John Denver – Not only did he write the theme song for our most recent backcountry hunt in Colorado, but “Rocky Mountain High” was on repeat from the time we hit Denver until we reached the trailhead. We were filled with unexplainable anticipation to begin another epic 7 day backcountry hunt. My brother, Kurt, would be hunting mule deer with his muzzleloader, while the rest of us were chasing elk with our bows. As always, Mother Nature threw everything she had at us and we were pushed to our limits. Do-It-Yourself, Public Land hunts on Over-The-Counter tags aren’t for the faint of heart, but you will come out of it stronger than before.
We hiked in 3.5 miles from the trailhead to the top of the ridge to set up our base camp. With this being my second time in this general area, I had a better idea on where to start to look for bulls. While still getting acclimated to the nearly 10,000 feet altitude change from Pennsylvania, we split up to glass 3 different basins in search of bucks and bulls. Nothing showed itself on the first night, besides many other hunters and your typical mountain microburst of hail and rain. I ate my first Sockeye Salmon Chowder of the trip, and went into my Seek Outside Tipi tent, where we fired up the titanium stove to discuss the next day’s plan.
The first night wasn’t as cold as what we had experienced in 2016, which made it easier to climb out of the tent well before first light. I headed up onto the ridge and buried myself into a rock outcropping to do some more glassing for the first part of the morning. I spotted a small 3 point mule deer buck above one of the mountain lakes, but no elk. Kurt and I regrouped and decided to put some miles on the boots to locate both deer and elk in adjacent valleys. We dropped into multiple valleys, finding fresh sign, but no animals. As we climbed up to almost 12,000 feet, we had a beautiful view of the high mountain peaks that Colorado is so famous for. During the trek back towards camp, I remember Kurt looking over at me with a semi-smile/smirk on his face. We were well aware of the distance we had to cover to get back to our base camp, along with the obstacle of finding water. When it was tough, we would joke with each other about how much we loved blow downs, side hilling, and hauling 8 Liters of water back to camp. Having someone with you that can joke and laugh about the hard times you’re enduring can make all of the difference. After over 10 miles in this rugged country, we made it back to camp.
As the sun crept over the ridgeline, I began the morning tucked into the same rock outcropping as the previous day. The action was heating up from the beginning! I spotted a nice bull elk chasing a cow, and Kurt spotted 5 mule deer bucks. The problem was that the elk disappeared into the dark timber to bed about 100 yards below where the mule deer bedded. I opted to go with Kurt, while he attempted to put a stalk on the deer. As we headed up the to the ridge top to find a way to come in above the deer, another hunter shot at a buck with his muzzleloader. From the looks of it, he didn’t succeed. After the two hunters disappeared, we went in for the stalk. Kurt took off his boots and slipped on an extra pair of wool socks to make the stalk without noise. Unfortunately, the bucks were not bedded where he had last seen them. At this point, no elk were bugling either, but we dropped down into the dark timber where we had found all of the sign the day before. Keeping the wind in our face, we crept through the dark timber and found some of the best sign that you could ask for. Beat down paths, rubs, wallows and fresh droppings were everywhere. After going down this valley for close to 2 miles, we were about to turn around when a bull started chuckling just 100 yards away! I immediately chuckled back at him, checked the wind and ran full sprint at him. Once I was able to get close and realized he was with cows, I ran even closer, but ended spooking the cows. The giant 6x6 herd bull followed the cows back up the valley out of our sight. Moving quickly, hoping to get another opportunity, it didn’t take long to see that the elk were in better shape than we were. During this exhausting jaunt, Kurt stumbled upon a skull of an old bull, which we took a few pictures of and then carried on. On the way out, we saw even more cow elk, but the bulls were still keeping quiet. After seeing the amount of hunters in the general vicinity this year, it was obvious to why they were so quiet. We met up at camp with my Dad, and Uncle Mike to eat dinner and glass an opposing basin before dark. Temperatures were steadily dropping with a major cold front moving in.
After the action that I had on the previous day, I was fired up and ready to go! I looked at my phone and it said 3:26 am.. It was a little early, but there wasn’t a chance that I was falling back asleep. All night, my dreams consisted of getting another chance at this mature bull and finally feeling the pain of packing him out of that steep canyon. The other dreams had to do with mountain lions stalking me (which became funnier later). I left the tent and headed down off of the mountain around 4:30 am to hunt the day by myself. I immediately dropped into the valley that I had the encounter in yesterday, and heard the same chuckle towards the wallows where I was heading. This time I went in silent and carefully kept the wind in my face running through and climbing over the blow downs in the dark timber to move towards his location. I soon realized that I was behind him and he was heading to his bedroom with a group of cows. I was able to cut them off by getting on the same level while keep the wind in my favor. Soon, a few cows came past me at a mere 17 yards! I was ready to draw with the bull soon to follow, but the bull took a short cut through some thick brush just behind them, and didn’t give me a clear shot at the vitals. He gave me an incredible view of the side of his rack, which ended up being the same 6x6 as yesterday. His body size and white tipped long tines were characteristics I had only dreamt about. Moments later they were out of sight, followed by a wind switch which caused me to hold off dogging them any further up the mountain. To this point, the cold rainy weather helped keep the thermals blowing down longer, proving to be an advantage for me to get that close in the first place. Hours later I tried waking him up in his bedding area with no response. I went back to the wallows we had found, set up overlooking the one that looked to be used the most, and started eating Orange Vanilla Packaroons. To my surprise, as I was started to fall asleep, I heard “SPLASH”! The sound startled me and sounded like it was coming from the pond that was located less than 100 yards away. I pulled up my Maven binoculars and spotted a 5x5 satellite bull thrashing around in the pond, throwing mud all over his body. I snuck in closer to try and get a shot opportunity. When I realized he was trying to leave the wallow, I cow called. He started coming my way immediately, but looked like he was going to circle downwind. I made a quick decision to move, but regretted it almost immediately. He ended up coming in like he was on a string, but since I had moved positions he was standing at 14 yards with no shot opportunity. He stood there for what seemed like 5 minutes, but in reality was probably only 15 seconds. He knew something was up, and the bull turned around to head towards the way he came from. Trying to keep my head up, I pushed on for the rest of the day with no luck.
I began the 5th day with high hopes. I dropped off of the ridge and into the thick evergreens before light in hopes of getting closer to the herd bull before he followed his cows to the bedding area. Unfortunately, he was quiet or had moved out of the area. As I was in the timber, Kurt spotted a 6x6 bull running around well above tree line and dropped into the timber a few hundred yards above me. I never ran into the elk and he never made a peep. While walking near the elk wallows that I had watched the prior day, there was a mountain lion track inside of my boot print, which created an eerie feeling. It looks like my dreams weren’t really that far off.. Like most evenings in the high country, we received a mountain storm. This one came on like a lion and I was caught filtering water out of an alpine lake. The marble sized hail hit like pellets on my skin. I had left my rain jacket along with some other gear on top of the ridge to save weight to gather more water. Once I got to my gear and headed towards camp, the lightning came in furiously. A flash of lightning hit so close above me that I immediately dropped to the ground. My next thoughts shifted to hoping that everyone else was safe. This was my second day hunting completely solo and my mind started to wonder. I knew Kurt was planning on heading up over the 12,000 ft ridge into a foreign basin, and I was hoping that he found cover. Against my best judgment, I hiked quickly through the brutal storm to our campsite high up on the ridge. I checked Kurt's tent with no sign of him. Then, I noticed some ruffling from my tipi. I opened the door only to find Kurt comfily lying next to my stove taking shelter from the storm. Luckily, he was glassing the ridge next to us when the storm hit and he took shelter. As the storm slowed, my Dad and Uncle Mike showed up back to camp. Temperatures dropped immensely after this storm, and led into one of the most brutal backcountry storms I had ever experienced at night. On the way up the trail, my Uncle Mike ran into another hunter who said there was going to be high winds and snow above 11,000 feet, and he was accurate. In the middle of the night the winds and hail hit so hard that the condensation on the inside of my tent rained on top of us and our gear. The wind ripped 3 of my stakes almost completely out of the ground and I was close to losing my shelter. We placed heavy rocks on all of the stakes and tightened the guide lines in the morning.
My Dad and I teamed up to hunt together and at the beginning of our last full day of hunting. With no elk responding to our calls, we split up for awhile and had a designated time and meeting location. As I dropped low into a steep valley, I heard the unmistakable sound of a bugle. This got my hopes up immediately, but I was worried that it could be another hunter since it was coming from the direction of a trail. Either way, I had nothing to lose at this point and needed to check it out. As I was covering distance back up the valley, I heard another bugle coming from another location. The two bulls were feeding off of each other, and allowed me to slip in. After a little over a mile of rushing in towards the first bull, I sent off a challenge bugle. The bull was even more fired up, but wasn’t coming any closer. I slipped into about 35 yards, when I saw the distinctive shape of a ball cap. I had been called in by a couple of hunters.. I walked in to meet the guys who had fooled me and talked to them for a few minutes. We laughed about the situation, and realized that there actually was a real bull there (the second bugle I had heard), but he had now slipped away from us. These two Washington guys were great to talk to, and have talked since on social media. We wished each other luck and moved on. After meeting up with my Dad, and eating some snacks, we went back down the mountain towards the bull that had bugled earlier. A spike bull jumped up out of his bed less than 15 yards from us, and took off over the hill. For the rest of the day, we hiked further and further in hopes of finding that one screaming bull, but to no avail. With this being our last night in the backcountry, we decided to build a fire and eat dinner together. Crawling into the tents that night, we were greeted by yet another storm.
This storm left a blanket of snow covering the red rock landscape creating one of the most picturesque days you could ask for. Without hesitation, we hiked up the ridge with plans on going over the 12,000 ft ridge and attempting to locate elk in the opposing basins. When we neared the top, we stopped for a snack and to enjoy some coffee. After the quick break, we went over the windy ridge in search of elk, but more importantly for the experience. I feel a need to see what’s over the next ridge when I’m in wild places, and it’s always worth the extra mile. Afterwards, we headed back to camp to pack up and head back towards the truck to meet the other guys. Once we met up with the other guys and headed into town, the stories and the beer started flowing. We each ate our own 18” greasy, mouth watering pizza and walked back to the hotel room to rest up for the long drive home in the morning.
Spending 7 days hunting in the backcountry is extremely physically demanding, but even tougher mentally. When you are by yourself, with no one around, you find out who you really are. Although it can be difficult to keep a positive attitude when you are physically wore out, hunting conditions aren’t what was expected, high hunting pressure and relentless weather; you need to keep positive thoughts in your head and push on until the end. You are only truly satisfied when you come off the mountain, knowing that you left everything you had up there. This is my second time going West in hopes of bringing home elk meat for the year, and not filling my tag. In my mind, we pushed extremely hard, didn’t give up and had a great time doing it. That is how I measure success. Either way, it gives me even more reasoning to do it again next year!