Cold, hungry and way out of the comfort zone
October 4, 2005
I was in the high country on a pack trip this last week when one of the guests asked me, “What has been your most difficult experience in the high country?” After I told him the story, he asked me to write about it. When you’re sleeping in your nice warm bed and the first big snowstorm of the season rolls in, think about the hunting guides, wranglers and camp cooks across Colorado who are living outside the comfort zone.It was 1987 and Colorado’s first rifle elk season was about to begin. I was to guide two hunters from Indiana. Though it was only Oct. 10 or thereabouts, a big snowstorm had come in and dumped 2 feet of snow in the high country. Larry, the outfitter, had set up a camp at close to 11,000 feet in elevation. It was, of course, tough packing into camp with 2 feet of snow on the ground, but we had a cook tent, where the wrangler, guides and cook slept, and a sleeping tent for the hunters.That first night in camp the weather cleared and snapped cold. The temperature plummeted to 15 degrees below zero. The fire in the wood stove had long gone out when I glanced at the dial on my watch. 3 a.m. I was fidgety, anticipating the next day’s hunt. I was also cold, despite two sleeping bags. From the hunters’ sleeping tent adjacent to us, I heard one of the guys utter a loud whisper. “Oh, no!” he said. His buddy replied, “What? What’s the matter?” “I’ve gotta take a shit!” was the panicked response. At that moment I could tell that no one was sleeping, because the whole camp erupted in laughter.Not long after that, the alarm went off and I pulled on my cold clothes and went out to start feeding and saddling horses, using a headlamp for light. We had 10 horses to feed from rubber tubs with compressed alfalfa pellets and grain. The big concern was making sure the horses got enough water, because the alfalfa pellets are very dry and it takes a lot of water to digest them. Of course, the horses were decidedly unhappy. Al and Marlon were supposed to help me, but no one came.After I had fed all the horses by myself and saddled the first four, I began to get irritated at the lack of help. As I approached the cook tent, I heard a rhythmic thumping sound. Thump. Thump. Thump.I ducked in the tent. I had had a discussion with Al the previous day about his footwear. You see, Al wasn’t too bright, and he had an irrational paranoia about getting his boot caught in a stirrup. Consequently, he refused to wear anything but cowboy boots. The problem was that his cowboy boots were wearing out; the uppers had separated from the toes, showing his socks. His boots had also gotten soaked the day before, and had frozen solid in the cold snap. He was holding his boots by the tops and thumping them on the frozen ground, attempting to make the stiffly frozen leather malleable enough to insert his feet into them.Disgusted, I went back to saddling horses.After breakfast, I joined up with my two excited hunters and we rode a half-mile from camp in the predawn. We tied the horses to trees and prepared for our stalk. There was a good chance we’d get into elk right away, so I whispered to the guys to chamber a round so they’d be prepared to shoot. Tom followed my instructions, and to my great surprise, when he closed the bolt, the rifle fired a booming roar. Luckily the weapon was pointed in a safe direction. Because of his lack of foresight in not bringing a rifle sling, Tom had rigged a makeshift sling with a piece of cord. Like an idiot, he had tied the cord to the trigger guard of the rifle and had tied the trigger down. When he closed the bolt, the rifle fired. “Don’t worry about being quiet now,” I said, again disgusted.We hunted all day in terrible weather. At one point it got so cold that I built a fire to warm up, which I had never done before. Cold and tired, I trekked back to camp at dusk, hoping to get a hot bowl of soup to warm up. When I poked my head into the tent, there was Marlon lying asleep in my sleeping bag. That pissed me off.”Having a nice nap?” I asked. Marlon moaned and rolled his eyes. The camp cook, whose name escapes me, whispered, “He’s having a heart attack!””Oh, crap,” I said. Marlon was in his mid-50s, a heavy smoker, and we were at 11,000 feet in elevation, four miles from the nearest telephone. Not a good situation. Just at that moment, Larry rode in with his two hunters. I apprised him of the situation. “Get Spot saddled,” he said, “and ride down to Bleu Stroud’s house and call the ambulance. We’ll be right behind you.”Spot was a 15-hand paint, a terrific mountain horse. In less than five minutes we were headed down the trail. He sensed my urgency and trotted and cantered whenever conditions allowed. The footing was soft with all the snow, and big snowflakes drifted down through the dusk. It was a blissful ride, just me on a good horse moving quickly, sound muffled by snow and clouds. Bleu Stroud was a little surprised to see me dripping wet at her door in the dark, but quickly handed me a cup of hot tea and gave me the telephone. I stood in front of the fire in an attempt to dry off. Larry arrived not long afterward with Al and Marlon. They had placed Marlon on a horse and lassoed him from their horses in front of and behind him, keeping him upright in the saddle. “Take Sterling and go back up to camp,” Larry said. It was now about 8 p.m. and I had a two-hour ride in the dark back to camp. “All right,” I said.Sterling was a 13-hand Arabian whose heart was big as all the outdoors. He wanted to get back to camp as bad as I did, and I actually had trouble making him stop and catch his wind as he gained 3,000 feet in elevation. I stumbled into bed at 10:30 with the assignment to guide three hunters the next day, instead of two, because Marlon’s emergency had depleted our guide staff. 4 a.m. came early. I got the three clients on a herd of 13 elk at 125 yards, including a 4-point, a 5-point, and a 6-point bull. No one fired a shot. But that’s another story.Gary Hubbell is a freelance writer and photographer and a native of Carbondale, Colo. He and his wife, Doris, own OutWest Guides LLC, in Marble, Colo., where they outfit summer horseback rides and autumn elk and deer hunts.