Wild, Wild West
October 28, 2010
The Very Real Dangers of Solo Backcountry Adventures
For the past 30 years, I've made annual, multi-month pilgrimages to the mountainous Rocky Mountain West in search of do-it-yourself bowhunting action. During the thousands of hours I've spent trekking through rugged terrain on my own, I've accumulated a vast storehouse of experience and memories. Blessed indeed, I've lived life to its fullest and pursued dreams while the strength and enthusiasm of youth surged through my veins.
The bowhunting adventures available in the Wild, Wild West are virtually unlimited. But if you're going to tackle the high country, get mentally and physically prepared for hardship. The climate is harsh and the terrain is rugged and unforgiving. Carry the right equipment, trek with a buddy and make wise decisions when confronted with danger. Becoming an accomplished Western hunter will make whitetail hunting seem like a piece of cake.
It's only been by the grace of God that this wild-child has remained vertical through all the crazy situations I waded into. Many times, the school of hard knocks has come within a strand of severing my ties with life. Older now, I reflect back on these brushes with death with mute respect. Rarely have I related these harrowing encounters to others, because they are personal, emotional experiences only I can truly understand, appreciate and feel.
I hope a couple of my past mistakes will help other young and upcoming "supermen" avoid an early meeting with the grim reaper.
An Enlightening Experience
As I shouldered my backpack and headed down the trail into the rugged wilderness that straddled the Continental Divide of southwestern Colorado, I was stoked for the adventure ahead. With elk and deer tags in my pocket, the start of bow season loomed only a few short days away. Filled with a passion for wild, high places, powered by the energy and naivety of youth and driven by the spirit of a bowhunter, I was feeling 10 feet tall and bulletproof.
As the miles mounted, the air became increasingly thin and crisp as I neared the treeline. Alpine country lay dead ahead, and I couldn't wait to partake of its wonder and challenge. The days of rocky climbs that lay ahead would toughen me both mentally and physically, preparing me for the weeks of hard bowhunting to come.
Leaving the foot trail, I followed a narrow chute ever upward. Finally attaining the summit of the alpine ridgeline, I stood more than 13,000 feet above sea level. Laid out before me was a vast panorama of jagged peaks and black-timbered drainages. Snow packs lay below me, sending their rivulets of water hurrying toward a distant ocean. An emerald-green alpine lake lay on a shelf in the distance, screaming for someone to partake of its bounty of hungry trout. Smiling in my spirit, I was glad to be alive, glad to be sucking air and glad to be burning muscle.
Picking my way down the serrated ridgeline, I soon found a more gentle section of terrain. Practically on top of the world, only a few nearby peaks towered higher. Locating a small, level piece of barren ground, I soon had my one-man tent pitched. Throwing a sleeping bag and pad inside, I grabbed my fanny pack and headed out for an evening of glassing for game.
Soon finding myself roosted on a nearby summit, I enjoyed a tranquil summer evening looking over many square miles of gorgeous habitat. The wind was uncharacteristically calm for an alpine place, and the sun shone down with its usual high-altitude intensity. In the distance, a couple isolated thunderstorms raked peaks with vigor, adding awe to the overpowering scene. Spotting plenty of deer and elk below me, life was good.
Toward sunset, I slowly made my way back along the ridgeline to my camp, climbing into my tent as darkness arrived. Leaving the door of my tent open, I lay awake fantasizing about good times to come while gazing into the splendor of a starlit sky. In the distance, lightening stroked a peak while thunder rumbled gently. Deep inside, a small voice said it wasn't a good idea to camp in such an on-top-of-the-world location. Yet I discounted the subtle warning and drifted off to sleep, anxious to greet a new day.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a loud clap of thunder. Peering into the inky blackness of night, I was greeted by a blinding flash of lightening. My mind raced. Should I stick it out in my tent or head off the side of the ridge? Not wanting to face the consequences of a departure from my tent, I lay awake as the storm quickly moved directly over my location. The awesome work of nature soon became overpowering. Rainless, the dry electrical storm put on a display that defied description. It soon became apparent a nearby rock outcropping only 100 yards from my tent was going to absorb the brunt of the massive electrical discharges the storm would issue.
I feared for my life as never before. As massive bolts of white-hot energy repeatedly slammed into the rock face only a short distance from my tent, fear permeated my body. At the very moment a searing bolt would drive itself into the ground, an earth-shaking blast of thunder would seemingly split my head wide open.
The width of the lightning bolts could be measured in feet. Whitish-blue in color, these awesome monsters were blindingly bright. Shards of rock blasted from the outcropping showered my tent and the surrounding area. The distinct odor of expended gunpowder filled the air, and my hair and skin crawled with static charge. Just before a massive bolt would hit the area, a distinct humming sound could be heard rising from the earth. I'm not ashamed to admit I had an intimate conversation with my Maker that night.
With time, the storm began to drift down the ridgeline. Soon, the fierce electrical bombardment focused its attention on a high point farther from where I lay, petrified and wide awake. With a massive dose of adrenaline surging through my veins, I jumped from my tent and headed down the slope, not taking the time to find shoes.
Minutes later, huddled in the bottom of a deep gulch, I thanked God for s
paring my life. As the intimidator continued its awesome departure, I engaged in some deep thinking. My emotions ran high -- I was very happy to still be in the game. I promised my Creator I'd never put myself in such a predicament again. Twenty years have come and gone, and I'm still abiding by that promise.
Shortcuts Can Kill
I'd left the trailhead in late afternoon, hoping to cover the 10 miles to my desired destination before darkness overtook me. I would gain 5,000 feet of elevation along the way, so I certainly had my work cut out for me.
An hour into my hike, I stopped to look at a topo map for a quick route refresher. Noticing that my map hinted of a cross-country "shortcut" to my destination, I pondered the possibility. Deciding the shortcut was doable, I headed off the beaten path and drastically upward. If my newfound route worked, I would make it to my destination an hour before dark.
Climbing upward through blown-down timber and over rock slides, I strove for the alpine saddle far above. It didn't take long to realize my decision to leave the path well traveled had been a bad one. Having already gained about 1,000 vertical feet, however, I wasn't about to start over. Forging ever upward, the going became progressively harder and more dangerous.
As I neared the saddle in the ridgeline, it became clear the last part of the climb was nearly vertical. Now, I was really in a fix. What to do? Admit defeat, go back and lose a day of time and effort? Or, try to find a way to force the issue? With Hardhead Ed at the helm, you can guess what the decision was.
Side-hilling in treacherous terrain -- with a 40-pound backpack and bow in hand -- wasn't fun. Coming to a bedrock chute wiped clean by winter snow slides, I inched across. In the middle of the chute, water trickled down. Inching forward, my feet flew from under me. In a millisecond -- a moment forever frozen in time -- I was out of control, rapidly sliding down the slick rock face.
|A WORD OF CAUTION|
|When bowhunting the Wild West, finding game is only half the battle. Physically getting to areas where game is located can be the real challenge. In such pursuits, it's inevitable you'll face many tough decisions. Always opt for the safest choice. If you're a daredevil like I've been most of my life, you'll find yourself looking death straight in the face. Don't go there -- it isn't worth it. Have a good time, be safe within reason and live to see your family and hunt another day. — Eddie Claypool|
Rolling onto my back as I picked up speed, I dug the bottom of my external pack frame into the rock as I frantically clawed with my hands. As fast as the nightmare had started, it was over. The frame of my pack hooked in a crack and brought my descent to a halt. Glancing down, I realized the chute terminated in a vertical drop of life-ending proportions -- only about 20 feet below me!
When I finally extricated myself from the chute a few minutes later, I was shaking uncontrollably. I had escaped a horrible death by mere seconds. Humbled, I quickly found a level place to camp and change underwear. Right then and there, I made another of my famous "never do that again" vows.
And you know what? I've never had the slightest desire to break it.