Helper is, of course, home to the last of the D&RGW locomotives. DRGW 5371, an SD40T-2, is the only remaining Grande unit that has not been patched nor painted for UP. A few days before I made my way out for the D&S's second annual Winter Photo Special in Durango, CO, I got word that I should swing through Helper, UT, on the way - 5371 had escaped patching, and there might be a work extra up from Helper to the summit on Friday, 17-Feb-2006. It only narrowly escaped a patch in early February, and any opportunity to see it still running as 5371 was worth the extra miles out of the way.
So, I left a day early (which conveniently got me across the mountains before a snowstorm) and stayed Wednesday night in Grand Junction. Thursday, I planned to take my time working west and spend a few hours trying to find the old narrow gauge RGW right of way between Mack and Whitehouse. While I did do that, I also caught up with a westbound manifest - presumably MNYRO - at Mack. I figured I have very poor luck catching trains actually running on the Utah desert section of the Grande, so I should skip the century-gone roadbed and follow it instead. I cheated a bit - I did drive 6 from Mack westward and got a general feel of it from the highway, but I didn't spend a whole lot of time poking around on the side roads. Arriving at the other end of the realignment near Cisco, I found UP 4039 and train just coming up out of the Ruby Canyon stretch. So I continued chasing and photographing it at a couple spots, particularly near Sagers and Mounds (because they made the cut for the report). Once it arrived at Helper, I decided to go check in to the motel instead, as the sun was rapidly sinking in the sky, and the canyons on this side of the pass would almost certainly be dark.
Fortunately, the scanner pointed out my stupidity. The manifest was getting manned helpers to push it over the hill, meaning I was missing the opportunity to see 5371 (and whatever else was in the set) actually pushing. I arrived at the north end of Helper just as the train was leaving. Despite the dark canyons and bright skies, I made a go of it up the hill and managed a few decent shots of the helpers. The helpers cut off between Kyune and Colton, returning light. I followed the train for a few more miles, to just past Colton, and grabbed a few pretty good frames of the train on its own near the top.
Friday started out with a gaggle of fans who had gotten the same news I had, and were waiting to see if there would be any work run up the hill. Turns out, first the crew needed to switch a bunch of cars and then run over to Price to deliver three tank cars. A few hours later, back at Helper, they cut 5371 loose and headed up the hill with the work train. With a gaggle of fans trailing behind on parallel US 6, the next few hours were spent chasing 5371 up to the top and back. There's not much to say about it, but it was a great way to get photos of 5371 on the hill.
Once 5371 was back at Helper, a bit after 1300h, it was time to get going. I needed to make Montrose yet that night, and then work south along the old RGS in the morning on the way into Durango, so I took off. I did get my chance, however, to poke around the old narrow gauge just beyond Cisco a bit more thoroughly, and I managed to catch a westbound coal train at Brendel.
What follows is not the most spectacular photography ever, but it very well might be my last look at Rio Grande power in its original paint on home rails.