It's 18 degrees, and a shifty wind swirls a blanket of fresh snow. Toes are going numb. Shoulders ache.
"Come on!" shouts Bill Willhoit, a Colorado Springs veterinarian mounting his 25th New Year's ascent of Pikes Peak with the AdAmAn Club. "We can do 300!"
With that, the group of hikers finds new focus. They tap an old volleyball in the air with gloved hands, soon passing the afternoon's high of 76 hits. They approach and pass 203, a previous year's record inscribed at home on the ball's white leather. After that, the count becomes a whispered chant: "219, 220, 221."
That abruptly gives way to laughter as hit No. 222 sends the ball careening from one member's hands off the back of Willhoit's head.
"That's good enough," someone calls. One tradition honored, the group retreats minutes later to the wood-fired comfort of the Barr Camp cabin.
The AdAmAn Club's ascent of Pikes Peak ends each year with a New Year's Eve fireworks show from the 14,110-foot summit, a display visible across much of Colorado's Front Range. It is a mistake, however, to think the two-day climb before is merely a means to that end.
The group hikes nearly seven miles on Dec. 30 before stopping for the night at Barr Camp, nearly 4,000 vertical feet shy of the mountaintop. After claiming bunks and unrolling sleeping bags, some venture back into the cold to bounce the volleyball or gather wood for a campfire.
The recurring question all along is "Why?" Why do more than 30 men and women, many with gray hair and grown children, trudge across wind-scoured snow to get to a place reachable by car in minutes?
The answer, at least in part, seems to lie in asking the question. It's not merely that they can; each year, AdAmAn members and guests become intimately aware that they are.
The frozen five
The AdAmAn tradition started in 1922 when Fred Morath, his brother Ed, Fred Barr, Willis Magee and Harry Standley climbed the peak on Dec. 31, building a bonfire and launching flares from the summit at midnight.
The men, dubbed "the frozen five," decided to make it an annual event, adding one new member each year and naming their club for that practice.
The group added its 90th member in early December.
Eighteen members, along with 15 guests and me, bring their families for a pre-climb breakfast early Dec. 30.
The hike, this year dedicated to members of the armed forces, begins around 9 a.m. after goodbye hugs at the Barr Trail parking lot. The climb is the group's main event each year, and for many members, it's an annual chance to get reacquainted.
Willhoit walks for a time next to Bob Sommers, a Marine who traveled from his home in Virginia for his 20th climb. Willhoit gives updates on his children. Sommers talks about his visit a day earlier with Al Pierce, the group's 50th member.
That night, Sommers explains how Pierce, 91, has mentored and inspired him. After one past climb, Sommers says, he asked Pierce, "How do you do it?"
"Everything in moderation," Pierce replied.
The hikers make a cohesive bunch, but AdAmAn history is not without wrinkles. Some members protested when the club added its first female member in the 1990s. Others argued it gave undue preference to family members in expanding membership.
Ted Lindeman, the group's president, seems mystified at any controversy. The goal, he says, has always been to have a good time and to be safe.
The process for adding members and selecting guests has evolved. The group apparently now looks at climbing experience, community involvement and a range of other factors, both quantifiable and not.
Lindeman was 6 when his family spent its first New Year's in Colorado Springs, and he remembers his father reacting to the fireworks display.
"He told Mom, "Well, I'll be up there next New Year's,'" Lindeman says. George Lindeman went as a guest the next year and later became the group's 44th member.
Ted Lindeman started hiking with the club when he was 16, continuing as a student at Colorado College and even as a graduate student in New York.
Now a CC chemistry professor, Lindeman is making his 37th climb.
He radiates enthusiasm as he speaks at a pre-climb meeting about what to expect and what to bring. Historically, the group has stopped Dec. 31 at timberline on the mountain to signal with mirrors at the city below, looking for return flashes.
Lindeman recalls how his father used to warn against forgotten mirrors, deadpanning that the consequence would be walking the rest of the way with no boots. He laughs at the memory in sort of an "aw, shucks" tone.
"Not that this club is anything about tradition," he says.
Reaching the top
The club normally ascends the peak's east face, but avalanche danger from heavy snows forced the 2006 hike alongside the auto road on the mountain's broad north shoulder.
Members don't want a repeat in 2007, but some wonder at Barr Camp if the route ahead will be passable with all the snow and ice.
Come morning, the temperature is close to zero, and more jokes start flying that maybe climbing isn't the best idea.
"I got charcoal on my gaiters last night, doggone it," Lindeman says. "Go on without me."
The group starts hiking soon after 8 a.m., and reaches timberline by 11. One hiker's thermometer reads 5 degrees, and few spend much time fiddling with their mirrors. Many wrestle with extra sweaters and chomp at frozen sandwiches. Hydration is difficult, with plugs of ice sealing water bottles.
The warmth from mirrors shining in the city below only goes so far.
"If I don't survive, tell my family I love them," one AdAmAn member cracks.
"That's really optimistic," someone replies.
"I am being optimistic," he answers, laughing. "I think some of you will survive."
Above timberline, the Barr Trail traverses a steepening expanse of boulders set between cliffs. For much of the way, the trail is hidden under snow, so the group seeks a route through scattered snow patches and over frozen clumps of tundra.
The wind picks up, and noses and cheeks start turning white with early signs of frostbite. Some hikers fish more clothing from backpacks, donning puffy down coats that give them the appearance of Michelin men. Mustaches and neoprene face masks grow heavy with ice.
The summit still looks distant as the peak's shadow starts gobbling the city below. It's close to 4 p.m. when the last hikers summit. They hug and then stumble into the summit building, oblivious for a moment to cold that can freeze exposed flesh in seconds.
Inside, reports circle of thermometer readings outside of 20 to 30 below zero, not considering wind chill. A few hikers nurse minor cases of frostbite. Others warm up, then return outside to load and wire the night's fireworks display.
Lindeman says it's the coldest of any hike he can remember.
Mark Szabo is on his 10th AdAmAn climb. He was selected this year as the group's newest member, making it his responsibility, among other things, to lead the hike and then launch the fireworks.
Szabo toils outside for long minutes with equipment for the fireworks before coming inside to thaw.
He smiles at the thought of the display that will be seen for miles.
"I tear up every year," he says.