Brutal conditions challenge workers on Manitou Incline
By SETH BOSTER
Oct. 21, 2017
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — With both feet planted firmly so as not to slip and tumble down into the clouds, Hugo Benitez glanced over his shoulder, down to the shrouded ties and water-diverting structures that he and his team installed during two previous jobs on the Manitou Incline.
"We never thought we would be here," he said atop the region's most popular trail. "We never thought down there that we'd be up here."
The task loomed above the false summit they saw from their lower stations in 2014 and 2016. Now they're above that hump, here at the highest reaches of the famous stair-stepper where hikers have always navigated loose soil on eroded slopes and broken ties around cracked culverts.
The smell of mixed dirt hung thick on the thin air as eight men in hard hats worked through another cold, drizzly day. "Brutal" was the word one used to describe the conditions they've been dealt recently as they try to finish the third and final phase of scheduled renovations on the former cog railway.
Nearly two months down on the project. Nearly another two to go before the anticipated reopening in the first week of December.
By the end of October, Timberline Landscaping wants the repairs to be 80 percent complete.
"We gotta knock it out," said Tim Emick, owner of the company chosen by the City of Colorado Springs for the multi-million dollar assignments.
Potential work-delaying weather has always been the concern at these halfway junctures of the Incline jobs. But for this phase, the concern is magnified. That's due to the bumpy, dirt road workers must take on their commute.
It begins behind a gate off U.S. 24, winding up to the staging area where Timberline keeps materials that are picked up by a helicopter and dropped off directly over the trail. Workers meet here at 6 a.m. five or six days a week, piling into the Suburban or hopping onto UTVs.
They take about 45 minutes to travel the road ending at the top of the Incline's west side. They ride through a forest of ponderosa pine and blue spruce, inching around scrub oak and granite boulders beside drop-offs.
In 2014 and 2016, they hiked to work, backpacking snow blowers if necessary. "This way, on a snow-covered road, it's extremely dangerous," Emick said.
So the unconventional task on the Incline has gotten more unconventional. Along with travel, new challenges have been posed by the trail's highest elevation. "It's more steep here," Benitez said, straddling the rope that workers hooked across the path — to be grabbed as they carefully ascend or descend.
As he spoke, a rock came flinging down, and he dodged it by stepping over to what was fortunately firm ground. "You have to always be ready for something to fall. You have to figure out where to put your foot."
Also here above 8,500 feet, workers worry about the water tanks freezing. Most drink at least a gallon on the days that end 10 or 12 hours after they begin.
At least with two other seasons of experience, "the learning curve is gone," said Andy Witt, assigned to the staging area. Now he knows exactly how to organize the material, the stacks of timbers, pipes, riprap, wire mesh and concrete. He knows how to strap it all to the helicopter's 100-foot cord, ensuring it all weighs about 1,800 pounds, no more than a ton.
"Other than that," Witt said, "it's been cool driving the Unimog."
That's the all-wheel, German-made truck that sits nearly 12 feet high, spans 8 feet wide and carries supplies to the staging area. "Megatron," Emick calls it.
He admired the hulking machine as a lost runner came by to ask for directions. "They cut you off at the Incline?" asked Emick, who earlier this season received a texted picture of a muscular trespasser. (Benitez and Co. decided against stopping the man.)
"Yeah, you scoundrels, how could you do such a thing!" the runner joked. "Nah, I'm sure you guys are doing a lot of good work."
Emick proudly accepts compliments for the job he says has been "by far" the most difficult in his 34 years with Timberline. It started with him tearing his meniscus on his way up the steps in 2014. It's ending with him reflecting on his upbringing on a ranch south of Lamar, where he learned early on how to drive a tractor, brand a cow and fight prairie fires with a gunny sack of water.
"I've always loved challenging jobs," he said. "I'm gonna miss it."
So will the crew hailing from the little Mexican village of San Andrés Cacaloapan. The men with H2B work visas are kin to Benitez, a Springs resident who's worked many years for Timberline.
Back home, they struggle to support their families with jobs in a factory making clothes, or on farms raising chickens, or as truck drivers or rabbit hunters.
"Our biggest check is to work on the Incline," said Omar Gonzalez, as Benitez, his godfather, translated.
"Satisfacción," cousin Victor Manuel said of the job, which his family back home has learned about through social media, confused by the grueling attraction and excited for their relative's American fame.
In the clouds, the workers have scratchy throats and runny noses. Still they return — often on weekends with more company men.
"We had 22 on Saturday," Benitez said. "I can only fit 10 in the truck, so the young, skinny guys had to hike all the way up."
And they did, because there's only so much more time for them to be able to say they worked on the Incline.
Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com