It’s in the Journey, Man
Compelled to get to camp early I decided to see if I could shave some time off my route to Buena Vista from Denver and take a pass road that had been closed only 2 months prior with our record snow fall. I gassed up in Fairplay and made my way to the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness, where a road cuts through the Pike National Forest and bisects with National Forest on one side, Wilderness on the other. The bumpy, rocky, often snowed shut road goes from Fairplay down into Leadville.
I started my drive around 9:30 on Weston Pass Road, picking my way through the washboarded roadbed, the large holes, and rocks. Just as soon as I began I realized that I would not be alone during this trip as I’d been several times before driving on a Friday in this area. Through the course of my drive I encountered about a dozen Enduro type motorcycles out for an adrenaline pumping ride in the loose stuff. GoPro’s mounted to their heads. To paraphrase Jon Travolta from Swordfish: Live in 4K, color corrected, auto stabilized, you can practically taste the road dust.
Over the Hump
Unfortunately for me, a creeping Jeep with failing shocks, I was not to be a star of their videos. So I was often passed on left or right as I was in the middle of negotiating an obstacle. I have a hard time blaming them, but it’s poor trail etiquette not to wait. The pass road to me was familiar on the Eastern side. I’d attempted the road several times before, not that it’s overly hard, I saw a Toyota Corolla on the western side that has signs everywhere that it’s for high clearance vehicles only. The archery elk hunter either knew what he was doing or is somehow white/brown colorblind to Forest Service signs. Had he needed pulled out I’d have had to make his spindly axle a tow point.
The western side of Weston Pass had a series of beaver ponds that were tiered like rice paddies. Unfortunately right around the time that beavers come into season, snow will begin in the high country locking me out of a quick path to them. Interestingly, in Colorado beavers are covered under small game and do not appear to require a furbearer license. That would make mighty fine pot roast and some ice fishing mittens if I had the gumption. The area in the valley is filled with dispersed camp sites with well used and established fire rings near water sources. While I did stop and take a leisurely walk in a grousey looking aspen draw I decided it was better to push on.
I decided it was better to meet Steve and Brian rather than hunt solo, so I finished the pass road onto the highway and headed to the White Star campground. It was full but I was able to pitch a tent in Brian’s spot. The pass road certainly saved time from Denver had I gone the I-70 route, but time savings on the CO-285 route are probably negligible. It was, however totally worth the detour.
I’d been invited to hunt for a week with Brian Koch of Ultimate Upland. It turned out that my lunatic fever dream of a journey through hunting the Wilderness Areas of Colorado and his insane idea of hunting Colorado’s fourteeners among scads of hikers collided in the Collegiate Peaks. Excellent. We could rely on each other for support in a rugged part of the state, bounce ideas off of each other, and convince ourselves we weren’t completely bonkers.
My humble abode sited and pitched, we did gear checks and discussed hunts past and present, and what laid ahead for the week and beyond. I was just one person in a rotating cast of characters as Brian worked through climbs in Colorado’s high country. Around the time where our packs were slightly more put together than piles of gear on the gravel camp pad we decided it might be time to run into Leadville for lunch and supplies.
The trip to town had several objectives. Junk food, fuel canisters, and anything else we might have missed. We located a sandwich shop which became headquarters for bad gastronomic decisions. I can’t recommend them enough. Stocking up with beer, gummy bears, and chips we moved on to the real issue at hand. Can an upland hunter really have enough thin leather gloves? I don’t always hunt with them, but anywhere you might fall and skin your hand, such as the high country they’re worth ten times their weight in gold.
We polished off the night with deer ham, cheese, and biscuit sandwiches with some of Brian’s home made cherry habanero jelly. A little pepper jack cheese and a heavy coating of jelly was some of the best camp food I’ve had. With full bellies, full packs, and heads full of ideas about hunting the high country for ptarmigan and grouse we turned in for the night.
At most camps in the woods critical decisions about the day are made, sage wisdom bestowed, and ribbing of the new guy ensues over the cup of morning coffee. This camp was no different. The early morning coffee conference with the hunters served as a gathering and central intelligence point for the day’s activities throughout the trip. Though today it was mostly psyching ourselves up for what we were going to endure.
Maybe the other two had been backpackers in a previous life, but I wasn’t. My soft doughy core had not known the weight of a pack for any significant duration outside of my Sarvis Creek adventure with my buddy Manny. But a 35lb pack with a shotgun and a dozen rounds of #8’s was a new experience entirely for me. Our spike camp would be only two miles in. Oh, and, one small detail. Two thousand vertical feet up.
The next morning we struck out for the trailhead to get parking early. We had revised down the plan of originally taking the hike up to Oxford and Belford peaks and settled on dropping camp at the Y in the trail so as to give us options. We were able to find an amazing camp spot and drop camp.
The dogs were tired, I was tired. I think Steve and Brian had plenty of energy left, if they were tired they weren’t letting on. They knew what tomorrow would bring, looking at the imposing mountains in front of us. Charlie, Steve’s oldest dog at 12, looked like she was struggling a little bit with her haunches. The dogs lounged with us in the shade provided by the scrubby bushes lining the trail. The sun pushed us and the dogs around the bush scrambling for shade as it cruised the near cloudless sky.
After a while of doing camp chores like topping off hydration bladders from the stream nearby and making sure sleep quarters were squared away I began feeling anxious. I wanted to do a little hunting. I’d been plagued with an issue with my hydration bladder on the hike up, somehow my quick disconnect had become clogged and I was only getting an ounce or so of fluid before it pulled a vacuum. I fixed it by taking off the pressure fitting and blowing it out. This would have been disasterous had it been a leak or I had to gulp from the top of the hydration bag. After some fiddling, good as new.
A Side Quest
I struck out after some goading on a short hunt to see what was over the next ridge since I was feeling antsy. I dropped all non essentials and went with my pack with water, shotgun and ammo. Having never hunted from a frame pack before, much less bird hunted from one I’d struggled with how to outfit it for shotgunning. I had thrown a MOLLE pouch used for shotgun rounds on my kidney belt and figured that was good enough.
Over the ridgeline from camp was some of the prettiest blue grouse and ptarmigan habitat you could ever ask for. Shrubs, stunted pines that grew like a green shag carpet on the brittle Alpine grass. The creek that flowed through our camp site emanated from a seep on the side of Missouri mountain, which based on the distance to it, the elevation gain, and what we assessed to be the trail cutting up the front face we’d since nicknamed “Misery Mountain”. Few people we passed on the trail that weekend had ascended Misery.
Having flushed only an irritated marmot and some song birds during my hunt I came back down to camp, now tired enough to relax. We watched as hikers filed by and commented on our camp site, engaging with people curious as to what we were hunting but we mostly took up stations looking at the mountain side using packs and grass as pillows.
In the early evening we started picking out wildlife on the side of the mountain, but could never be sure that the large white rocks we suspected might be mountain goats actually were. Until some of them started moving. Sure, I was duped at least once by a goat-rock, but who isn’t when straining eyes over long distances? We tracked at one point 14 goats as hikers passed. They milled about as if coming to work second shift after they knew the hikers would be gone for the day.
A Night in the Mountains
We turned in fairly early creek-side as light was fading and admittedly there wasn’t much to do to prepare for the morning hunt. Brian and I would attempt to summit Belford, and perhaps later Oxford and look for white-tailed ptarmigan in a saddle with Rio and Ida while Steve took the route towards Missouri mountain that allowed for a gentler slope for his older dog Charlie, his younger pup Libby taking the lead. Hopefully we would meet at the summit, but no promises.
I woke multiple times in the night, adjusting my sleeping bag as my body warmth radiated. I started bundled in my mummy bag but soon found a temperature I liked until I had to get up in the early morning hours for nature’s call. There’s a certain serenity to going under a big inky sky bounded by mountain peaks that framed the innumerable stars above. I wish I could have captured that moment, the sky that is.
At 0530 I woke up again as camp began stirring. Unzipping my rainfly I found that the splotchy midnight clouds had parted and Orion the hunter was overhead. Perhaps a good omen, but probably just stars in the sky. Three stars seemed to move and dance. It wasn’t my imagination, there were already three headlamps gaining altitude on the path towards Belford. Those restless souls were likely trying to bag all three peaks in the region today with a start this early — or they just wanted to beat the inevitable crowds and enjoy a sunrise from the peak of a mountain.
Waiting until shooting light has its disadvantages on a parcel of ground as popular as a fourteener trail. There were already quite a number of people heading up the mountain when we broke camp and stashed our gear so as not to tote an extra burden skyward.
We wished each other good luck and set out. There was a clear advantage to having camped at elevation the previous night, knocking 2 miles and 2000ft off of our trip today. The flat path to the beginning of the switchbacks up the ridgeline was short, and then we began climbing vertical.
On the mountain people were curious as to what we were hunting. On the trip up people asked about everything from bears to mountain goats. When we said birds many people immediately knew grouse. That was pretty refreshing. Among the folks I’d talked to, many had never seen a grouse on a fourteener. Perhaps they weren’t looking. Others in my party had taken some just days before on Mt. Huron.
We got into some birds about 2/3 of the way up the mountain. During my hike up I had a couple of shot opportunities, one of them I detail in another entry. Funnily enough during that chance encounter, after I finally managed to flush the bird we had a hiker’s wirehaired Viszla back Brian’s setter Rio for another point. That’s a bird that lived to fly another day, educated now, one hopes, in the ways of dog and man.
It was a bit of a struggle to summit. I was yo-yoing behind Brian as we made our way up. In part because I was looking out for birds, dogless below his setter and lab, but also because at the switchbacks my lungs were burning. It’s usually hard being the biggest dude on the mountain. One thing is for sure, I’ll crush the Pennsylvania hills come November.
The false summit was right above me, I’d taken a half a dozen breaks up the hill but the elevation was taking it’s toll. The frame pack with 3 liters of water sloshing about didn’t make for a pleasant near vertical hike. I knew there was a false summit, we’d seen it the night before as we were looking for goats. But that meant I was more or less near the top.
A pair of girls that had passed me on the way up earlier in the day passed me on their way down from the summit “Uh oh” one of them said as I sat down on a rock. Their cracked summit beers may as well have been water in an oasis. “I’ll get there” I said as I wiped the sweat from my brow. I’d stripped down to a merino henley in the direct sun of the mountain and I was sweating perhaps faster than I was bringing in water from the hose slung on my left pack strap.
Once past the false summit it leveled off some, with a short path walking to the real summit. The summit of Belford is what appears to be a single stone weathered over time with multiple small spires. Walking up to the top required little effort with the rush of adrenaline pushed me to a new resting point. There were perhaps a half dozen folks up there taking pictures with a cardboard sign that had the elevation on it, 14,203′. An impressive feat, and Brian, Rio, Ida, and I had done it while hunting.
A Shot at the Top
There was no summit nap for me today, a couple minutes to catch my breath and watch the other triumphant hikers. Brian bailed off the summit shortly after but not before pointing out some more ptarmigan. Still high on the summit I cheated right and Brian and I called out shot potential as he worked dogs below. I cheated further and further until I ran nearly out of summit. In constant communication vocalizing for Brian below and the other hikers nearby we determined I’d have about a 60 degree shot window on ptarmigan I honestly could hardly make out. Brian released Ida and the chocolate lab streaked across the alpine towards her compatriot Rio overtaking her and flushing the mottled grey and white birds.
When the birds burst into the air I was able to see one high flier, I’m sure there were others. It was a long shot but I took a poke anyway, rewarding their dogs for their behavior on pointing the birds and the subsequent flush. Good dogs. The shot was high and no bird fell, but it was some 50 yards away with #8’s, it’s like throwing sand at that distance.
I threw the empty yellow casing into my pouch and pulled another to replace it. That shell had been schlepped and shot from the summit of a 14,000ft mountain at a bird so rarely hunted in the lower 48 that it hardly fears man or dog. I honestly can’t say when I’ll get the opportunity to do that again, I guess I’ll have to ensure I continue to keep the same bird crazed company.
When you hit the mountain, it’s likely to hit back. Coming down the slope of Belfort we took the “easy” route back through Missouri Gulch trail, passed some amazing looking ptarmigan and blue grouse territory. Brian and the dogs went off trail for a bit and worked looking for birds but I was cooked. My right knee had begun hurting somewhere near the first steps off the summit. We met up with Steve and his German shorthairs back where camp had been the night before. While there was plenty of shooting that day, no birds were in the bag.
We rested, albeit briefly before making sure we had enough water for humans and dogs alike and then we set off again. Knowing I’d need to nurse my knee I strapped the Ithaca to my ruck and adjusted my trekking poles for the trip down the mountain through switchbacks and over a log bridge in an avalanche chute.
When I made it back to the truck Brian and Steve already had a head start in wiping down their guns. I was hurting, but getting back to the trailhead never felt so good. We kicked up dust on the washboarded dirt road back into Leadville, windows down so as not to choke on two days of sweat. We wanted a shower but we wanted a big sweaty sandwich more.
When we’d got back to camp there were yet more birddogs. Brian and Steve’s friend Jason and his daughter brought three more German Shorthairs and one plucky Drahthaar to the party. We drank bourbon and talked upland, bird dogs, a life into the night.
A Day of Rest
The next day was our rest day, no hunting just refueling and discussing the week’s plan for birds. Unfortunately for me, Tiger Balm and ibuprofen only gave me a minor reprieve from a knee pain that would hamper further load bearing hunting and cancel my second overnight.
If there was any hope of me going back out it was dashed when I drove up to Independence Pass and hobbled down to the overlook. Perhaps it’s time to take up some fishing.
I managed to take what I’ll call an aggro-rest day the following day, hiking the Mount Massive Wilderness to Windsor lake. However, weather played a part in that adventure. So I’ll save it for another entry.
Open Source Upland Hunting
Want to do the same trip we did? Think you can do better? There’s so many secrets in upland hunting, secret named coverts, places you go when it’s only you. No more. We need more hunters frequenting these areas, even if you are a single hunter in a sea of hikers. This is an experience you have to see. If you do happen to do hunt in the area, drop us a line or tag us on Instagram @aptoutdoors I’d love to hear about it!
Brian live-tracked his entire trip through Colorado’s fourteeners, and here are some places we’d recommend while down at base camp.
|Where to Stay|
USFS White Star Campground (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/psicc/recarea/?recid=12546)
Check in: 2 pm
Check out: Noon
Cost: $24 daily in the Sage Loop which offers commanding views of Twin Lakes
|Where to Eat|
Biggie’s Sandwich Shop (http://www.biggiessubs.com/)
234 US-24, Buena Vista, CO 81211
Golden Burro Cafe (http://www.goldenburro.com/)
710 Harrison Ave, Leadville, CO 80461
630a-2p Daily, Closed Wednesdays
|Why am I doing this? I’m on a quest to hike, camp, hunt, or fish on all of Colorado’s federally designated Wilderness Areas. Check out all the articles here!|