I’ve heard there are different types of “fun” people can experience. One comes from thrills, like riding a roller coaster. Another derives from socialization, and a third (ultimately the most memorable) stems from suffering and hard work. It was this third form of fun that a wilderness elk hunt in the Colorado Rockies provided last fall. Upon reflection, I must attest that it was the most difficult, yet most fun hunt I could ever ask for.
The journey officially began on the evening of October 10, 2019, as I departed Pittsburgh International Airport and headed to Denver, Colorado. Unofficially, it started years earlier with a lifestyle devoted to physical conditioning, and admittedly, a mild addiction to all things related to the mountains and backcountry. Thank God for that, as this trip would demand physical and mental fortitude beyond my anticipation.
Upon arrival in Denver, I was joined by two friends, one (Steve) from Colorado and another (Jason) from Minnesota. With a loaded truck, we headed north for our overnight journey to the trailhead and week-long wilderness elk hunt. In the weeks prior, daytime temperatures held in the 60’s with overnight lows in the high 30’s. However, en route to the trailhead, the first of many challenges smacked us right in the face in the form of a snowstorm and 20-degree daytime temperatures. A great start…
On the morning of October 11th, we reached the trailhead, easily distinguishable from others as it represented the terminal point on the dirt road up the mountain. Upon arrival, we were immediately met with howling winds and temps in the low 30’s or upper 20’s. I don’t know which, but it was biting cold. Three other trucks were parked there, though we did not see other people. We got out, ate, and loaded gear into our packs. Steve decided to move the truck slightly and upon doing so, hit a piece of rebar that protruded from the curb denoting the edge of the dirt parking spot. The front tire went flat. A second strike and we still hadn’t left the truck. We shouldered our packs anyway and started walking, the tire could wait. From here we would travel only by foot as we backpacked into the wilderness.
For three hours we hiked. The trees gave us a reprieve from the wind but it was obviously going to be a rough night. Jason felt the effect of altitude right away and the cold was ever-present. We stopped at one point to rearrange some of his gear. During the transition, my spotting scope fell and its’ tripod mounting ring snapped, rendering the scope largely useless. We now carried an extra seven pounds, with no hope of using it. Cold, wind, a flat tire, and now a busted spotter — yet another kick in the guts and we’re still hiking. Once at camp (11,300’) the wind howled and temps dipped into the single digits overnight. So much for lows in the 30’s. I had a slight case of altitude sickness and didn’t really sleep that first night. No racing pulse, headache, or blurred vision likely meant no HAPE or HACE.
Lucky me, as each condition could become fatal, but I knew just enough to recognize symptoms and manage my condition. It felt like getting the flu, complete with body aches and nausea. Twice I left the tent and gagged myself in an effort to throw up. No dice. Once I walked away from camp armed with wet wipes — It was the coldest shit I’ve ever taken. But the bitter cold and howling wind weren’t my biggest problem, it was the altitude sickness. This was my night to suffer. The others said they were worried about me, and internally I debated walking back to the truck in the dark. At 2 am I could lay down without feeling too sick. I didn’t sleep, however, I just listened to the wind howl and tried to keep warm. Nearly all my clothes were on, heating pads stuck to my feet, gloves, knit hat, a sleeping bag, bag liner, and an emergency thermal blanket all used. I only shivered occasionally.
October 12, at 5:30 am I was up and ready to chase elk. No breakfast that morning, as everything was frozen solid. A combination of wind and the temperatures rendered our backcountry stove almost useless. Conditions were miserable. Steve and Jason decided to stay in the tent, warmer in their bags. Their decision was due to the elements, and I understood. The thought of staying never entered my mind. I had worked too hard to stop now. Years of physical and mental preparation; running, lifting weights, doing thousands of lunges to condition myself made the decision easy. I left the tent and headed west…alone.
I walked about an hour before reaching a large snow-filled basin. The basin lay to my immediate north and was open enough to glass from the ridge where I stood. Down in the bottom, I could see tracks, lots of them. It had to mean elk. The wind was directly in my face out of the west and bitter cold. Snow blew up when it gusted and I suspected no one else was dumb enough to be up here. I backtracked east before turning north and traversed along the eastern slope of the snowy basin. It was dark timber, and there were fresh tracks in the snow. The timber also broke the wind and let me move silently. I was completely alone but in total comfort. After years of preparing, this was my time, senses attuned and focused, I embraced the experience. There was something magical about it. After maybe an hour I descended toward the creek bottom to my west, heading deeper into the basin.
Near the creek, I bumped a bull elk from his bed, but he disappeared into the timber of the western slope before I could shoulder my rifle. I was disappointed with another setback. But it was still early on opening morning, and feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to kill an elk. So I chalked it up to a learning experience and pressed on. Later, with context, I would realize he was likely a satellite bull. Still, I’d have shot him without hesitation.
Following the encounter, I slowly worked my way up the basin toward all the elk tracks — always with the wind in my favor. After reaching a large area filled with waste-high willows, I saw a little patch of evergreens sitting atop a knoll. The location would give me an excellent vantage point for an evening sit; allowing me to see most of the area where elk tracks congregated. I navigated through the willows and headed towards it. As I crested the knoll, I noticed an elk feeding in front of me at 300 yards. Dropping to my knees and dumping my pack in snow, I pulled the binoculars up. Browsing in the willows were a few more cows and one bull that appeared legal, but it was difficult to tell. I had to get closer.
After several minutes of crawling through 4 – 6” of snow I was able to confirm, the bull was in fact legal. Perhaps our luck was changing? Lying prone, I immediately prepared to shoot before another hurdle presented itself. My sight picture was clear, but due to topography and the depth of snow, my rifle barrel wasn’t, and any bullet path would likely be obstructed. It looks like this will be a sitting shot. After a moment to reposition myself, I steady the rifle, take aim, and fire. A few hundred rounds from various shooting positions over the summer seemed to pay dividends. Even today I have no recollection of clicking off the safety or pulling the trigger. I just remember holding the crosshairs behind the bull’s left shoulder.
Following the shot, elk explode out of the basin all around me, but I cannot see the bull anywhere. Twenty-five cow elk run up the drainage and group up near the top, about 1000 yards away.
Binoculars up…no bull with them; glass where the bull stood…nothing. This is disconcerting.
I walk toward where the bull stood and there are tracks everywhere, but no blood. A sinking feeling sets in. Anyone who’s lost an animal has felt it. That inescapable feeling of disgust that sits in the pit of your stomach like a nagging ulcer. Scan, scan, scan…where did he go? I start thinking that I missed, feeling like crap, I’m dejected. Fighting record cold and wind, a flat tire, broken spotting scope, altitude sickness, and hunger was all manageable, but now a miss? Has Murphy’s Law kicked my ass once again? I’m one to embrace the suck, but at this point, my emotions border between bitter disappointment and flat out anger.
While battling these emotions I begin scanning the area slightly down the slope of my position. While doing so, I notice something protruding from the willows that doesn’t look quite right. In my head, I immediately realize it’s an antler beam, but it’s too surreal to believe. Despite the miserable conditions, a beautiful 6 x 6 lay dead in the willows. Standing, looking east at the mountain, I breathe a sigh of relief, and cannot convey how surreal it seems.
Following a prayer of thanks, a couple shouts of joy, and yes…a happy dance which no one will ever witness…I begin the process of butchering this bull. I’m alone, an hour from camp, and at the bottom of a cold windy basin. Needless to say, the mountain isn’t giving up her elk easily.
Over the next several hours I butcher the bull and make the long arduous trek back to camp. During this time, stories of mountain hunting, the backcountry, and wild places all dance through my mind. I’d immersed myself in all things wilderness mountain hunting for over a year. Does this bull close a chapter and end the pursuit of some oft-dreamt about stretch goal? Or did I just open Pandora’s Box of future adventures? I haven’t slept, haven’t eaten much, and I’m dragging. But a certain excitement still exists. Along the way towards camp, I eat handfuls of snow. It makes me feel better because I’m dehydrated and running on fumes. Eventually, I reach camp and share the day’s story with my friends. They emerge from their bags to offer congratulatory handshakes and even cook me a meal. Their excitement is only counterbalanced by my exhaustion.
It has been said, that once an animal is down the real work begins. This was no exception. During the second night on the mountain, I shiver constantly, have no sickness, but get almost no sleep either. Amazingly, it might have been slightly colder. The next morning we break camp and pack out. Our goal is to get camp out on one trip. Steve is hurting because of the gear weight and little nutrition — it is his time to suffer.
After reaching the trailhead and making a secondary camp, we grab some food. Then, we spend the next two days hiking back and forth from the kill site hauling out meat. The round trip is approximately 6 hours, and it’s a grind like nothing I’ve done before. Over downed trees, through creeks, over ridges, and up the mountain we’d go. At one point, while leaning over trekking poles, Jay and I look at each other and agree we’re never doing this again. And while I’m tired, he’s really hurting. This is his time to suffer.
Eventually, we pack out the entire bull. We’re all sore, but no edible meat is wasted. Ethics demand as much. Following a stop by the taxidermist, we drive back to Steve’s. Jason and I set up shop in the garage (affectionately known as our little shop of horrors), grab a couple beers, and then cut/wrap meat for another 5 – 6 hours.
Now, I’ve strength trained, done triathlons, duathlons, half marathons, and more weighted lunges than I care to ever remember. I’ve hunted and fished in numerous US states and the Canadian province of Ontario. I prepare meticulously for things years in advance. But, whether it was due to weather conditions, altitude, simple misfortune, or some other factors, this elk hunt was, and still is, the most physically and mentally demanding thing I’ve ever done. Yet, it teaches you that in many situations, be they mountain hunting or life, both your greatest adversary and your greatest asset is your own mind. And when you combine physical preparation with that mental toughness almost anything is possible.
Several days later, while sitting at the airport Jason looks over and asks if I’d ever do it again. Ironic I suppose, that the suffering is what made it fun. I’m not sure why one recalls the misery and reflects on it fondly, but they do.
“Maybe,” I tell him.
Jay responds, “If you do, give me a call.”