The Manitou Incline

The Mount Manitou Incline Trail, often referred to as the “Incline”, is a mere 0.9-mile hike but don’t let that itty bitty number fool you! The trail’s distance from start to finish is indeed short, at least numerically speaking, but it cannot be stated enough that the ascent itself is comparable to climbing the Empire State Building once, the Eiffel Tower twice, the Washington Monument three times, or the Statue of Liberty six times! If that doesn’t intimidate you, this might: The total number of stairs to reach the summit: 2,744. Not only that but at its base, located near the Barr Trailhead, the Incline quickly gains 2,000 feet in less than that near-mile. That’s not to mention its averaging grade is 41% with a max of 68%!

It’s not surprising that the Incline is one of the most popular trails to hike in the Pikes Peak region. Its gorgeous location, excellent views, and intriguing challenge level draws a plethora of people from all over the world. From training Olympians to celebrities to hardworking everyday Joes or Josies looking to put their bodies to the test, tick something off their bucket list, or simply have an adventure, it’s a feat that truly sets you up against the one opponent you should always focus on challenging throughout your life: yourself.

While ascending to Pikes Peak this summer via the Cog Railway, conveniently located across the street from the base of the Incline, I overheard a passing conversation one of the railway men was having with some other passengers. He mentioned that every year on 9/11, the El Paso County Fire Department climbs the Manitou Incline in full gear to honor the 343 firefighters that lost their lives that day. They do this because it’s the same number of steps that the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) had to ascend in order to save people in the Twin Towers.

Something about this stuck with me, to the point that I investigated it a bit further after returning home. A month later, on a whim, I reached out to someone from the El Paso County Communications Department that was able to put me in touch with those close to the action that helped fill in a few of the questions I had along the way.

I learned from Daniel Battin, Wildland Fire Supervisor with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, that he had participated in one of the prior memorial climbs, which are held on the anniversary every year since 2015. This year marked the 8th Annual memorial tribute climb. Battin explained that  participants are mostly made up of local agencies, though agencies outside the region are certainly welcome. I further inquired if it was true that firefighters make the trek up in full gear, as well as whether or not law enforcement officers, paramedics, military personnel, and other first responders  did their own version of this. Battin confirmed that, to the best of his knowledge “only fire personnel carry full loadouts” in regards to this particular climb. Each loadout consists of some 50-60lbs of excess weight, a breathing apparatus, and, rumor has it, some years fire hoses were also carried on top of that! It needs to be said that, with a little Google-fu, I uncovered that on average a typical 100-ft section of a 5-inch hose (empty, and not pumping water) weighs around 110 lbs. 

The kind of strength needed to pull that off, even with one’s adrenalin running high during an emergency situation, is nothing short of staggering when you take a moment to think about it. But to then make the decision to carry all that extra weight up a mountain, up even more stairs than were in the Twin Towers, when it’s not an emergency, to pay their respects to those that lost their lives in 2001? That is an entirely different level of strength.

Dedication, Resilience and Community

The effort, the dedication and commitment to something bigger than yourself carries a huge weight among Colorado’s communities and is one of the reasons why this has stuck with me. It demonstrates that in solidarity and in community, we are one. Not just in times of chaos and turmoil like 9/11, but even now, 22 years later, we are together still paying respects and memorializing those who made the ultimate sacrifice in order to save others or of the families that lost loved ones during those attacks. 9/11 was an event that, when it happened, you knew it was historic. You knew that you would remember exactly where you were when you heard about it or what your experience was. It changed the way Americans reflected upon inherent safety and security. 

At the time, I was a sophomore in high school, safely tucked away in a small town in northeastern Nebraska, and remember the classroom I was in when Mr. Jackson turned the box TV (fixed to the upper corner of the room) to the news. From that moment on, my classmates and I experienced an alarming shift in what was once our carefully curated world, one that quickly became all too real, too close, even from thousands of miles away from where it was happening. That aspect of it, that I remember exactly where I was, has been in the back of my head since then, and I don’t think it’s much different for others. Perhaps that’s another reason why learning about firefighters in my now home state doing something of this magnitude, inspired me to share this with you.

Fueled with inspiration from those who dedicate their time to commemorate the experiences of that fateful day, I discovered that one of the earlier memorial climbs took place in 2012 which was completed by Pueblo firefighters. However, the inception of the annual climb organized today was begun by then-local Tech Sgt. Robert J. “RJ” Gerry 8 years ago. He had known two firefighters that lost their lives on September 11th according to a 2019 article. KRDO News reported that in the first year of the annual climb only 3 climbers participated, but that it has only grown since. Gerry felt that the Incline was the closest challenge comparable to the 2,071 steps that each of the Twin Towers had, in Colorado.

This Year, Going Forward

This year’s climb had some new leadership and was made possible thanks in part to the combined effort of nonprofit Incline Friends and the Manitou Springs Fire Department, who noted on their Instagram that prior to the memorial climb 343 American flags were placed alongside the Incline’s trail to commemorate the FDNY firefighters. Incline Friends also had an event page for 2023’s climb posted on their Facebook, stating that it was an “informal gathering of first responders, military members, government civilians, contractors, and community members joining together to hike the incline to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 and to honor the sacrifices made” with an opening statement made by the US Space Command Chaplain. They would then go on to begin the climb with ascending the first step at 6:46 AM, of which was the same time the American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into World Trade Center, North Tower 1.

As the participants proceeded up the trail, they all paused at the times of the attacks for moments of silence for the fallen; when the second plane hit the South Tower, when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, when the South Tower collapsed, when Flight 93 crashed in PA, and finally when the North Tower collapsed. To further pay their respects, the group leader makes it a point to let everyone participating know that they will slow down during the ascent to make sure nobody in the group is left behind as an act of symbolism to remember those who gave their lives to save others.

To me, someone who has no personal ties to firefighters, first responders, or anyone that had been at the World Trade Center Towers that day, learning this impacted me exponentially. I can only imagine what it must be like for men and women that dedicate their lives to this, and I encourage you, despite your experience that day to reflect on this as well.

9/11 was one of those tragedies in human history that was meant to wound and break, and put our faith in humanity to the test. Despite this tragic incident, the outcome brought America together at such a human level, and gave us a choice of standing tall together. I think that’s one of the things that speaks to the firefighters that participate in this annual climb. After all, it’s their job to save lives and it’s not a job that just anyone can do.