For some reason Will Greer’s line to Robert Redford in “Jeremiah Johnson” springs to mind, when I think of this past opening weekend’s bivy hunt. “You can’t cheat the mountain Pilgrim. Mountain’s got it’s own ways”. It seems just spot-on appropriate.
I began scouting the higher elevations just as soon as the snow receded enough to give me access and quickly found an area that held plenty of promise and had me excited. Towards the end of July, I began climbing higher and higher up the mountain and was surprised to find plenty of Elk, Mule Deer and Bear sign. The sight of a small Elk herd lolling in an Alpine bowl one afternoon, had my hopes high and fantasies of chasing bugling bulls above the tree line brimmed in my heart.
I had the full intention of a deeper scouting mission before the season started, but other obligations always seemed to derail my plans. The last time I climbed the 2,000 ft. to peer over into the bowl, Green was the predominate color and there was plenty of water that coursed down the mountain. I would soon learn what a huge difference one month can make!
The Saturday of opening weekend had me rounding the last bend of the road an hour after sunup. As the sun’s rays wrapped over the top of the mountain, it seemed to illuminate above the tree-line like it was on fire. The bright fall colors were a shocking contrast to the bright green carpet that had covered the mountain face, just four weeks prior. I made my way to where I’d park my truck and geared up with anticipation of my first high mountain bivy hunt in three years.
On this hunt I was testing out a new pack, the “Alpine Ruck” from Sitka Gear. Breaking my usual practice of giving gear several trial runs before they ever make it officially into the field…the new pack got the trial-by-fire treatment. The pack only weighs three pounds…but I managed to load it up with close to fifty pounds of gear, food and water! One day I’ll get the ultralight thing pegged. But until then I’ll just have to keep my legs and lungs in shape, as I let the mountain be my treadmill. Since I live at 2,400 ft. in elevation, it always seems to take me several hours to acclimate to anything over 4,500 ft. or so. This morning my body didn’t seem to mind as much and the feet of elevation seemed to fall behind me, just a little easier than they had on my previous scouting trip.
Besides the fiery, fall colors being in contrast to the deep greens of the month prior, the lack of fresh animal sign and dried up springs seemed to make something buzz, deep within my subconscious. I hoped that the one fresh pile of Elk doo that I found, as I started up the scant game trail that skirted a rock slide, was not made by the only animal on the mountain. It didn’t take very long to see my one and only animal of the trip…and to have my only shot opportunity flitter away like the heat waves that danced on the slabs of granite. As I was picking my way through the Huckleberry brush, a violent movement and clattering occurred only a few yards in front of me, just below the false summit. I surged forward into an opening within the group of trees, hoping to get a glimpse of the animal that had made the ruckus. A fork-horn Mule Deer trotted into the open, forty or so yards in front of me. He stared in my direction for a moment; but before I could even get an arrow on the string, he slipped down into a rock slide and all I could see was his head, as he turned to stare me down.
Apparently the science behind GORE’s Optifade Open Country is solid…because I watched him staring intently in my general direction; like he was desperately trying to find whatever the heck had jumped him out of his bed. I thought that I had the possibility of getting above him and that I might get another crack at him…but of course the buck had different plans. One thing about being in the high country that you learn in short order: you don’t do anything very quickly. So my attempt of moving up and along the rock slide, was anything but quick. By the time I had gained seventy more yards up the steep vert, the buck had stolen my plan and had already slipped at least that far further up then me. As I navigated a few boulders and looked up to take a bearing, my efforts were rewarded by the sight of the buck bolting directly away from me and down the mountain. If I knew then, what I knew later…I would have pursued the buck down the mountain for a second chance. Instead, I stubbornly continued upwards.
Once I arrived at a spot that I had glassed the herd of Elk the month before, I shed my pack, drank some water and dug out a chocolate Honey-Stinger waffle. Once my tanks were topped off; out came the glass and I had high hopes of spotting something stalkable. I glassed without success for about 45 minutes before I decided to press on. I had plans of gaining the very top of the C-shaped ridge and walking the top onto the adjoining ridge. Once again…I was thwarted. Unless I had rock climbing gear; I would have to circumvent the steep rock crags and try to find a traversable way over the top. I made my way diagonally across the steep mountain face, all the while continuing to gain elevation. The terrain reminded me of the high-mountain tundra that I experienced while in the Brooks Range last year and taxed my quads just the same.
After another mile and a half, I spotted a notch in the cliff face that turned out to be a well used saddle. Being the only way over the mountain top, it was a small wonder that a well beaten trail appeared and headed over the ridge. I found the tracks of Elk, Deer and the scat of Wolves among some patches of bare dirt, that marked the first flat spots that I had seen since I had left my truck. About there was where my legs, who had previously felt perfectly fine, with so signs of fatigue….suddenly displayed the tell-tale signs that they were about to cramp up. I wasn’t aware of how much that I had sweated; which was buckets. The 90 degree temps and thin air had taken quite a toll. I slowly made my way over to a nice, little rock bench and quickly unslung my pack. When I stooped to bring the hose of my hydration bladder closer to my mouth…my legs suddenly cramped and I had no choice but to hit the deck and try to relax. I laid there in agony for at least a minute before the reality set in, that this is where I’d probably be spending the night. Once the cramps subsided, I unrolled my sleeping pad in the shade of a boulder and dozed off and on for the next two hours.
On awakening; I promptly looked at my watch and saw that it was after 4:00…”yep, this is home for the night, I guess…”, I thought to myself. Just in case; I arose and tested out my legs to see if there was any way that I’d be able to press on to my intended destination. They felt a lot better; but I could tell that they wouldn’t take much abuse at all. I decided to go ahead and pitch my tent and then survey my surroundings. There was plenty of terrain to glass, along the connecting ridges and slopes below me. I spent some time behind the Vortex Viper HD (20-60×80) spotting scope, but didn’t turn up anything but lonely mountainsides. It was so hot and dry; I surmised that everything was spending the majority of the time lower down, in the timber.
As the sun continued it’s Westward arc, I began to settle in and prepare for the night. I found plenty of dry firewood nearby and soon had built a decent stockpile and as well, had built a nice “fireplace” against a perfect bench of granite. I broke out the camera and shot quite a few photos as the sun went down. It was so quiet and peaceful up on top of the mountain; all that could be heard was the wind and the unceasing buzz of bees. Much to my delight and later on, my saving-grace; the slopes where thick with ripe Huckleberries, from mountain base to mountain top. I continued my hours-long feast of the delectable, purple berries; like some camo-clad Bear. Soon my hands were stained purple, as well as the knees of my Timberline pants. One from constantly shoving huckleberries into my mouth and the other from busting through the thick berry patches on my way up the mountain. Life was good!
It wasn’t long before I had a pleasant, little fire going and was enjoying a spectacular sunset from 8,000 ft. and just shy of a mountain summit. These are the moments that we yearn for and the kind of fuel that has moved adventurers to risk life and limb and forsake their possessions and family ties to experience. Aldo Leopold, in his ” Sandy County Almanac”, penned such words as “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.” Any language that I know, would not do this moment and this landscape justice. I was content to just soak it all in, like the best TV program that never aired. My eyes were glued to the scene that cascaded away from me and my ears ate up the silence that enveloped it all. No amount of money can buy this kind of contentment, just as no words can describe it…you just have to experience the high country for yourself.
In situations like these, it really doesn’t take much more than a wind break and a fire to feel perfectly at home. Before I knew it, the sun had set and the stars started to make their appearances. I made dinner out of a protein shake and soon was settled into my sleeping bag and being soothed to sleep by the lonesome singing of the wind against my tent.
Morning came very quickly and with a rude awakening. Once I got up and started moving around, I discovered that out of the almost two gallons of water that I had packed up the mountain…I only had 16 ozs. left. There was a small “puddle” of water in the bowl below me; some 400 feet down. This had me perplexed. The heat had taken it’s toll on me and I wasn’t sure how much my legs had recuperated. Do I make the drop down and get more water? Or do I continue up the ridge face, drop down into the bowl that had been my original destination and get water from the lake? It’s interesting how our resolve can easily falter when we are exhausted while dealing with extreme environments, as well as those little unknown factors and details regarding the situation. If we are to succeed in more than just surviving and carrying out the mission, some pre-visualization before hand, as well as some pre-made and definite plans are necessary. But where would the adventure be in that?!
Being as tapped as I already was, I kept pondering over what I would do if I actually managed to get an animal down. I was several miles in and several thousand feet in elevation gain and loss from the truck. With the heat being as intense as it was, a carcass would definitely not keep for very long…and who in their right mind would agree to come and help me with a pack out? I made up my mind that I would at least make it to the top of the next ridge, the ridge that stood between me and my original goal and see what it was like. I made a quick feast of all nearby Huckleberries, ate a half of Almond butter, bacon, honey sandwich and drank my last 16 ounces of water. Afterwards, I shouldered my pack and headed along the route that I had previously scouted.
I guess that I’m getting ahead of myself and should mention that just prior to making the decision to press on, I had climbed up the last few hundred vertical feet, to the summit of the mountain. This would give me a better view and aide in scouting a route through a nearby boulder field. All that I was packing was my bow…you know; just in case. There was a pretty sketchy line that I had chosen, that ran around a narrow crack in the granite. I had to do a twisting transition to a very narrow rock ledge and then make two, large climbing steps up onto a higher ledge to gain the summit. Well, when I made the transition, I had to make a large, almost leaping lunge, over a 50 foot drop off, to gain the narrow ledge. When I lunged and twisted my body to reverse directions…two things happened; the first thing was that I neglected to shift my bow to the other hand, to leave my near hand free to grab ahold of the granite face…and the second thing was that somehow my belt knife was sticking horizontally away from my body and jammed into the granite, which bounced me backwards. All that I could do was toss my bow onto the ledge and fling my body back to where I had come from, while twisting my body in mid-air.
I landed on all fours on the correct side of the drop-off and dang-near passed out from the adrenalin rush. Expletives rushed out of my mouth as I sank into a heap. Getting mangled on top of some mountain and not making it back to my wife is never an option. I always go to great lengths to keep the risk to a minimum…and in one brief instant, I almost royally screwed that up. After I regained my composure I rearranged the knife on my belt and then made the scramble without a mishap. A very close call.
I made it across the narrow boulder field and started the climb up the next ridge face and realized that it was quite a bit more of a climb that I had thought. I must have made it about a quarter of the way up when my legs started to tell on me a bit. That was it, plan B was in full effect. The mountain had made the decision for me and all that was left, was to execute to the best of my ability. Plan ”B” involved dropping down a two hundred foot cliff face, into a bowl that eventually led back down the mountain and to my truck. This meant that I would be going home a day sooner, but if I managed to get something down along the way…the pack out was a whole lot more sane. Navigating the descent down the cliff was a little hair-raising, but nothing worth writing about. Soon I was standing at the bottom of a shallow boulder field and into the same alpine bowl that I had spotted an Elk herd feeding in, just the month prior.
The terrain was on the higher side of difficult and with my urgent need to find water hanging over my head…it really made any actual hunting almost impossible. I had been gorging non-stop on Huckleberries all morning and it was the only thing keeping me going. Any time my thirst would reach a maddening level, I’d start shoving Huckleberries into my mouth. I truly believe that these little, beautifully purple berries, saved my bacon. I haven’t bothered to look up their nutrient profile, but I know that they have to be chock full of vitamins and minerals…and most importantly, they were deliciously moist to my dry palate. And for the simple reason that I had no water, besides eating one Honey Stinger Waffle, I was afraid to eat any of the food that I had brought. When my stomach rumbled with hunger, more Huckleberries were shoved into the ol’ pie-hole.
I had been following a dry creek bed for about a quarter of a mile, a creek bed that had been rushing with cool and crystal clear water only thirty days ago. I finally stumbled upon a little seep that was almost hidden among the Huckleberry brush. I couldn’t unsnap the buckles from my pack quickly enough, to dig out my Platypus Kleen Stream filtration system. My parched throat would have screamed at me to hurry up, if it could have. Within a few seemingly endless minutes, after cleaning out some debris and enlarging the seep with a combination of my boot heel and a stick…I had thirty two ounces of the best tasting water I can ever recall drinking. I stood there and drank until the hydration bladder was dry. After I finished my main course of water, I made use of the surrounding Huckleberry bushes and had desert. I laughed at myself having made such a quick change of attitude and pondered over how something as simple as a drink of water could completely change a persons outlook on life. Things were really starting to look up and once again, my mind turned to hunting. There HAD to be a nice Mule Deer buck or Black Bear, taking refuge in the only green spot for miles.
Since the dried up creek bed flowed along the path of least resistance, I continued to follow it along, just knowing that there had to be a good seep that would attract animals. About thirty minutes later, I was rewarded with a little bowl of green that housed the largest wet spot for miles. I found a spot in the shade of a Spruce tree that made for the perfect vantage point. The wind was right, so I sat down on a log and spent the next couple of hours glassing the nearby area. The wind was blowing in my face and I kept catching blasts of the pungent smell of Elk. I had previously smelled the lighter and less pungent aroma of Mule Deer. This led me to finally conclude that before I had even broke camp, these animals had already been through the bowl and had made for deep cover, before the sun’s rays could get too intense. I still had high hopes though and remained on alert and ready to slap an arrow to my bowstring. Before I headed out, I decided to take some time and gather some purple goodness for my loved ones back home.
One I had a sandwich bag full of Huckleberries, I pressed on. I still had quite a bit of gnarly terrain to cross before it got too dark…Lord knows that was one place that I did not want to be trying to crawl out of in the dark. About this time was when my willpower was really put to the test. I had to drop down into a boulder flow and up onto the shoulder of the mountain, that skirted the boulder field. At some point, while hopping from boulder to boulder, it dawned on me that I was having to stop more frequently to rest. I really had come to my bodies limitations and sapped all of my energy stores. From that point on, it was complete mental toughness and tenacity that kept me going. I found scrub Raspberry bushes growing among the boulders and resorted to eating what barely passed as Raspberries, to take my mind off of my exhaustion. The Raspberries weren’t near as satisfying as the Huckleberries that I had been eating, but they kept my mind busy and held some moisture in their small, stubby and deformed, red bodies.
Once I made it across the boulder flow and had climbed up onto the shoulder of the mountain…I almost could have cried, I was so happy! I still had a long ways to go, but it was all downhill and basically “level ground”, compared to what I had just traveled through. On the trek down the mountain face I hit that numb-level of exhaustion and almost plowed downwards, like some kind of camo-wrapped bulldozer. Apparently I had slipped out of hunting mode and back into survival mode, because I seemed to have no regard to patches of brush, logs, or boulders…I plowed over and though them all. I was really starting to think how much of a complete moron I truly was, I had passed up two opportunities to replenish my water stores, but passed because I didn’t want to haul the “extra weight”. Dumb…dumb…DUMB. That thirty two ounces that I had sucked down were long sweated out of my body and lodged somewhere between my Sitka Merino Zip-T and my pack’s suspension. Every time that I would bow my head, cups of sweat would pour out from behind my hat band.
Before I knew it, I was navigating the edges of the boulder flow again, almost to flat ground. I felt re-energized once my boots hit the flat ground of the old, Forest Service trail and that last quarter of mile to my truck seemed to disappear behind me like vapor. Upon catching sight of my truck, a wave of exhaustion crashed through my body. I’ve experienced this before, it’s almost like your brain’s reserve of adrenalin and will-power that it uses while in survival mode, automatically shut down once your sub-conscious confirms that the journey is over and any “danger” has passed. All I could think about was shedding my pack and jumping into the ice-cold, spring fed pool that was nearby. I soon was stripped down to my skivvies and I waded in, not even taking the time to remove my socks! I don’t think that I had ever experienced anything more re-vitalizing or more refreshing, than that blessed little pond.
After a time, I drug myself out of the pond and hobbled on stiff legs over to my truck and stretched out in the bed to dry out and take a nap. I couldn’t help but let a chuckle escape, when I compared this trip, to my last solo, bivy hunt that took place some three years prior. While the two trips were completely different in experience, two things stood out as one and the same. Both times I had misjudged some crucial piece of the puzzle and in both cases I ended up coming home a day early. Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a solo bivyist….or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. Maybe it’s just as simple as ol’ Bearclaw Chris Lapp said; the mountain got it’s own ways…and there’s no way to cheat it. Either way… can you blame me for trying?
*About the Sitka Gear Alpine Ruck pack: to be perfectly honest…I was a little skeptical when I first pulled this pack from it’s packaging. I really have had no solid, prior experience with an “ultralight” pack before and didn’t really have high hopes. But once again, I was pleasantly surprised with the performance of a new piece of gear on this “hunt”. The 2800 ci was adequate enough space to fit three days worth of gear. The design and lay out of the pockets are genius. In fact, for a three pound pack, I couldn’t believe all of the pockets and features that it has. I won’t go too in depth at this time, but I will say that I enjoyed how it handled my sub-fifty pound load on this very challenging hunt.
I wanted to mention that besides testing out a new pack, I also was testing out one new piece of crucial gear. I used the Mountain Athlete Compression Sock, by First Lite for the very first time on this hunt. I always thought that compression socks were just hype and what Basketball-player types wore as a fashion statement. Well…I have been dead wrong! I absolutely could not believe what a difference in lower leg fatigue that something as simple as a pair of socks could make. I am completely sold on these new compression socks, they are legit.