In the dim morning of another high-altitude ascent, Loretta McEllhiney comes to a rowdy group of teenage girls. She asks for silence, please.
“Many people come out here to hear the sounds of nature,” she says as the sun has yet to rise over the tundra called Devil’s Playground, roughly 12,400 feet up Pikes Peak. “If what they hear is a bunch of girls hooting and hollering, then they’re not getting that experience.”
The girls hush, heeding McEllhiney, the mother of this state’s biggest mountains.
She is in her U.S. Forest Service uniform, trekking up a damaged hillside that she intends to restore one day. She winces at the eroded trail. Her sapphire eyes are set on a destination somewhere over the hills, a place she has found to be better-suited for the masses who climb this side of America’s Mountain.
A local advocate identified the problem years ago and called McEllhiney. “I hear you’re the person to talk to,” he said.
McEllhiney, 54, has served for nearly two decades as Colorado’s first and only “peak manager,” a title created by the Forest Service as it grappled with challenges on the state’s 54 mountains that loom above 14,000 feet.
Popularity was rising on the fourteeners, exposing trails that had no business being trails. Unaware hikers had formed them in steep areas prone to erosive runoff, dangerous areas where rocks fly down fall lines.
Crews tried keeping up with the mess.
“I was part of those crews,” says Ralph Swain, the longtime wilderness manager out of the Forest Service’s Denver office. “We would tick away and tick away, and it was always hit and miss. We all knew we needed one dedicated person to oversee the layout and design to put these trails on the fourteeners.”
So it has been McEllhiney. She does her best to list routes of her doing – along Mounts Harvard, Yale, Elbert, Massive and Belford, La Plata Peakand Huron Peak.
She doesn’t attempt to answer other questions.
“People ask me, ‘How many vertical feet have you done?’ Like, oh my God! That’s really scary to think about.”
How many times has she scaled the fourteeners? “I don’t want to know.”
She’s lost count of the climbs up to Devil’s Playground over the past year alone. She was here multiple times in the fall and spring, to see where exactly those seasons’ snowfields settled as she plotted a re-route.
This hike falls on a weeklong camping trip with experts she’s enlisted as part of an environmental analysis. That is necessary before she can begin writing a thick book of construction notes, with foot-by-foot specifications for a new path.
“OK, we’re about to go off-trail,” she says to the group, stopping before the fragile tundra where flowers try to bloom. “No two people step in the same place, OK? Don’t walk in my footprints, because as few as five footprints on any one plant can kill it, you know.”
A botanist named Brian Elliott struggles to match her pace. He’s huffing and puffing to catch up to where she’s kneeling, admiring Pikes Peak flowers she knows by scientific names.
“This is Loretta’s show,” he says.
Hikers’ disrespect troubling
McEllhiney hesitated to take the job.
“You think, ‘How long am I really gonna be able to climb up and down fourteeners every day?'”
Mostly, she questioned her technical knowledge. She wasn’t long removed from Kansas State University, where she studied to be a nurse only to learn that she was not meant for the confines of a clinic. She was a Division I distance runner who practiced with the boys throughout high school in Los Angeles, where she preferred surfing over school. She thrived outside.
So she was pleased in her mid-20s to move to Leadville with the man who would become her first husband. (“I’m more married to the mountains than I really ever have been to any man,” she says.) In the mountain town, she got into ultrarunning, learning to love the elevation during regular jogs up Elbert and Massive, the latter of which is her favorite fourteener, in part for how it is not named for anyone, “just for what it is,” she says. “Massive.”
She also got into high-alpine maintenance, latching on with Forest Service crews. She loved the hard labor on the trails.
But designing them?
“Sure, there was a learning curve, because she had no one to learn from,” Swain says. But what impressed him most about young McEllhiney was her energy, her physical and mental might, her stunning stamina.
“From the minute I met Loretta, I had this feeling, and sometimes you get it around certain people, when you just know you’re in the presence of greatness,” he says. “That’s the kind of vibes you get with Loretta. I knew it from the minute I met her. She was going to become the expert. She was going to become our leader.”
That she would basically live in the mountains was no surprise to her loved ones back home. They were no longer surprised by anything she did. This was the woman who out of high school planned to ride a bike around Europe. She spent six months in Ireland to compete in triathlons and taught at a Montessori school.
Older sister Mona McGregor remembers babysitting the 2-year-old Loretta, who would sneak off to the backyard, eager to try swimming in the pool.
“She’s fearless,” McGregor says. “She’s totally willing to experience whatever there is out there, and she takes it on like a champion.”
With running, McEllhiney lost interest in being a champion. The way people competed, the way competition bred egos, made her uncomfortable. She simply wanted to run to “leave my present world behind,” she says. “It let me go to that special place in my mind.”
And there was no place like the mountains. She would be a champion for them because someone needed to be, she felt. She saw how people trampled the tundra and left their waste. She’s known to haul down human feces.
The impacts and the way they irk her can’t be overstated, people close to her say. “The mountains are her babies,” says her sister.
McEllhiney can’t bear to watch the reality TV show “Prospectors,” which filmed miners on 14,275-foot Mount Antero. “They would trindle rocks down the mountain just for the show of it,” she says. “They were doing so much damage. I still haven’t been able to bring myself there.”
McEllhiney has seen more instances of disrespect over the years. She worries about the popularity boom across fourteeners. She sees how people promote themselves with summits, coming up with records, as if the peaks represent some competition. Has that caused the popularity?
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s (about) this,” she says at Devil’s Playground, throwing out her arms as if to hug the sweeping view. “If it were for more people, we’d probably see a lot less impacts.”
Copter crash haunts her
The impacts form a mountain in her mind that she can’t climb.
“Every time she goes up, she sees things that weren’t there before,” says her husband, Jim Evans. “She sees how people are abusing the wilderness and thinking it’s a playground.”
And he hears about it at their Leadville home. “She does not leave work at work.”
She warned him before they married two years ago: “This is my life. This is what I do.”
The job has been hard on relationships, she says, and on her body. She once slipped on Maroon Peak as her arm got stuck on a crevice, ripping out her elbow. She’s been struck by lightning several times, a matter that has come up in talks with doctors about her struggles to get pregnant.
The mountains have seared her memory with haunting images. Once on Pyramid Peak, she found a dead climber. On Aug. 19, 2009, she was working on Massive when a Black Hawk helicopter from Kentucky’s Fort Campbell screamed overhead.
She watched it slam into a rock outcrop and burst into a billion pieces. The accident killed all four people inside. She remembers reaching two who were still alive.
“It affected her a lot,” her sister says. “When you’re there and there’s no help, and seeing people die as you’re holding them . Mentally, she still has a hard time.”
She and Evans married on Massive on Aug. 19. “We replaced that day of sadness with a day of happiness,” he says.
Before she heads off for weeks, he says, she apologizes. “She says, ‘I’m sorry, I have to go.'”
And he worries, waiting each day and night for her to check in. But he understands.
“I know that the mountains make Loretta who she is,” he says, “and that’s the woman I love.”
Joyful as a novice hiker
McEllhiney shouts from Devil’s Playground as a warm glow splashes over a ridgeline. “Yay! The sun!”
Watching her, it’s easy to think she’s here for the first time. She remarks as if everything is new, including the clear-running stream where she stops to close her eyes, taking in this moment where the water is the only sound.
The place is pristine, and she hates to imagine it any other way. As it is with every place like this she considers for a trail, she can only hope hikers do no harm.
“The majority of people think that trails just happen,” she says. Maybe, she thinks, things would be different if they knew otherwise.
She stops to admire again. “The forget-me-nots are still blooming,” she says, bringing her face low to smell the little blue flowers hardly popping from the ground.
Their growing season is short. But at the right time, she swears, a sweet scent stays with her all day.