Sunday, October 14, 2012

Colorado Archery Elk Hunt: The Pack Out

Four miles. One hundred pounds of sand loaded in my Badlands 2200. Three days a week for six months. Working out and training for my Colorado elk hunt. Hitting the gym and pounding out mile after mile on the StairClimber. Hitting the trails with the weighted pack and taking all of the abuse from my fellow hunters. 'Why are you training so hard?'  or 'That's insane!' Even after all of that I wouldn't even be close to in shape for packing out an elk, but I would be close.

Once my Colorado elk was quartered and hung up to cool, Eddy and I made the decision to pack out one hind quarter each. None of the prior three days of hunting had prepared me for the rigor my body would have to endure. We marked the meat location on my GPS, loaded up a hind quarter each and started hiking up the mountain. Three tenths of a mile to the top didn't seem like much on paper, but let me tell you it can be brutal. With all of the nasty terrain, deadfalls, thin air and eighty-five pounds of elk on my back I was doing battle with each step.

The first tenth of a mile was filled with us joking a bit, climbing some steep faces, and grinning ear to ear. Those grins quickly turned to looks of anguish as the load felt heavier and more cumbersome. Not to mention that I was falling behind my fearless leader who again made the hike look easy. This hike was FAR from easy and Eddy was good to keep looking back or checking on me. The first time we stopped, I sat on a log just to give my legs a break. I didn't sit long because I didn't want to get too comfortable. After a few short minutes we were back at the climb.

It took us an hour and a half to pack out the first load. By the time we reach the top of the mesa, we were beat and dropped our packs in relief. Eddy found a great leaning tree that would act as our meat shelf for the remainder of the day. We tied up our bagged quarters and then discussed the rest of the pack out.

The day before, Eddy's friend Nathan mentioned that if we got anything to give him a call because he wanted to try out a new pack horse. After chatting with him a few minutes I realized he wasn't kidding! Colorado has some of the nicest people ever! Keeping that in mind as we hung the meat, Eddy laid out a plan. He would head back and call Nathan, get him up there to pack out everything. My spirits lifted! Then Eddy left me the remainder of his water, which was almost another 96 oz. My water bladder was completely empty so this was a major plus. Eddy said he'd go get more water and bring it back. Instead of my bear spray, Eddy traded me for his sidearm. While I know I'd be better off with bear spray in the event of an attack, the wind was swirling and not wanting to catch spray in my own face (in the event of a bear encounter) I opted for the firearm. He also left me a venison steak from the night before so I'd get some protein in my system. Excellent! Or so I thought.

I watched Eddy head out on the trail. He still had nearly a mile to go before he got to his truck. I sat down to eat a Clif bar, the steak and drink some water. The thing was, I wasn't feeling hungry. I knew I had to eat so I ate the bar and tried two bites of the steak. I nearly vomited. I couldn't stomach it with all of the hiking and my adrenaline going. I sat for a few moments and finished off a 12 oz. bottle of water before heading back down the mountain.

Finding the kill site was a welcome challenge. Sure, I had marked it on the GPS, but utilizing a GPS isn't something I am used to. Down the steep trails I went, over trees, around mounds of bear scat, and down embankments. Once I arrived on the bench where I knew my elk was it took me a few minutes to locate it. It's a jungle on the side of a mountain in Colorado! Through an opening in the foliage I spotted my game bags hanging. As I peeked around I saw no evidence of bears chowing down, so I entered the zone. A few minutes later I had the loins, tenderloins, and a front shoulder on my pack. It was heavier than the first load! My knees ached under the weight, but in order for me to get it all out I needed to work smart. With the time I had, three trips would do it.

I was on trip number two and to be honest, it sucked! All things considered, I was doing great as I headed up the same course we took earlier. It was difficult to follow every footstep and at one point I decided to go right, instead of left, and that cost me precious time and energy. As I veered around a deadfall and up a cattle trail, there it was. Forty vertical feet of solid rock. A few choice words ran through my head, and to be honest, I probably blurted them out loud. I was not happy. I thought I was saving time by going up a smaller embankment, but it turned out to be just the opposite. I lost a half hour getting back on track and I headed up the grade just west of the rock wall. With the meat cache in sight, I hurried a little and made it right at the two hour mark. I had killed the bull at 7:00 AM and here it was 2:30 PM already. I still had one more load to go. Whew!!

One happy hunter with nearly all of the elk meat hanging on top of the mesa.

After tying off the bag to the meat pole, I sat down. I was absolutely drenched in sweat. It was dripping off my hat and my clothes were soaked through. A stiff breeze started to blow as I took a sip of water... gurgle...gurgle...burp. My water was completely gone and all of a sudden I started to shake. The chill of the breeze was seeping into my worn body, but I remained calm. Knowing I had to remain calm and thinking clearly, I weighed my options. My inner Boy Scout had told me to pack a weatherproof jacket that morning. I pulled it out, quickly got it on and sat down. 

Option 1: With my body cooling down quickly, I could go warm back up by going back down the mountain and packing out the remaining shoulder and head. If I planned it right, I could be down and back up just as Eddy got back.

Resulting Logic: No dice. For one, I was out of water and anyone will tell you that if you are sweating that much you need to replenish your H2O. I was not about to take that risk.

Option 2: Dry my clothes as best I could by airing them out. Eat a snack and then head down to the creek bottom and refill my water bladder. That would mean an extra half mile of hiking some very steep country. 

Resulting Logic: Again, No dice! No one knew I was out of water and what if I made it down to the water, but couldn't get back up? What was I to do then? 

Option 3: Sit tight, warm up my core, and wait for Eddy to return with the water. Simple solution and the most logical option.

I chose option three knowing Eddy would be back soon with water. I prayed and asked God to watch over me, keep me safe, and bring water soon. My short wait turned into a two and a half hour sit with my back against a tree. The hood of my jacket up, arms folded around me, and my backpack as a windbreaker, I rested and looked over my shoulder at every breaking branch. The wind picked up and it chilled me even more. I tucked in tight to my pack. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. The waiting was the worst part, but I kept thinking of my family and knowing that I could not, in good conscience, go back down that mountain without water. Plus, Eddy would be back soon and could help me pack out the last load.

At precisely 5:01 PM I heard a branch break and saw Eddy's form materialize through the dense brush. I jumped up in excitement when I saw the two horses following right behind him. My saviors!

Nathan and Doug didn't seem real to me at first. They both rode beautiful pack horses and were smiling as they neared my location. Eddy asked where the last load was and I explained the situation. I quickly realized Eddy was not wearing his backpack and would not be able to help me pack out the last load. I felt incredibly discouraged. We talked options. I asked Eddy if we could pack it out in the morning because it was already after 5:00 and I knew that it would be dark in two hours. If I packed it out myself I would have to be up the hill and to the SUV in two hours as I didn't want to be packing meat out of a strange place in the dark. Oh yeah, the SUV - that was parked back at camp. Eddy explained that he could not help now or in the AM as he had prior responsibilities, but that he would drive back to camp, drive my SUV back to the trailhead and get a ride with Nathan back to camp. That's when Nathan walked up to me and did something that made me feel superhuman. That's the only way I can describe it. He walked up with a bottle of energy drink and handed it to me.

'Looks like you can use this a lot more than I can.'

Thanking him as I took it from his hand and drank a swallow. I was back! I slowly drank half the bottle and saved the rest for when I was down the mountain. I know I am no super hero or have special powers, but dammit I was rejuvenated and ready to rock. His gesture lifted me up and then I turned to talk to Eddy. Knowing I would have to go down the mountain alone, I told him I needed to go right away. I wanted to be down and back up by dark. Doug interjected and mentioned that I should bone out the last quarter and save some weight. Great advice, Doug! With GPS in hand, a few extra bottles of water I took off down the mountain for my last trip.

Finding the kill site in record time, I boned out the shoulder and then loaded the head onto the meat frame of the pack. Moving up the mountain was challenging because the antlers were fairly wide and they were catching on everything. I quickly learned how to hold them as I passed through saplings, brush and over logs. My  adrenaline was pumping in full force as I made it up the hill incredibly fast. 

I made it to the meat pole area in about an hour and a half. The sun was setting and the woods was starting to get dark. I still had nearly a mile to get to the SUV and I wasted little time finding the trail to get out. Eddy mentioned a new way that would save me a considerable amount of time. I started to follow it and lost the trail. Instead of panicking, I paused and searched the ground. There! Horseshoe prints! I got on the horses trail leading out and it lead me all the way to my SUV. 

Entering a clearing, I looked ahead and I spotted my white SUV. A rush of thankfulness and relief took over and I walked just a little bit faster. As I loaded the head and pack in the SUV I noticed that it was now very dark. It had taken me over twelve hours to get my elk packed out, with some help, but it had been totally worth it.

My feet were destroyed after all the hiking.

I owe countless thanks to Eddy for not only helping me on the hunt, but putting a lot of time in on the phone and getting me ready for hunting elk in Colorado. Eddy, thank you for working so hard to get me an elk and for making me run around like crazy. I truly enjoyed this hunt and everything you taught me about elk hunting. I also want to thank Nathan and Doug for coming to my rescue and packing out most of the meat. You guys rock and I am forever grateful. Most of all, I must thank my wife, Kymberli, for putting up with me talking about this elk hunt for two years, spending countless hours at the archery range and even practicing my cow calls. OK, I didn't call very often in the house, but for the times I did thank you. Thanks for putting up with me, listening to me talk about this hunt and for being cool with me going to Colorado for an entire week. You have been super supportive of my obsession passion and for that I love you.

It'll be a few years before I am back in Colorado, but I will say that I am very much looking forward to it. A little advice to all of you aspiring elk hunters. Do it! Start planning and start hitting the gym, or the trail, or just packing around sand to get in shape. Practice often. It will be a huge help in the long run. Plan that trip of a lifetime. Practice your calling and just get out there and do it. It's not easy, but it sure is awesome!

Lastly, I'd like to thank you all for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the story and hope you are all getting out and doing what you love to do. It was a pleasure getting this all written up for you to enjoy!


  1. A fantastic pack out, a disturbing photo of your feet, and a wonderful thank you to your wife.

    I thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Thanks, John. The feet photo was taken after I got back to Cali. Imagine what it looked like in CO!

  2. You obviously put a lot of effort into preparing for this hunt and it paid off! Thank you, as well, for putting the effort into sharing your story for us all to enjoy!!!

    1. Thanks, Mark. Now I just need to maintain and it's been tough since coming back. Need to figure out a good workout plan that won't destroy my knees.

  3. Congrats again, Al! You totally deserved that elk!! I can related to the packing out... I've hauled out plenty of elk over the last several years and it is not for the weak of heart. I was so thankful this year that we didn't have to haul Troy's elk UP the mountain... it was a slightly downhill job this year. Although, Todd had to shoot his in an area with deadfall and downhill from the truck. We were looking for sitting logs for that one! ;)

    1. Thank you, Emily! I had wanted to shoot my bull right near the top of the mesa next to the trail, but then I guess I wanted a challenge. Ha! I am sure you guys have had many different experiences and could share some unique stories.

  4. Thanks for the great story. Loved following it. Nice bull, strong work getting it packed out. I am looking forward to having a story like that in a couple weeks ( if the bulls cooperate). Just not with the torn up feet hopefully. Thanks again for posting.