We departed KCLL (College Station, TX) with our destination KMTJ (Montrose, CO) plugged into our navigation system at 4:00 pm. Just thirty minutes before, I had been sitting in class doing my best to finish up a lecture on hospital administration. Spending 6 hours in class with the allure of the mountains and an elk tag in my pocket seemed almost unbearable. Fortunately for me, my father had an elk tag burning in his pocket as well so he was as motivated as I was to answer the call of the mountains.
With our mid-afternoon takeoff, storms throughout the mountains were in store thus giving us a winding, ducking, and rising route as we began to pass through New Mexico. We cut west towards Albuquerque missing a storm off our right wing then headed North towards Alamosa. Dad was left seat with me to his right monitoring radar, frequencies and keeping a visual on storms and mountain peaks. We crossed into Colorado and had to make a decision to head NE or NW. At the last second, we saw a break in the clouds at our 10 o’clock so veered the aircraft towards that opening. We reached an altitude of 18,700 which in an unpressurized aircraft can be exciting. We had our oxygen bottles at ready but soon descended to a lower elevation once we topped over the clouds. We had just crossed the high peaks of the San Juans mountain range and now found ourselves heading due west with the Blue Mesa Reservoir beneath us. A 100-knot crosswind was coming off the right side of our nose requiring heavy rudder action by both dad and me to keep the plane on course as we descended towards the Montrose valley.
We landed safely and taxied over to the local FBO. I believe my mother was the happiest out of all of us to be back on earth as she was passed out most likely due to lack of oxygen during the last part of our flight. A long dinner ensued with a stop at the hardware store and the grocery store. With gear packed, we headed off into the mountains. Arriving at midnight, I was quick to unload my equipment and begin packing my pack for a particular area I had planned to hunt. By 3am, I was loaded up. With a fresh cup of coffee in my hand and a headlamp wrapped around my head, I loaded my pack into the cruiser and started the drive towards the backcountry. A 30-minute drive brought me to the end of the road and the beginning of an adventure.
I began my hike at 3:40am.
My route was just under 2 miles to an area that would serve as my basecamp. The trail begins with some incline and switchbacks. I noted how “tame” this trail seemed now compared to the places I had been just a few weeks before. As my headlight began to show my terrain changing from a steady incline to a trail passing through a thicket of willows, I was greeted with the sound breaking limbs. My assumption was that I had startled a moose, but I did not stick around long enough to confirm this as I began a long sprint up the trail to put some distance between myself and whatever creature I had disrupted with my presence. I reached the 2-mile point with no other exciting occurrences. Light sleet had changed into light snow by the time I had reached this point. I waited at this staging area for 30 minutes listening for bugles up the mountain and to gather m thoughts on where I should start my hunt.
The snow continued to fall as I headed deeper into the wilderness. Right at first light, I found a small group of cows feeding off to my left as I was sneaking through a group of evergreens. No bull was present in this gathering of elk, so I slowly passed them in hopes of finding a bull in an upper basin. My search in the upper basins showed me no success in spotting any animals, so I changed my course to head back above the area where I had first located the cows. It was mid-morning now, and the snow was now 6 inches in depth making my ascent through the fallen trees and rocks somewhat tricky. I made it to a good glassing point that would allow me to see a north facing slope along with an upper part of the valley, but to my dismay, the clouds that had brought in the snow had other plans. I worked my way up the valley cow calling using the snow to my advantage through still hunting. At noon, I finally received an answer to a bugle that I had let out. The bull was much lower in elevation, so off I went back down the path I had just made. My gloves proved pointless as they were soaked through. I had also grown tired of my long hair the week prior to this, and as a result, I had very short hair. Going from a head full of hair to hair that is short in length makes a shocking difference in how warm your head stays. Neither the less, I trudged on through the snow that was rising ever so fast. I worked my way towards the bull. After going back and forth with him in a “bugle battle,” I soon saw my prey and saw that he was a very young bull. Much too young and small to receive an arrow. He had no other compadres with him, so I gained some elevation back and made a small camp to get out of the snow and eat some jerky.
After a delicious meal of some stale jerky and a smooshed sandwich, I packed up my scattered gear and headed farther up the valley in search of another bull. Some glassing and calling presented me with no opportunities in seeing or hearing an elk. I had planned on staying in this drainage for 2 days, but with the lack of elk, I decided to start the trek back to the road in search of an area that would produce more sightings. I arrived back at the truck a few hours later with icy hands and a halfway frozen pack. My gloves proved to be worthless and were soaking wet within the first hour of daylight. I cursed myself for the inconvenience I had created and vowed that when I got back on a computer next week that I would purchase a set of insulated, waterproof gloves.
I threw the pack in the truck and headed towards the high country to make the most out of the hour or so I had left of light. Fortunately for me, the snow created a perfect backdrop for locating elk, and I was successful in finding two beautiful bulls high up on a ridge. I watched them as they worked their herds with the colorful aspens and fresh snow in the background. I had the seat warmers on as I was still trying to defrost my hands which would end up staying swollen for the next 10 days.
The sun set over the crest of high mountains to my back as the elk fed in the snow-packed meadow above me. Once last light had come and passed, I packed up my optics and began the slow ride back to camp. A short but very much needed night of sleep awaited me as I would be chasing the sound of bugles come first light the following morning. Slowly but surely, I made my way out of the high country and another day on the mountain had come to an end.