Ca­reer moun­tain wo­man is de­sign­ing high­est trails

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Sarah Gil­man

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?”

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