The Lone Volunteer

20 June 2013 in Memories, Trails/Hiking, Traveling, Yosemite National Park

This week at Yosemite there was a collection of activities for Earth Day, which they had stretched out into a week long celebration. With Lindsay working and my constant fretting over wasting my free time I decided to partake in one of the activities listed in the park’s seasonal paper.

The “Climbing Trails Restoration Project” was listed to begin at 10 am with participants meeting at the Valley Visitors Center. And so after waking bright and early, taking in a good breakfast and packing a lunch I headed down off the mountain.

A little apprehensive—as I am one to be in unfamiliar situations approached on my own—I considered bailing a few times and just spending the day hiking. Thankfully I was able to overcome these trepidatious notions and see that it was highly unlikely I would suffer some unforeseen embarrassment or whatever drives the shy, like myself, to be fearful and anxious in these situations.

In the chaos of early morning preparations rangers were darting to and fro around the entrance to the visitors center. Hauling tables and signs and stages, moving bear traps and trucks and trailers. As I approached the sign that listed the day’s activities one of the few stationary rangers asked me if he could offer any help.

This turned out to be Matt, a ranger specializing in natural habitat restoration, and one of the leaders of the project. With him was Steve a trail maintenance supervisor, and the other leader of today’s activity. After introductions we idly waited, exchanging small talk, and waiting for other volunteers. It occurred to me driving down earlier this morning that it seemed highly unlikely that your average visitor would, by chance see this project in the paper and decide to spend a good portion of a day of their vacation hauling and stacking hulking stones, but given that it was climbing trails I did hold some hope for an area climbing club or group to show up and chip in.

This was not the case. After waiting fifteen minutes beyond the listed meeting time it was decided that I was it. I would be the sole student of two very experienced teachers. Matt had seven seasons at Yosemite under his belt and had previously worked for the Forest Service. Steve has spent seventeen seasons and counting building and maintaining trails in Yosemite. I couldn’t have asked for more knowledgable or friendly guides.

Our goal for the day was to build up and protect some sections of rock below the iconic Sentinel Rock. The area is popular with climbers, but prone to erosion. Trails leading up to popular climbing routes are loosely marked and maintained and climbers will often take shortcuts. The loose rock at the base is then in constant flux. This combined with rain and snow run off causes the surface to deteriorate at an accelerated rate.

With a set of simple, but heavy tools in tow Steve and Matt devised a plan to construct a barrier wall to channel hikers to the proper path in and out and build a route to channel water from the climbers base to a natural wash ten feet away. It seemed simple enough, collect rocks and stack them. I knew there was more than this, but I couldn’t have imagined how much.

Matt and I set to collecting rocks for the barrier wall. There were plenty to choose from, but there were specific guidelines for collection. First off you want the largest you can carry or roll up to the construction site. Obviously you don’t want to collect them from too far away given they may weigh anywhere from 50 to well over 100 pounds. Second you don’t want to remove a rock that has settled and is preventing further erosion of another area. This would be self-defeating, just providing another problem to be attended to in the future.

So with great strains and much sweat we piled rocks near the purposed site of the wall. Once what was seen as enough were collected we began constructing a wall. But this was no brick wall, these rocks were of all shapes and sizes. Some with flat surfaces, some with points, and others with round surfaces. So each rock had to be carefully selected, then rotated, flipped and sometimes chipped away at with a large hammer to obtain the proper shape, size and positioning. Like a three dimensional puzzle without a picture for reference the placement of pieces was slow going. Sometimes the piece you needed wasn’t even amongst the given collection and had to be sought out from the surrounding area. Then as each piece was added several factors had to be addressed to insure structural integrity that would stand the wear of water, snow and people. These irregular pieces had to interlock in ways that took into account the pitch of the bank we were building on and how the aforementioned elements would apply pressure to the structure.

It was slow moving and strenuous, but highly rewarding. So much of what I do, for work or pleasure never results in a physical manifestation of my efforts. In design I toil away on paper or most often on the computer creating the visual look of a two dimensional piece; the end result most often being an electronic file that is applied to paper. For the most part I’ve never been properly taught any building skills or given any tasks that required manual labor and tools, but the few chances I that I have been provided such opportunities I’ve found them to be greatly rewarding. Looking at the simple barrier we constructed, by hand, I was very proud; perhaps more than I’ve been for many of my other accomplishments that required less physical labor and manifested in less substantial forms.

After the barrier was complete we built the channel that would direct water to the natural wash. This required a very large stone that currently had set itself several yards from where we needed it. In order to move such a stone—probably weighing well over 500 lbs we used a hand winch of sorts. They had another name for it I believe, but that name escapes me now. Anyways with a massive towline wrapped around the rock and the winch itself attached via towline to a much larger rock I set to work cranking a lever on the winch back and forth while Steve strategically and skillfully placed long pry bars along it’s path to keep it from hooking on any of the boulders set in it’s path of rocky bed. Each crank, both back and forth pulled a heavy gauged wire through the winch – about an inch or two at a time.

It took some repositioning and adjusting, later moving the winch to a nearby tree, but with great effort from all of us the rock found itself situated in it’s new home. Never again will I be able to look at any rock laden trail the same. The exertion it took to move that stone—not to mention the other stones we move by hand—was well beyond my understanding until today. In the past while I thought I could fathom the difficulties of constructing the massive staircases of cobbled stones I ascend to grand peaks and places I now understand—though admitted not completely—that these are wonders of the human spirit to be beholden with gratitude.

I’ve always romanticized the work of trail crews and often dreamed of working on one someday. Now that I’ve gotten my feet a little wet I can honestly say I’d still like to work on a trail crew. The work is hard, but rewarding. The efforts protect and make accessible the resources while often left unacknowledged. But just knowing that you constructed something that thousands, perhaps millions will use, something that may stand for ten years or one hundred is very gratifying.

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2 Comments to The Lone Volunteer

  1. I wish you could have a mini Lindsay with you so there would always be pictures. 🙂 I’d love to see the rocks and wall that you built!

  2. Brittany on 1 July 2013
  3. That would be so cute!

  4. admin on 8 July 2013

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