A Ridge Too Far

A Ridge Too Far

The promise of huge mulies remains a siren song of the high country.

Illustration Courtesy of Remington Arms Co.

It was excruciatingly cold, riding up the boxy canyon under a strip of furry sky and bright-twinkling stars, a light breeze of freezing mountain air pouring off the 14,000-foot peaks well above like running water. I hunched in the saddle, listening to the monotonous creak of saddle leather, watching the occasional sparks fly from beneath the hooves of my partner's horse clattering over flinty rock just ahead on a trail I couldn't see. I was obviously underdressed. It had been difficult to convince myself I needed more layers, dressing in the warmth of the 23-foot travel trailer so bright and cheery. If I were hiking it would be different. I'd be sweating under my loaded daypack (now hung over a saddle horn), gulping the oxygen-starved atmosphere of this Colorado high country. It was August 27 after all, a date complete with soaring humidity, chiggers and ticks at home in eastern Kansas. So I hunched and tried to pull inside of myself, thinking of home and that sweltering heat.


When you're that cold and can do nothing about it the eastern sun taunts you with its unwavering patience; like making your kids wait to open Christmas presents as long as possible for no other reason than you believe you're teaching them something of the world, but more likely because you simply enjoy their innocent discomfort and wish to recapture something lost in yourself through it. You understand the sun is coming, that it must come, but it's black dark, with no hint of coming warmth. When you're hiking to reach a specific point before sunrise, to make a plan come together, the sun is yet another adversary and climbs like a shot and you find yourself wishing it back.

We crested a saddle named Buck Pass after three hours on horseback and clambered off our steeds clumsily to work the kinks out of our knees and watch the sun erupting from a faultless sky, watching it with the reverence of a coming god. My buddy, Adrian, tied his mount and ascended a nearby boulder, putting his binoculars to work on the falling terrain. I stood with reins in my hand and waited the sun, holding onto myself tightly as spasms ran through my body.


"There's some pretty nice bucks," Adrian said, still peering intently. I gazed toward the distant bowl he was trained on. I couldn't imagine drawing a bow right then.


I could feel the perceivable weight of the sun and began to feel better, tying off my horse and climbing up beside Adrian. The bucks were there alright, five of them tucked tight beneath a towering ring of cliff that oversaw the huge bowl. There was nothing to do about them even if they were something that interested us. We knew there were much, much bigger.

So we pushed on. The plan--formulated around an evening campfire when we were full of beer and bravery--was to venture deeper into the wilderness than we'd ever dared. We understood the realities, but shared a wanderlust and need to see more of this place we both loved so much.

It was excruciatingly cold, riding up the boxy canyon under a strip of furry sky and bright-twinkling stars, a light breeze of freezing mountain air pouring off the 14,000-foot peaks well above like running water. I hunched in the saddle, listening to the monotonous creak of saddle leather, watching the occasional sparks fly from beneath the hooves of my partner's horse clattering over flinty rock just ahead on a trail I couldn't see. I was obviously underdressed. It had been difficult to convince myself I needed more layers, dressing in the warmth of the 23-foot travel trailer so bright and cheery. If I were hiking it would be different. I'd be sweating under my loaded daypack (now hung over a saddle horn), gulping the oxygen-starved atmosphere of this Colorado high country. It was August 27 after all, a date complete with soaring humidity, chiggers and ticks at home in eastern Kansas. So I hunched and tried to pull inside of myself, thinking of home and that sweltering heat.

When you're that cold and can do nothing about it the eastern sun taunts you with its unwavering patience; like making your kids wait to open Christmas presents as long as possible for no other reason than you believe you're teaching them something of the world, but more likely because you simply enjoy their innocent discomfort and wish to recapture something lost in yourself through it. You understand the sun is coming, that it must come, but it's black dark, with no hint of coming warmth. When you're hiking to reach a specific point before sunrise, to make a plan come together, the sun is yet another adversary and climbs like a shot and you find yourself wishing it back.

We crested a saddle named Buck Pass after three hours on horseback and clambered off our steeds clumsily to work the kinks out of our knees and watch the sun erupting from a faultless sky, watching it with the reverence of a coming god. My buddy, Adrian, tied his mount and ascended a nearby boulder, putting his binoculars to work on the falling terrain. I stood with reins in my hand and waited the sun, holding onto myself tightly as spasms ran through my body.

"There's some pretty nice bucks," Adrian said, still peering intently. I gazed toward the distant bowl he was trained on. I couldn't imagine drawing a bow right then.

I could feel the perceivable weight of the sun and began to feel better, tying off my horse and climbing up beside Adrian. The bucks were there alright, five of them tucked tight beneath a towering ring of cliff that oversaw the huge bowl. There was nothing to do about them even if they were something that interested us. We knew there were much, much bigger.

So we pushed on. The plan--formulated around an evening campfire when we were full of beer and bravery--was to venture deeper into the wilderness than we'd ever dared. We understood the realities, but shared a wanderlust and need to see more of this place we both loved so much.

* * * * *

We topped the next pass at noon, saddle sore and ready for something, anything. We paused to glass a face of rugged creek cuts and hanging meadows. Normally we would've glassed as if that bowl held the true meaning of life but this day we gave it a quick going-over and were happy to push on, our agenda borne more of a necessity to cover ground than actually locate deer. We were venturing into the unknown with no more than a map to guide us, traveling beyond the edge of country known to us. The need to see what lie beyond seemed overwhelming, though simultaneously haunting. To turn back now meant seeing camp at a reasonable hour, but we continued, prompted to delve into the unknown.

The sun was dropping westward by the time the adjoining bowl revealed itself. There had already been talk of turning back; glassing those bowls

already glanced over, before it was too late to make something productive of the day. We impatiently tied off our horses and scrambled for vantage points. I'd just settled in when I spotted the first buck. He was a mile away but I could make out antlers and sprinted for my pack. Back on that cliff edge I ripped open my pack to locate my tripod and spotting scope; Adrian already trained on the buck and uttering involuntary whispers.

There were three bucks on that ledge, one of them the kind of non-typical that draws serious hunters to Colorado's ragged high country; the others certainly nothing to get snooty about.

"That one's got to go well over 200," Adrian said, finally uttering something comprehensible, though this also in a whisper, as if those deer a mile away might overhear the words. "The others gotta go somewhere in the mid-180s."

I didn't answer. My mind was busy unraveling a sensible approach, reading the terrain like a scrambled manuscript. It all began to look highly plausible and I found myself involuntarily tracing an approach, feeling the wind in each twist and curve of the terrain. I looked at the sun and knew what this meant. Adrian was hunched over his spotting scope as if hypnotized.

I'd made it across the open bowl floor without being detected and was now climbing sheer rock; the first kink in my plan. By lashing my bow onto my pack I was able to use both hands and carefully pick my way up that vertical face, ignoring the obvious consequences of missing a hand- or toe-hold, a piece of rock coming away or simply slipping. When I reached the ledge I shrugged out of my pack and looked down the impressive cliff I'd just scaled then lay on my back to catch my breath and gather my thoughts, wondering if Adrian was in position. Drawing the short blade of grass had given him the easier climb, but the lower-odds prospect of intercepting bucks fleeing my failed stalk.

When I peered around the last major boulder one of the 180-inch bucks was bedded 70 yards ahead, just his head and magnificent antlers showing above stunted evergreen. I flattened out and belly-crawled, pushing my bow ahead an arm's-length at a time, fighting to control my breath. When I pushed up onto my hands and knees that buck was standing, staring. I sunk into the grass and shale as slowly as possible. I waited, rising back up at odd intervals, like pushups in slow motion, and the scene was invariably the same. I played this game for the next full hour, by my watch, the sun falling westward as quickly as it had appeared to dawdle this morning.

The sun sunk behind a ragged, snow-flanked peak and I looked again to find the buck gone. I slowly came to my knees and found an empty bench. I stood and began to steal forward but made only a couple steps when swiveling antlers caught my attention maybe 80 yards over a fold of land. I duck-walked forward, an arrow on the string, hoping for a quick shot after reaching that lip of rock and moss. Instead I found the deer at 80 yards, looking over their shoulders, tails twitching, ears pinned. They began to amble away, falling into a nearly unperceivable declivity. I dropped into the squat greenery and scrambled around them desperately, stepping lightly across silent moss in hopes of cutting them off before they made open ground. They caught me flat footed at 70 yards. I thought about shooting, but hesitated, and in that moment they turned and filed across the hillside, determined but not panicked.

All I could do was watch. It was Adrian's show now, if he was waiting where we'd agreed.

The bucks broke into a trot as they neared the strip of firs where Adrian should be stationed. I scrambled to higher ground to watch and as they turned downhill they seemed to gain momentum, breaking into long bounds that carried them 30 feet at a bounce, scattering shale and gobbling ground until they were out of sight. I soon found Adrian, his bow hanging at his side, his head downcast. I started toward him.

"They ran right over me," Adrian said when I reached earshot. "I was at full draw jerking my bow around to keep up, but when they cleared brush they were really moving. I should've shot but couldn't make myself do it. I would've had to lead them 20 yards'¦" The sun was gone now, leaving behind a rich alpenglow of golden light--normally my favorite part of the day.

* * * * *

It was black dark when we discovered the horses; or I should say heard a quiet whinny from the darkness that came as a relief to growing anxiety, walking toward it like a siren's song and relieved to find glowing embers of reflecting eyes in our flashlight beams where we'd picketed them in a patch of grass. When we arrived there seemed no hurry to be on our way. We'd already created our circumstances and had no option but to live with it. We unloaded our saddlebags and ate for the first time that day, Adrian starting a small fire to provide some comfort, chewing and talking about those bucks.

Then we rode and talked, giving the horses their heads, rehashing the entire episode until the subject was completely exhausted and we fell into bored muteness, only the wind in the firs, the creak of saddle leather and clattering hooves perceivable in the complete darkness. There seemed nothing to say, so we rode blindly and in silence, the country rising and falling until there was no way to fathom where we were; that we were making any progress whatsoever.

We came to a high place in the trail and the lights of Delta, or Montrose, (we couldn't be sure) showed dimly and well removed. We paused, dismounting to walk in circles and work the considerable creaks from our bones. The temperature had dropped like a stone and in our flashlights I could see well-defined plumes of exhaled breath as we talked. My fingers and toes were numb and I found I was having a difficult time creating coherent sentences.

"You think this' Buck Pass, or that other one?" Adrian asked, shooting his light around as if looking for clues.

"Hard to say." It was all I could manage. "You cold?"

"As an icicle."

"Maybe we should start a fire," I said after fighting off a fit of shivers.

"Fifteen minutes. Then we push on. We can't be too far," he said, waiting for an answer maybe. "Right?"

"I'll find some wood."

Those 15 minutes turned into an hour, but I was thawed and in better spirits. Adrian suggested that perhaps we should push on. I had to agree. There was nothing to be gained sitting there. We stomped out our fire and kicked dirt over its top and climbed back into our saddles. I could perceive my horse's growing fatigue. He seemed to stumble more often, his gait measured and plodding. But we pushed on, the hours passing like time spent in a dank prison cell.

We reached the next high point and could see those mysterious city lights once more. A wicked wind had gathered and my teeth chattered, my hands not working at all. This might be Buck Pass and it was easy to see we couldn't carry on. We were still hours from camp. I called a halt. We stood our horses,

letting them blow, too stiff and tired to climb out of the saddle.

"I can't believe this is it," Adrian said when I guessed our position aloud. "Maybe we got off on a different--" I knew what he was thinking and didn't answer. This certainly wasn't the only trail in this vast wilderness.

"We have to stop," I said finally. "But we can't stay up here. That wind's gnawing me."

We stopped at a fir grove after losing maybe 700 feet of elevation. The wind grew, seeking seams in my clothing, my body too numb for even shivering. We slid off our horses without comment, Adrian working to build a fire in a sheltered place while I worked to unsaddle horses. I found the picket ropes in the saddlebags and tied the horses off near a burbling brook. I watched them greedily gulp water then turned to drag saddles and blankets to the beginnings of a fire started against truck-sized boulders. I held my hands against the flames and began to moan from the growing pain as they came back to life.

I arranged the saddles to create a makeshift windbreak and placed the sweated pads beside the reflective rock. Adrian was busy hauling wood to add to an enormous pile; anything he could get his hands on, big or small. I remembered the tightly packaged emergency space blanket I'd carried for years and unfolded it, securing its edges to create a Spartan bivy.

And that's where we slept, the two of us under that stingy piece of silver trash sack, drifting off in snatches, awaking to toss more wood on our fire that stood as our only defense against biting cold. I can't say I actually slept, simply slipped off into a form of exhausted suspension. I only know I slept because I dreamt of home, the burning wind somehow transformed to perceivable heat in that dream. It was a night with no end, the sun taking its time in coming.

With daylight we achingly saddled the horses and started down the trail. The place we'd arrived was in fact Buck Pass, sleep deprivation and hypothermia the only explanations for any doubt that had formed in our minds. Still, it was another three hours of hard riding before camp came into sight; a welcome relief. We lazed around camp the remainder of the day discussing those big bucks and the possibilities of that far country. We spoke of a pack-trip attack the following year, trailering additional horses from Kansas to make that possible. We certainly didn't discuss returning immediately; too saddle sore, the memory of that biting cold too fresh.

We climbed into bed early that night, talking briefly as we allowed sleep to easily overtake us, struggling with a viable plan for tomorrow. We reached no conclusions, only knew another assault of those far bowls was physically out of the question. Sleep took us and I dreamed of those bucks; dreamed of stalking them without the prerequisite riding. It was a nice dream. And tomorrow was another day.

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