By the time I reached the top, I had already missed them. Empty trailers with ropes dangling from hinges were carrying a combination of leather, hay and cold mud through the parking lot, permeating the morning air as it made its way to my nose and lingered like a half-swallowed pill in the back of my throat.
I couldn't remember the last time I stood on the summit-12,000 feet high and 24 miles from civilization. Motorists, cyclists and travelers stopped to take photos while marveling at the landscape, and I squinted into the low-lying clouds as I tried to recall the email I received from Mark Fuller the day before: "We'll be at the top. Look for the mule train on the ridge southwest of the summit."
A tourist with binoculars spotted them before I did. There were 10 of them, brown dots carrying packs and crawling along the southwest ridge like a cruise ship making its way across the ocean's edge before disappearing into the horizon.
"What exactly are they doing up there?" The questions came and went as a crowd gathered along the walkway with pointed fingers, beckoning one another to watch as the line of mules slowly descended over the ridge after more than an hour of hauling and climbing.
I made my way through what had become a petting zoo in the parking lot to find Mark standing among the curious crowd. Two men from the Forest Service worked quickly against the grabbing hands and snapping photos to feed the animals and tie them up alongside the trailers, while others unloaded their packs full of scrap metal into pickup trucks close by.
He greeted me with a smile and told me about the morning's job: a collaborative effort between the Independence Pass Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service to remove scraps of rebar from what used to be an old snow fence from the tundra - a job that would require repeat trips before being completed.
Serving as the Independence Pass Foundation's executive director, it was clear Mark Fuller didn't waste any time smelling the flowers. After hauling the rebar off the tundra, he was scheduled in meetings the rest of the day, and with the USA Pro Cycling Challenge less than a week away, he was teaming up with the Forest Service to evaluate the lands and designate camping areas.
For some involved in the education, protection and maintenance of Independence Pass and the lands of the White River National Forest, it may only be a part-time job and nothing else. But for Mark Fuller, who dedicates his entire summer to the mending of roads, the planting of trees, the removal of waste and the expansion of recreational facilities for the interests and safety of everyone who passes through, it's a lot more.
To further understand the missions of the Independence Pass Foundation, the collaborative projects with the U.S. Forest Service, the outstanding threats to the vulnerable tundra and the sometimes overlooked reasons for why the watchdogs of the pass do what they do, Mark broke down what he knows and what the rest of us could possibly learn.
Who are the partners to the Independence Pass Foundation?
"Founded in 1989, the Independence Pass Foundation works in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Department of Transportation, city of Aspen, Colorado Department of Corrections and Pitkin County.
"The Forest Service keeps the IPF in the loop with their plans and priorities on the pass and vice versa. That communication is then formalized in an annual partnership agreement that outlines projects for the year. Projects are often left uncompleted due to the Forest Service's lack of resources and funding. "
We couldn't camp on the pass during the race. Why?
"The pro cycling race last year brought far more people and overnight campers in both tents and RVs than we were prepared for. Other than the graffiti of cyclers' names on the road, we saw little impacts overall to the pass. However, since this year's race was set for two stages over the pass, we expected numbers to double, and the likelihood that those numbers will persist on a regular basis for years to come was the basis of our concerns.
"The spots which were restricted were sensitive in some way, whether wetlands, lush undergrowth, extensive deadfall or proximity to the Roaring Fork River. Opposite popular belief, the restrictions did not reduce the camping capacity on the pass to any significant degree, and some spots that were closed last year were actually open for camping this year.
"In the weeks to come, we will be working with race organizers, the Forest Service and the city to evaluate any race impacts so that we can plan ahead. ... Our hope is that the race will become more connected with the environment that it traverses by acknowledging the needs of that environment through recognition of, and contributions to, projects and organizations that care for that environment."
How do most people treat the pass?
"People are usually very respectful when it comes to the use of the pass; when they are not, it is partly a result of inadequate infrastructure. Aside from a fire-burning incident that almost got out of control this summer, we find a lot of evidence of human waste in the form of used toilet paper, a product of too little public restrooms along the corridor. We are working to make for a more human-friendly environment in future projects.
"An overarching concern is the constant big-rig traffic on the pass. Not only does it slow traffic - it is a major safety concern and has serious implications for stream health, fire, etc., if an accident were to happen.
"In the meantime, it would be great if people learned a little about the history and ecology of the pass before they traveled so they can appreciate the landscape even more and be mindful of the environment."
What are the long-term challenges?
"There is a lot of red tape involved when it comes to working on public lands. The Forest Service must make sure we are meeting appropriate standards through our projects, and in turn it is often frustrating when they are not afforded the resources they want or need to maintain public resources.
"As an organization, our challenge is to work with our partners, including the Colorado Department of Transportation and the USFS, to come up with tools and programs to manage human activity on the pass while keeping the character of the pass intact and complying with the Scenic Byway Plan.
"In my position alone, it is a constant struggle to keep up with all the issues, projects and responsibilities the future of Independence Pass demands. On the other hand, I'm not complaining - I've got a great office."