Written by: Mark Ely, guest writer for Tread Lines
You meet some interesting people on the Colorado Trail. With most, you’re only able to exchange a few words. Some you get to know better through the repeated leapfrogging that naturally occurs on a long trail. Occasionally, you find someone whose breadth and depth of knowledge and experience is surprising. Mal Sillars is one of those people.
Last season, I was given a new adopter segment: CW03A, Cottonwood Pass to Mt. Kreuzer. Mal was the first and only adopter of that section, having helped stake it out during the early 2000s. After personally maintaining it for 13 years, he was retiring from trail maintenance duties in celebration of his 81st birthday. I was the lucky beneficiary.
“Congratulations for being the adopter of the best section on this end of the CT!”–from Mal’s email to me on June 13, 2021
I met Mal a few years ago through CT adopter work. During my time caring for my original adopter section 13.1 (Silver Creek TH to Avalanche TH), a tangle of trees hanging over the trail exceeded my abilities. It was time to call in the experts. Mal and his buddy, Dave Kuhn, showed up at Avalanche TH with lots of energy and a ton of gear, including an ancient crosscut saw. Since we were in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, we couldn’t take something as easy as a chainsaw. It soon became clear that Mal would consider that cheating, anyway. He ended up carrying the huge saw 2,000 vertical feet up the notoriously steep trail leading to the ridge. As a group, we worked out the drop sequence, and I learned first-hand how trees were felled prior to the advent of the 2-stroke engine.
Before he gave me the keys to CW03A, Mal insisted on a personal walkthrough to show me the trouble spots. It took most of the summer to find a time when weather and availability coincided, but we finally made it happen in September. We needed a perfect day, and we got it.
CW03A is 8.5 miles of high and wild country. It drops no lower than 11,900’ and crosses three high points over 12,500’. There is a feeling of solitude that is rare on the busier eastern branch of the CT. As an added bonus, there are so few trees that a saw is rarely needed, crosscut or otherwise.
As we walked south from Cottonwood Pass, Mal related the history of the section and the CT Collegiate West in general. In the early 2000s, there was a push to move the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) up closer to the actual Continental Divide. At the time, the CDT route from Monarch Pass to Cottonwood involved a lot of road walking down in the valleys. Wouldn’t it be nice to go higher, take a more direct line, and get off the beaten track?
The biggest blank spot on the map was between Tincup Pass Road and Cottonwood Pass. The old route required walking the 4WD road over Tincup Pass, unpleasant in itself, but made worse by dust- and hair-raising OHV traffic. There had to be a better way.
In 2005, crews began flagging the new trail in the Morgan’s Gulch area northeast of Tincup Pass. In 2006, work continued roughing in the trail from Kreutzer’s Nose to Sanford Saddle at 12,774’. According to Mal, evenings spent over the campfire with the first-class trail designers and builders recruited for the effort were a memorable part of the experience.
Inmates from the correctional facility in nearby Buena Vista helped with some of the toughest rock work. Most of the major retaining walls, steps, and other features along the trail were done by them. This involved extremely hard labor at high elevation, but the assignment was nonetheless regarded as a reward for the best-behaved prisoners. On your way through CW03 today, you’ll see superb rock work that was built to last. There is a wonderful rock balcony on the ridgeline above Lost Lake that the prisoners built just for the fun of it, evidently. Or possibly to delay their return “home”. They certainly did work to be proud of.
The finished 16 miles of CW03 contain the highest points on the CT north of segment 21, with several climbs to points over 12,700’. The newly built tread was designed to be sustainable over the long-term. The scenery is spectacular, with abundant columbine down low, and a resident herd of mountain goats up high, clinging to vertical patches of grass that you might see in the Alps. The place feels quite remote considering how close it is to civilization.
In 2014, the United States Forest Service (USFS) and representatives from the CT and CDT officially dedicated the new 80 miles of trail by thru-hiking a portion of it. At the request of the USFS, the Colorado Trail Foundation took over maintenance responsibilities for what they designated the “Collegiate West.” With that, it officially became another part of the Colorado Trail co-located with the CDT.
Before I knew it, we had walked all 8.5 miles and were bushwhacking down to the Jeep we had stashed in Mineral Basin the day before. In the end, there weren’t many trouble spots on the trail, but it was a great day to be out on a world-class hike. Mal had made our time educational as well as enjoyable, and his deep personal connection to this stretch of the Trail was inspiring. I only hope I can keep the section looking as good as he did.
Among other things, Mal has been a math and physics teacher, a TV weatherman, the captain of a mail boat, and a real estate agent. He served on the board of directors for the Colorado Trail Foundation and continues to help with volunteer trail work in the Arkansas River Valley of Colorado.