| CFI Restoration Weekend - Mt. Yale
This trip report is not intended to let everyone know about a successful summit, or the current conditions of a route. Instead, my intended focus is on the path we all take to those summits. Literally.
It comes up quite frequently on this site that the number of people climbing 14ers seems to be increasing. Since I am a part of that increase in traffic, I decided that if I was going to be part of the problem, I needed to look into being part of a solution. This search brought me to the CFI (Colorado Fourteeners Initiative), and a number of opportunities to volunteer on their active trail maintenance projects. The end result was me signing up to volunteer on CFI's Mt. Yale project through Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) for a 4 day stint from 9/9 - 9/12.
More Pictures can be found in the VOC Facebook Album
Thursday, Sept. 9
I left Colorado Springs at 6:00 AM to make an uneventful drive to the Denny Creek trailhead. The plan was for all of the VOC volunteers for the weekend to meet in the overflow parking area at 9:00 to backpack ~2 miles in to the CFI base camp. After a quick conversation with Fletcher, our VOC crew leader, the number of volunteers for this trip had started out at 12 two weeks before, but quickly shrank over that period of time so that he was only expecting 6 - 7 including Fletcher. Over the next half hour the 6 confirmed volunteers arrived at the trailhead and we filled in any extra pack space with food. One of our volunteers, Ben, had flown in from Maryland the day before, and was leaving immediately after our time on the mountain was done. As we hiked up to CFI base camp at 11,200', we asked Ben what the highest elevation he had ever hiked at was . . . his response was "Now."
When we arrived at camp, a group of kids from the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC) was just finishing their last hitch doing trail work on Yale. As they broke down their tents and packed out, our group made ourselves scarce at the request of the Forest Service, so as not to violate the wilderness regulations prohibiting group sizes greater than 15. One other volunteer, Fletcher, and myself headed back down to the trailhead to finish packing in the remainder of the food our group would eat for the next 4 days while the rest of the folks would head up and get a look at the beginning of our work site just below tree line. On the way back with the food we passed the RMYC crew on their way out, drawn back to civilization by the allure of showers. We finally arrived back at base camp at 3:00 PM.
Mt. Yale Base Camp - sorry for the crappy picture
The history of the Mt. Yale project . . .
At this point we were introduced to Kyrstan and Jeff, the CFI staff members in charge of the Mt. Yale project. The two of them oriented us to the workings of their base camp, provided a history of the Mt. Yale project, and gave us an overview of the work we would be doing over the next 3 days. This was a very eye opening experience for me in terms of how much time and work CFI puts into maintaining the trails on our beloved mountains. Please keep in mind that the following information was gathered through conversations over the course of the weekend - I do not work for the CFI, so the information below is purely anecdotal. The Mt. Yale project is currently in its 3rd year, and has cost somewhere in the vicinity of $1 million. In that time the CFI, in conjunction with various organizations like the RMYC and volunteers like VOC, have constructed a sustainable reroute of the standard Denny Creek trail that bypasses just over a mile (~5900 linear ft.) of the old trail. They have also built a number of switchbacks into the old trail above 13,000' to increase its sustainability. This year, Kyrstan and Jeff began packing the equipment to establish their base camp up the mountain in mid May. By mid June, base camp was established and work was beginning on the trail. Mt. Yale base camp is where Kyrstan and Jeff have called home ever since. I have a profound level of respect for these 2 people who have been living out of their tents for the past 4 months. In addition to their trail construction duties, they have done a phenomenal job of creating a wilderness living environment that is sanitary given the number of people that pass through it, while following LNT principles at the same time. Jeff and Kyrstan aren't the only ones out there living in this manner either. The CFI also has a crew based in Chicago Basin this summer - at least the Yale folks have the luxury of a 2 mile hike and a 20 minute car ride into Buena Vista if they need something or to relax.
What sustainability means to a volunteer . . .
I'm no trail building expert - this is only the second time I have ever done trail work. The definition of a sustainable trail that I left with after this weekend was roughly this . . . a sustainable trail is one that is built to minimize erosion and environmental damage as usage increases. When a trail's usage increases to a point that environmental damage occurs outside the path of the trail, it is no longer sustainable. I never hiked the old Mt. Yale trail, but I got a look at it this past weekend. Above tree line, the old trail went straight up the side of the mountain. I learned that mountains have something called a "fall line" - this is basically the path water takes as it falls down the mountain. When a trail goes straight up the side of a mountain, like the old Mt. Yale trail does, water runs straight down the trail eroding a huge ditch over time that you and I hate to hike in. As hikers, we take the path of least resistance, which in this case is walking on the plants and tundra alongside the ditch that used to be the trail. Over time, the plants we step on die and the dirt they once held in place begins to erode, either widening the ditch, or creating a new one. On Mt. Yale this cycle has continued to repeat itself over time, creating trail segments that end up between 20 and 50 ft. wide filled with erosion ditches and loose scree. As more people hike the trail the damage worsens, making the trail unsustainable.
Looking down the wide eroded mess of the old trail
Small erosion ditch at the bottom of the old trail
Friday, Sept. 10
With the weather becoming better, and the forecast for rain at 0% we decided to get a later start to avoid working in the morning cold. This meant breakfast at 6:00 AM and hit the trail by 7:00 AM. At this point the new trail has been open for about a week. We trek our way up 2,000 vertical feet on the new trail to the point where the new route meets back up with the old route at ~13,200'.
The Three Apostles and Huron Peak from the work area at 13,200'
Mt. Yale summit from the work area at 13,200'
We drop our packs and prepare for what appears to be a windy day ahead of us. The wind is cold and constant, and the only way to avoid being chilled to the bone is to get to work. We get the overview of our tasks for the day from Kyrstan and Jeff - close off and restore the upper 200 linear ft. of old trail where it meets the new route. This involves a couple of things - place rocks in the old trail so it does not appear to be a viable path, transplant plugs of alpine tundra into the old trail to revegetate it, construct a series of retaining walls to prevent further erosion of one of the wide sections of trail I mentioned earlier.
Looking down the mountain the old trail can be seen on the left, the new trail is visible on the right
Our crew of 6 split in half with some transplanting plugs while others tackle the retaining wall construction. I managed to pull plug digging duty. Now, the first question someone may ask is, doesn't digging up tundra to revegetate the old trail effectively destroy an area of existing tundra? The idea is to dig up small areas of tundra that are not concentrated in one spot, and refill the holes with dirt. This eliminates any visual scar, and leaves a small bare area (lets say about 8" diameter) that will not erode, and should grow back after a couple of years. By replanting the grasses into the old trail, the same effects can be had - the plants will help reduce erosion, and provide a base for the tundra to regrow in the old trail.
We switched things up for the last hour of work, so I started slinging some rocks around for the retaining walls. Moving rocks big enough to require 4 people to move them on loose scree at 13,000' is one heck of a chore. By the time 2:30 Came around I was happy to be heading back down to camp, pick mattock in hand, ready to relax, warm up, and get out of the constant wind above tree line.
Jeff gathering rocks for the retaining walls
The crew enjoying their lunch break
Awesome view while working
Looking down at the top of the retaining walls on the old trail
Old trail with transplant plugs for revegetation
Saturday, Sept. 11
"Working together, we can usher in a new era in which volunteering and more service is a way of life for all Americans. Deriving strength from tragedy, we can write the next great chapter in our Nation's history and ensure that future generations continue to enjoy the promise of America." - Barack Obama 9/10/2009
During our morning stretch and safety briefing, Fletcher reminded everyone to be aware of what this day means. By volunteering on 9/11 we were supporting the idea that this day should be a national day of service. While our trail restoration efforts don't directly relate to the groups most affected by the events in 2001, I think we all had a sense of pride and humility that we were helping to improve a small part of our country, and contribute to something much bigger than ourselves.
Our crew hadn't quite finished building the retaining walls on the upper section of trail the day before, so we split in half once again. One crew headed back up to 13,200' to finish the rock work, while the other half began working to close the old trail at the beginning of the reroute just below tree line. I was on the crew working to restore the lower portion of the trail so I don't have any pictures of the finished retaining walls.
Our goal today was similar to the previous day, make the first 200 linear ft. of old trail appear as though it never existed. Since we were working right at the edge of tree line, this involved some different tactics compared to the day before. There were no retaining walls to be built, but we did have a good number of grass plugs to transplant - roughly 75 on the day.
Our work also including spreading pine duff over exposed areas of dirt on the old trail, and strategically placing downed trees and branches to prevent hikers from seeing the old trail as a viable option.
Transplanting grass into the lower portion of the old trail
Transplanting grass into the lower portion of the old trail
Taking stock of our work so far
Because it was Saturday, the pedestrian traffic on the trail was much higher than it had been the day before. Our crew spent a good amount of time talking withe hikers about the work we were doing and the work others had done before us on Mt. Yale. For anyone who comes across a CFI crew working on a trail, I can only encourage everyone to stop and talk to them. I think most people who climb these peaks will get a good sense of the effort that goes into maintaining and preserving the mountains. For most of the volunteers it makes their efforts feel appreciated, they enjoy talking to others who share their hobby, and the short break isn't half bad either.
Once the upper crew rejoined us on the descent, we learned from Kyrstan and Jeff that we had accomplished the major goal of our weekend of volunteering. We had successfully closed off and restored 200 linear ft. of trail at each of the 2 places where the new trail intersected the old trail. In doing this, the CFI had met all of their contractual obligations to the Forest Service. With one day ahead of us still, we agreed to wake up early again the next morning to apply a few finishing touches to the new trail. So with that, it was back down to camp for dinner, and into the sleeping bags around 8:30 PM.
Finished product showing the transition from unrestored trail to restored trail
View of the grass transplants in the old trail from above
Sunday, Sept. 12
We continued the ritual of waking up for breakfast at 6:00 AM and hitting the trail by 7:00 AM in order to get in a couple more hours of trail work before we break camp and pack out. The full group hiked up to the lower work area where the new trail reroute begins. There were a couple of areas on the new trail that needed to be shored up with check steps to prevent long term erosion. We split into two groups again and went to work building three steps. After a couple short hours of moving rocks and digging holes for them, the steps were completed and we stood and watched with satisfaction as hikers passed by following the new trail with no acknowledgement that the old trail even existed.
The intersection of the new trail, and the restored portion of the old trail
Placing a rock to finish off one of the check steps
The finished step
Fletcher working to backfill a step with crushed rock so it will not settle with use
We arrived back at camp around 10:30 AM and began to pack up all of our personal belongings. We divided up any leftover community food, trash, compost, and recycling, and began the two mile hike back to the parking lot. With the project coming to a close, we would be the last group of volunteers to be welcomed into Kyrstan and Jeff's home at Mt. Yale base camp. With a couple of day off, the two of them joined us for the hike out. They will be returning to base camp this week and begin preparing it to be packed out. With the assistance of a mule team, the components of base camp will be hauled off of the mountain for the winter. The 100 lb. group cook tent, the electric bear-proof fence, and in the interest of LNT, over a dozen buckets of human waste will all be packed down and dealt with accordingly.
What's next for Yale?
When all was said and done, I left this long weekend on Mt. Yale with a deep respect for the CFI employees who spend their summers living in a backcountry base camp, dedicating themselves to the maintenance of the mountains we all enjoy. Along with Kyrstan and Jeff, I can't help but also give a ton of credit to the two RMYC crews who spent a total of 12 weeks on Mt. Yale and are responsible for the bulk of the new trail construction. I also want to say it was a pleasure working with everyone who volunteered this past weekend. Everyone worked hard and we had a great time. I especially want to point out what a great job Ben did - spending your second full day in Colorado moving rocks around at 13,000' ft. for 6 hours is hardly the ideal way to acclimate, but he managed it very well.
Even though the CFI has met their contractual obligations to the Forest Service, opened the new trail reroute, and restored 200 linear ft. of the old trail on each end there is still work to be done on Yale. With the restoration work we did this past weekend, there are still about 5,500 linear ft. of old trail still subject to the forces of erosion, though absent of hikers to compound the problem. The complete restoration of the old Mt. Yale trail will depend on the CFI's ability to fund the project, and would take place under a new contract with the forest service.
So, I encourage everyone out there who enjoys Colorado's 14ers to consider volunteering with a CFI project. This was my second project this year, and can tell you they aren't all as intensive as backpacking in for a long weekend. In July, I worked with about 60 other volunteers on Mt. Bross who ran the gamut of ages with some people into their 60's and 70's. If you prefer not to volunteer on a trail crew, please find it in yourself to donate to these organizations - I'm sure the monetary help is equally appreciated as your volunteer time (if not more so). If you can't afford to volunteer or donate, I would jut ask you personally to stop and talk with a CFI crew if you run across one on the mountain. Please ask them what they are doing, ask them why they are doing it, and they will be happy to tell you. Before you continue on your way, please let these folks know that their work is appreciated - many of us are volunteers and that sentiment is often reward enough to keep us coming back for more.
Below are some links to the web sites of the organizations mentioned above. I do not work for any of these organizations, I am simply providing them in case anyone is interested in learning more on their own.
Colorado Fourteeners Initiative
Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado
Mt. Yale Project Blog
Rocky Mountain Youth Corps
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):