We had been awake for 40+ hours, but our drive West had been seamless. After spending 24 hours at 9000 feet, we decided to go ahead and push into the backcountry a half day early. Even though we planned on spending 48 hours acclimating, we all knew that we couldn’t resist the lure of the mountains and had packed extra food accordingly. After a couple of hours of hairpin turns, mountain passes and suspension-breaking, forest service roads, we stood at the base of our objective: A mountainside leading to a 12,600 foot pass and, hopefully, a steep drainage full of elk while lacking in hunting pressure.
Our mountain ascent started with a decent down a steep creek bank and across the water. Some scrambling plus a couple of fifth class rock climbing moves later, we began the 2,000 foot elevation grind in a mere fourth of a mile and, much to our surprise, we were in Elk and Mule deer sign almost immediately. After the initial 2,000 feet, the topography began to soften with a series of benches that were separated by steep sections of elevation gain. After 4 hours or so of climbing, we set camp 1 up on an exposed ledge. We were awaken just a few hours later when a herd of elk attempted to pass directly through our camp. The first couple of hours of daylight were spent glassing and listening for bugling before breaking camp down and continuing our push up the mountain. We found more reasonably fresh elk sign and encounter our first mule deer (21 yards) on the way. Camp 1. 10,500 feet.
In an effort to go directly to the top, we elect to take the more technical high ground and push over the mountain pass. A scree slope, some scrambling, and hard front pointing with our boots into elk and mule deer tracks combined with aggressive trek poling (yes, that is a verb!) in very steep alpine grass, we clear 12,600 feet and drop down 600 feet to make camp 2. Not a lot of options for flat ground up here, so we do the best we can, which means that us two ground sleepers our resigned to sleeping with a bit of body tension to keep ourselves in place. The other member of our party used an ingenious hammock system which seemed well suited for the terrain. Night 2 gave us relentless rain, freezing rain, snow and hail all night. Our 4:30 am wake up call was ignored due to lightning. Once we got going, we split up in an attempt to cover some ground in the immediate area. I glass early from the mountain pass and spend the mid-morning stalking my way downhill through the alpine forest. Despite elk sign, I only encounter mule deer.
During the afternoon, Robert and I pair up and do an exploratory investigation of the drainage on the other side of the mountain. In an effort to stay above the elk, we try to stay just higher than the elk sign, but this takes more effort than we anticipated. We end up traversing dicey slopes clutching handfuls of grass for balance and having to make technical, fifth class moves to get over and around exposed rock outcroppings. The effort comes up a bit short on providing the vantage point we had hoped for and dark clouds, heavy thunder and impending rain sent us reversing these moves in a hurried manner. The speed was both a relief (less time in the danger zone) and stress inducing. With a background as a climber, I find the rock to be stimulating and enjoyable while some of the grassy traverses with potential cartwheel falls into scree fields to be a bit harrowing.
After another night at camp 2 with heavy rains, we break camp in the morning and descend into the upper third of the steep drainage to our East. With the weather socked in, we establish camp 3 at 11,600 feet. Due to the heavy storms and humidity, much of our gear is wet and the weather is looking to become increasingly bleak. Brett sets to the task of starting a fire while Robert and I spend some time stalking downhill in a hail storm. In the early afternoon, we began to see hints that the sun might just break through and we spend the next hour watching the sun battle the clouds and cheering as if this battle is a sports event. The sun finally breaks through and it is glorious! We shed our wet clothes and spread our gear out on any exposed surface, taking full advantage of the drying and warming power of the sun. Though our relief from the bad weather was not to last, 90 minutes of direct sun was all we needed to ensure that we were set for a comfortable night. Brett takes off around the rim of the drainage while Robert and I push for the top. Lung congestion and a cough has become increasingly bothersome and, though I push through the weather and altitude to get to an exposed ridge, I pay for that ascent with a poor nights sleep and a body that is just barely hanging on the verge of sickness. For the second afternoon in a row, we hear bugling well below us between the hours of 5 and 9 PM. location of camp 3
The next morning, Brett returns to the opposite of the drainage to descend 1,000 feet while Robert and I drop into a deep creek gorge and then reclaim our elevation for a 1,500 foot stalk down the opposing North side once the thermals began to rise. Though we encounter no elk, we find some of the very freshest and most direct sign of regular herd travel. The downhill stalk was steep, often requiring the assistance of a trekking pole for secure footing. After meeting up, we ascend to 10,500 feet and establish camp 4. After some cold hours of glassing, we encounter a herd of elk who move onto the East face of the drainage, about a 3rd of the way up. We make plans for the morning and continue to observe and listen as light fades. Camp 4. 10,600 feet.
4:30 comes early and, even though our plan involves waiting for the thermals to begin to rise before getting aggressive on these elk, we hope to be ready and have eyes on them at first light. Unfortunately, the elk appear to have moved off the face, or, if they are there, we are unable to see them in the thick aspens. As was our experience all week, there was no AM bugling.
Once the thermals begin to rise and carry our ascent up the mountain, we began our ascent angled towards a rock outcropping that sits at a diagonal and slightly higher than where we saw elk the evening before. The drainage here is steep. Damn steep. Our ascent is much more technical and slowgoing than we expected. We spend much of our time climbing and scrambling on all fours while trying not to knock loose rock off on each other. My two partners enter into a “spirited” debate about where we are and where we should be. We get set up by mid afternoon with Brett bugling from above with Robert and I set up to intercept on the path of least resistance between us and where we suspect the elk may be hiding. Our calling yields no interest so we began stalking while traversing the mounting. In terrain this severe and thick, stalking is a frustratingly difficult task. I end up taking a hard fall during this process. After checking myself over for injury, I decided it best to quiver my arrow for the more technical sections of the mountain as an encounter with a broadhead during a fall could be trip ending.
While descending, we get separated in the Aspen thickets. The terrain is increasingly steep and we are forced to commit our entire body weight to the branches of Aspen saplings just to continue down. Like clockwork, the elk began to respond to our bugling at 5 PM. The bulls are spread out on the opposing face. We descend as quickly as we can while trying to cause minimal rockslides, but this is an impossible task. Descent at this point is more a matter of controlled falling by means of trusting our lives to sapling limbs than anything else. As I reach the bottom portion of the drainage, I look up to find the herd bull, a mature 5×3, standing 2,000 feet above me scanning the terrain below him like a mountain goat. The bull is firmly perched on a rock outcropping, surrounded by high angle (80-85 degrees), alpine grass slopes that drop off into 90 degree rock ledges. I was amazed to see an Elk moving so dominantly in what was clearly goat country. In fact, I had dismissed the idea of elk using that portion of mountain altogether. I watched him for 10 minutes or so, trying to run the math on a way to get up there where he is while there is still daylight. It is impossible. Despite being less than 300 yards away, getting to the elk would require a 1,000 foot descent and a 2,000 foot climb. Finally, he loses interest and trots off, traversing those steep, grassy slopes with ease. Some of the subordinate bulls continued to bugle from various perches in dark timber of the same face. The day was both exciting and entirely defeating. We were certain that we had blown out the North side of the drainage and the South side was so steep and complex that there is no way we could attempt it without positioning ourselves on top; A task which would easily take a full day just to reposition. The general feeling was that we had gambled big time on the Elk remaining on the North side and that these same elk had used the severe terrain to defeat us. While we could have doubled down on that area, the concern became the clock (we were running out of days), the distance from the truck and, most importantly, the terrain between us and the truck. We would easily need 2 full days to get elk meat out of the hole we were positioned in. We made the decision to head up out of the drainage the next morning. With full packs on, the difficulty of potentially recovering meat uphill and out of the drainage became a harsh reality. Despite feeling recovered from my brief sickness and even feeling strong, the mountainside was relentless. After dropping into the other side, we spent some time stalking through the alpine forest, encountering more mule deer along the way. We set up Camp 6 on an exposed ridge at 11,700 feet (the first flat ground we sleep on) and spent the evening doing more stalking.
We all three used the Sawyer water filter. Both of my partners used the filter inline on their bladders, filtering while they were drinking. I used the bag method as I had 2 smaller bladders -one of mixing drinks in and another for cooking water.
On the morning of day 7, we again waited for the thermals to begin rising, split up and, over the course of several hours, stalked our way downhill. This ended up being a very hot day, especially as we dropped altitude. Once we descended the benches, we strapped our bows on our packs and pointed our feet downhill to polish off this last 2,000 feet of drop. I descended this section so quickly that I got a nosebleed. The last obstacle between us and the truck is a creek. Instead of wasting time picking my way across trying to keep my feet dry, I take the plunge in the thigh deep water and knock the crossing out in no time.
That night we ate dinner twice (beers with both) and spent time in a hot tub drinking bourbon.
We’ll be back next year.
Thoughts on backpack hunting:
Obviously backpacking hunting is not for everyone. Combining your experiences as an ultralight backpacker with the concept of ultra light hunting is not as easy as a marriage as one might think. If you lack experience in either or both departments, this could be an even more difficult concept. Despite striping our gear to a minmimum and using extremely simple shelters, methods of meal preparation and a bag full of ultralight camping hacks, it was surprising how much time we spent dealing with camp on a daily basis. Not to say that a DIY basecamp or spike camp does not come with its own list of daily chores and tasks, but backpack hunting seems to have the highest tradeoff in terms of comparing benefits vs. consequences of different types of backcountry hunting. You will give up the most in terms of comfort and will require the highest level of physical conditioning in order to carry and hunt with camp on your back on a daily basis. At the same time, this approach allows the hunter the greatest range and ability for improvisation. For the out of state DIY hunter with no ability to scout an area for sign, outfitters and other hunters, the choice seems obvious, however, the execution of this method of hunting is something that will continue to appeal only to a small fraction of hunters. After all, you’re going to spend just as much time obsessing over the weight of your sleeping bag as you will sighting in your weapon.
Backpack hunting is not “backpacking” because you are often going into places based upon the movement of animals instead of the path of least resistance or aesthetics. You may end spending your time in a craggy hell hole rather than next to a nearby scenic river. You have to get up earlier than normal in order to break camp. You can easily overextend yourself in terms of distance from your vehicle. There are many things that can wrong, more decisions to be made on a daily basis. More decisions means more bad decisions. Additionally, you are not thinking solely in terms of “hunting” mode as you have many “backpacking” decisions to deal with. At the same time, this is a close as the modern hunter can get to the nomadic hunter gatherer experience without going intentionally primitive. It could be argued that contemporary equipment makes that type of experience impossibly modern, however, we are merely translating this experience into the modern world, not reenacting an experience from the past.
Backpack hunting maintains about a 60/40 hunting to backpacking (“camping”) ratio. Basecamp hunting, particularly if outfitted, maintains more of a 90/10 ratio. Your chosen method of backcountry hunting will reflect more of what you want out of your experience than anything else. One method does not guarantee success or outcome over the other, but the different methods do offer totally different experiences of backcountry hunting. In a contemporary setting where the hunting world has been entirely conquered, the next step in the hunting experience is to repeat what has already been done in improved style, means and manner; to move lighter, faster and further to accomplish the same ends and to do solo what in the past has taken large groups. Why strap on 40 pounds of gear for seven to ten days and hunt an animal that could just easily be hunted to and from a vehicle on a daily basis in a different area? Because it is a different experience.