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Diggin' the Rockies

February 5, 2011
By Paul Miller

Student volunteers from CSU get down and dirty to move rock and restore trails in the high country.

While some students may spend their summers enjoying various leisure activities, other students enjoy volunteering to sweat up a storm. This past summer, in fact, a crew of students from Colorado State University’s Outdoor Program joined a restoration project to apply first aid to Mount Yale, one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

The state’s fourteeners are well loved, but when a half-million people apply boots every year to the 54 high peaks, increasing erosion and trail degradation are showing evidence that we’re loving the Rockies ragged.

Mount Yale, a 14,196-foot talus pile anchored in the Sawatch Range, is just one such loved-to-death peak. Below the summit, a multitude of trails braid the southern flank and resemble dry rivers of loose stone and upturned soil. The so-called social trails, which tend to be shortcuts, show heavy use and erosion that’s painful to see. To combat the degradation, CSU student volunteers have helped reroute the trail to ease erosion from tens of thousands of waffle-soled mountaineers.

A long labor of love

Dawn is at least an hour away at base camp, a small tent village in the woods on the south side of Mt. Yale, when flashlight breakfast begins for the volunteer trail crew. Outdoor Program co-leaders Heather Lindsey and Loren Spears, both students in the Warner College of Natural Resources, gather in the kitchen, a dusty, dirt-floored area covered by a worn green tarp. They forage bagels, oatmeal, coffee, tea.

Other members of the crew join them. Nathan McBride, a student in Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, is wrapped in layers to ward off the morning chill, and Roshan Joseph, a tall, lean student pursuing a master’s in mechanical engineering, works on a bowl of oatmeal. Jeff Goldberg and Kyrstan Hubbel from the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, or CFI, encourage the crew to fuel up – it’ll be a long day of swinging pick mattocks and shovels.

As agents of the CFI, Goldberg and Hubbel head up the trail project, which in turn is overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. CFI is a partnership of nonprofit organizations and public agencies to preserve Colorado’s natural areas, including fourteeners. The Colorado State crew is the latest to help out on Mt. Yale on this mid-July weekend, and the work is close to completion.

“This is the third and final year of the project, although more restoration will be needed,” Goldberg says. “Today we’ll be leveling and improving a brand-new section of trail up around 12,000 feet.” Trail design work was done by the Forest Service and CFI, he notes, including placement of rock walls, steps, and location of the new section of trail.

Hi-ho, hi-ho

At dawn, the group starts up the trail in single file, yellow hardhats swinging on packs and shovels balanced on shoulders. Forest gives way to krummholz, which gives way to the spare beauty of alpine meadows. On the way to the work site, co-leader Spears points out the odd scent and lush purple flowers of sky pilot, but Indian paintbrush and old man of the mountain, a hardy, happy sunflower, also compete for attention.

A short time later, the crew reaches the work area and separates into smaller groups to begin leveling the trail. “If you want to break down trail building to its simplest terms, it’s all about keeping people on the trail and water draining off to minimize erosion,” Goldberg says.

“Five footfalls in the same place can kill plant life up here,” Hubbel adds. “That’s why it’s so important to keep people on trails.”

The morning progresses apace as soil and rock are carefully moved. As an engineer, Joseph likes figuring out how to build a check step, or a rock placed sideways in the trail to slow and divert water. He fills a heavy burlap sack with soil, then Cei Lambert, a CSU senior in fiber arts, hauls it away to distribute evenly in a talus field. At another section of trail, Hailey Harroun, a first-year veterinary student at CSU, adjusts her hard hat before digging in with a shovel.

While they work, the volunteers trade stories about other trail projects and outdoor adventures they’ve experienced. The group is especially unified in helping to ease the effects of crowded peaks, and many of them will be back either on this mountain or elsewhere in the Rockies to work on trails – or to simply enjoy being outside. McBride, for example, is a climber, mountain biker, and backpacker who looks just as much at home in the wild as he does on campus.

“It’s the least I can do, to pay a little back for the privilege of being in the mountains as much as I am,” McBride says.

High country queues

Toward noon, a hiker passing by reports that the summit was crowded with some 50 people, two dogs, and a small group of guys firing up a hookah they’d brought to the top. The summit, he says, resembled a crowded bus station, only with views. Dozens of other people are threading up and down the peak, a small sampling of the estimated 10,000 people who visit Mt. Yale yearly, Hubbel says. And that’s a small number of bootprints compared to Longs Peak, the only fourteener in Rocky Mountain National Park, that sees an estimated 32,000 hikers per year.

Another popular fourteener in need of first aid is Mt. Bierstadt, accessed from Guanella Pass 11 miles south of Georgetown. The peak also is noteworthy because, in 2005, it was one of the first to benefit from the Outdoor Program’s newly developed volunteer partnership with CFI.

Rodney Ley, assistant director of Outdoor Programs, was hiking that year on Grays and Torreys peaks, fourteeners southwest of Silver Plume, when he met up with Greg Seabloom, field programs manager for CFI and a 2001 CSU graduate in Natural Resource Management.

“We were playing catch-up when he asked if the University would be interested in starting a partnership with CFI, and the idea took on a life of its own from that moment on,” Ley says. “Bierstadt needs a never-ending level of maintenance, so our volunteers have been part of restoration efforts there and at other areas since 2005.”

Student volunteers benefit by taking ownership of the work they put into places that are well loved, Ley says. “I think people learn that, if you use something, be accountable,” he says. “It’s taking pride in doing something to help the landscape. That kind of good work transfers to our own back yards, too.”


Evening clouds play low on the summit of Mt. Yale as the volunteers finish their work and tread back down the mountain on a new path they helped construct. The horizon brackets the Elk Range and Ruby Range, and deeper west, the Three Apostles massif rises within the backbone of the Continental Divide in the complex and magnificent Sawatch Range.

All the sweat and labor, the sore muscles and cramped hands, are well worth it to just stand at the edge of such expansive views, and to come back again and again, soaking in the allure of the high country.

This story first appeared in the Winter 2010-2011 issue of Colorado State Magazine.