“By the time it’s finished this will be a multi-million dollar mountain,” said Loretta McEllhiney as she walked along a newly built section of trail on Mount Columbia.

The Mount Columbia Trail is undergoing a 4-year facelift that began last May.

The project is a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service’s Colorado 14er Program, Colorado 14ers Initiative and various youth corps.

The existing trail was never planned or built; it was a social trail resulting from years of users going for the summit.

McEllhiney, the 14er program director, and Preston Hovenkamp, CFI project manager for this project, hiked to view the results of the summer’s work.

McEllhiney and Hovenkamp were doing a final inspection, the crews and camp had already cleaned up for the year.

It was an overcast and misty fall morning, so we donned rain gear and walked a short way into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area.

“It’s cool to see the trail through the seasons,” said Hovenkamp, turning to project his voice.

When they began in May, the crews had to shovel snow from the trail to clear a path for the mules.

Animals assisted in every phase of the project, from carrying camp supplies and tools, to hauling out excess rock and dirt.

Hovenkamp’s crew generally worked 4 days on and 3 off. “As soon as it’s light enough to see, we want tools swinging,” said Hovenkamp, explaining that work had to be done by early afternoon in case of afternoon storms. 

Groups changed consistently throughout the summer as volunteer organizations and youth corps came and went. Trail workers from organization like Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado or Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, and crews from Southwest Conservation Corps, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and Colorado Youth Corps Association.

While youth corps and volunteers contributed the majority of the labor under CFI’s oversight, the project was the result of 4 years of planning. A similar planning period goes into any new trail on a 14er.

“The first year is project initiation,” said McEllhiney as she explained the planning process. That’s where we “get together with district folks” to look at current use and opportunities, things like resource possibilities and funding. It’s a process of gathering the negatives and positives, like soil loss or viewpoints.

The second year is called project exploration, where McEllhiney looks more in detail at the positives and negatives gathered from year one, and GPS’s the route to determine whether or not to continue.

Next is the analysis phase where McEllhiney works through National Environmental Policy Act alongside an interdisciplinary team of experts. Recreation specialists, geologists, soil experts and wildlife managers all work to determine the best route for the proposed trail.

If all measures pass, the trail is physically designed with foot-by-foot measurements and markings.

Finally, the trail is ready for implementation through partnerships with trailbuilding organizations.

As we moved closer to treeline, the valley leading up to Mount Harvard became visible under low-hanging clouds.

We turned right toward Mount Columbia and McEllhiney pointed to the trees where crews lived during the summer. It was only a short hike from the project site.

“It was a real challenge finding a base camp that was hidden from hikers, close to the construction site and near a water source,” said McEllhiney, recalling the project’s planning phase.

As we left the trees behind and rock-hopped over scree, we saw colored flags nailed to the ground marking the future trail. The trail work intentionally started out of sight from the existing trail to keep users off.

Soon we saw a very obvious rock staircase that marked the start of the completed section. Each stair was filled with rocks and protected on the downhill side to prevent erosion. The stairs are called cribs.

One crib takes about 2-1/2 hours of labor; there were dozens in this incline alone.

The total of all the planning, all the work crews, all the equipment and animal power, totaled 2,200 feet of new trail.

We continued along the new section and saw where excess rock and dirt were dumped on an area with no previous vegetation. All the extra material was transported up or down the trail to one of these safe dumping zones.

A similar effect is the main reason the existing trail is unsustainable – erosion is leading to rock and dirt sliding and killing tundra vegetation.

“This is very fragile mountain,” said McEllhiney, pointing around her. “It’s a giant scree field.”

We continued our hike to where the trail abruptly ended before the tundra ahead.

There wasn’t much to see with the view blocked by fog, just different shades of grey in every direction. We stopped for a couple photos, but didn’t stay long.

We turned around and hiked back. Hovenkamp gathered the flags that were now unnecessary.

McEllhiney is the first and only person to ever work in her position. She’s been the CO 14er program director since 2001. Before 1994, she explained, the only 14ers with built trails were Longs and Pikes peaks.

The rest were social trails formed with no thought for sustainable use. As hiking the peaks grew in popularity, it created an ever-increasing need for ongoing maintenance. McEllhiney said, “It took nearly a decade of work for the agency to create a full-time position.”

Now McEllhiney spends most of her summer on the trail.

“On the mountain” as she likes to say, preparing for new trail projects and overseeing existing ones.

The rest of the year is spent at her desk in her office at the Leadville Ranger District planning future projects. Next year the Colorado 14er Program will be working on the South Elbert Trail, on Kit Carson between Willow Lake and ridge line and continuing Mount Columbia.

As we continued hiking down, we encountered a couple that had mistakenly found their way onto the newly built section. McEllhiney explained that the trail was closed because it led to sensitive vegetation.

Her passion for her work was apparent. She pointed out various flora and explained its adaptive traits for surviving in a high-altitude environment. Her knowledge of the ecosystem was thoroughly impressive.

She explained that if all goes according to plan, the Mount Columbia reroute will tie into the existing social trail by the end of next summer.

That won’t happen until after a grip hoist is installed to move rock 800 feet uphill, which will entail individual strands of cable hiked in.

Year three will begin building trail through the scree field below the recent section.

We broke from the hikers and continued on through the scree, into the woods and back onto the old trail.

We made our way down talking about mountains and hiking and trails.

The mountain is a living, dynamic place that may be nurtured or destroyed, depending on each user.

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