How trail designer Loretta McEllhiney protects mountains from people.
This 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…