The mountain and the people on it are wrapped in a cloud, hidden. Their presence is announced by a warning that echoes in the basin below 14,170-foot Kit Carson Peak.
“Rock!” shouts one of the college students on a talus field, where a new trail to the summit is being built.
The stone stops before it can shoot down to the human heads parallel with a steep fall line – the popular route that climbers have used to reach Kit Carson and neighboring Challenger Point. Soon they could be using this new path skirting the mountainside.
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If all goes according to Rocky Mountain Field Institute’s plan, the Colorado Springs-based nonprofit will wrap up its arduous effort to build the mile-long reroute by the end of this month. The trail is set to be finished thanks to a compilation of grants and a hearty bunch of 20-somethings from around the country.
RMFI has selected them over the past three summers to cut tread and arrange rocks just so to form steps and retaining walls – a precise design that land managers are implementing across Colorado’s biggest mountains. Such structures can be found on Mount Columbia, for example, where another youth crew placed them to redirect climbers from scrambling.
These kinds of paths are safer for the hiker and for the fragile alpine tundra prone to erosion, say land managers and advocates. They’re preferred to the footpaths created by the likes of Dwight Lavender, among the early mountaineers to summit the state’s 54 fourteeners.
Those were the days before environmentalism, says Lloyd Athearn director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. The nonprofit manages realignments on mountains outside the Sangre de Cristo range, which RMFI oversees.
“They were trying to get up and down the mountain as quick as possible and in as direct a way as possible,” Athearn says of those 20th-century climbers. “Oftentimes, that meant going steeply up a hill.”
Trails “just happened,” says Loretta McEllhiney, the U.S. Forest Service specialist flagging fourteener trails to replace those damaged by erosion. Kit Carson was long on her radar.
“If you’re on a trail that’s just really bad, then it just happened. Kit Carson is one of those,” McEllhiney says, shaking her head at the image of that incised fall line. “That mountain just shouldn’t have a trail. But it’s going to, and if it’s going to, I think we found the best alternative.”
Rather than rise up a slope gaining nearly 2,000 feet in less than a mile, the new trail winds steadily along a more moderate grade. People won’t feel their hearts pound the same way. They might be annoyed by the switchbacks. The steps might register as something manufactured, as something not so wild.
For 20 years, RMFI and the Fourteeners Initiative have tried to replace the trails that “just happened” with these that are meticulously planned. “A faction” of people don’t appreciate the work, Athearn says. “I know there have been people very upset. People have felt you’re dumbing down the mountains.”
But the days of Lavender are over, he says. “There is something unique about being in an area where very few people go and you’re doing this primitive route-finding. But what’s happened is we’ve moved past that phase. We now have hundreds of thousands of people climbing these mountains every year. You can’t have them going willy-nilly. You have to develop some sort of sustainable trail system.”
The fourteeners get 311,000 “hiker days” a year, the initiative reports, based on its infrared counters. The numbers “are pretty staggering,” says Joe Lavorini, the RMFI crew leader on Kit Carson. He’s also aware of the faction who would rather he not be here on the mountain.
“To be quite frank, we’re not doing this for the people,” he says. “We’re doing this for the landscape.”
He’s at camp, sitting on a bucket, cleaning water filters with the college students who hiked nearly 6 miles to be here in July, to begin their 30-day stay. The 10 of them are out of their tents by 4:30 a.m. They make coffee over a propane-powered stove – among the loads hauled by burros.
They pack lunch and hit the trail by 6:30 a.m., hiking about a mile to the talus field, the work site at about 12,500 feet. They’re usually down by 3 p.m. to start dinner – chili on this night, which is cool and stormy, a nice break from the hot days and hordes of mosquitoes. By 8 p.m., they’re in their tents, listening to the tall waterfall crash at nearby Willow Lake.
RMFI’s Earth Corps program seeks to build the next generation of mountain protectors. Visitors to camp include botanists, entomologists and environmentalists, all of whom tell the students about their temporary home here and the living things that share it.
From the talus field, Danny McGivern returns down the trail, pointing out the flora at risk of getting trampled and the marmots that depend on the tundra. The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs student’s last task for the day was using a bar to hoist one rock between others – a sturdy step.
“This is great work. It’s back-breaking, but it gives me a warm feeling,” he says. “I like to think I’m taking part in something bigger than myself.”
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