Moving mountains: Crew rehabs Pyramid Peak trail
September 27, 2006
Ricky Coffin toils in a boulder field so steep that he has to be careful while standing straight to avoid tumbling backward and falling at least a little way down the lower slopes of Pyramid Peak.
He wraps a harness around a 100-pound rock that’s shaped like a huge Dorito chip. A carabiner clips the harness to a thick rope that is secured around the trunk of a tree. He uses the setup like a pendulum to haul the rock over to a new trail that the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has scratched into the northerly face of the majestic peak 12 miles southwest of Aspen.It’s slow going. Coffin flips the rock time and again toward the switchback he is building on the new trail.It’s 9 a.m. on a crisp September morning, and the sun isn’t close to coming over the ridge yet. Coffin is part of a six-person crew that has been at it since 7 a.m. They have to stay busy to stay warm; it’s cold enough to make extremities sting when you stand still too long.Coffins’ five crewmates are using even more elaborate systems to haul even larger rocks into place. Cables are strung between trees and harnesses are rigged to haul loads of up to 400 pounds a distance of 300 feet. The suspended highline trams are hand-powered by the scrappy crew, all between the ages of 23 and 26. They are working in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, so no motorized equipment is allowed.
CFI is dedicated to lessening the environmental damage occurring on many of Colorado’s 54 peaks over 14,000 feet high. The degradation has increased in the last 15 to 20 years with the soaring popularity of “peak-bagging.” An estimated 500,000 hikers and climbers are hitting the high peaks annually. (More information about the organization is available at http://www.14ers.org.)The U.S. Forest Service scopes the worst of the environmental degradation, identifies sections of trail that need rehabilitation, prioritizes them, and then turns the job over to CFI.This is the second season for crews at Pyramid Peak. All the work is concentrated in a one-mile-or-so stretch between the junction with the popular Crater Lake Trail and a distinctive amphitheater at about the 11,000-foot elevation on Pyramid Peak.Most of that one-mile stretch is steep enough to leave a hiker gasping. Several bandit trails were created by hikers who were more concerned about convenience than conservation. They trudged straight up the hillside in tightly wound switchbacks that eroded out. In one spot, a gully 4 feet deep and 15 feet wide scars the mountainside.Martin Bevis, Bruce Wilkinson and crew leader Molly Mikan have spent the last two months filling in the gully. Mikan explains that they anchored a series of thick wooden planks, loaded them with soil and topped them with netting before reseeding the ground. Most of the summer’s work is underground, making it almost impossible to describe the effort necessary to repair the ugly scar.
The crew has worked on other parts of the trail since June, when the snow finally melted off. Day after day, they haul rocks from the nearby scree field to where they are needed along the new trail. They build stairs where the new trail climbs through granite boulders and rubble piles. They build rock structures called climbing turns where the trail twists through the dirt. It’s not as simple as placing a few rocks in an arc. The terrain is so steep in spots that the switchbacks must be layered and banked.
“It’s the steepest slope that we’ve ever worked on,” says Denver-based CFI field project manager James Ashby. So steep, in fact, that CFI’s board of directors balked at first about conducting a project there.Wilkinson described the pitch from a worker’s perspective: “This is really cool for me to work on a trail where you drop a tool and it falls 200 feet down a gully.” Higher up the slope from the first crew, Coffin, Ansley Ditmore and crew leader Dave Lewis undertake similar work – using another highline tram to haul rocks. Picks, shovel and 5-foot-long metal pry bars weighing 18 pounds are the tools of their trade.”They become master masons working in the cathedral,” says Ashby.The crew takes pride in their work. They excitedly urge visitors to hike here and there to check out special features.Most of them have worked in recent years for youth corps building trails. They said CFI is one of the most highly respected organizations in the trail-building business because its work is so visible, since Colorado’s fourteeners are cherished by so many people. The scrutiny demands quality workmanship.Mikan is in her third year with CFI and second season on Pyramid. (She spends winters recuperating in the Caribbean.) “I really wanted to see this trail completed,” she says.
The workers stress that they believe the trail work is necessary to stop environmental damage. “We’re trying to minimize the impact with a sustainable trail,” Mikan emphasizes. “We do it out of necessity.
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“We’re not here to make [hiking] easier.”The workers are paid between $80 and $100 per day, depending on their experience. “Nobody is getting rich doing this work, at least not financially,” says T.J. Rapoport, CFI’s executive director.They work for 10 straight days and are off for four. The six workers are divided into two groups and their 10-day hitches are staggered so that trail work never ends.They live at the backcountry campsites at Crater Lake. Now that the dark and cold linger longer in the mornings, they rise at 6 a.m., eat breakfast, pack food and trudge one mile up the gentle Crater Lake trail before climbing another mile up the steep Pyramid trail. The ability to work in rain is a must. And it was frequent this summer with all the typical afternoon showers.”We don’t want people out here who are afraid to get wet and dirty,” says Mikan.Hiking every day to the work site and hauling rocks have made them lean, muscular machines. The six combined probably have less body fat then the average lard-ass who is power shopping in a mall in Anywhere, USA.Living and working in the backcountry has also given them a rough edge. The crew members look like they come from the hippie fringe; they would be right in place at a Widespread Panic concert.
Their lean appearance is not for lack of provisions. CFI spent $13,000 on dry goods for crews working on projects at Mount Massive and Mount Evans as well as Pyramid. Mules and horses hauled in supplies, tools and tents to Crater Lake during a three-day stretch in June. The workers bring in fresh food for their 10-day shifts after each four-day furlough.Coffin has a slight build. He’s maybe 5-and-a-half-feet tall and 130 pounds. The New York native says the work is so hard he can barely feed his body enough fuel. “I think I eat a little bit more than everyone,” he says with a laugh that punctuates nearly every sentence.Here’s his description of his intake on any given day: “We’ll start off with breakfast, which could be like eggs, a bagel, oatmeal or pancakes, usually a lot of one of those things. Usually by the time we get to work, I’ll have a Cliff Bar. After an hour or two of work, I’ll have some fruit and maybe another Cliff Bar. For lunch, a couple of sandwiches, some fruit, a box of crackers. After lunch, another Cliff Bar maybe.”Then we’ll come down and ravage on some food, eat for about 45 minutes without talking. Then we’ll have dinner, which will be anything we want pretty much.”Coffin was a sous chef at a four-star restaurant in North Carolina in a previous life. His colleagues sometimes swap chores with him so that he will cook. When Coffin is scheduled to haul up water from Crater Lake, for instance, someone may intervene so he stays in the kitchen. The crew has feasted on pizza, sushi, Greek dishes and falafel balls made of chickpeas. Lewis is the baker; he regularly makes bread in their wood-fired stove.
The crew’s work and living conditions get tougher Thursday, Sept. 21, when the first real snowstorm of the season blows in. About 18 inches of snow covers the slopes and their camp. Conditions were hairy enough that they stayed off the steep work site for a couple of days.They regroup at their camp Monday. They each have individual tents that they consider the bedrooms. The kitchen, dining room and living room is in a 15-by-10-foot heavy canvas tent. It’s a got a woodstove; three big “master blaster” propane cooking stoves with two burners each; several coolers stuffed with food and drink; numerous dry boxes secured from curious critters; and pots, pans, plates and silverware befitting a small army.A portrait of Mona Lisa hangs on one wall, overlooking the proceedings with her coy smile. A polka-dot nightgown hangs on a hook. Coffin explains that he volunteered to move some heavy boxes one day at the Thrift Store in Aspen. In return they gave him a bargain on nightgowns – eight for $2. The gang used them for a costume party one night.
Since all crew members are above legal drinking age and none are affiliated with a youth corps, CFI allows alcohol at the camp, as long as partying doesn’t interfere with work.
The cook tent/gathering place is surrounded by an electric fence powered by two deep-cell batteries that are charged by solar panels. There have been no problems with bears. “We joke that they’re all down in Aspen,” says Lewis. “Our main animal problem would probably be with mice.”They pull the tent flaps closed during cold weather. The stove heats it up well enough to combat the chill of 15-degree nights.Their project will end in early October. An outfitter hauled out some of the nonessential supplies last week. In true Leave No Trace spirit, which dictates that you take everything out of the forest that you bring in, the mules will pack out 10 5-gallons buckets from the camp’s bathroom.
Some of the crew will go back to college. Others will re-enter the real world, maybe even get a permanent job. CFI is looking for an Aspen organization to adopt the Pyramid Peak trail and continue to maintain it.But the crew will be left with memories of hard work and an amazing summer.”This is our home,” says Wilkinson. “On our days off we’re kind of lost, wandering around.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com