Meet the woman behind Colorado’s highest trails
July 13, 2017
What do you see when you look at a trail? Dirt and rocks? A line sketched across the landscape by 100,000 footsteps? The adventure of some not-yet-visible lake or summit or cirque?
Master Forest Service trail designer Loretta McEllhiney sees those things, too. But she also believes that a good trail is about controlling two unstoppable forces: People flowing up a mountain, and water flowing down.
And on a wintry May morning, I provide a perfect object lesson about one tool McEllhiney uses to steer these two juggernauts: I fall hard on a hillside and get snow down my pants.
"Sideslope," McEllhiney says helpfully, after checking to make sure I'm OK. That's why she's picked this route for a new trail on the southern toe of Colorado's Mount Elbert, where we're bushwhacking over fallen aspens slick with fresh snow: The land here is steep enough that the path contouring across it will be the only place you can walk without tumbling ass-over-teakettle, and water will drain easily off its downhill edge, instead of scouring a trench down its center. "Sideslope," McEllhiney concludes as I brush off my butt, "really helps confine people onto a bench."
The official South Mount Elbert Trail that this route will replace, meanwhile, is a textbook example of what happens when walkers and water run amok. Colorado has 54 peaks over 14,000 feet high — its famous "Fourteeners" — and Mount Elbert is the tallest, rising to 14,433 feet from the bulky Sawatch Range just southwest of Leadville. People once drove to its summit in jeeps, and climbers eager to tag the state's highest point followed the same straight-up route. Today, above treeline, the trail is a series of nasty-looking parallel trenches and denuded patches of tundra that McEllhiney calls a "catclaw" — 21 feet wide here, 13 there, knee-deep in places.
Over the next three years, professional trail crews and volunteers will close and revegetate 2 miles of this mess, and build more than 3 miles of new tread that McEllhiney and her seasonal assistant, Dana Young, have designed. They'll use landscape elements like sideslope and structures like rock retaining walls to keep people on the right path and protect fragile alpine plants and thin topsoil. It's one of 42 new "sustainable" routes on the Fourteeners that McEllhiney has conceived as the Forest Service's Fourteener program manager.
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Slim and muscular at 54, today she wears a green shell and a daypack strapped with a pair of snowshoes. A blonde braid pokes from under her beanie, and her face is like a map of past mirths, its lines pointing straight into the Colorado high country.
It would be hard to find anyone else who has spent so much time there. She has shepherded Fourteeners trailwork for more than two decades, through so many thousands of feet of elevation gain that she refuses to consider how many Everests they add up to. Through a pair of boots every season. Through two divorces.
"I'm not very good at marriages. I don't know why I do it," McEllhiney, now happily in the midst of her third, jokes when we drop our packs under the sheltering branches of a limber pine. "It's like, do you love the mountains more than you love your husband?"
Colorado's Fourteeners have been promoted as a group for their scenery and mountaineering opportunities since at least 1914. But it wasn't until a wave of guide and coffee-table books were published in the 1970s that the moniker was cemented in the popular lexicon. Between the '80s and '90s, as the state's urban Front Range ballooned, Fourteeners became a bona fide recreational craze and peak visits roughly doubled. By 2015, they were up to 260,000 each year, with hordes of hikers crossing into an ecosystem that is at once one of Earth's toughest and most delicate.
McEllhiney was among those drawn to the mountains' magnetism. She was studying nutrition and exercise physiology at Kansas State University when she saw a documentary about Gudy Gaskill and the Colorado Trail, which now stretches 567 miles across the Rockies from Durango to Denver. The first female president of the Colorado Mountain Club, Gaskill was a sinewy hiker and trailbuilder who shepherded the development of the renowned singletrack for three decades, through funding lapses and presidential administrations, even hosting and cooking food for trail crews. "I'm going to go hike that thing," McEllhiney told herself, and in the summer of 1988, after her first husband settled in Leadville for college, she did. A year later, she put aside plans for a career in cardiac rehab and took a seasonal job with the local Forest Service, building and maintaining trail. One day, chopping through blown-down lodgepole, she turned to find Gaskill herself standing a short distance away. "Man," Gaskill said. "I love to see a woman who can swing an ax."
McEllhiney was hooked.
As she rose from trail grunt to wilderness ranger, she learned the Rockies as one comes to know her own skin. The cushion-shaped plants small as mixing bowls that might be a century old. The ground-nesting ptarmigan that phase from mottled gray to white when winter snows come. The alluring smell of alpine forget-me-nots that inspired her to plant the horticultural variety in her own lush backyard garden, even though they could never measure up.
The mountains also had a way of remembering human presence, and McEllhiney found arrowheads and flakes, a Finnish bread oven made of stones, a hollowed log full of porn magazines. Hiking trails there were no different, except that, instead of fading with time, some incised deeper with every footstep, every torrent of spring runoff and summer monsoon. It didn't take long for McEllhiney and others to notice that the Fourteeners had a problem.
Only two had designed trails — Pikes Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park's Longs Peak. All had routes created incidentally by hikers seeking the shortest path to the summit, usually straight uphill. Now, like the South Mount Elbert Trail, most were in bad shape, riddled with braids, chutes and bald spots. The damage wasn't just to vegetation; in some places, it endangered hikers. On Mount Evans, not far west of Denver, one route had become a "hideous gully" up to 15 feet deep that served as a bowling alley for rocks dislodged by careless feet. The trails needed to be rerouted in some places to switchback more gradually across slopes, and hardened in others to withstand erosion.
The Forest Service already struggled to fund recreation projects; it would never be able to tackle the 49 Fourteeners on its lands without help. So a group of statewide outdoor nonprofits joined the agency in a formal partnership in 1994, which spun off into its own nonprofit in 1996. Called the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, it and other groups would supply professional and volunteer trail crews and most of the money for the needed work. It fell to McEllhiney — first as a ranger and then in her current post, which she took in 2001 — to coordinate those crews and help pioneer the trailwork needed to accomplish the group's vision of creating a "sustainable" route for each peak.
McEllhiney doesn't much like to talk about her first forays into trail design in the mid-'90s; one, on the north side of Elbert, is still a mess. But over time, her expertise grew. She hiked the old roads and rail lines that served Leadville's 19th century mining boom, and peered at retaining walls and support structures that had weathered the decades, sometimes taking them apart and reassembling them to learn their dry masonry secrets. She got on a first-name basis with people who designed the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, dropped in on trail designers on Mount St. Helens, built massive rock walls with a visiting Yosemite crew.
Today, thanks to McEllhiney's designs and the labor of countless trail workers, there are 33 more tightly built routes on 32 Fourteeners, many doing what good trail should. A 1,272-foot-long rock staircase through a talus field diverts people away from sensitive Canada lynx habitat and alpine wetlands on the back side of Mount Massive. On Pyramid Peak, a 30-foot-wide, 6-foot-tall retaining wall that a crew built with a cable and pulley system channels people across a dissolving gully instead of up it.
Over the years, some people have questioned whether such extensive construction draws yet more hikers into the alpine, causing more damage. "There's definitely concern that 'If you build it, they will come,' " McEllhiney says. "Well, we didn't have to build it, and they were coming. I think that putting in a trail that can be maintained is really important. And it seems to be working."
Back on South Elbert, Dana Young blows on her hands. It's still chilly, but the sun is out, and the falling flakes sparkle against the few blue patches of sky. Young, now 31, remembers well the first day she hiked into the high country with McEllhiney, when she started assisting with design four years ago. "I got altitude sickness," she says. "In my head I'm thinking, 'This woman is much older than I am, I should be able to keep up with her!' That was my first mistake."
The two women tinker with a GPS and clinometer — for measuring slope — as they get ready to plot a last-minute, 130-foot route adjustment around some late-season snowfields that could force hikers off the trail, causing exactly the kind of vegetation-stomping the project is meant to prevent. McEllhiney likes to say that the mountains talk to her. Now, she's mostly quiet as she listens, taking readings, hammering orange plastic tassels into the duff to mark the center line and yellow ones to mark needed structures. Young follows after, entering GPS locations to guide this summer's crews.
By late June, when the higher snows withdraw, McEllhiney and Young will venture into the alpine, hauling packs heavy with camping supplies, wooden stakes, tassels and metal staples. They'll rise between 3 and 5 a.m., work 10 hours or more when they can. They never know when a thunderstorm will cut a day short and chase them below treeline.
McEllhiney has extra reason to be cautious. On Mount Belford, ground current from a nearby lightning strike knocked her down and blew off the soles of her boots. Even so, she stayed on the mountain for a week until her boss forced her to go to the hospital. Another time, in 2009, McEllhiney watched in horror near the summit of Mount Massive as a military helicopter lost its tail rotor to the wind and disintegrated against a ridgeline. There are funny stories, too: The map that she and a past assistant traded with some hikers for a flask of peach brandy; the time she accidentally stepped in a pile of human waste in her Chaco sandals, then had to steal them back from a strap-gnawing marmot who had spirited them into a rockpile.
The work, though, will likely continue long after McEllhiney's own story diverges from the Fourteeners'. After all, mountains are mountains, and even the best-built trail is sometimes no match for hard use, erosive soils, and the inexorable pull of gravity. In 1999, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative envisioned completing the highest-priority trail fixes within six years, spending a season or less on each of 35 mountains. Eighteen years later, most peaks have taken two seasons or more, and several have yet to be tackled. While many rebuilt trails have endured, others are already falling apart. Fixing those and constructing 16 new sustainable routes will cost at least $24 million, mostly supplied by partners. With so much left to do, says Lloyd Athearn, the group's executive director, "We all fear the day when Loretta might retire."
Fortunately, there's little sign that will happen soon. On our way back to the truck, McEllhiney leads us along the old South Mount Elbert Trail. We struggle to match her pace on its steep grade as she tells us how, when the new trail is complete, crews will come to this one and remove the sign that marks it. They will shift soil into its furrowed tread, lace it with native seed, transplant young trees every 10 feet, cover it with protective mats.
We pause to catch our breath at a graffiti-carved aspen. "I've been working on this trail since I began trail crew," McEllhiney observes after a moment. Someday, with luck, all trace of it will be gone, and this scarred tree will be marooned in a forest that has closed around it. "Smoked on Elbert," it will proclaim to an indifferent thatch of spring grass and flowers, shivered with leaf shadow. McEllhiney turns and smiles at me, then strides up the trail.
Sarah Gilman is an HCN contributing editor and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Before becoming a journalist in 2006, she worked as a Colorado Fourteeners Initiative trail crew supervisor on Mount Massive, near Leadville, Colorado.