This year was my first as a Colorado resident for the purposes of hunting and fishing. That meant that I could apply for every tag I desired without having to take out a second mortgage in order to do so, and if I drew it would also be less of a hit. It would also be my first opportunity at a Colorado backcountry backpack hunt. It ended up that I drew a mule deer buck tag in the leftover draw, and was able to pick up a cow tag from the leftover list. Fortuitously I was also able to get a bull tag through the OTC system, meaning I’d have three concurrent tags for the same season!
The beginning of this process caused some amount of family ire. I spent weeks researching units since Colorado has them broken down moreso than any state I’ve ever hunted. I applied for every critter I thought I might want to some day hunt knowing that by the time I draw goat, sheep, or moose my government job will likely take me far away from this place. But it’s a place I want strong ties to. Unfortunately my wife misunderstood how tag draws worked and thought she might have to be a hunting widow for the better part of six months while I chased all things four legged through the mountains.
The odds were in my favor this year, after years of struggling back east I’d finally have the chance to have not only a chance to hunt a broad swath of cervids at the same time but also enjoy a concurrent small game season! I could justify taking my project pistol as a sidearm just in case a grouse decided to surrender. We did a little scouting in the Summer, but that was a bust. Was I prepared for the Colorado backcountry?
It was extremely difficult to tell what the weather was going to do, looking at the long term forecast and judging by the yo-yoing temperatures of Denver we had no idea what would be in store for us. However, we took the average of the two closest towns and subtracted 10-15 degrees based on elevation change. That meant that we’d be in for some cold nights. We’d both upgraded to 0 degree bags and intended to pack in. Our experience getting chilled this summer meant we had some experience, but never in “the season”.
As the season drew closer the weather looked like it would be full on winter conditions, with twelve or more inches supposed to fall in the Steamboat Springs area we were cautious, but figured it would be okay. After all, meteorologists seem to operate with a giant margin of error.
When we set out Friday morning I knew pretty quickly how wrong I was. We crept up the mountain on I-70 towards the Dillon tunnel, and the weather hit, hard. Every other truck was loaded down with a 120qt cooler and a side-by-side or a quad. Second Season tags would be active in a little under 24 hours and the race was on into the mountains.
Snow started falling and the traffic started crawling. We took the hill down into Dillon and Silverthorne at a agonizingly slow pace of 15-20 miles per hour. Soon we achieved escape velocity again and were on our way, but the weather west looked like it would already be pretty snowy indeed.
Picking our way through the snowy forest road we passed RVs and Alaknak style tends with the stoves already working overtime. Snow coated the road but it was only enough to really just consider four wheel drive. It already looked less crowded than when I’d scouted during the archery season. In the valley I’d chosen to pack into the snow was even less, promising enough from a comfort standpoint. I’m no stranger to cool temperatures but have never done anything that I would consider “winter camping”.
We donned our packs, at nearly 50 lbs apiece with winter gear and began walking in an old logging road to our spot, a commanding view I’d picked out with “boots on the Internet” scouting through onX maps. I wanted to get to camp ASAP and get settled in, but I’d only just scouted a few months earlier, there was a lot of the terrain that I still didn’t know. Several miles in I realized that I’ll need to work a little more on strength training — packing out a bull would be difficult since 50 pound packs strained on my back. I’m an IT Security guy, not much of a gym rat. We made camp in the early afternoon and picked out a spot to sit early the next morning.
Laying in the dry grass as the wind whipped my face I relished the fact that it was beginning to come together. I had a commanding view of a flat area and hillsides funneling traffic towards me. Even more promising was a rib cage that was picked clean on the walk in.
First Night and First Light
We set up camp after some wandering around in the woods, analyzing the space between water and flat ground. Beetle kill is a real problem in Colorado, so in the conifers you have to take into account the wind overnight and potential widowmakers. We found a spot that was slightly angled but would be sheltered from significant snow. The only thing we were lacking was a fire ring. Exploring after we set up camp we realized we’d set our tents not 30 feet from a fire ring. Live and learn.
We hunkered down for dinner early that first night. In the forest buried between two mountains the sun sets and you get only a small amount of time before you’re doing everything by head lamp. That’s when I suffered my first gear failure. My MSR stove must have gotten moisture in it, and saving space in my pack I’d tossed the maintenance kit in my gear room at home. It lit, but the gas struggled in the cold, it looked like it was frozen shut. Thankfully Manny had a small pocket stove and the day was saved. Hot dinner, even dehydrated dinner, makes the cold more bearable. With full bellies and an anticipation of opening day we turned in for the evening.
When I woke up and turned on the light in my tent to a bit of a surprise. I saw that the humidity had crystalized and cracked slightly like a freshly baked sugar cookie. My Eureka tent has a build in rain fly which is great for completely ignoring forecasts while packing. However it’s terrible for proper ventilation when I close off the vestibule. In the heat of the day the frost makes the interior of the tent moist, no good for staying warm.
A 0400 alarm was unnecessary as I’d been waking every two hours through the night. The hike to where we’d be glassing was nearly 100 yards, so we were practically there. The wind had died down overnight, but in the chill of the morning I struggled to thumb the lighter in order to get coffee and breakfast going. With my stomach full I meandered over to my spot and got ready for the sun to reveal what was in front of us.
That was nothing, as it turned out. Hours of trying to distinguish darker brown from lighter brown I saw nothing. We did hear shooting that day, about eight shots in total, several from the same firearm by the sounds of it. But this was a far cry from the Pennsylvania World War III I’m accustomed to during whitetail season. Several hours in we had two hunters come up to us and compliment our spot, we exchanged pleasantries and discussed the weather. They were on their way quickly and then we had to decide whether we move camp back to the truck. The forecast did not look favorable for a pack out for two novices, despite the bare ground. So a little after lunch time, we began retreating back to the trucks. Had we been closer to the road system I’d have not thought a whole lot about it, I would have stayed.
I never want to pack out the day after I pack in. I don’t know whether it’s my physical fitness, or my overbearing pack, or my inexperience but some combination of those leads me to hurt for days afterwards. We packed up camp knowing the days were short and the clouds were rolling in. It pained me to only hunt for a half dozen hours, but I’d sling my rifle just in case we saw anything on the trip out.
Turn and Burn
The second morning came, and about four inches of snow had fallen overnight. It wasn’t that eerie silence that happens when the world has become white and it deadens the blow of every footfall but it was enough to make moving with heavy packs difficult. We slept in, hoping for the weather to subside. As someone who normally wakes for work at four in the morning I’m no stranger to operating in the darkness. However with the wind blowing and the snow falling I couldn’t bring myself to simply stand outside.
I waited some time for a little more sunlight to illuminate the cloudy morning sky. The water simmering for breakfast, I looked around and found that snow had drifted significantly on the forest road. We were back some seven or eight miles on what would otherwise be a passable road on the National Forest Service Road System (NFSR). However, with Manny leaving today it meant I would be alone. It nagged at me that with twelve more inches of snow in the forecast that I might not be able to make it out of there. The weather wouldn’t subside until Wednesday night or Thursday at best. I was due home on Friday. Just enough time to see my wife and little boy before flying out for work on Sunday night.
It was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but we broke camp, originally planning to hunt the morning to look for bedded elk or mule deer in the heavy timber. If they acted anything like the whitetail that I hunted on the east coast they’d likely be bedded down somewhere out of the wind, and I might be able to spook them and get them to stand up for a shot. Then the whiteout came.
The wind kicked up and the fine sugar snow whipped into our faces from the west. In the morning light we saw a few trucks hurtling down the mountain in various states of control. Most were fishtailing and taking the turns like rally cars. I worried the roads would be getting very snowy now — and it would not get much better. In the end our area got nearly two and a half feet of snow during the course of the season. I’d made myself a promise that I’d go back to work for two days and do another overnight. Wednesday night it was forecasted to dump another 10+ inches on Steamboat. I just wasn’t prepared for that. My season was over.