Hiking hordes pound high peak
A group that’s dealing with the environmental consequences of the exploding popularity of hiking Colorado’s grandest mountains has a rehabilitation project planned on Pyramid Peak this summer.The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative was enlisted by the U.S. Forest Service to rebuild about one mile of trail below tree line on the distinctive peak 12 miles southwest of Aspen.”The idea is not to make it easier to go up the mountain but to repair the resource damage,” said Sarah Gorecki, a field projects manager for CFI who will supervise the work on Pyramid.Until recent decades there were relatively few people interested in hiking or climbing the 54 mountains in Colorado that top 14,000 feet in elevation, noted Amy Masching, education and outreach manager for CFI. But the big peaks are getting hammered now. CFI estimates 500,000 people are scrambling up the fourteeners every year now.
Some are more popular than others, so they get hammered harder. Pyramid isn’t a walk in the park, although it doesn’t require climbing skills. The route up is complex, sometimes confusing and has significant exposure and a continuous risk of falling rock.CFI was created in 1994 by environmental and recreation groups to repair some of the damage on the fourteeners – under the direction of the Forest Service – and to educate hikers on how to minimize their impacts.An assessment by CFI and the Forest Service about a decade ago concluded environmental damage on the lower Pyramid Peak trail was high and needed to be addressed. The group has completed work on 17 other fourteeners so far, and Pyramid is next on the list. Mount Massive and Mount Evans will also receive attention this year.On Pyramid Peak, a new 4,200-foot route will be constructed with switchbacks. The original trail went straight up the slope and was susceptible to erosion.
“What exists is a social trail where climbers go straight up and straight down the mountain,” Gorecki said. Erosion has dug the trail three feet and more below the surface in places between the talus slope and tree line. Hikers have sought alternative routes on the surface and created a braided trail.Along with creating a new route, CFI staff and volunteers will close and restore the most eroded section and reconstruct 1,500 feet of the existing route.Most of the work CFI does is in wilderness so it requires strong backs and the sweat of brows rather than mechanized vehicles. Wilderness also requires work that looks natural.A recent CFI newsletter acknowledged the organization had to tweak its work over the years to make it more accommodating to wilderness. For example, CFI used to create rock stairs to delineate a route through rock scree. Those stairs, like the ones on La Plata Peak on the Twin Lakes side of Independence Pass, look manmade instead of natural even though they are made of natural material.
So CFI has quit building stairs and creates something called “shark’s teeth” instead. Rocks are buried on steep routes with the tips jutting from the ground. This stabilizes the slope and delineates a route but retains a natural appearance.Nevertheless, CFI’s work isn’t always welcomed, Gorecki said. She said that markers placed at the Pyramid trail to signify specific types of work were ripped out last year. A message was conveyed, presumably by the person who did the yanking, that CFI’s work would remove the challenge of the trail.Gorecki said she believes the work will maintain the character of the trail while reducing the environmental damage. No work will be done on the trail above tree line. In addition, the trail will remain open while the work is performed.CFI plans to hold a meeting in Aspen this spring to inform people about details of the project.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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