by Scot Hill
I was fresh out of high school working my first “real” job. Somehow I had landed a riding job as a Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service. I was based out of Pagosa Springs, Colorado and was at the tail end of four months spent in the South San Juan and Weminuche Wildernesses with my partner Rob, and four horses.
Most of the season had been spent in the Weminuche Wilderness, which in that area consisted of narrow valleys and canyons with a creek in the bottom and high benches and passes along the spine of the world with most of the benches having a small pond in a circ below the final summit. Whereas the South San Juan Wilderness was more gentle country with beautiful aspen covered upland benches and high open highlands of stone and low browse that brought to mind the haunted lonely moors of the Scottish Highlands.
The typical season ran from May or June until August or September. It was entirely dependent on funding, if you where in school or not, and if there was work for you. That year things came together. They had the funding, we were willing, and it was decided to keep us on for another month and target a couple of different areas that were hit heavily by hunters during the hunting seasons. The goal was to lessen the impact in those areas by handing out trash bags and encouraging their use as well as just providing a presence in the area. If need be we would also clean up camps after folks left so that the trash and debris was not left over the winter. It was decided that it was not a good plan for us to be in the backcountry on opening weekend. We switched up our normal routine of going in Thursday to Sunday and went in Tuesday to set up camp and then pull out on Friday to return the following week after season opener. A Tuesday to Friday trip, on paper we worked 4 -10hr days, was supposed to be our work schedule for the rest of the month.
Normally, we traveled light and moved camp every night. Our typical setup was a large tarp strung over the top with a manti on the bottom. Using both the horse blankets/pads and our therm a rests we slept well on comfortable beds. However, in this case we were going to be in one place for at least 2 to 3 weeks or longer, and we decided to setup a nicer camp and proceeded to raid the district cache. The resulting camp included a Cabela’s Alakanak tent, shepherd’s wood stove, and low slung cots.
On the ride in to the place we intended to setup camp, we encountered one large camp and stopped for a bit of conversation and to pass out trash bags. Turns out this group had been coming into that camp and hunting the area for a long time, and fortunately for us were trying to blow out their stash of elk pepperoni sticks from the year before. A full belly and a bit heavier saddle bags later we were back on the trail. We had already determined where we wanted to camp, on a large bench next to a meadow, which was at the confluence of two smaller creeks. The meadow was located away from the trail by about ½ mile on the opposite side of the creek. This provided us plenty of grazing for our stock, a nice campsite, and privacy. We only encountered the one camp on our way in, and got camp set up including a small stash of wood for the stove. This was my first experience with a wood stove in a small shelter and those who have experienced it can attest that it is the difference between living and surviving on a cold night. There is nothing quite like crawling into a sleeping bag in a warm shelter and slumbering comfortable while the banked fire simmers most of the night.
Not that we needed it really that first night or even the next. The weather was very warm and mild and the forecast called for more of the same. We had experienced many harsher trips already that season, including being weathered in for over 24hrs at one point, with nothing but our bags and tarp and been fine. Wednesday we took a short trip up the drainage to the west, but actually spent most of the day lazing around camp, cutting wood, doing a better job of organizing things, and generally enjoying the new found comfort of crazy creek chairs. It was the first time that summer we had spent a whole day in such relaxation and comfort. Plus it was downright hot like a nice summer day, and we spent our time chasing the shade, as it was too hot just sitting there, and enjoying our books.
Thursday, when we woke, there was a feeling in the air that was belied by a clear blue sky and mild temperatures, the feeling before a storm, when the animals and the plants themselves seem to prepare in their own way. Not a frenzy of activity, but no wasted motion and a gathering in of what is necessary to survive. As if nature itself is closing the doors and shuttering the windows in anticipation of what is to come. That day our plan was to ride to the top of one of the drainages, whichbranched to the north and then continued to the northeast. What we found in the course of that day was a shock to our systems.
Earlier in the season during a week spent in the same area we saw two people and six head of stock. That day we encountered 89 people and a 118 head of stock in one day in one drainage, and the lower half of the drainage consisted of nothing but a narrow slot canyon with the trail climbing the side then the impenetrable tangle of a blow down so all of those camps were located in the upper half of the drainage. It seemed as if we spent more time mounting and dismounting and tying our horses up than we did riding. There was literally a camp in every location where a camp could be established and quite a few where they could not. In some cases you could see the next two camps from the camp your where in.
The folks we encountered ran the gamut from seasoned hunters and stockman to those with no experience with either. In most cases the hunters and stock weren’t in that good a shape whether due to altitude or lack of conditioning or both. There were also plenty of questions. We helped where we could and for the most part had a pleasant day. I will never forget the matched team of four mules in one camp. They where some of the biggest mules I have ever seen, and probably the nicest.
Throughout the day the feeling of the air and weather had changed. Gone was the blue ski, and mild temperatures. We watched as a black cloud bank built over the western ridge of the drainage before finally spilling across the rest of the sky, like inky flood water escaping the dyke. We hit camp late in the day with a cold wind on our shoulders and a dropping ceiling. According to some of the hunters we had talked to a small front was now supposed to blow through on Thursday night bringing a little snow. At this news Rob and I looked at each other. After four months in those mountains our weather sense was telling a different story. We had a storm on the way, and it was not going to be a dusting or little storm.
About 3 am, I woke to a silent world that can only mean one thing in a tent-- snow. I built up the fire, banked it, and went back to sleep until first light. We awoke to a world changed. A heavy wet snow cloaked the world changing it from the warm greens and yellows bathed in sun of two days previous to a white, cold, wet, world. During the night it had snowed about 6 inches, and though it was not snowing big flakes, it was snowing steadily with no signs of slacking off. The storm had settled in and was handling business. The next day, Saturday, was season opener, so we secured our camp for the weekend we would be away and prepared to ride out. We left our tent set up with a fair amount of our gear stashed inside, but took down the portable corral (actually an electric bear fence), and stashed all of our wood in the tent.
It was a long quiet ride out. There is nothing quite like sitting on the back of a horse for several hours while the snow piles up on your shoulders and the brim of your hat until the sheer weight demands it be brushed off. We were dry and mostly warm, withdrawn into our Filson tin coats, watching the world pass beneath low pulled brims and upturned collars.
We made one stop on the way out to rest our stock given the heavy going in the snow. At that point snow was approaching a foot and was still wet and heavy. It was obvious from the trail that some folks had left already that day, but given how steady the snow was falling our stock was still breaking trail. During our brief stop our saddles accumulated a nice layer of snow. Ah the sweet misery of sitting down on a wet, cold, saddle. We hit the trailhead well after we planned to and well after we were scheduled to. Our boss, Ms. Penny, was waiting anxiously at the trailhead, but she had some company.
The camp of guys we stopped at on the way in had pulled back to the trailhead and had setup a nice snug camp using some spare wall tents and their trailers as wind breaks. After getting our stock unsaddled and into our trailer we stopped by their camp for a quick cup of hot chocolate and some more elk pepperoni sticks and then started the long slow drive into Pagosa, as the snow continued to fall. This same hospitality would be extended a couple of more times over the following two weeks and was always appreciated.
The snow did not stop until sometime Sunday afternoon and when it was over a blanket six feet deep lay over the mountains. In many places it was drifted even deeper. For all intents and purposes the mountains were closed for the winter. We knew we were not heading back in on Tuesday and when we got to work found out that a Forest wide meeting was planned for the following day.
The topic of discussion was in part how to deal with a situation, and in part to formulate new and revise existing polices for the Forest for future events. What exactly was the situation? When the snow started some folks made the wise decision and pulled out immediately, others waited before pulling out, and still others waited too long. They placed their trust in the weatherman and technology, and ignored their own senses. Lots of those folks just started walking. They abandoned everything in their camp. In some cases the coffee pot or food was left on the stove. In others they didn’t even pause long enough to pick up their rifle or a day pack as they walked out of camp. They panicked and left everything they brought behind, including in some cases their stock still tied to trees and highlines. Lower down vehicles of all descriptions from small passenger cars to large travel trailers where stuck in the snow. It is a wonder to me that no one lost their life, but to this day I have never heard of a single instance.
The most critical item of discussion at the forest meeting was the ~18 head of stock that had been abandoned by their owners in a high mountain bowl. I have never, and will never, understand why they just left them, but they did. Of course by now, some of the owners were demanding that the Forest Service retrieve their animals and others had just left and headed for home abandoning them to the death grip of winter in the mountains.
For an 18 year old, that meeting was a real experience. Basically, the attendees could be broken down into three groups. Those who felt that the wilderness was a city park and you should be able to rely on the FS for your every need if you go into trouble including hauling out your camps if you had to leave them, the undecided, and finally those who felt that it was the wilderness and was termed such for a reason. The last group felt that unless your life was in direct danger then a helicopter was not going to be sent. This camp was exemplified by the boys from Creede.
For years the visage of the American Cowboy has been used to sell everything from cigarettes to men’s fragrances, but in most cases the image never rings quit true, but when you see the real thing you know it. The boys from Creed where the real deal. To them being tough and living out of doors was a way of life and as natural as breathing. Clad in government issued cowboy hats and Whites boots with wash faded wrangler denim in between the boys from Creede were a bastion of the old school Forest Service. Harkening back to the time when a Ranger spent the summer alone except for his stock, or with one or two helpers patrolling his district fighting fires, building trails, serving as the area law enforcement, officer, and doing any other task that needed doing. Guys with a get the job done attitude and a fierce independence, who will willingly pick a spot on the ground against a tree over a picnic table while they ate their lunch (spam and saltines) because that is what they were used to. To guys like that the thought of abandoning stock to death was as foreign as Rodeo Drive. In fact, they had already risked their careers, and more importantly their livelihood by feeding the abandoned stock from a helicopter. One thing all of the different Forest Service factions agreed on was that it was not the stock’s fault they were abandoned and that something should be done for them. As is typical of such meetings, nothing was really decided and the meeting broke up, with everyone going their own way. That did not matter to the boys from Creede. They were going to do what needed to be done and did not give a damned whether they had anyone’s approval or not. Simply it was the right thing to do, and needed to be done.
As is the way of those old school guys who just get the job done, not much was ever said about what happened next. I know the story in broad strokes, and I can fill in the missing details from my own experience in that country. The trail out was along a rocky stream bed for half of its length and was hard to find and follow on a warm summer day. Picture miles of rocks ranging in size from baseball to Volkswagen size scattered randomly under a blanket of snow waist to chest deep on a man hemmed in by willow thickets or heavily forest steep slopes on either side. Every step had to be tested and felt out before it was trusted because a misstep in the best of times could result in a broken leg. For stock it would be no different and in fact worse since a horse or mule does not have the ability to look directly at their feet and a hoof leaves a bit to be desired in the precision and traction department. Left to their own devices early in the storm they would have left that country on their own drifting before the wind, but since they were left tied to trees or highlines it was too late. Moving in snow that deep would be like trying to swim through mud. Anyone who has had their dog out in heavy, deep snow has no doubt chuckled at the sight of their pup high centering and buck jumping as they try to range like they are used to, but if you consider a horse miles from nowhere with no graze it becomes a sobering imaging. Leaving them tied in those conditions was a death sentence. What to do?
The boys from Creede knew and jumped out of the helicopter into chest deep snow at first light not long after the meeting. They were now on their own, but they were going to get the horses out or die trying. What followed was a race against exhaustion and death. They took turns breaking trail through snow that ranged between thigh and waist deep. A mind numbing effort that is soon reduced to the simplest of goals: placing one foot in front of the next. Quickly there is nothing left but trance like movement and exhaustion that must go on, because to stop is to quit, and to quit in those circumstances would have been to die. They must have pushed through their stamina and energy and into pure will. All through that day, long into the night they kept going. It was almost dawn 24 hours later when those boys came trudging out of the mountains with all 18 head of stock alive and well.
That was one year that the snow came earlier, but there will be more. Count on it. When you go into the mountains, are you prepared to get you and yours out? Or are you, like the boys from Creede, prepared to do even more?