Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A modest hiker

Traffic is brisk right now on Barr Trail as runners train for this weekend's Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent. Some might be so intent on their workout they miss a modest marker set in a boulder at treeline. The marker honors a woman who never ran on the mountain trail, but loved it just the same.

(photo by Gary Cehelsky on skyrunner.com)

Inestine B. Roberts was an ardent Pikes Peak hiker who had walked Barr Trail 13 times. Forty-nine years ago this month, she set out on her 14th hike on the mountain and never returned. Here's a story I wrote about Roberts that ran in the Gazette in 1994:

The morning of Aug. 4, 1957, was sunny - perfect for gathering wildflowers. It was just the kind of weather that 88-year-old Inestine B. Roberts liked for her hikes up Pikes Peak. On this day, the veteran hiker would set out for her 14th climb up the rocky mountain.

If her pre-hike ritual began the way her others did, she most likely had awakened from a good night's sleep and started the day with a hearty breakfast. But the hike would not end the way her previous hikes had. More than a week later, her body would be found in a gully at tree line.

Her death, which shocked those who had followed her hiking exploits for years in the pages of the Gazette Telegraph, certainly wasn't caused by inexperience.

A mother of six, Roberts was a veteran climber. When she was 78, she had climbed Mount Lincoln, a 14,286-foot peak near Fairplay, and in 1951, at the age of 81, she climbed Arapahoe Glacier near Glacier.

She often hiked alone, climbing Pikes Peak whenever she felt like "walking." She'd carry a pocketful of dates or a sandwich, and pause to look at the flowers, the trees and the rocks. She had last walked the Barr Trail two years earlier, just five days short of her 87th birthday. It was a feat chronicled on the front page of the Gazette Telegraph on Sept. 11, 1955. That article described a modest, independent woman, 5 feet tall and well under 100 pounds, who attributed her hiking success to a simple formula: "Be careful, don't grab hold of soft rock, and never run down an incline."

Roberts was a member of the Colorado Mountain Club, and although she didn't move to Colorado until she was in her 50s, she used to say she had an inclination to hike at the age of 9 months, when her mother used a rope to tie her to a tree in their back yard.

Born in Pennsylvania, Roberts had hiked through the Allegheny Mountains with her father in her youth. But it was in the Rockies, in her middle and old age, that she began to be known as an extraordinary hiker who especially liked hiking with people young enough to be her grandchildren. And it was in the Rockies that she died. Thirty-seven years ago today, Roberts disappeared on her solitary hike. Her 85-pound body was found 10 days later.

Today, Roberts' memory is being kept alive by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who erected a modest bronze marker in her honor on Barr Trail. It is fitting that the marker isn't at the bottom of the trail, but near the top, at a switchback above tree line on the rocky landscape.

The marker's message is terse: "Dedicated to the memory of Inestine B. Roberts, age 88 years, who died at timberline after her 14th ascent of Pikes Peak." According to the Kinnikinnik chapter of the group, of which Roberts was a member, she had gone up to gather wildflowers for a flower show. Because she was hiking alone, as was her habit, no one knows what happened.

Robert Gaarder, a member of the Old Colorado City Historical Society, has researched Roberts' life, and in his research, turned up a mysterious question that will never be answered: "Did she go up there that day with the intention of never coming back? Some think so."

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