Table of Contents:
- The Group
- Tragedy 1
- Tragedy 2
- Basic Trail-work Terminology
- Tragedy 3
- Ultimate, Rock Climbing, and Mountaineering
- The San Miguels
- Final Thoughts
By the time my second hitch began with SWCC (Southwest Conservation Corp), I was ready to crush some trail work. Our destination this time would be the slopes of El Diente in the Kilpacker basin. El Diente is the farthest west 14er in Colorado, and the area around it is very wild. There was an old trail through Kilpacker Basin that suffered from erosion and human pollution, so our job was to close up the old trail and finish building a new one above it. For this project, which would take the next five hitches, we were going to partner with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. Like SWCC, the Fourteeners Initiative built trail. Unlike SWCC, they did it exclusively on the state’s highest peaks, often involving complex rock projects in the alpine. They were a professional trail crew, as opposed to our Americorp distinction, which fell under service learning. In laymen’s terms: when it came to alpine construction, they were varsity, and we were JV. That isn’t to say SWCC was unprofessional, but we were essentially manual labor for hire. Other companies could rent our services if they needed help, meaning we were often used to complete projects already underway instead of creating and completing our own projects.
Codenames: Indiana, Dusty, Gator Gal, Bull, Wisco, Poetry, and Pennsylvania. Why codenames? Because codenames rock, and to protect the identity of my crewmates.
They always say tragedy strikes in threes, unfortunately for us, that wisdom held. Our first tragedy occurred during our off hitch, and I didn’t even know about it until an hour before we left for our new project. As we gathered in the morning to load up the van and the trailer, I noticed Dusty wasn’t around. I soon found out he wouldn’t be joining us anymore.
As it turned out, Dusty had some personal issues that weren’t apparent during our first hitch. He was a kind and considerate person, but a lot was going on behind the scenes that none of us knew about. Long in a short, he ended up flipping his car while driving down a long dirt road to some campsites he had been staying at. Between the fractures, breaks, and murky circumstances surrounding his state of mind during the incident, he and SWCC leadership came to an agreement to part ways. While I’m happy to say he recovered fully, we still felt the loss. Before we’d even begun our big project for the summer, we’d already lost a team member. So, despite my best efforts, a cloud of uncertainty hung over our heads as we loaded up the van and headed out.
Once we finally got to the trailhead, we’d done a little group management and felt better about salvaging the day. Despite the loss of Dusty, we knew SWCC would be sending us a new member at some point. We just had to rely on each other in the meantime. Okie Dokie.
The CFI leaders had already set up their camp a few miles into the Lizard Head Wilderness, so we grabbed our gear and tore after them. We hoped to set up the remainder of our camp, stow our personal stuff, and get some work in before nightfall. Back to Table of Contents.
Roughly halfway into our hike, we encountered another scary situation. Throughout the first part of the hike, I’d been keeping an eye on my friend Indiana. He had packed an extremely full backpack and appeared to be getting winded far faster than any other member of the group. We slowed down the pace to compensate, but it didn’t seem to be correcting the problem. Finally, after some discussion, we took a break to assess what was wrong.
Not more than fifteen seconds after we stopped hiking, Indiana collapsed. His breath was barely coming in, and we could hear gurgling in the back of his throat. Within a minute, his eyes rolled up and he’d lost consciousness. Gator gal and I jumped into action immediately, remembering our WFR training.
Hearing the liquid in the back of his throat, I rotated him from belly up to his right side. Then, I bent his left leg as a kind of kickstand and used his left elbow the same way. Once they were in place, I continued rotating him from 90 degrees to roughly 135, angled down, until yellow liquid dribbled out of his mouth. With his leg and elbow bent and acting like braces, I was able to turn him over until gravity could assist with liquid removal. Being unconscious, there was a very real chance he could’ve choked on his own fluids had he remained belly up. You can’t breathe if your airway is blocked.
With that crisis averted, Gator gal scrambled towards his pack, remembering that Indiana had an asthma inhaler. While she looked, I made sure all the liquid that needed to get out, got out, and then slowly rolled Indiana back into as comfortable a position as I could because he had begun seizing.
…I think one of the worst things to experience is watching someone else have a seizure, especially if you’ve never seen one before. There isn’t a whole lot you can do. You create a contained space where the thrashing has less of a chance of hurting them…and wait.
Even though I remembered the WFR training, it went against every emotional impulse I had. I wanted to be helpful, I wanted to fix the problem, I wanted to do MORE…but had to settle for loosely cradling Indianas head so he didn’t hurt himself. In hindsight, I helped prevent further injury, but in the moment, all I could think about was that I wasn’t doing enough. It’s a terrible feeling, out in the wilderness and out of control…but it’s not like you can talk someone out of having a seizure: when it happens, it happens.
The best thing to do when someone is having a seizure is to make them as comfortable as possible and make sure their head, neck, and spine are protected. Without muscle control, the movements in a seizure are incredibly strong and erratic; people can do real damage to themselves. Had we been in cell reception, calling 911 would’ve been a priority, but in the woods, we had to make do. In any situation, DO NOT stick something in their mouth. This was common knowledge a few decades ago, the thought being it would help victims avoid snapping their own jaw or biting their tongues off, but the risk for choking is too great. Protect the head, neck, spine, and the individual’s integrity. When a victim experiences a seizure they are unconscious, so it’s not some muscle control that’s lost, its ALL muscle control, including, on occasion, bladder control. If you hear any gurgling or anything that sounds like liquid in the throat, make sure to turn the body over so gravity can help drain fluids from them; airways have to stay open, they cannot do this for themselves.
It took a few, exceedingly long minutes, but eventually, the worst of the seizure seemed to pass. Gator gal returned with the asthma inhaler, and we swapped positions. Wisco moved in to cradle Indianas head while Gator gal tried timing the inhaler squeeze with the few short breaths Indiana was still taking. It took a couple of tries, but she managed to synch two breaths with two inhaler puffs, and Indiana’s heart rate started slowing. It took another excruciatingly long minute for him to regain consciousness, but he did.
The next moments were very quiet, and very awkward.
During the tumult, I didn’t notice that one of our crew leaders had sprinted ahead to get help from the two CFI workers. They arrived within half an hour and continued assessing Indiana while the rest of our team tried collecting what remained of our sanity. Once they cleared Indiana to keep going, we all took turns moving weight from his pack to ours and completed the rest of the hike up to the base camp.
CFI allowed us to use the wall tent they had already set up and asked us to install an electric fence around it. Turns out there was an active bear in the area looking for human food. We spent the next hour installing the fence, setting up our tents, and rearming with our tools for an afternoon of scheduled work. Indiana remained in his tent to try and let his body adjust to the altitude.
Outside the grove of trees where our camp was, there were excellent views up to El Diente, and we enjoyed cutting tread underneath the shadow of the monstrous peak.
Basic Trail-work Terminology
As the blog continues, I’ll be using a lot of terminologies to describe what trail-workers do. Not all projects require the same skillsets. There are many rock work terms that differ from what we did on El Diente; they will be discussed in future blog posts when applicable to the project parameters. Contrary to popular belief, trail work is not PRIMARILY for ease of travel, although that is an ancillary effect. The biggest threat to trails over time is actually erosion, created from rain, wind, and humans. Many of the structures we built were used to mitigate those effects. Erosion is especially pronounced at higher elevations. Did you know it takes 50 years to create one inch of topsoil in the alpine? That recovery rate is far too slow to handle the constant pressures of wind, water and humans, which is where we come in.
- Bench Cut: The main cut in a new trail. This cut creates tread and does so in an agreeable angle to an otherwise steeper slope, hence “bench”.
- Tread: Tread is the walking portion of a trail.
- Backslope: Obvious when a trail cuts across a slope. The backslope is an angled cut above the tread, used to set the slope back from the trail, thereby preventing the bank from collapsing onto the tread over time.
- Hinge: The point at which the backslope and tread meet. Synonymous to a hinge between a door and its frame.
- Pick Mattock: This essential tool is similar to what the ye-olde prospectors used but is not the same tool. One side of the Pick Mattock is tapered to a point (the pick), which allows the user to break up compacted soil easily. The other end of the Mattock is a bit wider (Mattock, or adze end) and can be used to break up larger chunks of soil or to scrape uneven tread down to a better angle. The wider end is also great for smoothing out backslope.
- Dirtbags: A large, sturdy, canvas bag that is used to haul dirt to a section of eroded trail in need of regrading.
- Rake: Not the flimsy yard work kind; this bad boy is all metal. Trail building rakes are extremely useful for revegetation efforts and for pulling scree away from trails.
- Drainage Sheet: The tread, while at less of an angle than existing slopes, is not entirely flat. From the hinge, a good bench cut will angle the tread roughly 5 degrees outward. This is to allow rainwater a chance to drain off the tread in sheets instead of channels, leading into the next point…
- Inslope/Outslope: The outslope refers to the 5 degree angle on the tread, not enough to twist ankles or feel uncomfortable, but enough to wash the rain off the trail. An Inslope is the opposite, where the edge of the trail is higher than the hinge. In this unfortunate scenario, over time, water pools along the tread, creating channels of erosion that affect the long term usability of the trail.
- Fall Line: The direction of least gravitational resistance ie. if you dropped a ball on a slope, where would it roll? Determining the fall line is very useful when figuring out how to orient trails. Going directly up the fall line is inviting massive erosion over time as it would be the easiest way for material to move downhill. Sustainable tread almost never goes up or down the fall line if it can be helped.
- Cross slope: This refers to the existing slope before we planted a trail on it. It’s important to understand the effects of cross slopes on erosion when constructing trail or the quality of the trail will degrade over time.
- Check-step (or Check Dam): When a trail attacks a slope at an unfavorable angle, rain can deposit soil all along its expanse, washing away tread and accelerating erosion. A check-step is a thick section of log, or, in some cases rock, set into the slope, perpendicular to the trail, that breaks up the slope rise. This creates a stair-like design, where the tread between check steps isn’t angled enough to accelerate existing erosion.
- Reveg: Short for revegetation. In many cases, in order to build sustainable trail, old unsustainable trails need to be closed. Revegetation is the process by which we move existing vegetation (roots and all) into the old trail and set them in ways to promote further growth. With a successful reveg, old trails disappear within a few years.
- Borrow Pit: A pit dug way off-trail, where soil is taken to regrade existing trail. The borrow pit is dug in an area that does not suffer from excessive erosion, is far from traveled areas, and is always filled in with rocks, sticks, and other natural items to mitigate any animals falling into it.
- Spade: A shovel with a spade shape, great for starting borrow pits as the slightly tapered end allows for easier ground penetration.
- Rockbar: An 18 pound rock stick, used primarily in scree and talus for leverage when moving rocks that are hundreds of pounds.
- Drain: An extra water mitigation feature where a side of the trail in even terrain is blown out and angled down to allow for water to evacuate the tread. Not very useful in steep cross slopes or in rock-fields.
- Waterbar: Usually positioned below a drain, the water bar is an elevated bump (usually a log larger than the average check step), set at an angle, which forces existing water on the tread to follow the drain off the trail.
- Apron: The shape of the drain is important. It starts narrow and balloons out into an apron shape to help sheet the water. Without an apron, concentrated water flow will create channels that increase erosion.
- Braid: This occurs when a massive amount of people hike on a given trail. A braid is a thread of compacted soil, not tied to the original trail, but exists because hikers pass around other hikers or prefer to walk on grass instead of dirt. The problem with braids is that they ruin a wilderness quality and increase erosion. Erosion from trail braiding is much more severe in the alpine as the ecosystem isn’t built to handle large amounts of people. Shutting down braids is a popular trail building task.
- Turnpike: Sometimes trails travel through flat, wet areas where water has trouble leaving. In this case, building a turnpike may be appropriate. A turnpike is outlined by two long wooden runners, set into the slope with wooden wedges and rebar. Between the logs, various sizes of rocks are set from larger to smaller. The top of the turnpike is filled in with soil. You’ve now created an elevated section of trail, where water can drain through the soil and rocks beneath to keep the tread above dry.
- Flagging: Usually done by the trail designer or project leads, flagging is literally planting small flags along the eventual trail route. They can be moved as the situation on the ground changes but are there to outline where the trail needs to be and where it will ultimately go.
There are many additional terms but that should getcha brain cookin. I’ll revisit specific concepts in future posts as trail issues arise.
We worked for the rest of the afternoon under the shadow of El Diente, while Indiana recovered in his tent. Still unsure of precisely what caused his medical moment, we were in no rush to put him to work. However, when we returned to the camp to set up for dinner, we were all pleasantly surprised to see him back to his normals self, cracking jokes and sporting a devious grin. His attitude flip did a lot to quell some of our nerves; I mean, one day into our most consequential work project, and we’d already lost one member and nearly another. The sighs of relief were audible.
The next day we woke early, stumbled to the wall tent, did our morning routine (including some group team-building exercises), and tried to get ready for the day. With mountain weather as variable as it was, and the threat of afternoon storms always looming, we woke early to take advantage of the most settled part of the day. It involved resetting our body clocks, but after a few days of adjusting, I found that waking up before the sun rose and falling asleep as it set was a nice routine.
Since SWCC was an introduction to the outdoors for a lot of people, the organization had mule packed in a lot of our supplies, including group food stores like an unholy amount of cliff bars, breakfast foods, powdered milk, coffee, and a host of other items. The dinner meals, lunches, and personal snacks we all had to haul in. Carrying less weight was nice, but the bland oatmeal and weak coffee could’ve been better. I think our CFI coworkers saw my expression and knew immediately what I was thinking. As we all tried to will ourselves awake, I chatted with them briefly.
Red-tail was an outdoorsy girl from the start. Originally from Vermont, she had spent some time living in Thailand. Phish was, unsurprisingly, a Phish fan and went to the multi-day show in Colorado every year. They were trail wizards and had been building for a variety of years. The knowledge they dropped was consequential in cementing my desire to live this kind of life for more than just one summer. More immediately, I got the sense that as project leaders, they knew what needed to be done and could give us all some solid direction: which, in light of our recent challenges, seemed like a really good idea.
Once we were loaded up and ready, we journeyed up beyond tree-line to a section of trail they had started building the year prior. While most of our work would consist of closing down an old trail down lower, it was a nice change to be able to journey above the trees. We worked diligently to clear a path through loose scree, using metal rakes and various tools as best we could.
I found myself much more energetic than the previous day. How could anyone not be excited about the alpine? Ridiculous. Anyway, then everything went to hell.
We’d set up along different parts of the slope when the cry came, “Indiana’s down!” I turned back down the trail to see our teammate in the same position he was in yesterday, gasping for breath as his eyes rolled back into his head. Cursing, I scrambled down the slope towards him and did as I did the previous day, putting him in as comfortable a position as possible and making sure to tip him over to dump yellow bile like fluid out of his threat. Gator gal jumped towards Indiana’s pack and freed the inhaler again. This time it took a lot longer to control the seizing. I set a jacket over his midsection while the rest of the squad took turns stabilizing his neck, head, and spine. This episode lasted longer and was scarier than the first one because we were farther from help and Indiana kept making harrowing whimpering noises, even though we couldn’t get him to consciously acknowledge us. We were forced to wait out the worst of the seizing before Gator gal could time some inhaler blasts. Eventually, his eyes rolled back to open, and consciousness returned.
I collapsed back against the slope and looked despondently towards Gator Gal, the rest of my squad, and our CFI mates. Everyone’s faces spoke volumes during those silent moments, and we knew that the situation was now untenable. We had to get Indiana out of here. Pennsylvania and Harvard walked Indiana back down to camp and stayed with him as we tried to salvage the day’s project.
To be honest, even though we did the work, it was hard to stay in the moment because all of my thoughts were bent towards Indiana. Conversations were few and far between until it was time to tool up and call it a day.
The following morning, a plan was hatched, and our CFI buds, Red-tail and Phish, walked Indiana back to the trailhead with Harvard. Armed with satellite phones, an SWCC leader would be waiting at the trailhead to take Indiana back to Durango, where they’d run some tests in a local doctor’s office to assess the situation. Boom, another member lost.
While we worked the following seven days as we were supposed to, it was hard to remember much from that hitch, aside from a pervasive somber attitude. The work continued, but we were hamstrung, two members gone within a few days. I felt like one of the rats caught in our sump (a pit we dug, where we dumped excess cooking liquids, soap, and toothpaste). By digging the sump down deep enough, we guaranteed the liquids would be reabsorbed into the soil instead of running down into potential water sources. But it wasn’t fancy, just a sometimes liquid-filled hole. Because of the variety of liquids in the sump, it had a…scent, I guess, not enough for us to smell, but the rats sure did.
Towards the end of our hitch, I remember standing near the sump, brushing my teeth in sheets of rain after another day of work and looking down into the sump, seeing not one but three rat bodies, just…floating there. I think over the course of our five hitches on El Diente the sump murdered dozens of them. A weird reality for a weird set of days. After Indiana’s departure, our SWCC leads (Harvard and Pennsylvania) talked to each of us individually, daily, to ask how we were holding up. I didn’t lie, but I wasn’t happy. I just felt useless, floating belly up in the wilderness like a rat in a sump.
By the time the hitch ended, we’d accomplished good work, but morale had taken a serious hit. I resolved to spend the off hitch forcing myself into a better attitude. We all had to step up, and after going through an abbreviated form of the grieving process, I figured it would do more lasting damage to sink. Naturally, my plan involved getting amongst it.
Ultimate, Rock Climbing, and Mountaineering
The first thing I did after our hitch ended was head straight for the rec center in Durango to push weights. I’m not a body-builder but the repetitive motions, and the resistance encountered, helped me expel some of my bad attitude. The shower afterward washed all of the remaining crap away, and I left feeling 1000% better. I later found out each member of our squad was doing something similar; whether it was calling family, heading to the bar, or trolling around Durango, we all kind of needed a reset. Mental health, you know?
I met up with the rest of the squad (minus Harvard and Pennsylvania) at Durango Brewing (RIP), and we resolved to tackle each new challenge together. Strength through tragedy. We’d been tested, and the ones remaining would finish the damn season together. It was a good moment, punctuated by mediocre beer and rolled cigarettes, but a turning point for our little group. We handled two medical emergencies and had to say goodbye to two members. What was left was a no BS squad of dirtbags, ready to take it to the mountain.
We all met up with some of the Park Rangers we’d worked with the previous hitch in Mesa Verde the following day and ended up playing ultimate frisbee with them. I’m not usually a huge frisbee fan but being a part of something was enough to distract us from the crappy hitch we’d just had. I even cemented some hiking plans with one of the rangers. After seeing El Diente and the peaks around it, I was very interested in climbing it. With another 4.5 days of break before the next hitch, there was plenty of time to get a good trip in.
The last item on my checklist before embarking on another mountain-escapade was to see Indiana. He had spent the rest of our hitch loafing around Durango and had agreed to go rock climbing with Hawk (from a different SWCC crew) and a few others near the town. I figured it would be nice to see him, get his story and ask the inevitable question of “whatcha gonna do now?”
After climbing a few routes, I got the full story. Indiana had a heart condition where one of his valves didn’t close all the way. He had also never been at elevations as high as we were operating before. Indiana is, as a state, quite low, and he hadn’t spent much time outside it. Compounding those two factors was persistent asthma. When combined, they produced the seizing and loss of consciousness we’d seen. There was no way to check for that in the backcountry, and he was honestly surprised no previous doctor had told him about it. He had made the tough choice to call it quits. There was simply no way to tell if he would ever acclimatize and the risk for another attack was far too great. We chatted and reminisced about the good times over the past three weeks, but the following day, I was off to climb some 14ers, and Indiana was on his way home.
The San Miguels
El Diente, Mt. Wilson, and Wilson Peak are part of a subrange of mountains known as the San Miguels. They are part of the larger San Juan Range but disconnected from them by the area around Telluride. Wilson Peak is especially prominent from the town and is the summit that appears on Coors beer cans. During the middle and end of the previous hitch, in order to fend off boredom and the somberness of our reduced team, I asked if our CFI mates had any books with them. Turns out, they’d brought a small library, knowing they’d be fixing El Diente all summer long. One of the books was a copy of Colorado’s 14ers: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach. It had long been the de-facto resource for climbing all the peaks over 14,000 feet in the state. Eventually, his books would have to compete with excellent route sites like 14ers.com, but out in the wild, internet was suspiciously lacking, so the book was what I had to entertain myself with. Naturally, this led to a slow epiphany. I’d already done two 14ers, might as well do all of them in the San Juans. The epiphany hadn’t quite made it to, “might as well do all of them in the state”, but the wheels were turning inevitably in that direction.
I settled on the trio near our worksite because, after nine days of staring up at El Diente, and knowing there were two other mountains behind it, I was properly motivated. I met my National Park ranger friend, let’s call him Big Bend (he was straight outta west TX), at the trailhead for our hike. I figured the best way to attack the San Miguels from the south was via a campsite at Navajo Lake, situated in a high cirque between the three. So that’s what we did.
We set up camp in between brief rainstorms and settled in. Do I find it strange that Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak are two separate mountains with similar names that are very close to one another? Yes. But that wasn’t enough of a concern to stop me from scrambling up them. We drifted off into restful sleep and woke up at the butt-crack of dawn to tackle our first target. Wilson Peak is a solid Class 3 scramble over loose rocks. It is a fun and challenging scramble, briefly becoming the toughest 14er I’d climbed yet. That title would fall to Mount Wilson the following day, as it would become my first Class 4 mountain climb.
The next day we had high hopes of tagging Mt. Wilson and completing the Wilson-Diente traverse, one of 4 “Classic” 14er traverses as Gerry Roach put it. The weather conspired against us in the end, but we did manage to summit Mt. Wilson, and I would come back to hit the traverse twice during the following weeks.
Once we got back down to camp, we packed up and moseyed back to the car. The whole Lizard Head Wilderness is wonderful and wild, especially on it’s less traveled western side. Repeat visits were already in the works before I’d even left the trailhead.
Before saddling up for our next hitch, I found a quiet spot at Durango Joe’s coffee and thought about all the things that had happened since leaving home. Despite the world’s best efforts to knock me down, I kept getting back up again. Standing despondently in the rain, looking at a couple bloated rat corpses was the closest I got to questioning whether or not that was a sane thing to do, but objectively, it was. Sometimes, life just sucks, but it doesn’t mean you should stop trying.
Since leaving the East Coast, I’d burned through a wad of cash on a road trip to “find myself,” taken a job I barely understood, fallen off of multiple mountains, experienced two medical crises, and watched two team members disappear from the ranks. Somewhere along that timeline, I hardened up, not like I really had a choice.
A true test of character is how we understand and respond to adverse situations in our lives. Do we project, throwing blame in every direction, hoping one will stick? Or do we do everything in our power to push ourselves forward, knowing we’ve only got one life to live, and, well dammit, it should be for living? Failure and tragedy make us stronger, but only if we learn from those situations. That doesn’t mean you can’t fail forward. Hell, I think up until this point all I’d been doing was failing forward, but in those moments of profound uncertainty, there is also a strange beauty. Tested, and tested, and tested, yet, still standing. Did I think more tests were coming my way? Yup. Was I ready for them? Nope. Was I going to keep trying? Until I had nothing left. For someone like me, whose biggest fear is shutting myself off from the world and letting apathy poke holes in my brain, even failure meant I had done something worth trying.
I keep thinking of a phrase that feels applicable to the rollercoaster of life:
This too shall pass.
The good times are good because they won’t last forever, so enjoy them while you can, but the bad times don’t go on for an eternity either. If it’s bad now, it won’t be forever. Keep your chin up; nothing really stays the same.
The great human experiment would be awfully boring if none of us did anything. So, onward!