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The Hull Cook Journals: Pack Burros

April 14, 2010 Climb, Hike 1 Comment

The pack burro Jake on an early-summer trip up trail.

Hull Cook worked at the Boulderfield Shelter Cabin on Longs Peak during the summers of 1932, 1933, and 1934. These are his stories.

The Boulderfield Hotel, or shelter, or cabin, whatever you may call it, was constructed in 1926 and 1927 by the National Park Service, and was operated during its 10-year existence by the Colliers. The construction was not an easy task. Everything but the actual rock had to be laboriously packed in on horses or mules over a very rough and rocky six-mile trail at high altitude. I believe Jack Moomaw, an early park ranger and guide, supervised the construction of the trail across the Boulderfield to the hotel site, which enabled pack mules and horses to negotiate this jumble of rocks without suffering broken legs. The workmen stayed at Timberline Cabin, so a good part of their day was spent in hiking the three miles each way to and from Boulderfield.

Problems, of course, arose later, some of which were quite unexpected. For example, one would not expect a small, rugged granite building to be easily pulled apart. Yet a little of that happened each year. Cracks up to a half-inch in width in walls and floor would open up, necessitating a caulking job every spring. To account for this instability, I believe that there must be an underground, glacier-like ice flow that is constantly replenished by seepage from the Dove snowfield.

Wind was another problem, its effects having been underestimated. The first winter was educational. The whole roof went off, smashed, dismembered, and scattered for miles. The cabin became a large solid block of hard-packed snow enclosed in granite walls, a rather discouraging spring discovery. To avoid a repetition of this disaster, the new roof was reinforced with small logs laid horizontally on the gabled roof, and held down with a row of head-sized boulders above each log.

The stable had a single-slant roof covered with sheets of corrugated iron roofing. When some of these iron sheets were found as far away as three miles, it was decided to bolt them in position in such a way that they could be removed each fall and stored in a rock-weighted stack, there to await reassembly the following spring when winds were less severe. However, a generous sprinkling of large rocks was necessary here also.

Pack train on the Boulderfield.

To fulfill the need for a base camp, Bob Collier, at his own expense, built a small house at the Longs Peak trailhead. Here supplies could be stored awaiting transport up trail on the pack burros or donkeys. The first burros were Jack and Cootie, but they were too small to handle the volume of freight, so they were replaced the next year by the larger burros, Jake and Dammit. Whoever was on packing duty often spent the night at base camp, resting the burros overnight if they had just come down trail. The packer may have brought down a big load of dirty sheets destined for the Estes Park Laundry, where they would be exchanged for clean. While in town he would purchase whatever supplies were needed, and then return to base camp, usually enjoying the trill of driving Dorothy’s car, a sleek Chevy convertible that to Bob was the “pneumonia buggy.”

He would also pick up mail at the Hewes-Kirkwood Inn (now a music camp.) A visit with Charlie Hewes, hospitable owner of the inn, would frequently ensue, followed by an invitation from Julia Morrissey, Charlie’s cook of many years, to stay for dinner, a welcome invitation that we boys never refused. It beat batching at the base camp.

Following the pack burros the six miles up trail was usually three hours of plodding drudgery, except for the pleasure derived from the cool, fresh air and the inspiring scenery, although it was not unusual to have the view obscured by rain, sleet, and low-lying clouds. On the trail a burro may occasionally rebel and grunt in burro language, “To Hell with all this!” and lie down. And if his load is heavy it will have to be unloaded before the animal can get up. Then, during the time it takes to accomplish the repacking, one or more of your other animals may decide to lie down too, thus compounding the problem.

Getting a recalcitrant burro back on his feet may require ingenuity. “Tailing him up,” such as one might do with a cow, is of no help because horses and burros get up front end first. Beating is usually ineffective, and seems cruel. For the less fastidious, twisting a rock in the burro’s anus will work, although this method always seemed to me a bit uncouth. Pouring a little water in an ear works better. If I’m giving away professional secrets here I should add a word of caution: do not use very cold water. If the water is quite cold it may induce vertigo, and that will give the animal the “blind staggers,” making him incapacitated for an hour or more. We never bothered with carrying water on the six-mile trek to Boulderfield, so if the need arose to encourage a burro to get back up on his feet, I found it helpful to have a full bladder. If the aesthetically minded find this idea offensive, I defend it by assuring them that warm water is much more comfortable than cold.

Hull Cook in his nailed boots, 1933.

During the seasons when I worked at Boulderfield the care of the pack string was chiefly my responsibility. I had previous packing experience, and I had worked for a livery stable. Also, I volunteered to keep the burros shod to avoid the expense of bringing in a professional farrier. I was no expert, but I had the advantage of having received instruction in horseshoeing from an old blacksmith.

Jake would permit work being done on his front feet, but his hind feet were something else. He would kick viciously at anyone who was brash enough to touch a hind foot, and on our rough, rocky trail shoes were necessary to prevent hooves from wearing down to an incapacitating tenderness. In order to nail shoes on Jake’s hind feet I had to throw him down as a bulldogger throws a steer. Then, with someone sitting on his head, I could tie his upper front foot to the upper hind foot. A pole could then be slid across his ribs with its end placed under the tied feet, and with another helper sitting on the opposite end of the pole the feet would be pried up to where I could accomplish the shoeing. Hot shoeing provides a more tailor-made, professional job, but without forge or anvil I had to be content with cold shoeing, and it proved adequate.

We boys were pretty much iron-shod too. We wore heavy shoes with thick, built-up soles and heels, fashioned to accommodate Swiss edging nails on which we depended for sure footing on rough rock. Such a shoe made a track that has been copied by today’s “waffle stompers.” We loved those edging nails because we felt that they kept us alive on dangerous cliffs. In fact one climber to whom I had loaned my boots for an East Face ascent said, “There were places up there where those nails were worth five thousand dollars a nail!”

It was the low places that were dangerous, because that is where a falling body would get hurt. We boys admonished one another that in case of a fall to be sure to remember to enjoy the view on the way down.

More stories:
Introduction
The Cabin

Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Lynn says:

    I am giving a talk to Estes Park Postcard Club this weekend and would like to show this article at the meeting. Do I have permission to do so? Very interesting and perfectly “on topic.” Thanks for your response. Lynn

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