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Blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer tackles Aspen’s Highland Bowl

A visiting skier from Golden hoofed it up Highland Bowl in about 40 minutes on a partly cloudy April afternoon, took a breather at the 12,393-foot summit, clicked into his skis and then carefully picked his way down the steep slope.

Nothing about the hike or descent was remarkable — until you factor in that the skier is blind.

Erik Weihenmayer is world-renowned for his adventures. Tackling the Bowl is far from his most audacious feat. He captured international attention in May 2001 when he became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He has an impressive climbing resume including the Seven Summits. He has solo kayaked the Grand Canyon, an accomplishment depicted in the documentary “The Weight of Water,” screening at 5Point Adventure Film Festival in Carbondale on April 28.

“People think that because I do things and I’m blind, I’m a daredevil and I’m really not,” Weihenmayer said. “I’m not a daredevil at all.”

For many people he is an inspiration, whether they have sight or not. There weren’t a lot of people hiking the Bowl when Weihenmayer tackled it April 9. But when they realized they were passing a blind dude, nearly all of them spoke words of encouragement or praise, took a photo with their smartphones or both.

Weihenmayer, who lost his vision to retinoschisis as a teenager, is an avid skier at Colorado resorts. He first hiked and skied the Bowl about five years ago at the suggestion — insistence really — of his friend and guide Rob Leavitt of Basalt. Leavitt has been an instructor for Aspen Skiing Co. for 30 years and guides regularly for Challenge Aspen, which works to get handicapped people on the slopes and into the outdoors. The two men were paired 20-some years ago at Snowmass through a Challenge Aspen program and have skied together ever since.

Leavitt said he used to be wiped out by their skiing sessions because guiding a blind person can be extremely stressful.

“But now we work fairly well together so it’s really more of a normal ski day for me rather than a grueling work day with the blind guy,” Leavitt said. “We’ve gotten into a really nice rhythm.”

As Weihenmayer tells it, Leavitt suddenly and surprisingly decided five seasons ago it was time they tackled the Bowl. “He said, ‘I think you’re ready.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready, let’s talk about this more.’ And (Rob) was like, ‘No, you’re ready.’”

The hike features a 782-foot vertical rise with nearly constant exposure on steep ski slopes to the hiker’s left and a couple of sheer drop-offs to out-of-bounds terrain to the right. Skiers and snowboarders take off their boards, attach them to packs or slings and trudge their way up the slope. Footholds are typically kicked into the ridge’s snow for all but the trailblazers to utilize.

Imagine finding those footholds and not straying off course with your eyes closed. It’s a frightening prospect. Then consider reaching the summit in a very respectable 40 minutes while doing so.

“I was cautious because it’s so narrow there,” Weihenmayer said, referring to nearly all of the ascent terrain. “It’s good to know the consequences. On the left, I kept tapping my pole to know where the edge is.

“I wouldn’t say I was nervous but a fall would be a bad consequence there, I keep hearing.”

A reporter along for the trip was recruited into service as “Tinkerbell” — strapping a bear bell around a hand and constantly shaking it so Weihenmayer knew which direction he was headed. Weihenmayer was second in line. Leavitt was behind, providing guidance such as, “You really want to avoid the left side right now.”

Skyler Williams, the business manager for Touch the Top, Weihenmayer’s business venture, shot video of the journey along with Aspen Times photographer Anna Stonehouse.

Blind skier and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer hikes Highland Bowl with blind skier guide Rob Leavitt assisting with direction on April 9.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Weihenmayer shaved about 5 minutes off his Bowl hike time compared with the previous day.

“Yesterday I was huffing a little bit — a lot, actually,” he said. Acclimating for a day and night worked wonders.

Once at the summit, Weihenmayer soaked in the experience almost like a sighted person — feeling the wind in his hair, feeling the sunlight hit his face, shooting the breeze with others at the summit. After a quick breather, it was time to ski down.

“He’s climbed Everest so I knew hiking up wasn’t going to be a problem, so my job is to get him down,” Leavitt said.

They have skied enough together that Leavitt doesn’t have to worry so much about Erik spilling and sliding down the wickedly steep slope. They can focus on making his style look “pretty and efficient,” Leavitt said.

They have developed a unique system. Most visually impaired skiers are guided from behind. That way, the guide can keep an eye on the student and the terrain ahead. Leavitt, however, stays ahead of Weihenmayer.

“By guiding from the front, the skier is skiing toward the voice,” Leavitt explained. “It just puts them in a more forward, athletic position better for skiing.”

It’s also more challenging for the guide because they must swivel their head, constantly looking at the terrain in front, the skier behind and approaching skiers. The nice thing about the Bowl, Leavitt said, is there are no trees and relatively few other skiers.

Leavitt has a microphone with a speaker in a pack around his waist. He constantly provides commands so Weihenmayer knows where he is and knows what to do. Erik links several turns at a time until they take a breather.

Weihenmayer said he listens to the sound Leavitt’s skis make to get a feel for the terrain.

“I can hear him kind of drop off into space and go, oh, he’s in a steep spot,” Weihenmayer said.

Speaking of space, skiing the steep slopes of the Bowl gives Weihenmayer a celestial sensation.

“On groomers, you don’t get that feeling of dropping into space on every turn,” he said. “So for me, I’d say it’s a pretty unique experience. That’s kind of a hard thing as a blind guy, that when you let go into space, you’re going to come around, ya know?”

Weihenmayer tackled the steep part of the Bowl like the true athlete he is. Leavitt guided him down the ridge to the North Woods then curled into the terrain at the G4 and G5 paths in Highland Bowl. The steepest pitch in that terrain is 40 degrees. The average pitches are 36 to 37 degrees. The snow texture was delightfully chalky on the steep slopes, more slushy down below.

Blind skier and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer skis down Highland Bowl with blind skier guide Rob Leavitt assisting with direction on April 9.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

The mogul fields on the run-out to the Deep Temerity chairlift provided more of a challenge because of their unpredictable peaks and troughs. Weihenmayer had a couple of minor spills. The only time he had any physical contact with a guide on the hike or descent was when he was locating his skis at the summit.

It was an awe-inspiring accomplishment to witness.

Weihenmayer has an interesting perspective on his quests for adventure.

“Look, life’s about what you choose to pursue,” he said. “This is what I choose to pursue. I have friends that are blind and they’re head of procurement for Sam’s Club. I look at that and say, ‘How in the world do you do that? How do you look at a spreadsheet when you’re blind?’

“It’s just sort of what you commit to and what you spend a lot of your time pursuing.”

Weihenmayer isn’t solely an adrenaline junkie. He is an author, co-producer of films, and a highly sought motivational speaker. He also is a husband and a father to two children. His income from his speaking engagements and other business ventures goes to No Barriers, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2005. No Barriers works with people with physical and emotional challenges — everyone from U.S. military veterans to kids in the foster care system.

“Sometimes traumatic things can either put a crust around you or kind of remove you in a way from life where you’re looking at your life through a window; you’re experiencing it and it’s once removed,” Weihenmayer said. “Fear kind of holds you back, too — kind of gets you in that window where you’re looking at your life and say, ‘How do I break through all the stuff and sort of make an attempt to live in some way?’”

scondon@aspentimes.com

Avalanche expert says Conundrum slide likely a 300-year event

A massive slide that swept down from Highlands Ridge into Conundrum Creek Valley last weekend was probably a 300-year event, a leading avalanche consultant said Tuesday while touring the site.

“This is definitely a big one for Colorado,” said Art Mears while surveying the volume of snow and debris the avalanche deposited. The only comparable slide he has seen in Colorado struck the Gothic area near Crested Butte in 1995, he said.

Mears is an engineer from Gunnison who consults with governments and individuals to locate infrastructure and buildings where they will avoid avalanches. When structures are built in avalanche-prone areas, he helps create designs to mitigate the risk. He has worked on 1,100 projects in nine states and eight countries. He has designed several avalanche mitigation systems for homes in Pitkin County, including a “splitting wedge” concrete wall that probably saved a house at 1053 Conundrum Creek Road from getting flattened by last weekend’s slide.

The wall suffered no visible damage and it deflected most of the high-density lower layer of snow and debris in the avalanche. Some damage was sustained on the west end of the house. Reinforced glass held but an entire window frame was dislodged. Part of an upper-story wall was punched in but the house apparently didn’t suffer any structural damage.

The splitting wedge was designed to protect the house from a 100-year avalanche, per Pitkin County’s requirements. That means there is a 1 percent risk of an avalanche that size happening every year. With a 300-year event, there is a three-tenths of a percent annual probability of an avalanche that size occurring.

The concrete wedge is 21 feet at the top and tapered down to 17 feet on the lower ends. The south leg is 110 feet long and the west leg is 90 feet.

Tons of snow, trees and rock fell from the Five Fingers and K-Chutes on the west side of the valley. The avalanche fell with such force that debris shot more than 200 feet up the east side, wiping out additional trees. Then the debris spilled downvalley or to the north, where it buried the Conundrum Creek Trailhead and U.S. Forest Service facilities there. Much of the debris wrapped around the house to the east.

However, it was clear from broken aspen and conifer trees surrounding the house that debris also ran into the wedge. Mears said there was likely enough material flowing that it bent the trees and caused some of them to break. Smaller aspen trees were smashed flat.

Mears said the house would have been in a red or high hazard area if it didn’t have the splitting wedge. The special wall dropped it to a blue or moderate hazard area. Without the wall, the house probably would have been heavily damaged by last weekend’s slide, he said. The house was unoccupied at the time of the slide.

The house was built in 1987, according to records in the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office. An avalanche damaged it in 1996.

The current owner, listed as MW III Aspen LLC, bought the house and 25.8 acres in December 1998. The new owner applied to Pitkin County in 2001 to build the splitting wedge to protect the 5-bedroom, 5½-bath structure of nearly 5,000 square feet.

In a report prepared for that application, Mears described the potential destructive force of a 100-year avalanche in that area.

“The Five Fingers path produces a major avalanche which can involve more than 100 acres of snow during (a 100-year event) and falls about 3,500 feet to the Conundrum Creek Valley floor,” his 2001 report said. “Maximum velocities on the steep slope will exceed 110 mph.”

He accurately predicted that the blast from the avalanche would ascend roughly 300 feet up the east wall of the valley.

Mears said Tuesday that despite its size, the avalanche probably only lasted about one minute. The powder cloud kicked into the air probably settled within another 30 seconds or so, he said.

There are additional avalanche chutes downvalley or north from the house. A slide in what’s known as the Teepee Chute killed a man living in a teepee on adjacent property in February 1995.

Mears said Pitkin County has a lot of areas of high avalanche hazard because of its numerous valleys with steep slopes. The risk of damage to property is high because of the amount of development in the prone areas.

While Pitkin County has a design standard for a 100-year avalanche event, Gunnison County has a 300-year standard, he noted.

“I believe, in my opinion, Pitkin County should (do) that,” he said.

Pitkin County is a leader in land-issues in a lot of ways, Mears said, and avalanche mitigation should be another.

The latest Conundrum avalanche demonstrates why a great design standard may be needed. The width of the crown was estimated at 5,000 feet by investigators from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“Highlands Ridge released naturally. Not a path or two off the ridge but everything from the Five Fingers to the K-Chutes,” CAIC’s report said.

Multiple feeder paths share a common run-out, making the avalanche particularly destructive.

CAIC rated the slide a 4.5 out of 5 on the avalanche destruction scale. Mears said the destructive potential is difficult to assess. One way would be to return when the snow melts and date the age of the large conifers the avalanche took out, he said.

While many avalanche experts don’t feel it’s possible to have a D5 avalanche in the Continental U.S., Mears said the Conundrum slide could well qualify.

scondon@aspentimes.com

VIDEO: Winter X Games preview with event host, snowboarder Jack Mitrani

Get to know Jack Mitrani, a former pro snowboarder, current X Games host and an all around great guy. We caught up with Mitrani at the base of the Buttermilk superpipe prior to the start of Winter X Games and chatted about why he loves Aspen, what he listens to when he rides and what to expect from the 2019 X Games.

Mountain bike association pays the price to clear trails from Aspen to New Castle

A mountain biker group is taking big steps this summer to clear deadfall and brush from trails early in the season and keep routes clear as Mother Nature does her stuff.

The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association launched two programs this spring. One involved hiring a three-person, paid seasonal trail crew. The second initiative provides basic trail maintenance training to volunteers who will log hours when they can while riding this summer.

“Trail fairies have been part of our culture for a long time but they weren’t necessarily trained” to do the job right, said Mike Pritchard, executive director of RFMBA.

The fairies are well-intentioned trail riders who carry tools with them to saw small logs, remove branches and enhance water drainages. Their work typically isn’t part of a coordinated effort.

RFMBA is upping its game. It invested funds from membership fees and special grants to hire and train the seasonal trail crew and provide basic training for the volunteer trail agents, whose ranks have swelled to 60 riders so far. They are asked to log four to 10 hours of work over the riding season. The volunteers log their work via a smartphone app so that Pritchard can track what trails have been maintained and the general conditions.

The work of the paid trail crew is carefully coordinated with local entities — the U.S. Forest Service, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, town of Snowmass Village and Aspen Skiing Co.

“It helps us tremendously to have extra arms and eyes out there” clearing the trails and observing conditions, said Shelly Grail, recreation staff manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. The Forest Service and RFMBA regularly are in contact to set priorities and coordinate work, she said.

Less than three hours after sunrise Thursday, the three young men on the RFMBA seasonal crew trudged up Anaerobic Nightmare and Government Trail lugging chainsaws, gas, loppers and other tools. The trails had just opened for the season so they were out to clear the deadfall before riders and hikers streamed into the area. They coordinated their work with a Snowmass Village team that cleared Tom Blake Trail and a short section of Government.

Dylan Gressett, Rafaelo Infante and Nick Penzel, three guys on summer break from college who are on the RFMBA paid crew this summer, have already cleared trails on Basalt Mountain, the Prince Creek Road network and Hay Park. As the season wears on, they’ve focused on Skyline Park and other upper valley routes.

All three men are avid riders who jumped at the opportunity to get paid to work outside.

“Some of my friends are jealous but others are like, ‘Ooohhh, you’re working outside,’” Gressett said.

There’s also a certain payback type of satisfaction from working on the trails.

“I just wanted to be outside and work on the trails that I ride all the time,” Penzel said.

The trail crew is recognizable in neon green shirts that say RFMBA. They are working some of the most well-traveled routes so they frequently encounter mountain bikers and hikers.

“They’re so stoked,” Infante said of the encounters. “They’re happy we’re working on things.”

There’s also the benefit of staying in shape. They lug enough tools that it’s practical to hike the trails rather than ride. They are sawing through large trees and clearing limbs of all sizes.

On Anaerobic Nightmare alone they had to saw eight downfall tree trunks and a precariously perched snag.

A lot of what they do is using a lopper to snip small branches and brush out of the trail corridor. In a recent member newsletter, Pritchard told riders to think of the trails crew next time they were on a route that would normally be overgrown and “shredding your arms and legs” but is now pruned back.

The three seasonal crewmembers went through an intensive three-day training program with the U.S. Forest Service to learn how to saw downed trees and snags safely. They took a wilderness first aid class and were trained as crew leaders by Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, the nonprofit that specializes in trail construction, reroutes and the like.

Pritchard calls Gressett, Penzel and Infante RFMBA’s “rock stars.” With luck, they will return, he said.

“We would like to grow the crew next summer,” he said.

There’s no lack of work. Pritchard said there is 350 miles of singletrack trail that’s open to mountain bikers between Aspen and New Castle. That is separate from trails in designated wilderness areas, which are closed to motorized and mechanized uses.

In the not so distant past, the Forest Service provided the only crew to clear all the trails. They obviously couldn’t be everywhere at once, so some trails would have deadfall far into the summer. Grail said the Forest Service crew will work on wilderness areas and non-wilderness, but it helps knowing that RFMBA has got some of the popular cycling routes covered early in the season.

She said she hopes the day never comes when the Forest Service hands off all trail maintenance to outside organizations.

“Our seasonal crew really is the backbone of the agency,” she said.

Pritchard said RFMBA will still organize special trail work projects this summer. The volunteer trail agent program goes above and beyond those spot projects. It is designed to enlist people to help even if they have full-time jobs and family obligations that prevent them from helping on organized projects.

“The goal is to change the ethic of mountain bikers,” he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Walk with Aspen’s Past … Area’s ghost towns have ‘certain presence’

There are stories of Aspen’s past that you can physically feel as you stroll through the ghost towns of Independence and Ashcroft They are stories of hardworking miners, Victorian ladies who set out to be pioneers, children growing up in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains. The artifacts of their stories are everywhere here — shards of glass and other shiny objects, stained wallpaper inside dilapidated wood cabins, signs that mark what was once a bustling saloon, hotel, post office and more.

Now those who steward these two towns — Independence, located 16 miles up Independence Pass from Aspen, and Aschroft, situated 11 miles up Castle Creek Road from Aspen — will tell you they are not haunted; rather, they are ghost towns of a different type.

“Well, I can’t say we know of any paranormal events up there, but … some people do say they feel something — a certain presence at the Hotel View at Ashcroft,” said Nina Gabianelli, whose tours of these towns and other Aspen Historical Society sites are a rare glimpse into turn-of-the-century life in the Roaring Fork Valley. “But really our role is to be stewards of these towns and share the real stories of the past.”

(If you’re wanting more ghost stories, check out the Nov. 9 episode of the “Colorado Experience” on PBS, where “the spirits of Colorado’s mining past” are featured, including an interview with Gabianelli at Ashcroft.)

By way of history, Ashcroft once was founded in the spring of 1880 on the prospect of silver mining. At its height, the town was bigger than Aspen, with a population of 2,000, two newspapers, a school, sawmills, a small smelter and 20 saloons. But as quickly as Ashcroft boomed, it busted. Today, it is home to three restored buildings and six buildings in their original condition.

“The things you find at Ashcroft tell the tale of the people who established it and called the town home,” Gabianelli said. “It’s a true gift of history.”

On the other side of Aspen is the town of Independence. Legend has it that prospectors discovered gold in the area on Independence Day — July 4, 1879. Soon after, a tent city popped up. And, before long, the town had grown to 1,500 residents and boasted nearly 50 businesses.

But as luck would have it, gold did not pan out for the miners at Independence. By 1888, only 100 hearty souls remained. The others decided Aspen — with its abundant work, good pay and milder climate (Independence sits at 10,920 feet) — would be a better place to call home. Then in February 1899, a series of winter storms blocked supply routes to town and those few remaining residents were forced to flee.

“They actually cut down their homes — cut down and dismantled their homes for wood — and made skis,” Gabianelli said. “And they all skied into Aspen as one big posse.”

Of course Ashcroft and Independence aren’t the only “ghost towns” around Aspen. The area was home to many miner’s shacks and small enclaves. You can still find cabins at Ruby, far up Lincoln Creek Road past the reservoir, and other remnants of the past can be discovered on trails and in the backcountry.

“The mining history of this area is very rich,” Gabianelli said. “We are stewards of Ashcroft and Independence to preserve them, but there you can find traces of history everywhere.”

In summer, the Aspen Historical Society offers guided tours of Independence and Ashcroft (both towns are on the National Register of Historic Sites).

In winter, Ashcroft can be accessed by foot and the surrounding area can be explored on Nordic skis (it becomes the Ashcroft Touring Center). The historical society also offers on-mountain ski tours, where you can learn the history of Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands — before they were ski areas and in their infancy as ski mountains.

Still other ways to learn about Aspen’s history is by visiting the Aspen Historical Society’s two museums — the Wheeler-Stallard Museum and the Holden-Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum.

“There is so much history here to explore,” Gabianelli said. “You just need to listen and embrace the sites and stories.”

Walking through Ashcroft on a blustery autumn evening and it’s very easy to do just this. And with a bit of knowledge about Aspen’s “ghost towns,” it’s easy to create a narrative of who the people that lived here were and how they spent their days.

‘Eyesore’ wires being pulled down from old poles along Independence Pass

For the past several decades, telephone lines to nowhere have been a curious part of the view for attentive travelers along a 10-mile stretch of Independence Pass.

Hundreds of poles and tens of thousands of feet of tension wire were left behind when the line was decommissioned years ago. Passengers in vehicles can occasionally spot the wires paralleling Highway 82 from roughly the winter gate east of Aspen to just short of the Independence ghost town. From there, the communications infrastructure’s path makes a 90-degree bend and climbs a saddle on the east flank of Green Mountain before plunging down to the water diversion works near Grizzly Reservoir.

“When it was last used, I don’t know,” said Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, an Aspen-based nonprofit organization dedicated to all issues on the pass. “There was never telegraph service into Independence.”

The telephone lines were apparently added in the 1930s or ’40s to serve the Twin Lakes Canal Co.’s water diversion facilities. The company hasn’t relied on telephone service for decades. An unknown party removed the telephone lines, typically made of copper, at an unknown time, she said.

Teague and officials with the U.S. Forest Service have discussed the removal of the rest of the infrastructure and decided for now just the strands of tension wire will be removed. The Forest Service is still assessing if the telephone poles should be felled, removed or left alone.

“These very visible wires are an eyesore,” Teague said.

They often encroach on the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and mar the view.

“It’s one of the most scenic and pristine corridors in the country,” she said.

One of the primary eyesores is where the poles and wires climb the saddle by Green Mountain. The lines cover about 1 mile on both sides of the divide. There are roughly 110 poles and 10,000 feet of wire accessible from the ground and 20,000 feet of wire up the poles, according to a Forest Service assessment.

Teague and Forest Service officials are concerned about the potential for wildlife to get tangled in the low wires. Teague said the wires aren’t always visible. She “nearly got decapitated” on one adventure in the woods, she said.

In some places, collecting the wire would be easy because the poles are close to Highway 82. In other areas, the job would be difficult because the poles are situated in rougher terrain and the wire needs to be cut from high up on the poles.

Independence Pass Foundation will harness volunteer groups to help with the job. A crew from Jaywalker Lodge, an addiction treatment center for men in Carbondale, helped tackle some of the job Thursday, spending the day on the pass with Teague and her team.

They were able to remove all the wire from the Grottos day-use area upriver through Lincoln Campgrounds, past the Lincoln Creek turnoff and another mile further up the road.

“One 200-yard stretch of wire was literally embedded in the river and river bank,” Teague said. “I can’t tell you how good it felt to get that out of there.”

Teague is determined to remove a “significant chunk” of the wire this fall and aspires to complete the job.

The foundation also regularly chips away at a more daunting job of removing metal from an old snow fence in Mountain Boy Gulch, high up the pass. Three volunteer groups brought out scrap this summer. It’s hard work, Teague said, because the site is in designated wilderness, so vehicles and mechanized equipment cannot be used. The scrap was hauled on the backs of volunteers.

The snow fence and telephone pole tension wires are the two biggest examples of human impact on the pass that doesn’t have historical significance, so the foundation is working to eliminate them from the spectacular landscape.

“Our mission is to restore and protect the ecological, historical and aesthetic integrity of the Independence Pass corridor,” Teague said.

Some people, she noted, attach historic importance to the poles. She supports public debate to decide their fate.

Shelly Grail Braudis, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said removal of the downed wires is a top priority for the Forest Service because of the risk to wildlife. There is also aesthetic value to removing the wires, she said.

She said the poles are abandoned property of CenturyLink, so the Forest Service needs to talk to the communications company about the plans.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Aspen’s popular Ute Trail to remain closed indefinitely for safety reasons

One of the most popular hiking trails in Aspen will remain closed for the foreseeable future while officials figure out how to deal with loose rock at the top of the trail.

The Ute Trail, which snakes steeply up Ute Mountain on Aspen Mountain’s east side, has been closed for about two-and-a-half weeks after a half-dozen large boulders came tumbling down to the bottom during a thunderstorm, said Austin Weiss, the city of Aspen’s parks and open space director.

The rocks broke loose from Ute Rock, the large rock formation at the top of the trail that offers stunning views of Aspen and the surrounding area, he said.

“(The boulders) brought down trees when they came down, and one left a decent-sized hole in Ute Avenue,” Weiss said. “They crossed the Ute Trail in a couple of places.

“From a city standpoint, having it closed is the safest thing to do until any (possible future) rockfall can be mitigated.”

People were using the trail at the time, though no one was hurt, he said.

While Ute Trailhead is on city property, Ute Rock at the top is part of a mining claim owned by Pitkin County, said G.R. Fielding, county engineer. In between the two is mostly U.S. Forest Service land, he said.

Fielding said approximately one to two dumptruck loads of rock came tumbling down the side of the mountain. Loose rock remains at the top, and the county has hired a consulting geologist to take a look at what could come loose in the near future and how to safely deal with it, he said.

That geologist is scheduled to hike the closed trail Thursday and take a closer look at whether the loose rock can be “scaled” or intentionally knocked loose and pushed down the mountain, Fielding said. If the geologist determines that can be done, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks to do it and reopen the trail, he said.

(Story continues below video)

Brian Pettet, Pitkin County’s public works director, said that is the preferred course of action officials would like to take. Other options include simply posting signs warning of rockfall or securing the loose rock somehow, he said.

The latter option wasn’t very palatable to either Pettet or Weiss, both of whom said they’d like to avoid adding any infrastructure to the mountain. Weiss also said he wasn’t sure simply signing the area would work either because of the possible danger to hikers.

“Rocks have fallen down the side of that hillside forever,” Weiss said. “But nothing the size of that particular incident has come down since I’ve been here (for the past 16 years).

“I think it needs to be dealt with.”

Pettet and Fielding said the county is estimating it will cost about $25,000 to deal with the problem. Pettet said he’s working on trying to find the money in the county budget.

“We’re looking to get it done as quickly as possible,” he said.

However, until the geologist can determine whether the loose rocks can be safely pushed down the mountain, there’s no timeline to open the trail.

“I have no idea,” Fielding said when asked when the trail might open.

Pettet said the Ute Trail is probably one of the top three hikes in Aspen, along with Smuggler Mountain and the Hunter Creek Trail. Pettet and Fielding said some people are continuing to use the trail despite the closure.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Sange Sherpa’s trek from Everest to Vail is a series of miracles, rescues

VAIL — Dawa Sange Sherpa’s story is the tale of two rescues and a series of miracles.

Rescue No. 1 was May 21. The 21-year-old Nepali mountain guide had finished his first Mount Everest summit, a tortuous affair with a reportedly obstinate Pakistani client who refused to turn back despite murderous weather. Sange stayed with his client, despite advice from older Sherpa guides to turn back.

Sange was found unconscious just below the summit, exhausted and resigned that he would soon die and become one with the mountain. He and his client were rescued by Ang Tshering Lama, founder of Angs Himalayan Adventures, and a group of Sherpas.

Rescue No. 2 was eight weeks ago. Sange was in Norvic hospital in Kathmandu waiting for his frostbitten hands to be amputated. Again, he was rescued, this time by the Kees Brenninkmeyer Foundation, Karsang Sherpa and Dr. Ellen Gallant, who brought him from Kathmandu to Vail, where Dr. Randy Viola with the Steadman Clinic is surgically reconfiguring some of the fingers and thumbs on Sange’s damaged hands.

So, how’s he doing now?

“I am good,” Sange said, smiling quietly from his bed in the Vail hospital.

He is alive, but he’s frightened, completely out of his element and he’s in pain, Viola said.

“It will be worth it, though,” Viola said.

Vail and Viola

Dr. Tom Hackett is a hard-core mountaineer. He’s with the Steadman Clinic and is affiliated with the Kees Brenninkmeyer Foundation, and that foundation is how Sange came to his attention.

Hackett strolled up the hall to Viola to see what could be done for Sange. More than you might think, it turns out.

“This kid lost every digit,” Viola said.

Sange’s hands won’t look like they did before his frostbite. They’ll have a thumb and some makeshift fingers.

Viola said they have three goals: For Sange to be able to pinch, to hook and have a basic grip.

“I think he’s terrified about what I’m doing,” Viola said.

It appears miraculous, but Viola said modestly that he’s using a technique that has been around for decades and that he has used it before. It seems simple when Viola explains it, as complex things do when in the hands of the greats.

Essentially, Viola is transplanting bone to create fingers and thumbs that were destroyed by frostbite on Mount Everest. He took skin from Sange’s abdomen and thigh and rolled it into a tube to create skin around the transplanted bone.

Then, Viola basically sewed Sange’s hand into his abdomen so blood would flow to it and tissue would grow.

“The principles are straightforward. If you need a part, you sew the hand into the abdomen and the blood supply regrows the tissue, and that will be part of the hand,” Viola said.

How we’re here

Sange is a delightful young man, the oldest in his family of five children. He was in a hurry to become a mountain guide because it pays more than being a porter, and his family needs the money. He said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle, who also guided on Everest.

On May 21, the peak of Everest’s spring climbing season, Sange was on his way to the summit of Mount Everest for the first time, guiding a client from Pakistan, Col. Abdul Jabbar Bhatti, on the Nepal side of Everest. Bhatti was hoping to become the fourth Pakistani to summit.

Sange had just finished guiding a Utah group trekking to Everest Base Camp. When they were done, Sange went to work with Bhatti.

The climb to the summit turned out to be an 18-hour slog through deadly weather. Wind and snow froze their masks, goggles, water and oxygen supply. The older guides stayed in touch with Sange by walkie talkie and kept advising him to turn back. Sange said he kept asking Bhatti to turn back, but Bhatti kept refusing, citing the money he was spending.

The older Sherpa guides finally told Sange to turn back and save himself, even if he had to leave Bhatti.

Sange, though, stayed with his client, a decision that almost killed him.

They reached the summit at 3 p.m. that day, inching up the world’s tallest mountain for 18 hours after they had left Camp 4. Any summit after 12 noon is considered too late in the day to be safe, say expert alpinists. Sange and Bhatti spent only five minutes on the summit.

The weather turned from bad to worse as they started their descent.

Sange had chosen not use supplemental oxygen on the ascent, saving it for the descent. He gave his last bottle to Bhatti on their way down.

It didn’t help. They were both losing their will to live, Sange said.

Bhatti walked very slowly, Sange said, and it began to grow dark.

“When I looked for my client, he was resting on the ridge just few meters away from me. I called him a lot but he didn’t respond me at all,” Sange said.

Bhatti was too weak to walk or talk, Sange said, and so was he.

Sange inhaled some oxygen, but was so exhausted that it didn’t help. He soon passed out.

“I was too tired and I didn’t realize when I went to sleep,” Sange said.

The noise of other climbers woke him, but he could see nothing but the bright white ice and snow, he said. He could not move his fingers or his body, but shifted enough in the snow that they realized he was alive.

“Otherwise the climbers walking nearby would have considered me dead and left me there,” Sange said.

He could feel nothing in his hands, and realized they were completely frost bitten. He said he relaxed and prepared to let go of this life.

“I was very hopeless and tired. I could have easily closed my eyes and become a permanent member of the mountain. It would have been more peaceful than suffering,” Sange said.

But the mountain would not take him that day.

A group from Sherpa Khangri Outdoor had seen Sange and Bhatti earlier and happened across them again just below the summit as they drifted toward death.

Ang Tshering Lama is a wilderness first responder. The group of Sherpas with him — Nima Galzen Sherpa, Jangbu Ang Mingma Chhiri Sherpa and Pema Chirring Sherpa — pulled Sange and Bhatti away from death and toward Camp 4.

Sange landed in Norvic Hospital, which has no experience dealing with frostbite victims, said Karsang Sherpa, a Denver-based investment professional who is instrumental in helping Sange.

“He was essentially waiting for all his fingers to get amputated,” Karsang said. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of a 21-year-old mountain guide losing all his fingers.”

Karsang reached out to the Kees Brenninkmeyer Foundation, which provides support for alpine-industry professionals who need orthopedic care to continue their careers. That brought him to Hackett’s attention, and eventually to Vail.

It takes a village

Dr. Ellen Gallant is a cardiologist in Jackson, Wyoming. This year was her first Everest summit, and it was 15 years in the making.

In Jackson, she’s in the lifesaving business, and business has been brisk during her Everest expeditions.

She was on Everest in 2014 when an ice fall killed 16 Sherpas.

She was back on Everest in 2015 when the earthquakes hit and killed dozens of people on the mountain and tens of thousands more around Nepal.

She skipped 2016 and tried again this year. That put her in Camp 4, preparing for her summit assault, when Sange was being brought down by Ang Tshering Lama and the other Sherpas.

Bhatti was brought down first, and the Sherpas asked Gallant to help him. An hour later, they called her again, as Sange was being literally dragged across the surface of the snow to Camp 4.

The rescuers had found him without gloves on, and his hands were frozen into claws, Gallant said. She rubbed him but elicited nothing more than a moan.

“I didn’t think he would live more than an hour,” Gallant said.

She gave him some medications she had packed along, and he revived.

The weather that drove Sange and Bhatti off the summit so quickly stayed with them in Camp 4. He was stranded there two days before he could be taken further down Everest to Camp 2 for a helicopter evacuation to Norvic hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal.

He was there 20 days and received no treatment. No one even bathed him, Gallant said.

Karsang Sherpa knows a guy who knows a guy, and they got Sange moved to Dr. Prativa Pandey and CIWEC Clinic, where expert doctors and proper treatment were waiting for him.

Gallant knows a guy in Jackson, Wyoming, who knows Lawrence Jones, the consulate general of the U.S. embassy in Nepal. Jones paved the way for Sange to come to the United States and Vail for the hand surgeries.

Send me

Gallant agreed to fly back to Kathmandu to accompany Sange to the United States. She landed on a Sunday and met Sange. It was the first time she had seen him sitting up and not horizontal in the throes of death, she said.

They went to the U.S. Embassy on Monday, met Sange’s family on Tuesday and boarded a plane back to the United States on Wednesday — Nepal to Abu Dhabi to Chicago. Each step came with its own set of issues, mostly involving questions about why Sange’s hands were bandaged.

“Why are his hands bandaged?” officials would ask.

“I’d answer, ‘Here’s why,’ and produce the photos of Sange’s hands,” Gallant said. “Seeing this young man go from his condition in Camp 4 to Vail warms my heart.”

The return trip from Nepal was 30 hours. Sange had no use of his hands and had to be fed, which Gallant could do.

The bathroom was another matter. She said in the 32-hour flight, Sange let her take him to the bathroom only twice.

‘We won’t abandon Sange’

David Snow was one of those Utah trekkers who Sange led to Everest Base Camp. He told Karsang Sherpa they were impressed with Sange while he was with them, and more so after learning that he would not abandon his client. Snow and others have established a GoFundMe page for Sange.

“Sange would not abandon his client — we won’t abandon Sange,” Snow said.

Sange said he is healing in so many ways. While he’s under Viola’s care, he is staying with a host Sherpa family in Gypsum.

“Sange has been so gracious and kind. There is no anger toward anything that happened. It’s a lesson in life,” Gallant said.

Karsang Sherpa is an investment professional with a private equity fund based in Denver. Without him and blogger Alan Arnette, alanarnette,com, this story would not have been possible.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Wilderness Workshop residency program sends artist Kia Neill into the wild

Artist Kia Neill covered a lot of ground in her weeklong residency in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Neill, one of four artists coming to the valley in 2017 through Wilderness Workshop’s artist-in-wilderness program, set out on daily hikes through the wilderness seeking inspiration. In her first few days here, Neill explored the Lost Man and Linkins Lake trails, photographed wildflowers on Independence Pass, popped into the Grottos, made her way to the flanks of Mount Sopris at Thomas Lakes and hoofed it above Ashcroft to Cathedral Lake.

“Primarily, I want to absorb as much as I can,” she explained last week.

Neill does have a looming deadline to tend to while she’s in residence at a cabin near the Roaring Fork River outside Aspen. She’s opening a solo exhibition of 30 paintings and drawings at Naropa University on Sept. 8. But that’s not keeping her out of the woods while she’s here.

A Chicago native, Neill was based in Houston when she first visited Colorado six years ago for a residency at the Tin Shop in Breckenridge. That taste of the mountains influenced her artwork deeply and drew her back permanently. Neill moved to Denver three years ago and, just before coming to the Roaring Fork Valley for her residency this month, settled in Keystone.

Being close to nature, and particularly to the dramatic mountain landscapes of the Rockies, has become essential to Neill’s work. She practices across disciplines, from photography to painting and drawing to sculpture.

Her innovative collage pieces combine digital photos — she works exclusively with cellphone cameras — of mountain landscapes with detailed painting and drawing. A single piece might juxtapose far away places in which Neill has found visual rhymes. A piece currently hanging in a solo show at the Breckenridge Backstage Theatre, for instance, layers photos and drawings of an abandoned mine in Montezuma upon the moguls below Chair 6 on the ski hill in Breckenridge and dramatic shots of Lake Dillon. Most recently, trekking around the wilderness surrounding Aspen, she’s been exploring links between mountain landscapes and the human body.

“I’m relating forms that I see between shapes and structures in our own bodies and various landscapes,” she explained.

For instance, looking at groves of aspen trees and the way their roots come together underground, she’s been reminded of how humans’ ribs join in the sternum. In Aspen, she’s figuring out ways to make that connection visually in her work.

“I’m just playing around with those ideas,” she said.

Neill is one of four artists selected for a residency here this year by Wilderness Workshop. The wilderness and conservation advocacy group founded the program in 2008 to honor watercolorist and activist Dottie Fox. It’s since annually brought diverse artists — selected by a jury of artists and art collectors — to stay and work on ranches and in remote cabins around the Roaring Fork Valley.

Resident artists are free to do what they like with their time here. The nonprofit only requires participating artists to donate one piece of work to be auctioned off for Wilderness Workshop’s benefit.

Neill has snapped countless photos during her very active residency as ideas for future work developed in her mind’s eye.

“When I make work, it’s very much about the process of discovery and realization,” Neill explained. “It’s through making that I realize what it’s going to be. So for me, making art is a thought process.”

atravers@aspentimes.com

Aspen’s ideal job — keeping forest trails clear

It sounds like the ideal job description: Get up early, hike some of the best trails in the national forest surrounding Aspen, occasionally camp under the stars, chop wood, then repeat from May through September.

There’s no doubt it’s a great job being on the trails crew of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said Seth Hannula, crew foreman. Lots of hikers encountered by the five-person crew watch in awe as they hack with an ax at smaller trees and branches that have fallen across the trail or tackle larger trees with a two-person cross-cut saw.

But observers don’t always see the big picture.

“Some days the mosquitos are bad. Some days it’s raining,” Hannula said. “It’s not always ideal.”

Still, he’s not complaining. He’s been in love with the job since first starting with the trails crew in 1999. Back then, the Aspen and Sopris districts were separate. The Sopris district had a 10-member trails crew. Aspen had six to eight. The districts have since combined but eroding budgets have tightened the belt on the trails crew about as tight as it can get.

“There’s been one or two seasons where I was the only one,” Hannula said.

The crew is larger this year than in recent years. Eric Tierney, Steve Petrich, Clay Westbrook and Erick Kelly make a formidable crew, Hannula said. Their first order of business was bucking fallen timber off the highest use trails — popular hiking destinations like Crater Lake, West Maroon Creek, Buckskin Pass and Conundrum, where a windstorm blew several trees down and required special attention last month. High-use mountain biking routes also get top priority, including places like Hunter Creek Valley and Basalt Mountain.

“We try to focus on the high-use areas, chasing the snow,” Hannula said.

Now, at the halfway point of the summer, they’re able to turn attention to the second tier of trails and set sights on projects that have been on back burners.

A lot of their time is spent on “tread work” — building and maintaining water bars. Rock, logs or dirt berms are used to block water from running down a trail. A path is scratched into the ground to divert water into the woods.

In places where water cannot be diverted, check dams are built to stop the water’s momentum and prevent it from creating a rut.

The trails on the high-altitude passes, such as West Maroon Pass, are particularly vulnerable to water, Hannula said. He could devote a crew all season to working on the high passes if he had that luxury.

There are 346 miles of hiking and equestrian trails in the district that need maintenance, including 289 miles in wilderness. There are an additional 175 miles of mountain biking trails and 52 miles of trails for motorized uses.

In other words, Hannula’s crew is in no danger of running out of things to do. Hannula said he loves the job because of all the places it’s taken him. He figures there are only about 6 to 8 miles of official trail he hasn’t visited in the past 18 years.

Tierney worked as a wilderness ranger in the Aspen-Sopris district last summer. The jobs are similar. The rangers carry a saw and Pulaski, a tool with an ax on one side and a heavy-duty hoe on the other, to perform trail maintenance, but they have broader responsibilities such as checking to make sure backpackers comply with regulations ranging from camping far enough from trails, rivers and lakes, and using bear-proof canisters for food and trash. In short, they’re backcountry cops.

This year, Tierney is seeing more of the forest, which is one of the things he likes about the job.

“It’s just getting to see different areas that you haven’t seen before,” he said. “And it’s good learning different skills.”

One day last week on the Anthracite Creek Trail outside of Marble, Tierney wielded a double-bladed ax he nicknamed “The Viking.” Hannula and Petrich couldn’t hide their glee as Tierney attacked decent-sized limbs and trunks with gusto to clear the trail. He made short order of all timber he encountered across the trail.

“Eric loves to chop,” they explained to observers.

Petrich ended up in Aspen on a whim this summer. He intended to get a job with the Forest Service in his native Washington state, but positions were posted earlier than he expected and he was shut out. He answered a post for a job in Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. The scenery has blown him away.

“I thought that it would be cool,” he said. “It turned out to be very cool.”

When axes won’t handle a job, the crew has a two-person cross-cut saw, a lightweight but powerful tool believed to be developed in the 14th century. With strategic use of wedges to prevent the tree trunks from binding on the saw, they can cut through large-diameter downfall in short order.

Chainsaws can’t be used in designated wilderness, where all motorized and mechanized users are prohibited, so the cross-cut saw is essential.

The budget crunch and uncertainty from year to year in the numbers of the trails crew has made volunteer assistance vital. Those groups include Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association and the Crested Butte Trail Riders Association, which spills into the Roaring Fork Valley.

Hannula and Tierney accompanied a crew from Wilderness Volunteers into Lead King Basin on Sunday for a multi-day trip to work on trails there, including the popular Geneva Lake. The volunteers actually pay to come out to work, so you know they’re dedicated, Hannula said.

He also looks forward to working each year with the crew from Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. It’s a school ritual. Many of the faculty has done it for years, so they are good at organizing and directing 80 to 100 kids for a few days in the backcountry.

“If you can focus that energy, you can really get a lot done,” Hannula said.

But for most of the summer, it’s just the trails crew working alone. They will backpack into a secluded site when they have multiple days of work. They can get more done when they don’t spend hours hiking in and out. Still, they cover lots of miles. The 2016 crew cleared an estimated 200 miles of trails.

Crew members are lean, mean clearing machines by the end of summer.

“You definitely get stronger,” Hannula said. “We get to the point where we gobble up the miles.”

All that hiking and clearing timber requires a lot of fuel. They pack in high-protein food but it’s still sometimes tough to eat enough.

“I consider it kind of hyperphagia, like bears in the fall,” Hannula said with a laugh.

Next time you’re hiking in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and find a freshly sawed tree trunk of mammoth proportions or are cycling Basalt Mountain and see a water bar effectively wicking runoff, bear in mind it’s not mysterious trail gnomes at work. It’s sweat off the brow of Hannula and crew that is keeping the trail clear.

scondon@aspentimes.com