Career mountain woman is designing highest trails
What do you see when you look at a trail? Dirt and rocks? A line sketched across the landscape by 100,000 footsteps? The adventure of some not-yet-visible lake or summit or cirque?
Master Forest Service trail designer Loretta McEllhiney sees those things, too. But she also believes that a good trail is about controlling two unstoppable forces: people flowing up a mountain, and water flowing down.
That’s why she’s picked this route for a new trail on the southern toe of Colorado’s Mount Elbert: The land is steep enough that the trail will be the only place you can walk without tumbling, and water will drain easily off its downhill edge, instead of scouring a trench down its center.
The South Mount Elbert Trail that this route will replace, meanwhile, is a textbook example of what happens when walkers and water run amok. People once drove to its summit in jeeps, and climbers eager to tag the state’s highest point followed the same route. Today, above treeline, the trail is a series of nasty-looking parallel trenches and denuded patches of tundra that McEllhiney calls a “catclaw” — 21 feet wide here, 13 there, knee-deep in places.
Over the next three years, professional trail crews and volunteers will close and revegetate 2 miles of this mess, and build more than 3 miles of new tread that McEllhiney, 54, and her seasonal assistant, Dana Young, have designed. It’s one of 42 new “sustainable” routes on Colorado’s fourteeners that McEllhiney has conceived as the Forest Service’s Fourteener program manager.
It would be hard to find anyone else who has spent so much time here. She has shepherded the work for more than two decades, through a pair of boots every season. Through two divorces.
“I’m not very good at marriages. I don’t know why I do it,” McEllhiney, now happily in the midst of her third, jokes. “It’s like, do you love the mountains more than you love your husband?”