| Chapter 3: Volunteering on Uncompahgre Peak (CFI & VOC Trail Restoration)
… continued from Chapter 2: My 1st 14er! (Halo Loop by Night w/ Peak Bivouac)
Sleep-deprived, blisterfoot, dinged shin, and hungry from a Halooping Mount Holy Cross, I ride north to Minturn to eat, print off waivers, and plan my route down to Lake City. Earlier back home, I’d signed up to do trail restoration work on Uncompahgre Peak as part of a joint project between Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC). I found out about CFI via 14ers.com and figured it would be a good way to acclimate a bit to the altitude between 14ers (home elevation is only around 1,000 ft) while at the same time helping preserve a slice of wilderness. I’ve been to well over 100 national parks throughout North America and seeing pull-tops off decades-old beer cans, cigarette butts, graffiti and the like has always seemed a needless spoiling of the experience to me. As a guy I worked with who likes to hunt said, “there are the caretakers, and then there are takers.”
I pick up some provisions and a black duffel in Avon before heading down I-70. US-24 gets to Lake City more directly, but an old railroad sinkhole is blocking through traffic.
"Growing hole will keep U.S. 24 near Tennessee Pass closed for a month"
"U.S. 24 sinkhole 'crumbling into the abyss' near Leadville"
Yeah, I'd say that's a solid Class 4.
So it’s off to Glenwood City in hopes of catching a shower at a truck stop. I find the stop but they’ve already closed. My initial inspection of my foot in a convenience store bathroom reveals a large deep blister of at least two square inches on the ball (behind big toe) of my right foot. Lancing is moot as the fluid has already drained out so I wash it, don a clean sock, and soldier on.
Many don’t realize it can be 80 degrees at night and you can still get hypothermia. If the air blowing over you isn’t 98.6, it’s cooling you, and if faster than your body can generate it, your mercury starts to slide as does your skills, alertness, and reflexes. It may be subtle, it may be slight, but you never know when you’ll need that that 1% due to a deer or other challenge. Having 77 watts of Gerbing-warmth plugged into bike and a rainsuit (wind break) is as rejuvenating has having the heater cranking out on hi after a cold hike.
What gear can’t do is make up for sleep. I only got a few hours of chilled rest at best atop Holy Cross Ridge, and only power naps the night before riding out to Colorado. I check into the Ironbutt Motel a few times on the way down, the last being in the parking lot of a Paonia school which has the most effective alarm clock ever – lawn sprinklers!
With the night skies beginning to lighten, I recharge with a cheese Danish and an overly sweet instant cappuccino concoction at a nearby station. The views and roads to, in, and around Curecanti National Recreation Area are a treat as I make my way south, finally to Lake City, then the 2WD gravel out to the base of the Nellie Creek Road (4WD). The only hiccup on the trip was a fluke ignition failure. I pass it off to something getting in the points because all checks out when I pull the front cover on the bike and then check for spark by grounding out a plug. Was to be the only bike issue the whole trip.
Thanks to the Curecanti NRA, Sapinero proper now sleeps with the fishes, though there is a travel stop on higher ground.
The VOC signs direct workers to the group parking about a quarter mile down the road, and up the Nellie Creek Road going the other way. It’s a rocky, steep, mixed bag of a 4WD road but I bash my steed up it going faster than I’d like at times to keep my dry clutch from overheating.
Are you 4 sure that it's 4 miles down the 4WD road 4 both the trail and trailhead 4 Uncomp4hgre?
Two water crossings and a bevy of other charming features later, I pull into the trailhead. After stopping with both feet down thinking I can exhale goodbye to the 4WD fun for a while, the bike starts sliding backwards and sideways despite the locked front wheel. I get it stopped and ride up to a more stable parking spot, chock both wheels (more for mental ease), and dismount. Miller comes over from the camp kitchen/headquarters VOC has set up, asks if I’m Eli (I’m not), tells me to set up my tent while it’s still dry, make a lunch, and radios that he’s sending another volunteer up the trail. Half a day of work is better than no day, and always better than a no-show.
View up trail from the end of the lower section of trail work. Can you spot the trail worker?
Up trail, people keep asking me with an expectant smile if I’m Eli. I feel like I’m letting them down saying no, I’m the guy from Kansas as their faces straighten and say, “Oh, yeah, we were expecting you too.” I merge in with the lower crew and group setting rock steps, ones big enough not to get rocked out of place by countless hikers. There are a variety of tasks to do and just about everyone rotates as one group of muscles fatigues so you switch to another task and another group of muscles. Some of these include:
Digging: generally a pit for the rock step to sit in, but sometimes to unearth a good rock step to take down trail.
Crushing: making small rocks out of bigger ones. It’s hard, dirty, loud, requires eye protection, and reminds you why convict labor is often employed to do it. “Breaking rocks in the … HOT sun…” (lesser known original) Of course, if you like to wield hammers and break things, have at it. Smaller rocks are needed for fill, drainage and to shore up the gaps around the larger rocks.
Rock Hunter: the area we’re working has trees, grass, and lots of soil, but big rocks for steps aren’t handy. Hence someone has to go hunting for the big boys, preferably uphill. If you can carry it yourself, it ain’t big enough. A rock bar (say a six-foot long, one-inch round steel rod with a squared chisel end) is used to lever them out of the ground and then roll them end over end to the trail. Some can be tied up with webbing and carried out by a couple people, and the heaviest can require a couple rock bars and up to four people to get safely down to site.
Baggers: heavy canvas bags are used to bring up rocks for crush or soil for top-covering fill from nearby areas.
Tools: rock bars, shovels, saws, hammer chisels, shaping hammer chisels (hardened ends), bags, and the all important pickaxe (not to be confused with a mattock or pulaski). Digging, splitting, levering, breaking, it’s a workhorse on the trail.
Coby was the CFI liaison who kept the project on track and in spec. Whenever there was a question of what, where, how, etc., we tossed it to him. (If a mistake is made, it’s on him, not us as he has the approved plans for restoration. *he-he-he*) I won’t try to name all the places he said he’s worked and in what capacities save that they’re basically nature or environmental related and located in or near the Rockies.
Cecily (left) and Coby (right) . Linked from VOC's Facebook Page which has more pictures.
Cecily, the liaison for VOC, kept things organized and rolling on schedule. As demanding, dirty, and draining as the work can be, crew morale is good (probably because none of us are convicts… I think). Part of this has to be due to Miller and Sue who run the camp kitchen (complete with several coolers and a pair of propane stoves) and “lounge” (two separate canopies) where, apparently due to contributions from VOC sponsors, three filling square meals and snacks are provided with lunch being a DIY affair that you brown bag up the trail. There’s a station for washing dishes, washing hands, large thermos of hot water for tea or such, potable water for refilling your bottles, and three bag waste area divided into compost, recyclables, and trash. Pretty impressive logistics that I’d hate to have to pack in on foot. Only possible camp comfort possibly left out would a shower, but given the remoteness of the location, it’s a pretty posh set up. There’s a permanent “roomy” two-story outhouse across the way (ground floor in back is for “pit service” only).
Lower trail work is focused on putting rock steps to control erosion in the “dirt sluice” serving as a trail. You can see some rocks for steps being staged up on the right. I work this section on Friday and Saturday.
Clearly there’s little preventing soil from washing out making this section deep, wet, and or muddy when it rains or during melt off. Favoring dry shoes and socks, hikers naturally favor step out of the trail to the high ground either side which kills off the soil-binding grass leading to further trail rot.
Despite compliments on my leathers (riding pants cut like 5-pocket jeans), I switched to hiking pants for the second day as well as an old pair of hot-weather jump boots which are easier to put on my foot whose ball is at an epidermal deficit. While you can resort to brute force when crushing rock, leaving a gap below and using the shaping end makes for more efficient splitting as shown here:
Always looking for economies of motion, force multipliers, and anything else to keep one from Pushin Too Hard I noticed the prevailing SOP for moving full bags was to drag them or heave them a few feet at a time from between your legs like a shooting a basket granny style (crushing more vegetation), or most often heaving it on one thigh one slow asynchronous step at a time. I asked another if he’d try it my way like this:
I mean, if it’s one man, one shovel, and one bag, why not team up stretcher-style, keep you pant leg clean, give full range of motion to your legs, straighten out that spine, balance that load, and free yourself to cover terrain much quicker!
The pole method caught on quick, even evolving into trains with three workers in a row with bags slung on shovels between them (middle guy carries the most load). As a full bag of rock could weigh as much as two full of dirt, and bags were kind of scarce, two could team up on one to source material farther and quicker. From up trail on the second section on Sunday, I spotted a two getting rock from near the river (big rock in lower right or further up trail) hiking it down past where the trail disappears behind the trees (used 15x optical zoom).
Provided you have a gloved hand and the person on the other end doesn’t twist the pole, the spade makes a decent hand hold for carrying.
Dumping dirt fill on crushed rock.
Getting a full heavy load of rock down by the creek directly down-slope from the trail. Later “stretchering” it in from a talus field up trail seemed to gain favor.
A perk of trail work is you HAVE to go off-trail which can yield some views like these:
Using the shovel tip as an edge to keep my foot from sliding down the creek embankment and disturbing more soil while going for hunting for more fill.
Trying to be selective as to what we move to minimize impact.
The ever-available work detail of The CRUSHER . Just takes a lot of hammering, but you can see why folks rotate tasks…
so all muscle groups get burnt out equally.
How many "licks" does it take to retire a hammer?
Some rocks are tougher than others. To save you and or your fellow workers sweat, decomposing granite (DG), sedimentary rocks with a wood-like grain, and those showing fissures are much easier and quicker to crush down. Cleaved sections are easier to break than the whole and are a good way to whittle it down if you don't have a big sledge handy.
Big papa and…
his future home. See anything wrong?
Yep, first I over-dug the hole and second I piled the dirt on the side of the trail versus up or down trail where it wouldn’t impact plant life. Doh!!! (Back home I would have laid a tarp and piled the dirt on it.) Dug myself into the hole, I’ll dig my way out. First, I back fill the hole with crush to bring it up (shoveled dirt won’t work because it’s not compacted). Second, I keep using the pile as a fill source, down to the point where I’m combing it with my ungloved fingers to break up any turned dirt that compacted under the pile’s weight and get the green below to see the light of day. I get a “looks good” and consider my penance complete; I do not repeat my sin(s).
Vision Test: The Grazers. There are six lunchers in this pic. Can you find them all, Mr. Eagle Eye?
Hi there! Lunch date?
Schedule & Weather: Like hiking, the day is planned around mother nature. Folks are getting up at 5:00am (earlier if you're a cook) to get ready, have breakfast, stretch, and preferably be heading up trail as it gets light so eight hours of work can be done by 2:00pm or so before mountain monsoons roll in. Uncompahgre was quite regular. It rained every day, usually later in the afternoon, but also morning sprinkles, midday sprinkles, encore evening showers, or basically anytime something you hung out was almost dry. The perpetual presence of the kitchen towels on the guy line made them seem more like Tibetan prayer flags.
One "perk" of working trail is the ease of being a bear in the woods. Vahts vit yor puny four-inch shuffel, you gurly mann?! Vee haz got pickaxes! If you ever find two-foot deep cathole, with no exposed dirt, artfully re-plugged so as to be nearly seamless with the otherwise flat terrain, CFI was there (right, Coby?).
VOC suggested bringing a small game to share when back in camp at the end of the day. Naturally I asked, "Anyone want to play doctor?" which garnered a couple nonplussed expressions and a few regressively juvenile grins from those who remember...
A range of ages, backgrounds, and expertise yielded lounge discussions ranging from fourteeners, to climate-influenced religions, to synesthesia, to construction, to linguistics, and more. With around 15 people there, there was always a topic to pique one's interests. Many hit their tents after dinner well before dark due to alpine starts. Miller got a healthly campfire going Saturday which survived and helped the drabness of the rain. Cecily let me get a couple first aid supplies so I could better bandage my aching blisterfoot after I cut off a large flap of loose dead skin, washed it, and gave it two bleach-water soaks. Though sore, it hasn't seemed to worsen since Holy Cross though anything but flat or uphill where the heel locks in the boot is tender (pictures next chapter).
To diversify, my last day working Uncompahgre has me farther up trail above treeline where I get to work with the (in)famous Eli! Here doing an improvised duct tape test as the four of us had to hike down logs weighing between 35 and 45 pounds from the stash left by a four-legged pack train earlier. Just when you think you might have hiked past the log cache, another road apple in the trail says "not yet."
Why was everyone looking forward to him? He's with the forest service and has a USFS truck, USFS tent, USFS tools, USFS clothes, ... I guess everyone likes a man in uniform, especially when they are on your side. Though camped with us and helping out with the trail, he also breaks away for other USFS duties. Like Coby and Cecily, he's very easy going, sociable, knowledgeable, and hard working.
The trail follows the stream up to the base, crossing it at a few points. (click photo for video)
Vision Test: Down-logging. Can you spot all four logs and the three methods of hauling them? Bonus points for spotting oncoming hikers.
...and after. Ben (green shirt) worked the upper section for the whole weekend. His and fellow trailworkers' log breaks up trail can be seen in the next chapter.
So why use logs instead of rocks? Because the upper trail gets into a protected sanctuary for the Uncompahgre Fritillary Butterfly
and long expeditions off trail for large rock can disturb their habitat.
Coming downhill, the lower section was in a bit of a frenzy to wrap up. Coby was pretty stoked that not only did they finish up the rock steps, get them topped off with dirt fill, but they further got a topping of river gravel to solidify the trail, not to mention the large waterbreak's construction across the lower trail to divert trail runoff from flatter sections to an existing drain path.
Back at camp, nearly all is already broken down and loaded into trucks. As you can't summit during the project, two other crew and I stay in camp Sunday night to hike Uncompahgre Peak the next morning. With the frequent rains, I take advantage of a dry window to ride by bike down to the 2WD road; it's a street bike so it's easy for mud to pack under the front fender and lock the front wheel. Good call, as it starts to come down again just at the end and I wait it out for a few minutes with Kent and Jake who drove and shot (respectively) the following snippet before hiking back up on foot.
Riding down and out a section of the 4WD Nellie Creek Road on Sunday showing the first of two stream crossings. (click photo for video)
… continued on Chapter 4: Volunteers' Reward (360° w/ Hi's & Lo's)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):