Forest Service crews continue daunting task of clearing avalanche carnage on Aspen-area trails



The wilderness crew for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District cut more trees this summer than the prior six summers combined. The extra saw work was required because so many trees were flattened by avalanches in March during a historically large slide cycle. Here are the trees cut by year by the wilderness crew. The numbers don’t include work done by a separate trail crew.

Year Trees cut

2019 3,412

2018 808

2017 424

2016 388

2015 325

2014 377

2013 367

Source: Tyler Lee, lead wilderness ranger

One of the biggest and most destructive avalanche cycles ever recorded in the Aspen area struck in March and created a Paul Bunyan-sized challenge this summer for the crews in charge of clearing trails.

The avalanches widened old slide paths on mountainsides and wiped out fir and spruce trees that had escaped unscathed for hundreds of years. The slides deposited thousands of trees in valley floors, creating massive piles of thick trunks, long branches, dirt, rocks and snow.

Twelve men and women working on the separate wilderness and trail crews in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District have faced the daunting task of clearing that brush on a network featuring 346 miles of hiking trails and 175 miles of mountain biking routes.

“Obviously, nothing like this has happened in hundreds of years,” said Jerry Olp, a wilderness ranger in his fourth summer.

The crews have sawed their way through more trees in 2019 than in the prior six years combined. They continue to work their tails off so hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians can enjoy the stunning scenery surrounding Aspen.

Shelly Grail, recreation staff manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, oversees both the trail and wilderness crews. She said she’s been awestruck by their work this summer and calls them “small but mighty crews.”

The wilderness and trail crews perform independent but coordinated jobs. They met up for a rare combined workday Friday to tackle mammoth-sized avalanche debris paths on the South Fork Pass and Chapman Gulch trails, high in the Upper Fryingpan Valley.

After hiking about half a mile on the South Fork Trail, the crews were confronted with a nearly impenetrable mess of downed timber. The slide triggered high on the east wall of the valley, thundered downslope, crossed the creek and valley floor and bowled over trees on the west side of the valley. It created a 100-yard pile of pick-up sticks — tree trunks jutting out in every direction.

The members of the crews put down their heavy backpacks, removed handsaws of every size and got down to business.

“It’s probably the same as other years as far as physically demanding but I think the mental thing, … it’s kind of overwhelming when you come up to these,” trail crew foreman Seth Hannula said.

He has worked on the crew since 1999 so he’s used to challenges. But Hannula said he hasn’t seen anywhere close to the amount of downed timber as this year.

Trying to find the way

The first order of business Friday was locating the trail so the crews could cut the minimum amount of trees as necessary. Jarrod Keller picked his way to the far side of the jumble to locate the trail and give the rest of the crew a read on where to look.

Once the route was established, they started hacking away.

On most trees they used various-sized saws designed for one person. But some of the trunks were around 2 feet in diameter and required the double bucksaws also known as two-person crosscut saws.

Olp and Veronica Reardon made short work of a couple of fat tree trunks with a double bucksaw fitted with multiple sharp teeth along the length of its 5-foot blade.

Chainsaws would cut through the green timber like butter, but this trail, like many in the district, is in designated wilderness, where motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited. Removing the timber must be done with good-old muscle power.

Reardon, 24, and Anna Kistner, 23, another wilderness ranger, shrug off questions about the grueling nature of the job. They enjoy the physical labor and the opportunities for seclusion that wilderness brings.

After an hour or so of work, a path emerged through the jumble of tree trunks and branches. The trail and wilderness crews were fortified Friday by a couple of other rangers.

“When we’re 15 people strong, we can make some pretty good progress,” Hannula said.

Long winter, delayed start

Tyler Lee, lead wilderness ranger, said South Fork and the nearby Chapman trail were lower priority for clearing because of their isolation and lower level of use.

The wilderness crew faced difficulty getting into the high country because a thick layer of snow lingered for so long. Once they were able to get into the backcountry, they focused on trails in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, where so many hikers and backpackers set their sights.

“Our first priority was getting the Conundrum slide open, getting slides on the Four Pass Loop open and some more of those Maroon Bells-Snowmass trails,” Lee said. “And really, now, at the end of August, we’re starting to get into Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness and some of these trails.”

The West Maroon Creek Trail is a heavily used route to hike from Aspen to Crested Butte. Lee estimated the crews cleared trees from five avalanche paths between Crater Lake and West Maroon Pass.

“It’s pretty typical this year. We’re finding five to eight slides per drainage,” he said. “Each one has been different. If the trail is more at the bottom (of the valley) where the debris is landing, it’s a lot longer (of a) day and that’s what we’re seeing today.”

Video by Tyler Lee, taken on Chapman Trail.

After working Saturday, he estimated the slide on the Chapman Trail was four times larger than that on South Fork.

Waiting out the melt

The deep snowpack delayed trail clearing in two ways.

First, access to the backcountry was limited until much later than usual. Olp was one of the first hikers to complete the Four Pass Loop from July 12 to 15. Second, it didn’t make sense to clear a bunch of trees on the surface when there were several more trees buried underneath in the snow.

The crews had to wait until some of the snow melted out. Even on Friday, the thick conifer branches and needles insulated a couple of feet of snow covering the trail.

“It’s just like an ice house,” Hannula said.

While some hikers were peeved that their favorite trails weren’t cleared sooner, most people are grateful for the work the wilderness and trails crews are performing.

“Everyone’s generally impressed,” Lee said. “They’re happy with the job we’ve been doing. We’re grateful for their support as we’re trying to clear thousands and thousands of trees.”

Hannula said the magnitude of the avalanche carnage has been awe-inspiring for many hikers.

“The biggest thing we were seeing early on was people just turning around,” he said. “They were walking up to the (debris piles) and didn’t even want to try going through them.

“It’s probably been good for the valleys, giving them back to the wildlife a little bit.”

The trail crew also had the daunting task this summer of clearing hundreds of downed trees and standing trunks charred by the Lake Christine Fire on Basalt Mountain. They cleared out two popular trails on the mountain by mid-June.

Hard to feel the progress

Hannula, 47, and Olp, 27, are the two longest-tenured members of the trail crew and wilderness crew, respectively.

Hannula is in his 20th year, while Olp is in his fourth. The veterans made similar, independent observations about the nearly overwhelming amount of downed trees to deal with this summer.

“It was actually a little demoralizing this year,” Olp said.

He felt the wilderness crews had made good progress in recent summers “logging out” the trails it is responsible for. Every winter brings additional downfall from avalanches and snowfall. But this year brought the tremendous carnage of the avalanches on top of the usual winter conditions.

“It’s hard to feel like you’re making a lot of progress,” Olp said.

Hannula said this year felt like the trail crew was battling Mother Nature herself. That crew was well-staffed the prior two summers and made good progress on the never-ending task of clearing timber.

“I was getting to a point where I was like, ‘All right, I’m finally starting to take some of these trails back,’” Hannula said. “Then she throws me a blow like this. She throws me the wildfire then the avalanches. I don’t know what to expect.”

Both crews have duties beyond clearing timber. The trail crew is responsible for preventing erosion and general maintenance of the trail tread.

The wilderness crew monitors campsites to make sure backpackers are using legal sites, are using bear canisters for food and garbage storage, and are properly burying human waste. They are also performing data collection for future implementation of a permit system for overnight use of the Four Pass Loop.

So, while they have spent a good deal of their time logging out, downed trees will remain on the trails from this winter’s avalanches. It will take years to completely clear the downfall.

“We could just do the downed timber,” Hannula said, “but it kind of breaks my heart not to get to the other stuff.”