The alarm went off at 3AM. I stumbled to the living room, where my hunting partner, Phil, was already stirring. It only took a few minutes for us to gather our things, hop in the gear-loaded Suburban, and hit the road. Destination, Colorado.
We flew through Missouri, and trudged through Kansas. Finally, we hit the Colorado border, although if you missed the sign you would think you were still in Kansas. Putting eastern Colorado behind us, the Rocky Mountains began to poke through the horizon.
A quick overnighter in Denver, and some generous hospitality from Phil’s friends, preceded another early morning drive. Up through Denver, over mountain passes, and through the Eisenhower Tunnel – we continued west. The high stretches of Interstate 70 were covered in ice and snow from an early season storm that shut down part of the eastbound lanes, and even brought out the plows.
We met up with Rudy, left the pavement behind, and started climbing to the high-mountain trailhead. We parked the trucks at 9,500′, where we were greeted by a handful of cows.
We changed into our camo, saddled packed over our shoulders, and I sent some final shots through my Elite Answer.
“Time to put boots to trail. Or so I thought.”
Leaving the truck we climbed up the final stretches of the oft-closed road. Arriving at the “X” on my GPS, we searched for a little known connector trail that would tie us into the main trail, which we would then follow a couple more miles before diving off-trail and pushing towards camp.
As it turns out, that connector trail didn’t exist. At least not where my GPS said it should be. And that other trail – the one we would use to dive a couple miles into the wilderness – well, it didn’t exist either.
The “hike” in was more like a scramble. We tumbled, and fumbled; climbed, and fell. Giving up the hope of a distinguishable trail, or any trail at all, we plotted a course to camp that we could navigate by land features.
This, my first real taste of elk country, was humbling. The thick, dark timber, the maze of deadfalls, the unevenness of the terrain, and the intimidating slopes – it made me stop and question what I was doing, and if I was up to doing it. I had a brief “fight or flight” moment, and of course I decided to fight on.
As we made our way towards camp we found ourselves moving quietly through a dark, North-facing slope. The signs of elk littered the mountainside, and the smell of elk tickled my nose for the first time. We moved as slowly and quietly as three large, and largely lost men could, but no elk were spotted.
We climbed another slope, dropped, then climbed another. This pattern went on until we finally decided to setup camp in one of several patchy meadows, near a maze of aspen groves, and just below a vast stretch of dark forest.
Rudy went about setting up his tent before the sun was overcome by shadows, and Phil and I got to quick work as well. We laid out our sleeping bags to loft, setup our tent, inflated our sleeping pads, and organized our hunting gear for an early morning departure.
The sun faded, but headlamps lit camp as we fired up the stoves and cooked our dinner. Finally, I was here – we were here – in elk camp.
As he sat in the dark, miles away from the nearest road, Phil remarked over a warm Mountain House dinner,
“This is pretty much the most extreme thing that I’ve ever done.”
If he only knew what lie ahead, he would know that those words would, again, roll off of his lips this trip. If someone told me what lie ahead on this adventure, I wouldn’t believe them.
My carefully planned trip began to unravel as soon as we left the truck; I just hadn’t realized it yet.
Lesson of the Day
A lesson that I began to learn this day, and would continue to learn for the next 6 days, is that access and navigation are critical. I did a lot of research on the unit, and the specific area that I would be hunting, but I failed to ignore the spotty information about the trail that I was hoping to take in to camp. I thought that the lack of information on this trail meant that I had discovered some secret, but as it turns out, there was little information because this trail was a path of an era gone by. Not a huge deal, really, but knowing this in advance would have saved us some time and changed our strategy for getting to camp.
But access is about more than a trail into the backcountry – it’s about roads, and closures, and conditions that might affect where you may or may not be able to hunt. These things would come back to haunt us later. For example, if Sunday’s storm would have been much worse, then the road to our trailhead may have become completely impassable (as it would come to be later this trip.) Have a Plan A, B, and C. The wild weather in Colorado this year has proven that you may need to adapt your hunting plans on a moment’s notice.
Gear of the Day
As soon as we arrived to camp I laid out my Sierra Designs Zissou 12 to begin lofting back up, after being compressed to the size of a volleyball while riding in may pack for the previous couple of days. I left my sleeping bag out while we setup camp, ate dinner, and organized gear for the next day. Finally, just as I went to climb into the tent, I realized that my bag was still sitting out in the open. I grabbed it and then realized that the bone-chilling night had already covered it in a layer of frost.
I threw the bag in my tent, snuggled in, and set about for a good night’s sleep. Not only did the Zissou keep me warm in the 20 degree temperatures, it also kept the moisture out. The frost on the bag soon melted as our body heat warmed the inside of the tent. This moisture would cause many bags to lose loft, and thus, warmth. But the DriDown technology in the Zissou kept me dry and warm on this cold night, as it would for many to follow.