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Wilderness crew braves rugged conditions to rebuild rocky trail

Sep 3, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The Wind River range is so rugged people often call it a rock pile.

Matt Walter would know. It's his job to smash those rocks, move those rocks or, failing those options, blow up those rocks.

As the trails technician for the south zone of the Shoshone National Forest, he leads teams of hearty young people to smooth the rough, stony edges of the Winds into wide, smooth trails.

That makes hiking and horsepacking easy for the rest of us -- or as as easy switchbacking up thousands of feet can ever be.

Walter led a crew through five weeks of work in the mountains in July and August to rebuild switchbacks on seven miles of the Glacier Trail between Star Lake and Downs Fork Meadows and to improve several miles between Star Lake and Burro Flats.

The trail is the main path to Gannett Peak and the most heavily used trail in the upper Winds, Walter said.

The project only had enough funding for a few weeks of work, but the crew made the most of the time.

"Even though they were dog-tired, they kept at it. They understood the importance of the project," Walter said. "They kind of felt like every minute counted that they were up there."

Eight days of loading

To access the area, Walter, five trail technicians and Shoshone National Forest blaster Crosby Davidson gathered July 16 at the head of Glacier Trail 10 miles southeast of Dubois. They loaded for eight days as gear -- including two 100-pound drills, hundreds of pounds of explosives, bear-proof coolers and an electrified bear-fence -- was placed on 16 packhorses and mules.

Each animal carried about 200 pounds of equipment.

Four Shoshone National Forest packers led the stock up the trail. Crosby rode because as the blaster, he had to stay with the explosives.

The trail crew, though, hiked the 13 miles to camp at Star Lake.

Three stints

Fortunately, the crew already had set up two, 8- by 10-foot wall tents equipped with sheepherder stoves and a large tarp at the campsite before the project started.

"Every Tuesday when we got into camp we had torrential rain and lightning," Walter said. "It was a little nerve racking."

After an eight-day hitch of building trail, the crew members hiked out for five days of rest. They went back up for two more eight-day stints to work.

For the second and third hitches, a five-person trail crew from the Bridger Teton National Forest joined the local group along with their blaster Aaron Deschu.

Big eaters

The crew woke up at 6 a.m. for a large breakfast. The trail workers typically consumed about 3,500 calories per day.

With all the work they did, most still lost weight, Walter said.

After they ate, the crew stretched and then set off on a one- to three-mile hike every day to where they were working. They would not return to camp until 6:30 p.m. after working for about 11 hours

"They're either moving rock, breaking rock or blowing rock up all day," Walter said. "It can feel like prison work."

A typical "problem" section could be a stretch of 6-inch wide trail bounded on one side by a steep stone hillside and the other by long, knee-high ridges of rock.

Such terrain is tricky for hikers to traverse and dangerous for animals.

Horse packers, worried their animals could lose their footing and tumble down thousand-foot drops, had to dismount and lead their animals down those sections of trail.

Tough terrain

Other obstacles were stone slopes cutting across the path. Several feet high and too steep to walk, animals would have to scramble down in jumps.

"We felt (the switchbacks) was a big enough safety hazard for quite a while," Walter said.

The goal was to get down to the dirt, and that meant all the ridges and boulders encroaching on the trail, every huge step down, had to be moved.

Because the trail is in a wilderness area, the work had to be done by pick, crow bar, shovel or hand, although explosives were permitted.

Rocks too big to move by hand were blown up.

The project received a special dispensation from the U.S. Forest Service Region 2 headquarters in Denver to use explosives and two "pionjars," gas-powered devices that are a cross between a jackhammer and a drill.

Then, the crew reshaped the boulders and rubble into a smooth trail. On the steepest sections they placed boulders and filled dirt in behind them to form steps.

The crews worked on the switchbacks for the first two hitches, but by the third, they had moved back up the trail to work on problem areas in the section.

All told they improved about eight miles of trail, Walter said.

"You're not pounding into rocks or skipping through a rock garden," he said. "You've got a soil trail to follow; it's quite a bit better."

Blasting

The best way to blow a rock up is to drill into it first.

"If we have a bore hole, the explosives become about 20 times more effective," Walter said.

They drilled a hole 1 to 3 feet deep.

"The larger the rock, the deeper the hole," Walter explained.

The blaster would fill it with about 5 pounds of a plastic emulsion explosive for every cubic yard of rock to be moved, attach a wire and pack the charge in with rock dust.

Then, he would run a wire to a position at least 500 away. Other crewmembers would block the trail 1,200 to 1,500 feet in either direction to keep recreators away from the blast.

Finally, the blaster would detonate the explosive.

The blast expanded the rock and split it on its natural seams. If it did not break all the way through, crew members would have to split it with crowbars. Then they moved the rubble either out of the way or into place to help build the trail.

"You could smash them apart or pry them apart," Walter said about exploded rocks. "You get down to the soil underneath and reshape it into a trail. That's where the art of trail building comes in."

In some cases, the blaster would simply place a charge on top of a rock to blow it up.

In one instance, a large tree blocked part of the trail. To move it, Davidson taped 21 pounds of explosives under its roots.

"We made it blow out of there like a rocket," Walter said.

In more than five weeks of work, the crew drilled more than 200 holes for explosions and typically detonated charges four times a day. Typical charges ranged from 5 to 10 pounds.

More to come

Walter plans to lead a trail crew back to that area for a final eight-day hitch next summer, but he is proud of the work the forest service workers accomplished.

"You're doing something for the public to give them access to the back country," Walter said. "The work we do is going to last, we take a lot of pride in it. You kind of get immediate gratification when you fix something, especially when we're building in rock. Those improvements will last for years and years."

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