Friday, September 2, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Weather's Finale

After donning what was left of our dry clothes and shaking out our rain gear we began to pack up our camp. Few people have any realization exactly how much a wet camp weighs in comparison to a dry camp but on your back it feels like several hundred pounds of water trapped between the layers of your high tech, gossamer fabrics. In reality, it's probably about 15% more weight due to water. After packing up everything the best we could in the drizzling mist, we began the long descent.

The initial terrain was waterlogged tundra interspersed with rivulets of water recently deposited on the mountaintop now headed for the seas. Walking across boggy tundra with a heavy load is exhausting for those who haven't tried it but after a couple of miles and  roughly a 1000' feet of fall in elevation we came the steepest part of the descent- an 800 foot drop in as many horizontal feet. A fall here would entail a long tumble to very nearly the bottom of the mountain. We adopted the mantra "slow and safe" before we started down the broken shale face, now slickened by the rain. If the temperature had fallen another ten degrees and resulted in a light snow or ice storm this face would be suicidal to descend.

Things were going pretty well with all things considered- we made good time attempting to beat the setting sun prior to getting to the final part of the hike, a descent through a thick black spruce forest interwoven with impenetrable bands of alder. Navigating past a scree chute, I planted my outboard trekking pole and as I transferred my weight from my foot to the pole the dreaded happened. The pole collapsed and folded under me. Suddenly I was caught off balance on a steep slope with a 60 pound pack on. I was exhausted from several days of hiking and little sleep. I reacted the only way I really could and I sprawled out on the rocks rather ungracefully and attempted to catch myself on something solid before gravity took over and pitched me headlong into the misty abyss below.

My right hand found a jut off rock just as I started to slide and I managed to dig my pack in as well. Thankfully my unintended momentum stopped and for the moment I was safe. I noticed a tremendous pain in my thigh, I had fallen rather hard on my right side and my thigh had impacted a sharp piece of granite protruding from the face. That hurt. I quickly assessed my condition and determined the bone probably wasn't fractured but I did have a small cut and a rather large scrape on my leg that burned like fire. I would bleed a little but I'd live. I managed to work my way to safety where I could rest and regroup with my partner who lagged several hundred feet behind me for safety since we didn't want to fall into each other or dislodge a rock onto the hunter below. Already I had noticed several rocks plunging at high speed from his struggles and I had sent more than a few bouncing down myself.

We at last came to the large rock ledge where our descent transitioned from open cliffs and high alpine tundra back to the forested slopes. We had about a mile to go and about 1500 feet to descend back to the highway where our vehicle was parked. It was 8:00p and we looked like we had just been on a forced march. I had a visible limp from my swelling thigh and my partner's boots had stretched to the point he had to walk gingerly or the whole boot would roll under his foot causing a fall. We drank some water and powered down a couple of candy bars each. We had descended below the thick cloud layer and looking up the sky and mountainside were just a huge wall of grey water trapped in the atmosphere.

I transitioned my trek poles for my rifle. I did this for a couple of reasons- first, encounters with bears would be at rock throwing distance in this thick wood and (maybe not so obviously) walking through the alders and spruce with a rifle barrel sticking two feet over my head would ensure a lot of snagging and fighting an already heavy pack down the mountain. I tightened my straps and found the faint line of the trial in the now darkening forest and plunged in.

I wish I could say our descent down the mountain was a graceful walk down a thin line of a trail through the brush, but it wasn't. The trail was little used and had the habit of vanishing in the brush periodically. We were so tired and exhausted we just plowed though. Like human bulldozers, we knew the way was down and as long as the next step was lower than the first we pressed ahead. Every contact with the trees or the tall alders would dislodge hundreds of collected raindrops and it would pour down on us, soaking us to the bone despite our raingear. Not that it mattered, despite temperatures in the mid 40s we were sweating heavily under our heavy packs; when we stopped in a thicket the prevented the breeze from moving through we steamed profusely. After two hours of this hellish hike we emerged out of the trees, just a few hundred feet from our vehicle. We were battered, bruised, exhausted and soaked, but we were down. It was 11:00pm.

The next day I awoke to the smell of strong coffee permeating the house. My wife had let me sleep in and it was 10:30, hours later than I usually sleep as an early riser. I tried out a few moves while still horizontal. Yep, everything hurt. Despite weeks of training the only thing to prepare you for sheep hunting was sheep hunting. I managed to stagger downstairs and filled my mug with coffee. I looked out the window at the torrential late summer Alaska downpour. The Granite mountains, normally visible from my home, were just a mass of cloud and water. I checked the NOAA site and a couple of FAA Weathercams in the hunt area from my PC. No break in sight in the forecast and just a gray blur on the webcam from the thick fog. That set a pattern that would repeat itself for several days. Drink coffee, watch rain, check forecast (no change from 30 minutes ago), send email to my partner back at his home, restlessly read a magazine, drink coffee, watch get the idea.

Then on Thursday, after checking the weather for the fourth or fifth time that morning, I noticed a change in the forecast...

to be continued.

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