Four years ago, the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Field Institute launched an effort to heal a 14,000-foot mountain.
In the first installment of the Earth Corps program, 20-somethings shuttled to Crestone and hauled equipment about 5 miles up a steep trail, to the tundra above the waterfall at Willow Lake. There they started constructing Kit Carson Peak’s new summiting path, not far from where hikers have followed a straight fall line and caused erosion and damage to the fragile ecosystem.
Over the next three years, they camped for several weeks and built a switchbacking trail with heavy stone, forming steps. Other crews would take their place for several more weeks.
This was all years after Loretta McEllhiney, the U.S. Forest Service’s fourteener specialist, designed the trail and saw it through the government’s lengthy environmental process.
Jennifer Peterson, RMFI’s executive director, accompanied McEllhiney last month to the work site on Kit Carson. “We had to stop,” Peterson says. “Loretta was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe we’re here. We made it.’”
Peterson expects the new trail to be finished this summer, connecting with the uppermost portion of the current spur to the summit.
The young workers came from around the country over the years, and “they can’t wait themselves to use the trail,” Peterson says. “They want to see it finished and know they played a hand in building it for thousands of others. It’s fulfilling for them and certainly for us.”
RMFI looks to start another multiyear job next year: McEllhiney’s proposed reroute of the Devil’s Playground trail on the back side of Pikes Peak. No decision has been made yet on the alignment though, said a spokeswoman for the Pike National Forest.
That initiative is part of the National Forest Foundation’s Find Your Fourteener campaign, which this summer announced investing $500,000 in the project and those across three other fourteeners.
Meanwhile this season, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative continues other missions on the state’s biggest, ever-crowding mountains. Here’s a rundown:
Crews for a third year have worked on a trail that CFI hopes will change the reputation of “one of the worst fourteeners to climb,” says the organization’s executive director, Lloyd Athearn, echoing popular sentiment. A loose talus field makes for a less-than-desirable hike to the top.
One more season is planned to finish the “super technical” task, Athearn says, with workers recently using a tramlike system to move heavy rocks and create a corridor of steps.
“In the end, it’ll be an incredible trail,” Athearn says. “It’s really some of the best work CFI has ever done and should make the mountain immeasurably more enjoyable to climb and less impactful (to the environment) to do so.”
Builders last year turned their focus to the southeast slopes of the state’s highest peak. They again cut tread, aiming for 0.8 miles of new trail toward treeline. The goal is to make the second of three envisioned bypasses, taking hikers from a current route that’s been eroded by heavy use — among the heaviest of all fourteeners, CFI reports.
This month, volunteers planned to spend multiple days stabilizing the area known as the “cat claw” for the channels that tear down the mountainside.
That area is above the under-construction second bypass, which Athearn says should be finished by the end of this season. Work on the third bypass is set to begin next summer.
Quandary Peak and Mount Evans
Quandary Peak promises to continue to be one of the simplest summit routes to follow, thanks to another year of CFI placing directional logs and steps. Retention walls also have been built to catch debris.
While maintenance wraps up there, it begins on Mount Evans, where another small crew is mostly based near 13,000 feet, working to stabilize and close socially created portions of trail above Summit Lake.
CFI staff have spent another summer taking inventory of trail conditions, assessing the shape of some they’ve never detailed before and returning to others that have changed since the organization’s YEAR Fourteeners Report Card.
That study, done from 2011 through 2013, determined that $24 million in baseline investments was needed. Athearn says a new report card could be out in the fall.
He says he hopes crews can start work next year on the Navajo Basin approach to Mount Wilson and El Diente Peak. Also “in desperate need,” he says, is the CFI-owned Mount Shavano. The organization continues consulting with the Forest Service about a proposed route via Blank Gulch, to relieve pressure from the Jennings Creek approach.