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Rock Steps

Rock Step Clancy

Rock Step 'Clancy'

Instead of a bridge, my crew spent most of our time building rock steps, primarily on Duck Pass Trail in the Mammoth Lakes basin.

Arrowhead Lake

Arrowhead Lake

The trail to Duck Pass is one of the area’s quickest routes up into the high country, so it gets a ton of usage. The first section is a series of steep dusty switchbacks through lodgepole pine forest, but then you’re up in granite country the rest of the way to the pass. Arrowhead Lake is only a mile and a half in, with a fifteen foot high rock to jump from (unbelievably refreshing after a day of moving rock, jump at your own discretion), and then Skelton Lake’s another mile and Barney Lake’s another mile after that.

For some reason, this trail somehow became THE TRAIL for cross-country running teams from Los Angeles. Every day, we would have entire high school and college teams run through our work site, forty or fifty runners at a time, once on their way up and then again on their way back down an hour or two later. I’d never worked on such a popular trail. It was frustrating to have people constantly walking through our work site, but then, on the other hand, I’ve never had so many people thank me for anything I was doing. Literally hundreds of people thanked us. A much used and much loved trail.

high timber step

High Timber Step

The trail is slowly evolving into a giant staircase. Because it’s a steep trail, gullies form and then steps are installed to try and control the gullies. The steps hold the tread in place on their uphill side, but then the downhill side of each step slowly erodes and it becomes necessary to add another step in front of it, which inevitably needs another step in front it, and so on. My crew spent the bulk of our time building new steps in front of the steps that past crews had built, and future crews will no doubt build more steps in front of ours. At times it felt a bit sisyphean.

Rock Step Bigeasy

Rock Step 'Bigeasy'

The steps we built are western trail steps, designed for horses and mules. Each step is supposed to be 4-6 feet long so that a horse can have its front and back legs on each step before stepping onto the next one. This step, Bigeasy, we actually sited even further in front of the timber step above it because that step is overly close to the next step above it. When that timber step inevitably rots out and needs to be replaced, it can be relocated a couple of feet forward and then all three steps will have proper spacing.

Bigeasy in transit

'Bigeasy' in transit

Finding the rock, aka rock-shopping, is probably the most enjoyable part. Moving it to the work site is often the biggest chore. Did I mention Sisyphus?

moving Mastondon with rockbars

Rockbar Power Activate!

You do develop a good sense for the shape and size of each rock as you roll or skid it through the landscape, though. We gave names to most of the big ones. Basically, if you found the rock and spent enough time wrestling with it, if it was big enough and gravity-enfused enough, then it became ‘your’ rock and you got to choose a name for it. Names were usually descriptive, but sometimes random. For instance, Clancy (a big one fit snugly between Elton and John) was named after a forest service guy who had his macho turned up to eleven. Mammoth was an early 500 pounder. Bigeasy was surprisingly painless and easy to move. P.I.T.A. (Pain-in-the-Ass) was the opposite. Melon was low-hanging-fruit. Quickie was finished quickly. The macho, male names of our early rocks led to a series of less macho names, Howard and Jeffrey, then Fabio (very handsome), then Buttercup, Jewel, and Pearl. Showtime, the Three Musketeers, Mastodon, Alligator, and Shitzy round out the list, the last of the names I remember. A few of those steps and the view from near the top of Duck Pass are below. (more…)

Backcountry Bridges

Gadbury bridge

Gadbury bridge with one post

The project that helped lure me into leading a crew for the Inyo National Forest last month was to build a bridge. Unfortunately, bureaucracy happened. The wilderness supervisor had wanted and planned for a native bridge (built with trees and rocks gathered at the site, pretty much the coolest project you can do on a trail) but then the higher ups mandated a strength that could only be achieved with glued laminated lumber. By the time the engineers, hydrologists, trail managers, and everyone else got on the same page and agreed on a design, it was too late in the season to get the specified materials and build it. So, no bridge; my crew spent the month building rock steps and waterbars, instead.

Gadbury bridge

Gadbury bridge at Barney Lake

A couple of members of my crew did help another crew built this Gadbury bridge at the outlet of Barney Lake on the Duck Pass Trail. The classic Gadbury is a log split in two and put side by side so the fat end of one half is fit against the skinny end of the other, equalizing the width, though this bridge here is a lodge pole pine cut in half, instead of split, with the tops chiseled to make a flat surface. A wrap of wire set in a groove at each end holds the logs together, and the ends of the bridge sit on rock sills so they won’t rot as quickly as they would on dirt. Quick and easy to build, and solid to walk on. The SCA blog has a 60 second slideshow/video of a crew building one, makes me jealous. The video goes pretty fast, but you can see the process of putting together the abutments, the stringers, and the railing’s joinery.

bridge at Garnet Lake

bridge at Garnet Lake

bridge at garnet

bridge at Garnet Lake

This is what I was expecting to build from the initial project description. It uses two big logs, canted on the sides to fit flush together.

bridge at Garnet Lake

bridge at Garnet Lake

Pretty good if the bridge has been there since 10/63. The posts are newer, set with bolts, and the rails fitted together with lap joints.

bridge at Thousand Island Lake

bridge at Thousand Island Lake

bridge at Thousand Island Lake

bridge at Thousand Island Lake

There’s something really pleasing about a rustic bridge. I’m still going through the photos of the rock structures that my crew built when the bridge got postponed. I’ll probably post some of them soon.

— Update — Through the magic of blogging, I now have a photo of the Barney Lake bridge under construction with the old bridge beside it. Thanks BruceinPA for sending the photo.

bridge at Barney Lake

bridge at Barney Lake

Skidding, Rolling, and Lifting

Sold! To the person with a giant backhoe...

One of the fun parts about backcountry rock work is searching around to find the rocks to build with. One of the most laborious parts is then moving the chosen rocks to the building site. Some wilderness crews use a come-along or grip hoist, but most do it with human power, rolling the rocks downhill to the trail with their hands or with a six-foot long rockbar. Here are a few backcountry sayings, born of many hours of wrestling against gravity:

Skidding is better than rolling, rolling is better than lifting, lifting sucks.

Stones come in three sizes: hernia, double-hernia, and too small.

If you can carry it, it’s too small.

Mcleod the Tool


Mcleod (tool)

The other  tool that represents trail crews for me, along with the Pulaski I showed in my last post, is the Mcleod, a combination rake, hoe, and tamper. It doesn’t make a big first impression, but it’s surprisingly useful, a mainstay on trail-maintenance and fire-fighting crews. The straight edge is the primary business edge, kept sharp enough to cut through roots; useful for cleaning and grading out a trail. Most hikers don’t notice, but trails are never built completely flat; they always have a slight outslope so that water will flow off the trail. The classic Mcleod is built from a single piece of steel welded together (the oldest ones were built so that the handle could be removed for easier transport, but I’ve never actually seen one of those) and is useful for checking the outslope of your trial; you can just stand it upright, and it should tilt one or two inches to the side, instead of plumb, if the outslope is correct.

Mcleod head with bolt

Mcleod head with bolt

Newer Mcleods, the only ones I’m seeing now, have a bolt at the bottom. They still function for tamping, but you can’t check the outslope on a hard-packed trail with them. Instead you can lay down a water bottle on its side as a low-tech, backcountry level.

A ranger for the Sierra National Forest, Malcolm Mcleod, designed the first one around the start of the century, and his name provides one of the only tool jokes I know:

What is the difference between Mick Jagger and the Scottish people? Answer below the jump. (more…)

Hitting the Trail


Pulaski with duct tape and firehose sheath

The laying of a trail…becomes not only a pleasure in itself, but an inducement to plan a better way of life, to construct worth-while things, or to weave a better product in the loom of our being. Earle Amos Brooks, A Handbook of the Outdoors quoted in Lightly on the Land: The SCA Trail-Building and Maintenance Manual

Don’t cut your foot with the axe. It will not add to the pleasures of camp life. Jeanette Marks Vacation Camping for Girls quoted in Lightly on the Land

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the ways I got started doing stone was by leading trail crews for the Student Conservation Association. Trail work turned out to be a good way to learn about stone; trail structures need to be strong — everything gets kicked by horses and mules — and they are supposed to look natural and unobtrusive in the landscape — no one is there to look at your pretty rockwork, they’re there to look at El Capitan — and there’s a deep interest in building things to last, much more so than I generally find in froncountry construction. I haven’t done a crew in five years, but I’m doing one for the next month in the Inyo National Forest out of Red’s Meadow near Mammoth Lakes in California.

If you’ve never heard of the SCA, the homepage explains that “members protect and restore national parks, marine sanctuaries, cultural landmarks and community green spaces in all 50 states,” most commonly in the form of trail crews made up of high school or college kids with adult crew leaders. The SCA has a blog that features cheerful, muddy people in hard hats building trails and doing various conservation-type things.

I thought I might post some more about trail work, but it’s been hectic trying to finish all my work before I go. I’ll be in and out of the backcountry for the next month, but posts will continue to appear through the magic of the interweb. Comments will still go through, but I won’t be replying here or on anyone’s blog until I get back at the end of the month. If anyone is hiking from the Red’s Meadow trailhead in August, look me up and bring ice cream. Happy Trails.

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