two centuries ago today, when Zebulon Pike first laid eyes on the “Grand Peak”, he too enjoyed its natural beauty and its impressive stature. Now, 217 years later, the people who live in the city at its foot have a much deeper and more nuanced appreciation. 

They appreciate its ever-changing beauty, even after decades of daily viewing. They appreciate its ability to unify families and friends from generation to generation. They appreciate its reliable presence, always reassuring you from the window. 

And they appreciate the fact that Pikes Peak means home. The once unclimbable mountain, one that Pikes claimed, “no human being could have ascended to its pinical,” now no longer stands as an impassable foe, but as an indomitable friend.

“The mountains are calling. I must go,” said Summit, laughing. He climbed into his bright green jeep and drove off. Kremer, Gold and Apploff waved goodbye and started up the Barr Trail. Setser and Willoughby went back to work after one more window-view. Iverson grabbed his board and joined his friends skating in front of the Grand Peak. 

And I returned to write this article, now with a renewed appreciation for the glimpse of the mountain I am lucky enough to enjoy from my office. 

Lookin’ good, Heey-otoyoo, Montaña del Sol, El Capitán, the Grand Peak, the Highest Peak, James Peak, and America’s Mountain. Lookin’ good.

A peak at Pikes Peak from my office in Colorado Springs.
Photo: Chase McCleary, RMPBS

Chase McCLeary is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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