Don’t do what we did: Pikes Peak edition

Our family are rabid fans of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Race and watch it every year. The race is also known as the Race to the Clouds, which is an appropriate name as the summit sits at a staggering 14,110ft – a height that is truly impossible to appreciate when you watch it on TV.  We were so excited when we finally had the opportunity to visit the Colorado Springs area and to visit the awe-inspiring Pikes Peak for ourselves. On screen, we’d watched drivers hurtling up to the summit in about 10 minutes in what always appeared to be a fast, winding drive with beautiful scenery.  So, when we picked up our compact rental car at the airport we had visions of emulating the likes of some of the Hill Climb greats such as Sébastien Loeb and Rod Millen – how wrong we were!

Armed with our early-morning coffees and dressed in our lycra running gear we piled into the adequate rental car and headed for the hills.  We are well used to being in the outdoors and hiking, so we intended to head up the mountain and explore the summit.  That’s not quite the way it turned out, as we had failed to appreciate a few things.  We wound our way slowly (no speedy driving for us on those curvy roads without guard rails) up to the summit and were eventually driving above the tree line.  Having already sat in the car for quite a long time we were eager to get active at the summit.  When we got out of the car, we were shivering from not wearing sufficient clothing, as even in summer it’s colder up there than you might expect.  This was one reminder to plan ahead prior to a trip and as Pikes Peak’s summit conditions are live streamed on local area websites, this isn’t too hard to do. Not only were we cold, but we started to feel downright awful as the dreaded altitude sickness was affecting us all.  Pikes Peak is more than a mile above sea level, which means that there is less oxygen at that altitude.  For many people, this results in what can feel like the worst hangover ever – headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, tiredness, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath.  So, after taking a very brief look at the view and saying hi to a few marmots, we got back in the rental and began the descent.

Winding our way slowly back down the hill and with many other visitors doing the same thing, we found that we were using the brakes a lot and so was everyone else. Fortunately, there were park employees at various points along the route to check whether visitor’s brakes were overheating.

There’s nothing quite like being on vacation with your brakes on fire and feeling lousy from altitude sickness.   So, don’t do what we did, follow these tips to ensure that your next road trip to a mountainous area goes smoothly.

Dealing with altitude sickness

These tips can help if you find yourself in a much higher altitude area than you are used to:

  • Take time to acclimatize – don’t try to be physically active in the first couple of days. Let your body adjust to the different environment over 2 or 3 days.
  • Take it slowly – when you start to get active, take things a lot more slowly than usual and don’t expect to be able to do things at the same pace or for the same duration as you would at a lower altitude.
  • Stay hydrated – make sure that you drink sufficient water. This helps minimize headaches caused by dehydration and allows your body to get acclimated.
  • Eat light but high-calorie foods
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Avoid smoking

If you experience symptoms of altitude sickness, it is suggested to take ibuprofen for headaches and your doctor can prescribe medication to combat nausea.  There is also medication available specifically for dealing with high altitude sickness to be taken in advance of going to an area of particularly high altitude.  Talk to your doctor about what is suitable for your needs.  If you experience any other symptoms in addition to those mentioned above seek immediate medical advice.

Avoiding overheated brakes

If used continually all brakes will overheat and that can result in fires and brake failure.  So how do you go about making sure your brakes keep their cool on a long, steep descent?

  • Where possible keep your speed constant and low.
  • Use engine braking by using your gears to rest the brakes. If driving a car with a manual transmission, change down one or more gears.  If your car has an automatic transmission switch to manual mode, using gears 2 or 1 depending on the speed and road conditions.
  • If you think the brakes are getting overheated, pull over and allow the brakes to cool down naturally by air.

At Pikes Peak, we were not only impressed with the stunning beauty and the enormity of the landscape, but we were even more in awe of the skill of the race car drivers that tackle such mountains.  We know that taking on the Race to the Clouds may not be for us, but the next time we visit any mountainous area, we’ll certainly be a lot more prepared. And by the way, Sébastien Loeb, vous êtes incroyable (you’re amazing)!!

Information given in this article is not a substitute for advice from a qualified medical professional.