Fall is fast approaching in the alpine. The aspens and willows are glowing yellow, and the tundra is turning red. Our last work day hovered just above freezing for most of the day as an icy fog rolled over the peaks.
As our season winds down, it becomes increasingly important to define our priorities. On San Luis that means refocusing toward restoration. The pre-existing social route from treeline to the last major climb followed Stewart Creek very closely. Where a trail follows water, it increases the rate of erosion and causes the trail to become a muddy rut. The eroded soils end up in the creek, elevating nutrient levels, lowering oxygen levels, and generally disrupting the watershed.
Our restoration process focuses on regrowth of trampled plants and grasses via seeding, transplanting, soil decompaction, and water retention. We also remove visible linear features, such as berm or straight lines of rock, that might tempt hikers onto the closed route.
This is undoubtedly the most stressful portion of our season. As our fall deadline approaches, the pace of our work quickens. It is imperative that we finish everything we set out to accomplish; our current and future funding depends on it. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking mostly of next season.
To work for CFI requires a full commitment. A season of trail work means 100 days above treeline, and a schedule that allows little time for anything else. When not on project we live off the grid in a small yurt in one of the most isolated parts of Colorado. It’s a job with many risks, and ample rewards. But more than being a difficult job, it’s a difficult lifestyle. So this time of year I wonder again, can I sustain this pace? Will I return for another season? On another mountain?
Hiking up before dawn amongst early winter squalls, fighting off cold mountain air with a quick pace under a heavy pack, the peaks look bigger the more wintry it gets. They become more defiant and craggy as the snow begins to stick. These are the images that keep me coming back each year. Weathering endless storms for rare glimpses of magic only seen by those who know a mountain intimately, those who see the mountain day in and day out.
There’s no money in trail work. But even if I only scrape a living, at least it’s a living worth scraping, and a present worth remembering.