I’ve had Byers Peak Wilderness on my list for some time now. I’d heard through the grapevine and through some of my own research that there were ptarmigan on the mountain. I intended to find out for myself whether that was the case.
The road from Denver was easy but winding in the darkness, with a 9.5 mile round trip hike ahead of me I wanted to make sure I left early. Dropping down into Winter Park, CO is always an adventure, but without the light of the sun it was even moreso. I begin to think that Colorado has something against the guardrail industry as I made my way down the other side of the mountain in a sort of low-gear controlled fall.
Driving through the Fraser Experimental Forest my truck flushed two grouse off the road driving in. The area looked birdy despite being hit with some beetle kill, there were mixed conifers and aspens as well as some sage flats interspersed. But the blues were safe for the day, I was still on my quixotic quest to get a ptarmigan. It started last season and ended in sore knees and birdless days. This season with dogs out of commission for various reasons I found myself wanting again, having seen my first wild ptarmigan from rock throwing distance I didn’t bag one.
I pulled into the trailhead and was the second truck there, a third pulling up just as I was getting my vest on and getting settled in. The two gentlemen that had pulled up were going light, bino harnesses, water, some layers, no firearms. I asked them if they were scouting for elk, but no, the older gentlemen had drawn a coveted mountain goat tag for the region, and they were going to hoof it to the top to glass that day in search of the beasts the color of winter.
The other truck had plucky hikers well ahead of me. I’d come to find out later they were gentlemen originally from St. Louis who wanted to get a hike in before the Cardinals game later in the day. They had gumption, at their rate of speed they set out by headlamp, but when you’re not hunting all the way up you can afford to do that. Passing grousey woods in search of ptarmigan rubs me the wrong way, even if I’d have to carry a grouse all the way up and then all the way back down.
At some point you have to make the decision, as I thought I’d learned before, whether you’re looking for birds or when you’re looking to summit a mountain. In this case as I crept closer to the apex of the hunk of rock I’d been standing on, it became clear that I’d have to stow my shotgun if I wanted to summit. The path the last 50 or so feet was either by scrambling hands and feet over some rock, or by squeezing by a narrow ledge into the unknown.
Two hikers and a dog passed me as I sat down and pondered my dilemma, choosing the narrow ledge. It was then that I thought that a sling on my shotgun would actually be an excellent idea. The spill I’d taken further down the mountain reminded my that my balance was not the best. I figured that I would rather look for birds today than summit.
I was close to the summit, but this was neither a 14er or likely to have some golden ptarmigan idol stashed amongst the rock, so I chose so instead sit and admire the view for a moment while I took in the thin air. A problem we realized on the hunt up Mt. Belford just a few short weeks ago was that you can climb to the top of a mountain, but do you have enough fight left in you to flush and fire upon a bird?
The wind kicked up and I nearly lost my hat over the side of the mountain, somewhere I’d likely not be able to scale up and down to retrieve it. The temperature dropped seemingly quite suddenly, and it looked like weather on the horizon. I figured dropping to tree line would be the best use of my time. I’d hunt back to the truck, and maybe get an oversize burrito in Winter Park.
But what of ptarmigan? Every place I’d been to this season has had ptarmigan sightings and every one of them I’d received tips from friends and internet acquaintances that there’d be birds. Part of it, at least I think, was the lack of my keenly nosed four-legged compatriots. They can smell when that grey mottled rock is not a rock, and point them out. My eyes alone may deceive me, especially when I’m hiking into the sunrise. There were no birds that day, my last ptarmigan hunt of the season but I did mark promising areas on the map just down from the summit area.
Hiking down I thought I might encounter some blue grouse or squirrels. Despite the early morning’s activities with squirrels barking and birds flitting about it was dead. All I had was my own thoughts in the woods with me as I trudged downhill towards the truck. About a mile and a half from the truck along the path I wondered if I’d jump a dusky grouse at all, and knowing I had 10 rounds on me I agonized whether to shoot a squirrel if I came across one.
The problem is that one squirrel does not make a meal unless it’s the size of a house cat. However, you can’t get into a “mess” of squirrels without killing your first one. Think of them a little like panfish towards a fish fry. You need one to get started, but only getting and keeping one feels like game waste.
This weighed on me as I walked, dogless, towards the truck. I hoped it hadn’t rolled off the side of the small cliff I’d parked it on. I started thinking there had to be a way to decide when to switch from birds to chicken of the trees. No longer carrying with me the box of shells I’d run into the woods with of my youth, I had to figure something out. Plus, it gave me something to ponder while I didn’t think of my aching knees from the 8 grueling miles I’d just put on them, seemingly straight up. One foot in front of the other, back to the truck.