Posts Tagged ‘rocky mountains’

Backcountry Snowboarding–Red Mountain Pass (near Ouray, CO)

Monday, February 16th, 2009

On our recent Valentine’s weekend getaway to Telluride (fantastic area–ride it if you have the chance!), I made sure to work in a side excursion to Red Mountain pass, above Ouray. Sunday provided some very good conditions for the backcounty. It had been a few days since the last snowfall, and the snowpack seemed relatively stable.

Although I’ve never done any riding off Red Mountain pass, I’ve driven over it on two past trips to Silverton. The stunning scenery of the San Juans along with the seemingly isolation of the area had stuck it in my mind ever since. What is a classic mainstay for locals also makes for a worthwhile road trip for any front-range rider.

Being unfamiliar with the pass, I went straight to the map posted at the parking area. Various areas were outlined: motorized and non-motorized. I have heard of the current struggle between various recreational users on Red Mountain Pass, from various groups such as Backcountry Snowsports Alliance. It looks like the groups made some headway, for I identified an area on the west side of the pass that was designated as ‘non-motorized’.
View up the intended route on the west side of the pass.

We started climbing up a skin-track that was already laid down recently. It looked like it climbed up the fluffy rolling hills directly west of the parking area, so we decided to stick with the track as opposed to trying to find our own way. The snow conditions were variable along the climb. Although the east-facing snow was soft, the skin track bent onto a south aspect that was very icy. (The steep icy face caused me to briefly flashback to my scary experience not too far away on Kendall Mountain last April)

The stunning backdrop of the San Juan mountains!

Along the climb, I was looking back toward the east at the face on the other side of the highway. There were a lot more tracks on that side, and I had wondered if the conditions would be better over there.

Here we are hiking up on the first route. In the background is the cliffs and tracks described in the second route of this TR.

Nevertheless, after climbing about 800 feet, we reached treeline and decided not to go any farther. From there, we mounted our snowboards and made some excellent turns on the nice rolling terrain.

I am looking down my line before dropping in

Miss V. cruising the soft powder

Back at the car, we decided to head up the west side of the road. The face I had admired was a very steep aspect with various cliffs, although I could make out many lines between the cliffs that had obvious ski tracks in them. Once more, this area also had a snow-covered county road that led us on a moderate climb up and around the mountain.

Here we are hiking up the county road on the east side of the pass. The treed glades in the background are the first route of this TR.

We encountered more people on this route. Most of them were skiing or boarding down the road. However, since we saw tracks directly on the west face of the hill, I knew there just had to be a way up to the top. Sure enough, as the road rounded the south side of the hill, a skin track appeared and climbed steeply past the ruins of a few mining cabins and up the backside of the hill.

At the top of the track, we were surprised to see a hut. No doubt, it was part of the San Juan hut system. No one was at home. We snowboarded down past the hut and found some excellent powder lines in the trees. When we approached the cliff band, we followed the tracks out around to the left, and made the final thrilling descent down the steep face–the powder was excellent.

Soft powder in the trees.

Making the final descent.

On a side note, we had a wonderful time in Ouray at the [url]Wiesbaden Motel [/url]. Having just picked it off the website, it turned out to be a great find. The motel features a natural underground vapor cave and hot spring pool, along with quiet and comfortable rooms. It was a very tranquil and relaxing way to end the trip and I recommend staying there if ever in Ouray.

V and I in Ouray
Back down to beautiful Ouray!

Bull Down (part two)

Friday, November 21st, 2008


Like any backcountry woodsman, my first priority was to replenish our water supply and purify it.  Dusk was approaching quickly.  While traveling back to the pond, we moved slowly and stealthily, with guns in hand.  Every now and then my leader would turn around with a finger in front of his mouth.  We’d stand perfectly still and scan for any signs of movement.  “The ghosts of the forest” could have been moving in the dark timber down the slope below us, what our eyes could not see, our ears would have to step up.  However, no sounds of crashing timber or rustling brush were heard below us.

I had noticed when we first past the pond, that it was frozen.  Since I’ve dealt with that before, I just assumed I could punch a hole in the early November ice with a rock.  It proved not to be very easy.  The ice was a few inches thick, frozen completely through from the center of the pond out to the fingers that snaked through the grass and down the hill.  Giving up the rock, I opened up my leatherman pliers and started stabbing frantically at the surface.  I busted more knuckles than ice and all but gave up when my partner innocently asked, “Do you think it will break if I shoot it with my .45?”

“Will it break?!  Shit yeah, shoot that thing!” I jumped up and got out of the way.  Before the trip, I had rejected the idea of carrying a pistol on the hunt.  I viewed it as unneccessary weight, and a less effective form of bear deterrent than mace.  But Army Guy over here just had to relive the glory days with his in a strapped holster.

He aimed and shot down at a high angle to the surface.  BLAM! SPLASH!  The water blasted up like a fountain 10 feet in the air, leaving a hole in the ice.  One shot was enough, and I was just about to take a step forward when he fired another shot, and another, at the ice repeatedly, shooting well over a half dozen shot before holstering the sidearm.  (VIDEO LINK)

“I think that will do it, I said and drew water into water bottles and hydration bladders.  We sat on a log wait for the chemical reaction to work in the water, in the cold, dark silence.

When we got back to camp, I started to get comfortable. Now that it was dark,  It was going to get cold very soon, and stay that way until well after sunrise.  I was grateful to have packed in a foam bedroll.  It was not very heavy and made the entire night much more comfortable.  I had also brought slightly more insulation than necessary, but I knew the next day would be ruined if I didn’t sleep well tonight.  We built a small fire and remembered a lesson that was given to us by J.L. back at Elk Camp the night before….

“Hey laddies,” the original orator started out after a swig from a Budweiser, “do you know the difference between an Indian fire and a white man fire?”

“No”, we all replied.

He changed his tone to mimick a wise old native of the western slope:  “Indian fire very small…sit very close.”  Then he tossed a capful of Coleman fuel on the flame, causing it to flare up to the height of him, illuminating his face in a blaze of red.  “White man fire very big…sit far away!” and folded his arms in front of him.

Deep in the wilderness, when our small Indian fire was built and crackling away, it was time to eat.  We were careful not to overdo the food packing during the trip, but nonetheless we managed to bring the “red neck gourmet”, which included, roasted Spam on a stick and hot cocoa spiked with a flask of Jack Daniels.  After dinner, I tucked into my sleeping bag with all my thermal clothing on, and pulled the hood of my down puffy over my head.  I gazed up at the stars for a bit.  It was a very clear night, and I could not think of any other place more peaceful to be in but in the deep mountain forests of the North American West.  I don’t know how long I watched the sky, but I slept soundly and warm the entire night.  (Utilizing an old method, I had boiled a bottle of water and zipped it up in an insulated sleeve.  I placed it down between my legs, and when I awoke sometime in the middle of the night with a chill, I unzipped the bottle and replenished the warmth in the sleeping bag, and fell back asleep.)  Occasionally through the night, I heard the coyotes howling away.  I hear them everytime I camp out in the woods, but have never had an encounter with one at any time.

I like my spam well done

We woke at nearly 4:00 AM, and it was still dark.  I was already dressed and ready to hunt.  My Jet-boil, already loaded with water from the previous night, was right next to my sleeping bag.  I fired it on and brewed two cups of coffee for us in minutes.  My headlamp, navigation tools, binoculars, and rifle were on the other side of me.  I stepped out of my bag and was ready to go.

We hiked through darkness back down towards an open talus field that we encountered the previous night.  We hid in the dense trees at the base of the field and leaned against a log, each of us viewing in a different direction.  Then we sat in utter silence until sunrise.  We realized then that we had made a slight error: today was the first day of daylight savings time, and the GPS had already recalibrated when we awoke this morning, thinking that sunrise was approaching, when in fact we had added an hour to our wait.

I’ve never truly experienced a dawn awakening in the mountains before.  At any time I was up before dawn for a mountaineering ascent, I was moving and staying warm.  I never realized how truly cold it gets just before dawn until sitting motionless that morning.

I first felt the shiver in my toes, and then spread to my legs.  I started wiggling them slightly, careful not to move.  “C’mon, dude,” I told myself, “just ride it out like a wave, and then it will get warm again.”  It was a strange experience, because although the horizon started to glow with a slight dim of sunlight, the temperature was getting colder with each second.

I heard my partner snoring on the other side of the log.  Damning him, I had a smoke to relax, and rode out the cold snap.

Listening to the forest wake up was another new experience.  There was total silence for a long time, and then I distinctively remember hearing the first bird chirp of the morning.  The first official awake animal of the day.  Then another, and another, and soon birds were flying from tree to tree, overhead.  Then the small mammals, squirrels, pika could be heard talking to each other and scurrying around the grass.

Dawn in Sherwood forest

My partner was awake and heard the low rumbling sound from far down the valley below.  “I hear a generator,” Construction Guy said. “Someone is running a gas generator.”

“No…listen.  Those are the frogs, down in the swamp at the base of the mountain,” I explained.  True, the massive rumbling sounded very much like a generator, but I knew we were miles away from the nearest Homo Sapien.

Unfortunately, we did not sign a single Wapiti.  Discouraged, we decided to head back to camp and strip some layers, now that the sun was up.

We had crossed this boulder field in the middle of the night.  This was the first time we saw how large it was.

Afterwords, we headed out east from camp.  “Let’s split up,”  Scott said, “do you want to go to the right or to the left?”

“I’ll go this way,” I said and pointed off to the left, down the northeast slope of the mountain.  This was the first time we had split up.  Although I had expected it, I was flush with a sudden apprehension.  “So what’s the protocol?”  I asked.  “If I see it, shoot it?”

“If you see it, shoot it.”

Because the statistical facts of Elk hunting in Colorado state that all hunters start out with a 20% rate of success the minute they buy their tag.  From that point on, we had done everything to increase our chances: hiking in far away from human pressure, tracking through the steep, dark, north-facing timber, and now splitting up to improve the odds once more.  The rest of the odds were controlled by pure luck.

I scrambled down the slope, careful not to lose too much elevation, and sat on a large rock where I had a wide view of the mountainside below me.  I then sat and watched.

I had not sat there ten minutes, when I heard the shot–BANG!

I was startled, then my mind started to race.  We had heard a few shots during the first day of hiking, from many hunters miles away in the valley.  But this one was LOUD.  I knew there was only one other person out here.  Excited, I started running aimlessly in the direction of the shot.  I did not hear a second shot, which was a good sign.

However, there was a second shot quite a while after the first.  I was confused, but headed for it, climbing higher and higher to the south, and finally over the spiny ridge that separated the faces.

“Adam!”  my partner yelled.  I looked down through a grassy clearing, but did not see anyone.

“Yo!  How are you?!”  I asked.

“Bull down, baby!  BULL DOWN!”

I grinned from ear to ear after hearing the news.  If I had any traces of jealousy for my partners success at that moment, they died almost instantly.  I was so happy–SUCCESS.

“Let’s hike up and get all our gear.  We’ve got a lot of work to do!”  He wasn’t kidding.  Now it was for real, and stopped being just another hike in the woods.  I was ready for anything.

We met back at camp and he was fired up, telling his story.   “I was hiking down that field when I saw movement to the side, and I was surprised by a cow.  She was locked on to me and I was on to her.  It was a staredown.  Another cow came behind her, and before I could draw my gun, they bolted.  Then another cow appeared, followed by the bull.  He stopped to look for the disappearing cows, and allowed me a split second shot.  BANG!  Did I hit him?  I tried to reload and the gun jammed!  Fuck!  While messing with the action, I watched him take a few steps, then drop to the ground.  Dead.”

“Wow.  Good job, man.”

We scrambled back down and I had my first look at the game.  It was a middle-aged mature bull, with a wide, sweeping 5×5 rack.

Bull Down!

“Wow…that thing is huge!”  I uttered in amazement.

“Yeah, I’ll give you half the meat if you help me pack it out of here,”  he offered.

Of course I had no choice.  We were looking at at least 200 pounds of raw meat, 6 miles back in the middle of the mountains, and the storm clouds were moving in.  Every working effort put forth by the both of us for the rest of the trip was spent on bringing this meat to the dinner table…


“Bull Down” — Area 54 Elk Hunt, Gunnison National Forest (part one)

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008


For the many weeks that led up to Elk Camp, our plans got more and more complex.  After researching countless previous testimonials, reading page after page of ungulate ecology, and studying topo maps of various detail, we finally had a plan.

1.  To hike in as far and as high in the mountains as possible.
2.  To get off the beaten path and explore the deepest and darkest woods man has ever seen.
3.  To stay there as long as necessary to hunt and harvest an abundance of meat.

Many skeptics on the jobsite doubted our integrity.

“You’ll never make it!” they said.

While still others encouraged us, “Go get after it!”

On the Friday before the opening of Third Season, my hunting partner and I had left Carbondale and headed toward the Gunnison Valley, over Kebler Pass.  When we arrived in Crested Butte, we found our two Irish Boys waiting for us at the bar, fresh from Chicago.

When we told them our plan, JL took a long, slow swig of ale, as if digesting the seemily outrageous scheme we had just presented to him “You’re going to do what?!  You’ll die, dudes!”

“Nah,” Scott reassurred him.  “We’ve got it all figured out.”

Fortunately for us, JL had found an excellent location for Elk Camp.  Up near Ohio Pass, a side road flattens out in the middle of the aspen forests.  In fact, they were the tallest aspen trees I’ve ever seen, and they went on for miles in every direction.  It felt like a spiritual place.

After we set up camp, Scott brought out the Mojo Stick, which he tied to a tree to watch over our camp, and bring us all good harvest in the days to come.  A blessing was then done by our resident Chaplain and concluded with a toast of Wild Turkey bourbon.

While relegating around the campfire, we started to put together our packs for the morning expedition.  The only rule I set was to be completely prepared to spend at least three nights out in the wilderness.  I had brought my 65 Liter backpack, the largest I own, into which I stuffed the warmest technical clothing and sleeping bag needed for a frigid night above 10,000 feet in November.  Much water was not necessary, for I knew that we would never be far from water when high in the rockies.  The most valuable item in the pack, however, were vials of Aquamira purification, to make any of the mountain stream and river water drinkable.  We had a variety of basic dried food, and I brought along the Jet Boil for optimal boiling of water for all backcountry cooking.  I added a first aid kid, three forms of fire starting, maps, compass, gps, two way radios, camera, knives, tools, game bags, rope and other miscellaneous items and I was all set.  Lastly, my hand-me-down .30-06 rifle was strapped to the outside of the pack.


I couldn’t sleep much at all that night.  I thought it was very similiar to the anticipation I’ve felt before an early spring mountaineering attempt.  Like those cold mornings, we woke before dawn.  Because the pack was all set, I put on all my clothes and wandered into Jack and JL’s tent for some fresh coffee.  Like good backcountry travellers, we then informed our friends of our plan.  We had decided to start off at the Swampy Pass trailhead and pack in along the trail thru the border into the West Elk Wilderness.  Upon reaching swampy pass, we would explore the basin south of the Anthracite Range.  We did not plan to return the first night.  We told our friends that if we missed the second night, do not worry, but after the third night, things may not be going well.

We said our goodbyes for our friends as they sped of on their new 4-wheeler.  Throughout the rest of the trip, I found myself constantly thinking for their safety, and wondering how their hunt was going, while on our own.

At the start of the hike, we were overtaken by a pair of Oklahoma boys on horseback.  We exchanged plans, and they said “we’re on radio channel 2, holler if you need help”.  I appreciated the comradarie and let their horses pass.

Starting up the trail at dawns first light.The sun had started to rise quickly.  Out to the southwest, the dominate rock formation known as “The Castles” came into view.  For the entire hunt, this amazing formation formed the backdrop of our trip, always in sight and an excellent navigation tool.

From the start of the hike, the chances were slim that we would see any A close up of the awesome formation, \wildlife.  It was unseasonably warm at low elevation.  Since we didn’t plan on shooting anything that morning anyways, we moved quickly along the hiker’s trail, stopping many times to adjust our backpacks or have a snack and safety meeting. The weight in my pack was not nearly as much as the recod 60 lbs I carried into Rocky Mountain National park to climb the Spearhead a few years ago, but it was still a lot to carry for the ten miles we had done by the end of the day.

At mile marker four, we reached the boundary of the West Elk Wilderness.  Other than the two Okies we encountered at the trailhead, we would not see another human being for the entire time in the wilderness.  I was happy for this feeling of independence, which mean we were left to survive with everything we had and everything God has given us in our surroundings.

Reaching the wilderness boundary

This is what the 4+ miles of trail looked like.

By mile six, we had reached Swampy Pass, marked by a wooden sign.  This moment in time marked the end of our planned route.  Now we had some decisions to make.  Instinct would tell us to look for a steep, shady slope with heavy evergreen growth.  We started to follow a game trail up a hill north of Swampy Pass, heading toward the Anthracite Range, but then stopped.

“It is too sunny here!”  I shouted, “all this vegetation is burnt”.  We were on an open slope with short shrubs.

“We need a north-facing slope,” Scott suggested.  He was referring to one facet of information that is shared by both snowsliders and hunters: that the north face is the coldest and darkest, creating an ideal climate for both light fluffy powder in winter and old bull elk the rest of the time.

View of \'the knoll\' from Swampy PassTogether, we identified a large rolling knoll not too far across the valley to the south.  It looked only a few miles away, but we would be heading directly through a dense evergreen forest through the bottom of the valley.  Our goal was to be on top of it by sunset.

Once we got off the trail and into the timber, signs of wildlife sprouted up Bushwacking through the dense foresteverywhere.  Near a stream, we saw dozens of hoof prints on the muddy banks, as if a stampede had come crashing through here days ago.  However, the mud was frozen solid as we climbed up the mountain.  We also hiked through some bedding areas, where the old rotten timber of downed trees had nearly disentragrated into soft beds of sawdust.  As we climbed higher and higher (the GPS read 10,800 at the top), so did the frequency and amount of droppings in the grass.

An elk wallow and tracks

Scott speared a fist size pile with his hiking pole.  “That’s a bull.  And he’s not far,”  the master hunter before me said.  This is when I started to get the feeling of anxiety that would control my mind for the next 15 hours.  At any given moment, it was possible for us to come upon an unsuspecting Wapiti, where the element of surprise between two vastly different mammals would become crucial.  I did not know if I was quite ready for it.

(I have seen elk up close only once before, in a hot summer at Rocky Mountain National Park.  We had been hiking down from a climb on Lumpy Ridge, when my friend ahead of me stopped in his tracks.  Two big bulls were standing ten yards from us, gnawing voraciously at lush greeen leaves.  They all but ignored us then, but when I took one step too close, one left the food and swept his large antlers around and stared me down, before turning away and crashing through the woods at high speed.)

When Scott and I reached a small alpine pond near sunset, I knew we should set up camp near the water supply before it got too dark.  We scrambled across the slope to find a small flat ledge of grass, surrounded by a few downed trees that would provide back support and firewood.  Finally, after 12 hours of hiking, the heavy backpacks dropped to the ground.

“I don’t want to wear that thing again for at least a day,” I said.  We both knew that the hunt was going to take place right here on the mountain side, within a few miles from camp.   After establishing the bivouc, we had about 1/2 hour to go before dusk.   I planned to return to the pond we saw earlier, to replenish water, and we used the opportunity to hunt with rifles in hand until the sun went down…