Have you ever been on a trail pretty far into the back-country and thought, “Who the heck built this?” The answer is that it is a combination of dedicated outdoor enthusiasts, retirees, Forest Service hand crews, and, for one week, it was me and my fiancé, Nate.
Through Vail Resorts’ Epic Volunteer program, Nate and I were able to choose a non-profit organization and be paid for 40 hours of volunteering. We both hike a lot and I grew up taking family vacations into the High Sierras on horseback. I remember our enjoyment of each trip being strongly correlated to how well the trail was maintained, so when we had the chance to apply to the Epic Volunteers program, it wasn’t a hard choice of what we wanted to do.
We chose High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, based out of my hometown of Fresno, CA. In the last week of July, Nate and I loaded up our packs, grabbed our dog, Brewster (who is a Heavenly Avalanche Rescue dog in training), and headed into Ansel Adams Wilderness for a seven day hiking, rock-crushing, boulder-moving, tree-bucking, brush-cutting adventure.
If you haven’t ever been to Ansel Adams Wilderness, go ahead and do yourself a favor and do a Google image search of it right now. Seriously. Do it. We hiked the nine strenuous miles in to Hemlock Crossing, which is a bridge in a deep, ice-scoured canyon at the base of the Ritter Range and made our base camp with the 13 other volunteers on the North fork of the San Joaquin River.
When trails aren’t built or maintained properly, they can become natural waterways for runoff, destroying the base of the trail. Pretty soon, roots are a foot higher than the trail bed and hikers and pack animals take the easier route on the sides of the planned trail, making the trail wider and wider. This was the case with the access trail to Hemlock Crossing and the trail leading south, often used by hikers cutting over from Mammoth Mountain.
Our trip had two main focuses: rebuilding the treacherous two mile descent down to Hemlock Crossing on Stevenson Trail as well as bucking up trees that had been uprooted to the South of our camp on Iron Creek trail in 2011 by 200 mph winds. Let me just preface this by saying that trail building is not for any princesses.
The first two days, Nate, Brewster and I dug holes, moved boulders and crushed rock to build a series of stone steps and water bars to divert runoff away from the trail. I’m not kidding when I say that it took us three hours to move one enormous rock five feet. By the time we got back to camp, it was all we could do to scarf down some dinner (NY steaks, by the way) and collapse inside our tent for an 11 hour nap. To try a new skill, we decided the next day that we wanted to learn how to use a cross-cut saw and buck up trees. It couldn’t be nearly as hard as rock work, right?
So I underestimated tree work a bit. We hiked south about 4.5 miles and the saw we used was over 100 years old, six feet long, with three-inch teeth. It was heavy. And we were pulling it back and forth over a downed tree for 10 minutes at a time. Then we had to get the cut section off the trail. It was like a full day of CrossFit/P90X/Insanity/Jiu Jitsu/whatever-butt-kicking-intense-core-workout-you-can-think-of. Once again, I stumbled into camp, scarfed my dinner (chicken burritos with all the fixings), and slept harder than I had since I was put under for knee surgery.
When all was said and done, our small team had built six water bars, eight stone steps, bucked up a dozen trees, cleared four miles of brush, and installed an epic, nineteen-step, hemlock staircase.
Was it hard? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. The work we did will be there for half a century or more, for those daring enough to venture into the High Sierras.