The Engineer of Mountain Walkers

How trail designer Loretta McEllhiney protects mountains from people.

IMG_1418This story originally appeared in the print edition of High Country News on June 26, 2017

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.

And on a wintry May morning, I provide a perfect object lesson about one tool McEllhiney uses to steer these two juggernauts: I fall hard on a hillside and get snow down my pants.

“Sideslope,” McEllhiney says helpfully, after checking to make sure I’m OK. That’s why she’s picked this route for a new trail on the southern toe of Colorado’s Mount Elbert, where we’re bushwhacking over fallen aspens slick with fresh snow: The land here is steep enough that the path contouring across it will be the only place you can walk without tumbling ass-over-teakettle, and water will drain easily off its downhill edge, instead of scouring a trench down its center. “Sideslope,” McEllhiney concludes as I brush off my butt, “really helps confine people onto a bench.” More…