BAD AIM - A Hunter's shot was OK, but his sense of direction was lousy. He found himself lost in Colorado's vast Rocky Mountain Range

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
City folk. As a teen, my friends and I used to shake our heads and make fun of this non-cowboy-boot-wearing clan. Growing up in the country on a small farm in Colorado, it's hard not to laugh when you watch someone get excited because they've seen a cow chip for the first time. After cleaning chicken coops and corrals since we were old enough to hold a shovel, manure just didn't hold the same allure for us country bumpkins.

So the irony isn't lost on me that today I'm one of those people I used to heckle. The only cattle I usually see is the kind already processed and packaged as a quarter-pounder with cheese. I long since traded in cowboy boots and open range for black low-quarters and an office cubicle.

But every now and then, I still long for the open country. As a matter of fact, some years ago when that nostalgic feeling overcame me, I planned a hunting trip in the Colorado Rockies with my brother and brother-in-law. Well, "planned" might be a little strong. I was visiting, and we sort of put together a day trip at the last minute.

I'd always been handy with a rifle. My dad taught me to shoot at a young age. I remember I hit the first target I ever shot at, and then in my excitement, I promptly turned toward my dad, exclaiming, "I got it!" He didn't share my enthusiasm. Suddenly I realized why. I had the .22-caliber rifle pointing straight at his belly.

Thus, commenced my first "crash" course in gun safety.

Let's just say I didn't make that error again.

By the time I went on this particular hunting trip, I was well versed in gun safety. Unfortunately, that was about the extent of what I figured I needed to know. My risk assessment included: know how to handle your gun safely, know what you're shooting at, dress warmly, wear orange. Check, check, check and check. I had all those covered.

But there were more hazards. Had I taken the time to think about them, I might have identified them.

We decided to hunt in a mountainous wilderness near Vail, Colo. I'd never hunted there before, so the area was unfamiliar to me. I really didn't dwell on that fact, because I planned to stick by my older brother, who was familiar with the area.

We started bright and early in the morning. The mountains were beautiful; the snow deep. God's country!

We topped a mountain ridge, formed a skirmish line and decided to slowly work our way to the valley below where elk were most likely to be feeding. My brother formed the center of the line, with my brother-in-law to his right and me to his left. We spread out, but not so far that we couldn't see each other.

As luck would have it, not five minutes into our march, I came upon a six-point bull elk. He was staring right at me, not 60 yards away. I slowly dropped to one knee, released the safety and brought the rifle to my shoulder. But before I could get off a shot, the old bull darted into the trees.

My adrenaline pumped overtime now. I followed the tracks to the edge of the trees. I hadn't planned on entering the trees at that point but noticed that they opened up to another clearing. I followed the tracks in. There was that elk standing, even closer now, at the edge of the other tree line. Again, my rifle came to my shoulder, but again the elk took off before I could fire a shot.

I no longer had my brother in sight, as the trees became too thick to my right. But I felt I'd been traveling pretty much in a straight line, and we'd planned to meet at the bottom of the mountain ridge anyway. Plus, the close calls with the elk made me throw caution to the wind. I was hot on its trail.

Had the elk simply run off and left me in the dust when we'd first spotted each other, I'd have given up on trying to follow it. But it continued its treacherous pattern down the mountain. Always stopping at a tree line to regard me curiously, but moving before I'd get a chance to fire a shot.

I proceeded as if in a trance. I was a horse with a carrot in front of my face.

I finally reached the valley below, at which point the elk, seemingly bored with our little game of cat and mouse, bounded off to torment some other unfortunate hunter.

Catching my breath in the thin air, I cursed out loud in frustration.

Then I started looking around to see if I could spot my brother.

No sign of him.

I thought about calling out, but I didn't want to spook any elk he may have in his sights.

In every direction there were thick tree stands and mountain ridges that all looked pretty much the same to a "city slicker" like me. I was unsure what my next move should be.

The snow had been thick and fresh, so I considered following my tracks back out to ensure I didn't get lost. However, I felt as though I'd traveled in a fairly straight line and should be parallel to my brother's position. So if I headed right, I should run into him.

Plus, following my tracks meant going back up the daunting peak. ... Not this desk jockey.

An hour later, though still too embarrassed to admit it, I knew I was lost.

I even resorted to hollering out. ... No response.

Did I mention I had no compass, no cell phone and no sense of direction?

I headed up the mountain ridge, but at an angle I thought would intersect my tracks. I figured once I hit my tracks, I'd just follow them out.

Halfway up, my right knee reminded me that I'd only been out of a knee brace for two weeks. I'd injured it playing racquetball and had barely been able to walk on it just three short weeks ago. Pain shot through the knee, and I knew it had endured too much too soon. I started using it only for balance, putting all the pressure on my left leg to get me up nature's ultimate "StairMaster."

When I finally topped the ridge, my heart sunk. All I could see were other peaks and valleys. Somehow, in all my weaving in and out of trees, I'd gotten totally turned around. I'd climbed the wrong ridge.

Getting lost was one thing, but a mountain ridge is a fairly large landmark. I felt like an idiot. I used to make fun of guys like me.

At that point, I had a lot of problems. No food. No water (sucking down snow won't keep you from becoming dehydrated, plus it dangerously lowers your body temperature). No compass. No cell phone. Only one good knee. And I didn't have a clue which way to go.

I'd ignored the first rule of getting lost, which was to stay put. Now I'd be harder to find. Worst of all, nightfall quickly approached.

There are lots of ways I could have been killed at this point. Dehydration, hypothermia, a misstep and fall down a rocky slope, or running into an angry elk or a hungry mountain lion who figured I was easy pickins.

But in hindsight, if I'd died in those mountains, it would have been from stupid pride and humiliation. Because even though I'd pretty much become a full-fledged city slicker, I still considered myself a country boy at heart. And country boys don't get lost in the woods.

Plus, I was still only 27, still invincible. I didn't think about dying. I only thought about the heckling I'd receive when all my family and friends figured out what a tenderfoot I'd become.

I noticed a ridge that led to a taller peak. I figured a higher vantage point might reveal some sign of civilization. The trek wasn't easy -- especially for a one-legged man. When I'd finally reached the top, nightfall had come. I looked in all directions ... nothing.

Then, suddenly, I saw it. Off in the distance, one orange light. A flicker of hope. But between me and the light, stood a smaller ridge -- but plenty big enough for a one-legged man.

For an instant, I thought about start-ing a fire and waiting for the cavalry to arrive. But my ego wouldn't allow it. I started toward the light.

Hours later I made it to the peak of the second ridge. By this time my left knee also had played out from doing the work of two legs. I literally clawed my way to the top the last several yards.

At the top of this peak, I could see a few more lights. Like a mosquito, I headed directly for the distant glow.

Because I was on a beeline and off trail, the snow got so deep in some areas that it reached my chest. It became impossible to keep my rifle out of the drifts. The snow actually forced the bolt action on my rifle to open, ejecting a few shells. Then it jammed completely. Almost simultaneously, I heard a low growling noise just to my right.

Was it my mind playing tricks on me? ... I heard it again.

I unsheathed my knife.

Again, in hindsight, palming my knife probably wasn't the best decision since I had little chance of fending off any wild animal that decided to attack me and was more likely to slip and fall on the blade. But, having it in my hand made me feel better at the time.

I never saw the animal that growled at me. Whatever it was, it probably was delivering a stern warning, rather than thinking about making me its supper.

Painfully, I inched my way down the mountain.

As I approached the light I'd seen so many hours before off in the distance, I realized it was a house. As I got closer, I noticed the garage door was open. But a big yellow dog lay just inside. He spotted me, jumped up growling and barking, and charged at me.

I still had my knife in my hand and was too cold, tired and hungry to be afraid of anybody's pet. I stood my ground and "barked" a challenge back at him. He must have sensed I was serious because he skidded to a stop, then turned tail and ran.

I decided I wouldn't challenge him by going to his home. Besides I could now see other houses nearby.

At the second house I came to, a young couple answered. I must have been a sight, holding a rifle and a knife and covered in snow. I'm surprised they didn't slam the door in my face, espe-cially since I'd come in the backside of a gated community speckled with multi-million dollar homes.

I melted on their Persian rug as they retrieved a phone for me.

I'd been gone for 18 hours. I tracked down my brother after calling my parent's house. He and my brother-in-law had rented a hotel room. ... They'd also notified search and rescue.

The bad thing is, I didn't save myself one iota of humiliation. My brother still teases me to this day about the incident.

I was lucky. My lack of planning and my pride could have cost me big.

As it is, some young country boy will probably read this, shake his head and disdainfully mutter, "City folk."