Most know it's there. Most know they're not welcome. Most don't care.
And so, under thousands of tightly laced sneakers and boots, conditions on the Incline continue to degrade.
The mile-long scar that ascends above Manitou Springs opened for business more than 100 years ago, as a temporary tram leading to a hydroelectric plant.
Today, only the railroad ties are left behind but nothing else, really, is required to treat the site like an outdoor StairMaster, at an average 41-percent grade. On nice summer weekends, hundreds of people flock to Mount Manitou, as it's long been known, to climb 2,000 feet. It's been estimated that at least 10,000 people per year train on the Incline.
Of course, it's private property, and the primary owner the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway Co. wants nothing to do with the liability or parking issues that come with swarms of hikers. Neither, however, has it enforced the "no trespassing" rule that's posted on a sign at the trailhead.
That means that apart from a few do-gooders who volunteer (again, while trespassing) to fix the worst of the old ties, no one's minding the land. And though neither the Manitou Springs Fire Department nor El Paso County Search and Rescue reports more than a few calls for service each year, one nasty slip or stumble could cast the current no-policy policy in a harsher light.
Something's gotta give, right?
Don't talk about hike club
I figured I would go to the experts to see what steps were being taken to plan for the future of Mount Manitou. Little did I know my quest for answers would be harder than a hike up the mountain itself.
First, I decided to contact renowned trail running guru Matt Carpenter.
"I don't do interviews about the Incline anymore," said Carpenter in an e-mail response. "The status is the same: It is closed to the public, and every time an article gets written about it, more public goes on it."
Fair enough, I thought. Maybe a stroll on down to the good ol' railway company's station would yield some information. I was directed to some offices behind the railway and told to speak with traffic manager David Donatto. To paraphrase our discussion:
Me: So the Incline looks crowded today. How's everything with that going?
Donatto: Incline? What Incline?
Me: Oh you know, that mile-long stairway behind us.
Donatto: Let's talk about the Cog.
Me: How about the Incline or the future of the Incline?
Donatto: I don't talk about the Incline.
Me: Does anyone talk about the Incline?
Donatto: We can talk about the Cog.
You get the point.
Beat the weenie
For further research, I journeyed to Mount Manitou on a sunny Sunday afternoon to poll the average hiker on the Incline issue. The closest parking spot I could find was in downtown Manitou Springs.
The day attracted all types: from people who professed to ascend the Incline weekly, to a few first-timers, to a guy wearing a hot dog suit. (Yes, that last sentence was correct. Apparently this profound idea of wearing a hot dog suit while doing all outdoor activities, including the Pikes Peak Ascent, was spawned during a late night of drinking.)
Of course no one shared any groundbreaking news or insights, but it was at least refreshing to actually have a few conversations about the Incline. And unsurprisingly, all my conversations included people hoping that someday, it will be opened to the public and made safer.
Manitou Springs attorney Ken Jaray tried his hand at making that happen a few years ago, when he mediated discussions between the Incline's owners and local environmental and recreation groups. They reportedly broke off after the Cog whose workers over the years had seen too many Incline users nab their business' parking spots told the pro-public folks that they'd need to identify nearby land that could accommodate 250 new parking spaces.
Today neither Jaray nor anyone else, it seems, is involved with any like-minded efforts. And Jaray, like Carpenter, expresses concern that publicity could just make the situation worse.
Try and try again
On Feb. 27 of this year, Sports Illustrated published an Olympic-related article that led off with a note about the Incline.
"The most daunting challenge for many prospective Olympians looms over them off Highway 24. The infamous Incline of Mount Manitou," wrote Brian Cazenueve. "Though a no trespassing sign marks the property, it remains a proving ground for military personnel, law enforcement officers and the country's largest collection of Olympic hopefuls."
When even a national publication can find out that the city's upstanding soldiers, police officers and Olympians rely on the Incline, it's pretty clear that we've got a complex situation. To the credit of all those who I attempted to interview, including Manitou Mayor Eric Drummond, it has no immediate or easy fix.
But it does have at least one person who's willing to open discussion up again.
"We really need to look at this comprehensively," says Manitou City Councilor Aimee Cox. "Manitou wants to be a recreation destination, we want to be a place for healthy lifestyles, and we want to attract athletes and people who enjoy nature and the outdoors.
"But we need to figure out how we manage those users to protect the resources and to protect the neighborhoods of Ruxton Canyon."
Cox acknowledges that although the city of Manitou Springs does not own the Incline, it can take steps to push for some sort of resolution between the current owners and those who'd like to see it opened up.
"If we want access formalized, then we've got to do our part to create the management plan to at least what we can mend," says Cox. "We can control the parking."
But then, of course, there are liability issues, too, and resistance from both sides to even talk about the issue ... in short, plenty of reasons why any conversation's likely to be difficult.
"We have to start the discussion," Cox insists, "and we have to start it publicly and be transparent about it.
"Some people tried to talk about it a few years ago and it didn't get anywhere," she adds. "But you know you have to try and try again."
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