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Safety videos by Colorado Fourteeners Initiative focuses on Aspen-area peaks

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has come up with an eye-catching way to warn climbers and hikers that poor decisions on the state’s highest peaks can kill them.

A new series of mountain safety videos was released this month with a heavy dose of information on navigating the big peaks surrounding Aspen.

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative produced the series in an effort to inspire climbers and hikers to be prepared before tackling some of the most difficult of the 54 peaks over 14,000 feet.

“I had been aware of this issue for years. I thought this is something Colorado Fourteeners Initiative should be doing,” executive director Lloyd Athearn said.

The deadly climbing season in 2017 emphasized the need. Nine people died in the Elk Mountains near Aspen during the spring and summer. Five died on 14,130-foot Capitol Peak.

“That really caused a groundswell — what are we doing about this?” Athearn said.

His organization shot footage for the safety videos last summer and produced them over the winter and into spring. In broad terms, the videos try to inform people who come from around the world to climb and hike Colorado’s peaks about what they will encounter.

“Every fourteener has some level of inherent risk,” Athearn said.

Therefore, hikers need to wear proper clothing, carry proper gear and get up and down before afternoon lightning storms roll in.

The series also makes it clear that 10 or so of the 14ers are in a different league and are particularly hazardous. They cannot be tackled via a hike on an established, clear-cut route. The more difficult peaks include Capitol Peak, North Maroon Peak, Maroon Peak, Pyramid Peak and Snowmass Mountain in the Elk Mountain Range outside of Aspen.

The first fatality on an Aspen-area peak this summer occurred last week.

Aspen sources

Three of the new videos posted to CFI’s YouTube channel are titled: “The Deadliest Colorado 14ers,” “No Shortcuts on the 14ers” and “What Makes the Elk Mountains 14ers So Dangerous?”

“No Shortcuts on the 14ers” uses Capitol Peak to drive home the point. After reaching the summit in a journey that includes extensive exposure, some climbers have made the mistake of thinking they could shave time off or avoid repeating crossing nerve-racking terrain by heading toward Capitol Lake.

They feature Aspen sources such as Ute Mountaineer owner and avid outdoorsman Bob Wade, Mountain Rescue Aspen President Justin Hood, mountaineer Ted Mahon and Aspen Expeditions Worldwide guide Sammy Podhurst.

Watch:

No Shortcuts on the 14ers

Hood said in the video that the terrain people thought would be easier turns into a nightmare.

“It progressively gets worse and worse and all of a sudden you’re sliding on loose dirt and talus. You get to a 300-foot cliff ban that is totally unavoidable. There’s no way around it,” Hood said in the video.

Podhurst said, “There is no shortcut off the mountain. You have to go back the way you came up.”

“What Makes the Elk Mountains 14ers So Dangerous?” stresses that the crumbly rock on the Maroon Bells poses special challenges, as does the difficulty of route finding throughout the fourteeners in the Elks.

Watch:

What Makes the Elk Mountains 14ers So Dangerous?

Additional videos will be released in coming weeks by CFI specifically on Capitol, Maroon Bells and on whether a person should hire a guide.

The videos are all about four minutes or less. Athearn, a longtime climber, said it is his impression that “the mental process” of preparing to hike or climb a fourteener has changed over time. Although the number of resources available in guidebooks and online forums is greater than ever, he feels fewer people are thoroughly researching their objective. It also appears that the attention span of society at-large is getting shorter, he said. Therefore, CFI decided to make videos on mountain safety in hopes of capturing attention for that short time and inspiring people to seek more information.

The videos were made possible with funding from multiple sources, including the Aspen Skiing Co. Employee Environment Foundation and the Colorado Office of Tourism.

This latest round of mountain safety videos augments what CFI previously offered.

“We released 10 videos last summer — six of them focused on gear,” Athearn said.

The release of the videos is timely. A heavy snowpack lingered well into summer and snowfields will likely blanket parts of some high peaks into August. That delayed the hiking and climbing season for most people.

“There seems to be pent up demand for people to get out,” Athearn said.

He has special concerns about whether people are equipped to stay safe on ice and snow.

scondon@aspentimes.com


Sunlight begins 100-acre expansion project; new East Ridge lift in the works

Sunlight Mountain Resort is starting a $4 million expansion project to add new routes, about 100 acres of expert skiing terrain, and eventually a new chair lift to its East Ridge.

The first phase of the three-year project is currently under way with Sunlight’s trail maintenance crew performing extensive glade work to the ski area’s existing Aligator Alleys, Deception, Defiance, Perry’s Plunge and other double-black diamond terrain.

“This is a multi-year effort, and while glading work is already under way, we are in the very early stages of a process that includes building a capital fund, negotiating additional financing, permitting processes with the county and Forest Service, mapping, planning, and shopping for lifts,” said Tom Hays, general manager at Sunlight.

This fall, Sunlight will offer a special promotion for an exclusive opportunity to be one of the first 25 skiers or riders to experience the new terrain.

But it will take a few years before the new chair lift is added.

The new terrain, located on private land, will be hike-out only until phase three of the project is complete. Trees will also be cleared to make way for a new fixed-grip lift that will be installed in phase three.

Phase two will begin next summer, and involves glading nearly 100 additional acres of forest to the east of Perry’s Plunge that currently marks Sunlight’s eastern-most boundary. Midland Traverse will be expanded to the East, and more runs will be added below Midland Traverse ending just above Four Mile Creek.

“The first step in adding a new lift to East Ridge is building the reserve fund. We anticipate that with another solid ski season we can set aside enough capital to put us in a good position when it comes time to negotiate funding for the project,” Hays said.

More than 203 inches of snow this past season helped Sunlight beat its previous best season ever in terms of revenue set in 2016-17, according to Troy Hawks, marketing and sales director at Sunlight.

Skier and snowboarder visits to Sunlight this past season were up 16 percent above its 10-year average, he said.

The new East Ridge expansion will add more intermediate and advanced terrain to the east, and also lengthen existing runs farther downhill near Four Mile Creek.

While plans are still being drawn, the new lift loading station will be below Perry’s Plunge near Four Mile Creek and the top unloading station will be placed above Beaujolais and Rebel, providing access to beginner, intermediate, and expert runs west of East Ridge.

“We’re excited to expand skiing and riding on the already legendary East Ridge,” Hawks said. “These new runs mean our local skiers and riders have even more powder to explore and exploit.”

A dedicated East Ridge Expansion Project webpage will be added to Sunlight’s website in the weeks to come. Follow Sunlight on Facebook for updates on the project.

On the Fly column: The bright side of high runoff

Locals are scratching their heads this week looking at river levels, especially since we are nearly a month behind “schedule.” For those of us in the business side of fly fishing, having huge flows on the Fryingpan this holiday week (the official start of summer) isn’t ideal, but we are thankful for all of this water versus dealing with a major fire and drought like last summer. The Fryingpan River is usually our go-to during runoff, but even this river has been challenging as of late.

Ruedi Reservoir should be full in the coming days, so we might see even bigger releases on the Fryingpan tail water if the inflow remains high. The Roaring Fork, Crystal and Colorado rivers haven’t peaked yet (we think), so we urge caution around all rivers as they are higher than we’ve seen in recent memory. Every guide with the proper permits is battling for a spot on the upper Pan this week, but there is light at the end of the runoff tunnel.

Our staff is very excited for the bountiful summer (and especially fall) we have on deck, this will be one of the best fishing seasons we’ve seen in years. Drought-induced river closures like we had last summer are definitely in the rear view now, and the hatches after runoff will be nothing short of spectacular. Insect hatches are already “late” on the Fork and Colorado, so they should be even thicker than usual.

Anglers itching to fish should keep lakes and ponds in mind for the next week or two. Reports are that almost everything below 11,500 feet is open and fishable. Thomas Lakes, Nast and Chapman are just a few examples of terrific ponds to explore with your fly rod. Damselflies, ants, scuds and leeches are just about all you need fly-wise on local still waters. Please keep safe out there, have fun, and keep an eye on each other as we look for runoff to subside in the coming weeks.

This report is provided every week by Taylor Creek Fly Shops in Aspen and Basalt. Taylor Creek can be reached at 970-927-4374 or taylorcreek.com.

Defending Tour champion Thomas opens up gaps on rivals

BRUSSELS — Just two days into the Tour de France, Geraint Thomas is already putting daylight between himself and some of the riders dreaming of dethroning the reigning champion.

Thomas, who claimed his first Tour win last summer, answered questions surrounding his form and fitness in a dominant fashion during Sunday’s short team time trial around the streets of Brussels.

His Ineos team did not win the stage but the 33-year-old Welshman gained precious seconds on rivals, including French duo Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, former Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali, climber Nairo Quintana, Adam Yates and Jakob Fuglsang.

Thomas arrived at the Tour on the back of a rather mundane season and no victory to his name. Even worse, he crashed out of his final preparation race last month, and endured another setback, though minor, when he was caught in a pile-up near the finish of Saturday’s opening stage.

With the No. 1 bib on his back, Thomas, a former track specialist, showed no signs of weakness following his spill. He took solid turns at the front and led his teammates across the finish line close to the Atomium, the iconic Brussels monument built for the 1958 World Fair.

The only team riding faster than Ineos on Sunday was the Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma, which covered the 27.6-kilometer course (17.1-mile) in 28 minutes, 58 seconds, keeping the yellow jersey on Mike Teunissen’s shoulders.

They were 20 seconds faster than Thomas and his teammates, with Deceuninck Quick-Step completing the podium, 21 seconds off the pace.

“Looking at GC (general classification), it’s a good performance,” said Thomas. “It was a positive day for sure.”

Teunissen’s teammate Steven Kruijswijk is now the best placed overall contender, who sits third overall with a 20-second lead over Thomas and Egan Bernal, the co-leader at Ineos this summer in the absence of four-time champion Chris Froome.

Even without Froome — the dominant Grand Tour rider in recent years and an expert in the race against the clock — Ineos was still able to replicate its result from last year’s team time trial. Dylan van Baarle, who replaced Froome in the team, was up to the task and there was no weak link on the road.

Before the race leaves Belgium on Monday, Thomas and Bernal gained 12 seconds on Pinot, 16 seconds on Nibali, and 21 seconds on Yates and Fuglsang. They opened more significant gaps with Quintana (45 seconds) and Bardet, the day’s big loser who conceded 59 seconds.

After rolling down first from the start ramp near Brussels’ Royal Palace, Ineos riders stayed in the lead for two hours until Jumbo-Visma, the last team to set off, bettered their time in an impressive performance.

Putting on a well-choreographed display, the Dutch team’s riders covered the route at an average speed of 57.2 kph (35.5 mph), close to the record of 57.8 set by Orica-GreenEdge when they won the 2013 team time trial on a similar distance.

“We went hard from the start. We heard we were the fastest … We were flying,” Teunissen said.

The first Dutch rider to wear the race leader’s jersey in 30 years, Teunissen was a surprise winner of Saturday’s opening leg. Surrounded by teammates best-suited for the flat terrain, including former time trial world champion Tony Martin, Teunissen did not play second-fiddle in his aerodynamic skinsuit and helmet.

“Yesterday it was a dream come true, and it’s the case today again,” he said. “It’s not that I’m getting used to winning stages at the Tour de France but it’s two out of two now and it’s really, really nice.”

Teunissen now leads teammate Wout Van Aert by 10 seconds in the general classification. Jumbo-Visma riders monopolize the five top spots, with Kruijswijk in third place.

After two days in Belgium, the peloton will enter France during Monday’s Stage 3 which leads riders from the Belgian town of Binche to Epernay in the Champagne region.

On the Fly column: Blue winged olives pale in comparison

Pale morning duns are one of the prettiest bugs that hatch in our local rivers. We see adults in hues pink through yellow, and the nymphs are typically rusty red in color. I consider these bugs the “medium” sized mayflies we encounter, compared to tiny blue winged olives in sizes 20 and 22 and our gorilla-sized green drakes that are as big as size 10. The pale morning duns we see are usually size 16 and 18, and tend to hatch mid-day. And guess what? The guides are starting to see them hatch on the Fryingpan.

All mayflies go through different stages of a life cycle, and the final stage of a female PMD’s short-lived adult (dun stage) life is called the “spinner” phase. After the aquatic transformation of emerger into adult, females undergo yet another transformation outside of the water and become spinners. Spinners are easily recognizable because of the extremely long tails they sport, and the graceful “dipping dance” they perform over the surface of the water.

Spinners are the egg layers for future generations of mayflies, and they always deposit their eggs slightly upstream from where they hatched out of the river. If this didn’t happen (and this applies to most aquatic insects) these bugs would eventually wash down all the way to the oceans they feed. Pretty smart.

PMDs are now officially on the scene; the hatch up the Fryingpan River has just gotten kick-started over the last few days. If I had one dry fly pattern to fish for PMDs, it would be AK Best’s Melon Quill in sizes 16 and 18. Nymphs of note are Pandemics, Half Backs and Split Cases. Everyone around here is obsessed with green drake mayflies, but pale morning duns are the loveliest in my book. Are you ready?

This report is provided every week by Taylor Creek Fly Shops in Aspen and Basalt. Taylor Creek can be reached at 970-927-4374 or taylorcreek.com.

Fourth of July skiing in Colorado at Arapahoe Basin

ARAPAHOE BASIN — After weeks of speculation and anticipation, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area formally announced Thursday afternoon that the ski area at the Continental Divide will be open for skiing and riding Thursday, July 4.

In a news release, A-Basin spokeswoman Katherine Fuller also said July 4 will be the ski area’s official closing date for the 2018-19 ski season.

The last time A-Basin was open July 4 was eight years ago in 2011. The longest season on record was 24 years ago in 1995, when A-Basin stayed open until Aug. 10.

If you go

Lift hours: 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Lifts: Black Mountain Express and Lenawee Mountain Lift
Ticket price: $69 for a full-day adult lift ticket (no half-day tickets available). Show a season ski pass that was valid anywhere in the world this season to get a $59 lift ticket.
Rentals: Will be available
The Beach: Spots will be first come, first served
Food: The 6th Alley Bar and Grill will be open 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last call is at 3:30 p.m.)

In the release, Fuller explained that A-Basin is able to stay open to the Fourth of July in large part thanks to higher-than-average snowfall totals and lower-than-average temperatures in the months of March and May, including nearly 7 feet of snowfall in March.

That said, this season was not a record snowfall year for the ski area. At the start of June, A-Basin was at 106% of average snowfall — about 375 inches — for the season.

Fuller explained other contributing factors to A-Basin’s late season are its northern-facing, front-side slopes and high elevation — 10,780 feet at the Mountain Goat Plaza base, 12,500 feet at the top of the ski area’s highest lifts and 13,050 feet at the ski area’s peak.

The ski area’s chief operating officer, Alan Henceroth, was quoted in the release as saying the ski area loves that it is able to open this late in the season.

Lifts will be spinning from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. this Friday through Sunday as well as Thursday, July 4.

On Independence Day, A-Basin will have top-to-bottom skiing serviced by two lifts, Black Mountain Express and the Lenawee Mountain Lift, and several runs. The ski area is encouraging visitors to stay on the upper part of the mountain on terrain accessed by Lenawee, where coverage is optimal. Come July 4, there will be no beginner skiing available.

“Got to love the high altitude,” A-Basin said on its snow conditions page on Thursday afternoon. “Upper mountain is where it’s at, from great grooming to early bird powder perhaps and swimming for the less talented in Lake Reveal. Get it as early as you can, no need to wait for a thaw. Think sorbet or sherbet consistence. No beginner skiing, really we mean it! High Noon is best for an exit plan only to live music in Mountain Goat Plaza when the lifts close at 2:30. Always be ready for a weather closure this time of year. We do our best but Mother Nature ultimately rules!”

A-Basin is encouraging skiers and riders to carpool in anticipation of large crowds.

July 4 lift tickets are $69, and A-Basin will offer $59 day passes to any skier or rider who shows a season ski pass that was valid anywhere in the world this past season. Rentals will be available, parking spots at The Beach will be available on a first-come, first-served basis and food will be served at The 6th Alley Bar and Grill from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. with last call at 3:30 p.m.


Rock star: After ‘Free Solo,’ climber unsure of next journey

DENVER — Rock climber Alex Honnold meticulously chalked his hands before pulling himself up to the thin ledge inside the climate-controlled climbing gym. He dangled by his finger tips for a bit and then fell back to the bouncy mat.

Nice and safe. No heart-pounding fear of a 3,000-foot drop, either.

In the aftermath of the Academy Award winning documentary “Free Solo ,” Honnold is trying to get a grip on his sudden fame (he’s recognized everywhere), his image (he’s not really that aloof) and most of all what exactly he does next to top that spine-tingling feat.

His realization: Maybe his 2017 ropeless climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park that’s chronicled in the film just might be the summit of his career. Maybe his cliff-hanger sequel doesn’t exist.

If so, he’s at peace. These days, he’s content taking a less treacherous path inside climbing gyms.

“Everybody already thinks I’ve done the best thing I’ll ever do,” Honnold said in a recent interview as young climbers gawked, pointed and stared at him before a competition at Earth Treks Englewood in Colorado. “So I don’t feel any obligation to top that. Even if I did top it, there would never be a better film about it. It will never be documented in a better way. It’s just not possible to make a better film than that.

“So it’s like, ‘Cool — a-once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.’ It’s like, ‘Let’s move on.’”

Move on to what? That’s his hang-up.

There’s no new endeavor he’s eyeing. Perhaps, at 33, he’s proceeding through life with a little more caution. He’s dating the same person he was in the film — Sanni McCandless — and has a house in Las Vegas.

“So far, I haven’t been taking the same kind of risks in climbing, but it has more to do with opportunity,” Honnold said. “I’ve been promoting the film and not out climbing crazy mountains all the time. We’ll see.”

In the film, Honnold took an MRI of his brain to see how he responds to fear. Turns out, fear didn’t seem to faze him.

Still, there was one poignant scene after he halted an attempt to scale El Capitan, when producer Jimmy Chin commented, “it’s reassuring that Spock has nerves” — an ode to the stoic nature of the Star Trek character.

Undeterred, Honnold remained persistent. It’s just one of the takeaways from the documentary — a tunnel vision that drove him and sometimes made him come across as aloof. Especially in his blossoming relationship with McCandless.

“People come out of it thinking I’m super cold, but you’ve got to keep it in context. Whereas when we first started dating, the relationship was much less important to me than this climbing goal I’d been holding on to for the last nine years,” Honnold explained. “Everybody comes out of the film taking what they want. They cherry-pick the lesson they want, cherry-pick the personality traits they want. Everybody chooses their own adventure.”

Around the climbing community, Honnold remains a polarizing figure. That’s due in part to his free soloing ways, which is when a climber doesn’t use any ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment and is forced to rely on their own strength. He’s got numerous free-soloing firsts under his belt. But nothing quite like scaling El Capitan, a feat he accomplished in just under four hours.

For the record, he doesn’t have a death wish. He diligently trained for the danger-filled climb that included sections called Freeblast (precariously smooth), Monster Offwidth (shimmying his way up a vertical crack) and Boulder Problem (executing a karate-kick move to reach a toe hold).

“That’s why I spent two years practicing, to make sure I wouldn’t fall off and die,” said Honnold, who has a foundation dedicated to supporting solar energy and serves on the board of a company that operates indoor climbing facilities (El Cap). “If I didn’t care, I would’ve gone the first day and rolled the dice.”

Ashima Shiraishi, a teenager who’s become one of the big names in climbing, said she watched the documentary on a plane and felt, well, “terrified.”

“Free soloing? I can’t,” said Shiraishi, who figures to be in the medal mix as climbing makes its debut at the Tokyo Olympics next summer. “It’s a different world.”

Should anyone want to follow his lead, his advice would be basic: Be careful.

“It’s a very long, personal journey,” Honnold said. “If someone wants to spend the time and dedicate themselves to the process, more power to them — as long as they do it slow and carefully.”

To promote the film directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin, Honnold traveled around for months, which meant putting his outdoor climbing pursuits on the backburner. Along the way, he met some big names — Prince William, actor Bradley Cooper — and lost some privacy. He’s constantly recognized on subways, in grocery stores and of course anywhere he climbs.

He recently went back to Yosemite, but didn’t dare venture out too much in public because, “I’ve got serious anxiety,” he said.

While hiking in the area, Honnold overheard a group in front of him actually discussing the movie. Then, he sped right by them.

“They’re like, ‘That’s the guy!’” Honnold recounted. “As I’m hiking by, they’re like, ‘Did you get him on the ‘GoPro?’”

That’s just his reality now.

So is this: Making the most of his training sessions at climbing gyms.

He invents challenges for himself, like attaching heavy weights around his waist and suspending himself from a ledge by his fingers. Any chance of another free solo ascent of El Capitan?

“If I had a reason to. If I was excited,” Honnold said. “Because I know I can now.”

On the Fly column: During runoff, fish the banks

Despite the conditions you’re seeing out there on the dam-released Fryingpan and local freestones like the Roaring Fork, Crystal and Colorado rivers, there are still opportunities to catch a few. The fish don’t go on vacation during runoff; they still eat every day. The major factor that plays in the angler’s favor is there is no mystery where the fish are hanging out: right along the banks. During these adverse conditions, it’s probably wise to just stay out of the river entirely (on the freestones with little to no visibility) and pluck a few fish right where you’d normally stand in the water’s edge.

You can keep all of your light tippet and small flies on the back burner for a little while longer and stick to the basics: San Juan Worms, stonefly nymphs and flashy beaded pheasant tails and the like. There might be a few opportunities for tossing dries in the afternoons, but most of us are out there nymphing for a few hours here and there. Choose your battles during runoff and play to your strengths.

The word on the street is that we will see the Fryingpan releases subside a bit next week after this week’s annual “flush,” so keep the faith and keep an eye on your fellow anglers as flows remain high for a bit longer. After hardly any runoff at all last year, it’s great to see the Pan get a good spring cleaning this time around. Another benefit of high flows are the big fish people are catching out there; the large fish tend to hide all day and eat all night but do not have that luxury during these higher river flows.

For those of you with a healthy fear of big and fast water, keep an eye on the various lakes that are starting to open up and fish well. Your local fly shop staff can recommend some of their favorite still water options close to you, and fly selection is usually quite straightforward on Colorado lakes, ponds and reservoirs. Some open local favorites are Dinkle, Nast and Chapman. Stay safe and be patient, runoff will end.

This report is provided every week by Taylor Creek Fly Shops in Aspen and Basalt, 970-927-4374 or taylorcreek.com.

Bridge construction forces changes in Strawberry Shortcut 10K

Construction will once again affect the running of the popular Strawberry Shortcut run Sunday morning on the final day of Strawberry Days in Glenwood Springs. This year, construction on the 27th Street bridge will affect the 10K portion of the Strawberry Shortcut, forcing runners to take a new path in the popular road race.

New race director Mike Kishimoto, who takes over for Kevin and Joy White after a decade in charge of the race, says that runners will race along the bike path toward Target in the Glenwood Meadows before plodding back down along Devereux Road along the Colorado River for the 10K portion of the race.

With Kishimoto taking charge of the 42nd running of the Strawberry Shortcut, the longtime Glenwood Springs resident and important member of the running community is looking for the race to mostly survive in his first season at the helm before he and assistant Abbey Ehlers begin to implement some changes to the long-standing road race through the heart of downtown Glenwood Springs.

“A lot of changes are already planned, and we’ve already started planning for next year,” Kishimoto said. “But we mostly just want to survive this year before we start making the changes we’d like to.””

Some of those changes could be made at the finish line, where Kishimoto hopes to have more of a community feel for runners to hang out long after the race is over and interact with community members.

“We want to really create a community event,” Kishimoto said. “We want people to hang around and talk with each other after the race, rather than running the race and then getting out of there. That would be great [to see runners hang around after the race and interact with each other.] Hopefully we can get that accomplished, whether its with food or beverages or entertainment down near the 7th Street underpass. We have a lot of ideas for the next few years that we’re excited to try and put together.”

Kishimoto added that he hopes to see the number of runners push toward 1,000 in the years ahead.

The 42nd shortcut supports Special Olympics Colorado. The cost of the races is between $30 and $50. For more information, please visit www.facebook.com/strawberryshortcut. The race starts at 7 a.m.

jcarney@postindependent.com

Trail crew clears scores of burned trees on two popular trails on Basalt Mountain

A U.S. Forest Service trail crew cleared scores of burned tree trunks off two popular trails on Basalt Mountain earlier this month — opening areas in the heart of the Lake Christine Fire last summer.

The Mill Creek and Ditch trails are open to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. The entire 1.6-mile Mill Creek Trail was within the fire perimeter, said Katy Nelson, wilderness and trails program manager for the Aspen-Snowmass Ranger District.

The five-person trail crew was able to use chainsaws on the downed timber because Basalt Mountain isn’t in designated wilderness, where mechanized uses aren’t allowed. Nevertheless, it was tough work because of the high concentration of deadfall and the risk of standing, dead trees falling. The fire hollowed out numerous trees and left the shells standing. They can be precarious in the wind.

The small crew is facing a mammoth challenge this spring and summer — clearing downed timber in the burn scar and from numerous avalanche chutes that ran last winter throughout the district. Some of the most popular trails in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are blocked by tree knocked down by the slides and stacked like matchsticks.

“They have an incredibly tough job,” Nelson said. The crew devoted time to the Basalt Mountain trails when they could this spring, balancing needs with other high-priority areas.

“They came back and were so excited to get Mill Creek and the Ditch Trail open,” Nelson said.

Traveling along the paths provides a front row seat in fire ecology. A burn severity map prepared by a Forest Service team in August shows the southern half of the Mill Creek Trail was in the highest classification of severity. It’s a largely apocalyptic landscape. The trail is powdery ash in places, but the trail tread is already compacting even with limited use. Burnt tree trunks stripped of limbs stand alongside the trail like ghostly sentinels. Their charred bark is peeling off to expose white wood. The ground is littered with burned trees that were already downed when the fire swept through or trunks that collapsed in the fire.

On the second half of the trail, where the fire didn’t burn so hot, numerous conifer trees were severely singed. The pine needles are rust colored, and the trunks are scorched, but the dead trees will probably stand for years as testament to the fire.

Nelson said clearing the deadfall in the areas where the burn severity was lower can be tougher because they often have all their limbs.

A handful of meadows sprinkled between scorched patches of forest survived unscathed. The grass and leaves on the brush looks particularly lush and neon green after a wet winter. One recent dry evening, the streams were running clear despite the soot and ash piled on either side.

The Ditch Trail is more of a mosaic where some areas alongside the path are scorched earth but more sections are lush with vegetation. Wildflowers are close to exploding.

“It’s just a cool window into fire ecology,” Nelson said.

The trail crew hasn’t yet been able to clear the Cattle Creek Trail higher up in elevation on the mountain. Nelson said about 2 miles of that trail was in the fire perimeter and much of it in high-burn severity.

When Nelson walked the trail, she counted between 175 and 200 downed trees in the 2-mile stretch.

“That was last fall before we had wind and rain and snow,” she said. The amount of work has undoubtedly increased since then. It is uncertain when the crew will get to the Cattle Creek Trail, she said. A higher priority will be to return to Mill Creek and put in erosion control features on the trail. The soils in high burn severity areas don’t absorb moisture, so there is a danger of the trails getting washed out by summer downpours, Nelson said.

Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association will provide labor for coordinated work on the trail, she said.

Signs posted at both ends of the Ditch and Mill Creek trails as well as along Basalt Mountain Road warn users of dangers ranging from flash flooding to falling trees.

Nelson said her prior work in burn areas showed that falling snags are a constant danger.

“It’s not uncommon that as soon as you clear it, there’s already a tree down somewhere on the trail,” she said.

The trail clearing work won’t be a “one-and-done” task, Nelson said. Instead it will be ongoing.

Mountain bikers would be well advised to be alert for down timber even if the trail was clear a day or so before. Speed checks are a must.

Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer praised the work of the trail crew and asked for the public’s patience while the agency completes more work on Basalt Mountain.

Forest Road 524, up Basalt Mountain, and 509, paralleling Cattle Creek, will be closed for most of July to allow crews to complete work on the roads and clearing dead trees that poses a threat next to them.

The road will be closed to vehicles, bicycles and hikers from the main parking area on Basalt Mountain.

“The road crew plans on taking three to four weeks to accomplish the work,” Schroyer said.

In addition, the Aspen-Sopris District is working on a salvage sale of timber. The agency has to go through about 90 days of the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA process, which is typical for harvesting timber. There are no special or expedited rules for a sale in a burn area, Schroyer said. The earliest that a company could harvest any timber is fall, she said.

scondon@aspentimes.com