The Collegiate Peaks of Colorado are unmistakable mountains; spinal vertebrae of the Continental Divide. Eight of Colorado’s fifty-six “14ers” are stacked along this 34-mile section of the Sawatch range, like waves crashing on shore. They are characterized by their tall, broad elevations and treeless summits. Glacial lakes are a signature definition of these mountains––many discovered and patiently reachable, some less. One of those is a remote sapphire jewel, Slide Lake.
Slide Lake is roughly 10 miles to the north and west of the historical town of Leadville, the highest incorporated town in North America. An area rich with mining history and one that attracts climbers and those wanting the ultimate tests of mountain sports. It’s here in this wilderness you’ll find endless horizons––and frequently––you’ll find, Brian Galyon.
Brian Galyon––built lean, with an honest look––comes here throughout the year to hike, fly-fish, camp and enjoy the immense solitude. He also comes here to work. Brian is a volunteer with the United States Forest Service, serving the Leadville and Salida Ranger Districts of Colorado. Along with his energetic dog, Sierra, Galyon has spent the last 3 years committed to maintaining hiking trails and BLM lands of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, as well as the Pike and San Isabel Forests. In this span, he has repaired and rejuvenated some 10,000 miles of Colorado’s most breathtaking, brutally difficult, and highest-elevated foot and motorized trails. “I feel it’s my way of giving back,” Galyon says, pausing, inhaling the cool rush of the late September air. “Nature has given me so much and this is my way of giving back.” In one summer alone, he covered over 1,400 miles of trail (for perspective, that’s the same distance from Washington DC to Denver). Do the math and that is over 40 hours a week, never earning a dime. Add to it, this work is done often over week-long stretches of time at asphyxiating altitudes, against a backdrop of notorious and unpredictably fierce mountain weather.
On this day, Galyon’s work at Slide Lake is joined by a tenured forest ranger, James, stationed out of the Leadville Forest District, and Barron, a local friend and occasional podcast co-host. The plan for the day is to be spent managing the trail up to and along the rim of the Slide Lake. The journey begins with a 90-minute whiplashed ride up to the trailhead in Galyon’s custom-modified, double-fisted Toyota Tacoma. The trail is rated as “DIFFICULT”, which in Colorado terms means, “THINK TWICE”.
Ancient, bulging, Precambrian rocks litter the trail; speed bump after speed bump, turn after turn. It’s a crawl; gears growl. Galyon’s truck is a tool for his work and allows him to cover more trails for longer stretches of time. He’s mastered driving this rugged terrain. The trees begin to sparsen. A dazzling view opens, a rich reward for the ascent.
The hike up to Slide Lake begins at the trailhead, so does the trail work. It’s a morning full of typical trail maintenance: fractured areas caused by water erosion are filled and smoothed; trash and debris is collected; a log barrier is constructed to discourage the unauthorized use of recreational 4×4 vehicles; illegal firepits, a dangerous problem in Colorado–-especially in a dry year such as this––are destroyed and the area recovered. New trail signage is also installed, and cairns are created to help hikers navigate trail sections that have gone ambiguous. It’s physical handwork, unaided by machinery.
The morning’s work complete, Galyon and the team break for rest, nourishment and to appreciate the splendor of this late September canvas. The afternoon sun rains warmth, a blanket to the chilling autumn winds buffeting the faces of these crags. Here, the peace is measurable, especially surrounding Galyon.
For the many times he has traversed these stretches, there’s no loss of appreciation. “I’m a better person here,” Galyon says, surveying the placid waters of the lake, scanning for rings of sipping trout. It’s gaze is looking far away from the sprawl and modern stresses of southern California where he last worked and lived. “When I lived in California, every morning I would surf and hike the surrounding cliffs. I just came to understand that I am a happier, more balanced person when I am with nature. It just got to the point: why can’t my life be like this all the time?” So, “all the time” is exactly what he did.
It’s not just Brian’s trail work that takes him to the deepest backcountry of Colorado and the American Southwest, he also makes his home here. Brian is hard to neatly define. He’s something of a self-sustaining/minimalists/live-off-the-grid/truck camper/overlander. A nomad. A highly intellectual and talented guy that left the pervasive stresses of modern life to lead his own life. His street address has been replaced with coordinates on maps, his backyard now 3.5 million acres of Colorado wilderness. It’s a life of simplicity and cunning resourcefulness, all under the mantra: TRAVEL LIGHT SO YOU CAN TRAVEL ANYWHERE. Summer months are spent sleeping in the bed of his modified truck. Winter brings extreme conditions and Galyon has learned to fortress himself within a 12’ x 14’ field tent, completely comfortable and protected. In winter conditions, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to dip well below zero, the most extreme night in 2016 with temps plunging to -37F, under heaves of fallen snow. Once he was snowed in under 5 feet of snow for almost a month, also suffering third-degree leg burns from a freak cooking accident involving his favorite calorie of choice, bacon. He survived, and stronger. Reflecting, “It was kind of crazy, but I got through it. I learned a lot about both myself and how to survive—both physically and mentally. The rangers from the Forest Service would stop in every so often to check on me and just shake their heads.”
There’s a rhythm to Galyon’s life that mirrors nature: his trail work in the summer months is counterweighted in the winter with long periods of solitude, rest, reading and active appreciation of the outdoors. A functioning-hibernation of sorts. It’s a time for healing and growth; the turning over of stones to his happiness. However, this nomadic lifestyle is hardly an isolated one. Galyon is active on his social media platforms, connecting daily with followers to educate and advocate off-grid living, conservation practices and being a voice on the front lines of environmentalism. For living in the middle of nowhere, he is amazingly still in the middle of it all. “There’s a lot of good discussion out there about the environment and conservation, but it’s just that, mostly talk. I hope to lead by example. Getting your hands dirty and participating is the best way you can contribute to protecting the environment.”
The trip down from Slide Lake proves no faster than the way up. Gravity doesn’t always win in these parts; sometimes common sense has to. Time doesn’t matter here, and certainly not for Brian. It was another full day of doing positive acts to help people enjoy this wilderness and help preserve it. For a man who owns very little, those who come to enjoy the high-country of Colorado owe him a lot.
To learn more about Brian Galyon and his self-sustained mountain life, connect with him at: