Planning to get a big bang out of New Year's Eve? Try to top this

This New Year's Eve, a group of men will hike to the top of Pikes Peak -- to shoot off fireworks at midnight. What's that, you say? Don't they realize that Colorado mountain is better than 14,000 feet high and that the temperature will probably be 20 degrees below zero up there? Don't they know that the snow will probably be wait-deep? Don't they know that nobody attempts that climb in wintertime?

Oh yes, they know all that. In fact, this will be the 58th time the hardy group has undertaken the spectacular mountaintop display, which, on a clear night, can be seen for 200 miles -- or as far away as Kansas.

Since 1922, Pikes Peak-area residents have celebrated the coming of the new year in this unique fashion. They like to think of it as the world's highest New Year's Eve celebration.

A few fireworks are set off at 9 o'clock as a test and for the benefit of youngsters and others who cannot stay up late. But the big display starts as 12 o'clock sharp. Multicolored rockets and gigantic flares make a brilliant "bombs bursting in air" effect high over the peak, lighting up the sky and the mountainside below. The show lasts for a quarter of an hour.

It all began with five Colorado Springs friends: brothers Fred and Ed Morath (the father and uncle, respectively, of popular ragtime entertainer Max Morath); the noted mountain photographer, Harry Standley, and Fred Barr and Willis Magee. The men, all expert mountaineers, decided to climb Pikes Peak to usher in the new year. They took a few fireworks along with them. The display starled, but delighted the local people and it was decided to make it an annual event.

The original five are gone now. But the tradition they began so lightheartedly has grown to an elaborate expedition. In fact, a new member has been added to the group -- now a club -- each year; hence its name, AdAmAn.

So many people want to participate that the screening process has become strict. A new member is chosen from those who have climbed the peak previously and have shown a dedicated interest in the program. Members do not have to make the climb each year, but each new member is expected to make the ascent the year he is chosen.

Each man carries a 40-pound pack of clothing, survival gear, and enough food for four days -- as a hedge against being snowed in on the summit.

On Dec. 30, the group leaves Manitou Springs for a 15-mile hike to Fred Barr's old camp near the timberline. Their bedrolls already will have been packed in by horseback. This stage of the two-day trek is the hardest, since there may be deep snow drifts in the thick timber.

The climbers keep in touch with a Colorado Sprigs radio station and their families via a small transmitter. And that night, people in the city below look for a huge bonfire from the campsite. The men bed down early, because they must be the campsite. The men bed down early, because they must be up at 6 the next morning for the second day's 20-mile climb.

This takes them through the Dismal Forest, and old burn on the face of the peak. For a time, climbibing is easier. Then as noon approaches, there is a ceremony.

Residents throughout the area flash a signal toward the peak with mirrors to let the climbers know they are thinking of them. some years, literally thousands of mirrors can be seen twinkling from Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, and other communities at the foot of the mountain.

After the noon meal comes the second difficult part of the adventure. Safety rules now are more stringent because, with sunset on the mountain at 2 to 3 o'clock, darkness and accompanying high winds move in quickly.

Depending on how much snow they encounter, the men usually reach the summit house between 4 and 7 p.m. Sometimes they complete their journey in darkeness, but there is enough reflected light from th city below to help them find their way without flashlights.

Depending on the severity of the whether, the men may have to dig several feet of ice and snow away from the door of the stone summit house. But once inside, they prepare a hot meal, thaw stored blocks of ice for drinking water, and check the fireworks for firing. Nowadays the fireworks and accessory equipment -- steel tubes, mortar charges, four-foot fuses, and the like -- are taken up the mountain in summer, before whether isolates the peak.

Once the pyrotechnics are over, the men hasten to extinguish the fire in the summit house stove, shoulder their packs, and start back down the mountain to take on the new Year.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.