A sturdy group of hikers continues a decades-old tradition by summiting Pikes Peak on New Year’s Eve—and then setting off fireworks.
At 11:30 p.m. on December 31, 2009, the temperature atop Pikes Peak was minus 10 degrees and the wind blew a steady 55 mph, with gusts up to 90. In such conditions, according to the National Weather Service, exposed flesh would freeze solid in five to 10 minutes. This fact did not deter the 23 members and eight guests of the AdAmAn Club, who had hiked for two days in midwinter to reach the 14,115-foot summit, and for whom adversity is part and parcel of an 87-year-old tradition.
What did trouble the AdAmAn team, however, was the small box of wires and switches that lay in the crusty snow outside Pikes Peak’s Summit House that was linked by an electrical cable to a trailer parked about 100 feet away. This trailer was lined with mortar tubes, which were loaded with five- and six-inch diameter firework shells. At the stroke of midnight, the AdAmAn crew planned to launch these bombs into the sky, more than one and a half vertical miles above Colorado Springs. But the cold and the blowing snow had scrambled the control panel’s circuits, and as the wind roared over Pikes Peak, the AdAmAn pyrotechnicians ripped off their mittens and braved frostbite to fiddle with the frosty switches. After eight decades of ushering in the New Year for the state’s second-largest city, a windchill of minus 46 degrees wasn’t going to steal the show from this merry band of revelers.
This unique New Year’s Eve tradition began in 1922 when five men climbed Pikes Peak and built a huge bonfire on top, startling the merrymakers in the city below. Among the original Frozen Five were a banker, a photographer, a pair of real estate brokers, and Fred Barr, a coal miner and trail builder who had constructed the 12.5-mile trail up the peak’s east face that the AdAmAn climbers still follow today. This fun-loving quintet so enjoyed their unlikely New Year’s celebration that they laid plans for another climb the following year, and they decided to add one new member to the group every 12 months: hence, AdAmAn.
That tradition has lived on, except during World War II and in 1930, when no one wanted to be member number 13. (In that year, two new members—12.5 and 13.5—joined the club.) As with the Frozen Five, today’s membership is a diverse slice of the Colorado Springs–area middle class, from thirtysomethings to silver-hairs, with professions ranging from shopkeeper to college professor, minister to attorney. They are mostly men—the club admitted its first female member in 1997, and only two of the active members are women. Many of the AdAmAn climbers rarely see one another throughout the year, yet they reunite for two long days every year’s end. One member has accomplished 42 New Year’s Eve ascents; at least a dozen have done it more than 20 times.
At 7 a.m. on December 30, 2009, I met the club members at the Community Congregational Church in Manitou Springs for their annual send-off breakfast. Each year the AdAmAn Club invites several guests; I came along as the sole journalist. I had climbed many fourteeners, including several during the winter, so I wasn’t nervous, but I was excited to ascend Pikes Peak, a summit I’d never visited. Following tradition, the club’s newest member, Bill Slaughter, member number 92, would lead the climb. “I’m supposed to break trail, but I interpret that to mean ensuring the trail is broken,” he told the group.
The route Slaughter would be leading us up, the Barr Trail, gains more than 7,700 feet from a cactus-covered hillside outside Manitou Springs to Pikes Peak’s frozen summit. On December 30, we started up on a sunny morning, forming a long line on the snow-free trail. Over the years, the AdAmAn Club has included some of Colorado’s foremost mountaineers, including Carl Blaurock and William Ervin, the first two men to climb all the state’s fourteeners, and Robert Ormes, whose guidebook to Colorado’s mountains saw 10 editions. But today’s group, a mix of casual hikers and hard-core peak baggers, is refreshingly free of the gear snobbery common to fourteener climbers. With old, aluminum-framed packs, woolen trousers, and wood-shafted ice axes, some members looked as if they’d never seen the inside of an REI.
On the trail, there was little talk of business or politics. Instead, the members caught up on family stories and retold tales from past hikes, like the time flares they fired from Pikes’ summit helped some lost hikers find their way, or the time the snow was so deep that no one could break trail for more than 50 yards before falling back in exhaustion. Other stories related to the fireworks—of experiments with homemade explosives or bombs that went off accidentally. Within the small, enthusiastic—and state-licensed—group that manages the fireworks display, the AdAmAn is less a mountaineering organization and more a pyromaniacs’ club with a hiking problem.
But getting into this club does take commitment. “If people get invited back as a guest year after year, they’ll eventually become a member,” said Don Sanborn, the club’s president. “It’s running nine or 10 climbs before someone becomes a member these days.”
For day one, the group’s goal was Barr Camp at 10,200 feet, 6.5 miles from the road. About halfway up the climb we began to encounter snow, and by day’s end we’d have wanted snowshoes if we’d strayed from the well-traveled trail. At Barr Camp, we spent the night in relative comfort in two log cabins, with a pair of caretakers cooking dinner and breakfast. Inside the warm hut, climbers checked e-mail on mobile phones; some posted updates to the club’s Facebook and Twitter pages. After dinner, around a campfire in the snow, the group sang “This Land is Your Land” before heading to their sleeping bags.
It was 3 degrees at Barr Camp when we awoke on December 31, but the day quickly warmed as we headed up the boot-packed trail. At the A-frame, a small shelter near tree line, we all paused for another AdAmAn tradition: flashing handheld signal mirrors toward friends and relatives in Colorado Springs. Within seconds, bright flashes winked in response from dozens of homes 10 to 15 miles away.
At around 13,500 feet, as the sun passed around a shoulder of Pikes Peak, the climbing got more serious. My toes went numb even in my warm mountaineering boots. Rime covered the rocks on the final headwall, and I was happy to be wearing crampons for better traction. The mountain seemed brutal, even hostile. But then, incongruously, a train whistled overhead, and I was suddenly brought back to reality: Pikes Peak may be a foreboding mountain to climb, but the cog railroad that makes its way up to the summit allows anyone to see the view from this famous fourteener. Then, after nearly two full days, I stepped onto the flat summit, crossed the cog-railway tracks, walked about 50 feet, and entered the warm Summit House, where “Got Oxygen?” T-shirts hung from the gift-shop walls.
At dusk, as the setting sun cast a vast pyramidal shadow of Pikes Peak across the plains, a small team carried 60 firework shells to the launch trailer. The bombs looked like fat, upside-down pears, with a ribbon of fuse projecting from one end. The AdAmAn climbers carefully loaded each shell into a mortar tube, and wired them to the control panel. At 9 p.m., they test-fired five bombs—an homage to the Frozen Five—and then went back inside to wait for midnight. We ate green chile and chicken soup, and I laid on the gift shop’s wooden floor for a nap, with my puffy parka as a pillow. With about an hour to go, drivers who’d made their way up the Pikes Peak toll road began to pour into the Summit House. In the old days, AdAmAn climbers had to walk down the toll road after the fireworks display; today, local four-wheel-drive clubs chauffeur the climbers down the mountain. As the clock wound down, we sang “Auld Lang Syne” and “America the Beautiful,” and then everyone pulled on ski goggles and balaclavas to head outside into the windstorm.
The cold outside was stunning, and I shivered in the lee of the Summit House. Blowing snow partially obscured the view of Colorado Springs to the east, gleaming in orange patterns of streets and neighborhoods. The AdAmAn fireworks experts huddled on the frozen ground to reexamine the wiring of their balky control box. One man crouched in the wind and scuttled toward the mortar trailer, where he jockeyed with a connection. Thumbs up: The controls were armed and ready. At exactly midnight, a mortar tube erupted and a bomb lobbed silently over Pikes’ east face. A heartbeat passed, and then brilliant flashes of color and light eclipsed the bright stars. And just as it had for the past 87 years, the New Year began with a high-altitude bang.