At fourteen thousand feet we watched the elk heard move across the meadow and bed down at the edge of a rocky outcropping. After a long and arduous hike we position ourselves above, and a few hundred yards away from the biggest bull elk in the sleeping herd. We waited diligently for two hours. Finally, the bull stood up and turned for a nice broad side shot. The shot rang out in the thin mountain air shattering the silence and scattering the elk herd into the spruce trees. In the midst of the chaos the guide sang out "solid hit, the bull is down". This was music to my ears, instantly all of the planning, logistics and hard work melted away like yesterday's snow. All I could think was how good the bull would look on the wall of my hunting room and how much I would enjoy the meat and sharing the adventure with my friends and family. Little did I know, the adventure was only just beginning.
We finished quartering and caping the bull right at dark. Taking the shortest route to the jeep, we donned our loads of back meat and the cape and set out across the meadow. We quickly lost site of the town lights to our right and the mountains on the left in the blowing snow. I will never forget how quickly the cold fog turned into blowing snow and our visibility was reduced to just a few yards.
Making our decisions a few hours earlier in seventy degree weather, we emptied our packs of everything that we thought we would not need to field dress the elk. Our goal was to leave as much room as possible in our packs for meat. Also, we reduced our layers of clothing for the warm and difficult walk ahead. Certainly, we set our selves up for trouble when we eliminated the survival gear from our packs. In fact, we had no matches or fire starters, no survival blankets or compasses or hand held GPS units.
Though we both agreed that we could not walk in a straight line, we still had to try. After what seemed like ten miles with our heavy loads we came to a road, which we could barely make out in the waxing snow storm. We shared a sigh of relief as we thought, "This road will take us to something familiar".
Upon seeing blue spruce trees as the edge of the road, we received conformation of our thoughts that most of this road was up hill. Fortunately, while traveling our road in the wrong direction we crossed over a culvert lying three feet in the ground which triggered a memory from the survival training I received the year before. The memory was, of the Colorado Department of Wildlife Hunters Safety Course instructor saying, "If you are lost and caught in a snow storm you need to get down below ground where it is warmer". He went on to say, "By cutting cedar bows or using dry leaves you can place a barrier between yourself and the cold ground, allowing you to maintain sufficient body heat to survive". I pointed and shared my thoughts with the guide, "this is a place that could save our lives", as we stepped quickly up the hill.
After increasing our elevation to the blue spruce trees, we turned around and were armed with the knowledge that we were traveling in the right direction. Finally, barely able to make out the road, we encountered the culvert again. It was unanimous; we were going to have to spend the night. After plugging the end of the culvert, we went about the task of cutting cedar bows. Finally, we settled into the culvert on the somewhat uncomfortable cedar bows, ate our smashed crackers and drank the water we had left as we prepared for a long night.
During the night we discussed the cold and the energy we were expending fighting the onset of numbness in our feet and legs. Finally, we decided to relax and not fight the numbness by pumping our feet and legs. Our rational was that we were far enough below ground that we would not freeze. With first light, we crawled out of the culvert and with the feeling coming back into our feet and legs we gathered up our respective loads and were soon in familiar territory. We had gotten away with it. I am sure, with the level of numbness we experienced that we were only a few degrees from frost bite. However, we were unscathed wiser and more humble but unscathed.
It is with a sprinkling of pride but mostly with humility that I tell this story. I only do so in the hopes that you will remember my story and remember not to sell the farm when you make decisions about how to lightly load your pack, at the edge of a warm meadow, in the Rocky Mountains. Remember, only a hole in the ground kept this story of triumph from being a story of tragedy.