A Pre-Dawn Summit of Sleeping Giant (Or, A Novice Tries His Hand at Hunting)
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, CO—It seems to me that everything worth doing in life requires waking up far before the sun rises. I was supposed to meet my partner at the trailhead at 5AM, and with only vague directions as to where I was going, no cell service, and less light to work by, I had a feeling I was going to be late…when all of the sudden, I saw him and his distinctive white pickup truck parked by the side of the road, unmistakable against the solid black of night.
I’ve wanted to climb Sleeping Giant for a long time. Ever since I moved to Steamboat, it’s been a curvaceous, alluring challenge—from afar it looks easy enough, that is, until you learn that you’ve got to wait until it’s cold enough for the rattlesnakes to retreat into their burrows for the winter season to attempt a summit.
September first, they said. They, being Colorado Parks & Wildlife….an odd bureaucracy to govern the hiking season of a seemingly surmountable mountain right in your backyard, but Sleeping Giant sits on parcels of both BLM and Colorado State Land, and is surrounded by private property. There’s only a narrow strip of public land through which you can enter this wilderness area without trespassing, and even then you’re not allowed to hike. The only acceptable purpose for being on this land is wildlife viewing.
September first is around the time when the rattlesnakes go into hiding, but it’s also the beginning of elk hunting season.
Pulling in next to the distinctive white pickup, my partner remarked that I’m the fourth hunting partner of that drives an Xterra. Semantics aside (I drive a Sexterra), I was flattered….didn’t I tell you? The original purpose of the morning’s mission might have been to tackle the summit of Sleeping Giant, but that wasn’t the only reason we were here. After seeking advice as to how one might actually ascend Sleeping Giant without a snakebite to the ankle or a hefty fine from a game warden, my partner asked if I’d like to join him on an early morning bow-hunt for elk. I could have tried to summit at any hour of the day; it was the hunt that had us up well before dawn.
Compared to my partner—decked from head to toe in camo, carrying a bottle of elk piss, to cover the scent of our manly essence—I looked like I was headed to a sunrise photoshoot for Patagonia. Covered in four layers of long-sleeved outwear, of varying strengths and sweat-wicking capabilities, I was ready for a long hike…but a hunt? Yeah, I guess I was ready for that too.
What were the odds of coming home with anything? By some estimates, only ten percent of elk hunters fill their tags in a given season. And we weren’t out for just any elk, we’d need to find a female…male elk, during rutting season, are aggressive. They won’t charge you like a moose, but they’ll seek you out if they smell you. They’re rutting. They’re testosterone-fueled, and ready to go. The females, however, are more skittish, and will flee in the opposite direction if they sense you coming. Makes for a bit more of a challenge.
So here we are, hiking along the private property line in the pitch-black darkness, our feet crashing through soaking wet bramble, slick rock, and patches of mud as we stalk our prey. We have to be extremely quiet. Should we come across an elk, we’ll have to sneak up on it, without her knowing. I imagine we’d have to be downwind to cover our scent, but I guess that’s what the bottle of elk piss is for. Covering our scent.
I’m a virgin hunter—have never before been out on trail, tracking prey—so my partner and I exchanged only hushed whispers, so as not to scare off any potential prey. We’d have to be downwind so that she didn’t smell us, so that we could get close enough for my partner to draw an arrow from his quiver, pull back, and let it fly...later he said he felt comfortable hitting a shot from about twenty or thirty yards…but at this time? With this light? What are the odds of a kill shot? He shoots with his bow; I shoot with my camera. These are the things I obsess over—focus, and lighting conditions. Not kill shots.
Sleeping Giant is a mountain with two peaks, each sloping some 8000+ feet into the sky, with a seemingly narrow ridgeline traversing between the two. From far away, it vaguely resembles a sine curve…and we had the good fortune of starting our sojourn below the steep, rocky side of the smaller peak. We had our work cut out for us if we wanted to do anything other than sit in a wallow and wait for high noon, and overheated elk looking for a place to cool off. Today’s mission was dual-purpose…find an elk, but also reach the summit.
When you first set off on a hunt, you’re eager. You think about the moment when your partner shoots the elk—you don’t think about whether or not he has to slit its throat to finish the job. You think about marinating the meat in some olive oil and sea salt, and slow-roasting it on a charcoal grill—but you don’t think about the friends you’ll have to call, before dawn on a Thursday morning, to help you pack out the meat because you can’t carry it all on your own before it spoils. You think about the chance to take home the rack, and hang it on your wall— but you don’t think about whether you’ll have to help clean and gut the animal whose life was just taken. Your mind daydreams about the romantic notion of a hunt, but rarely does it consider the fact that your success involves the taking of another life.
I’ve never been hunting, but it seems like hard work—should you kill something. That’s when the real work begins. It’s kind of like climbing a mountain…everyone is concerned with making it to the summit, but no one thinks about what a pain in the ass it is to make it down. It’s why people set turn-around points—I will head back down if I don’t make it to the top by noon—because it’s a pain in the ass, and sometimes dangerous, to keep pushing forwards. The same can be said with hunting. Where do you really want to shoot an elk? It’s nice to think about hunting it down somewhere out in the wilderness, but it’s far more convenient to take it down next to your driver’s-side door.
Our turnaround point was after we made it past the granite ledges of the southern peak of Sleeping Giant, formally known as Elk Mountain. Towering cliffs dot the edge of the rise at this point, making it an unwelcome climb to the top. Trudging up an unforgiving ridgeline, dotted with boulders, stopping every few hundred feet to let our layers dry out before the under-garments became insufferably soaked with sweat—and oh yes, looking for elk—I resisted every urge to whip out my camera. Misty clouds dotted the landscape below us, making for an otherworldly scene.
Picture every photo you’ve ever seen from Great Smoky Mountain National Park—rolling hills, autumn colors, and foggy mist—and put it in Colorado. Now place yourself mid-way up a 8,744-foot mountain, looking down on this scene as dawn breaks…knowing the town below you is just waking up, just beginning to start its day, and you’ve had the pleasure of seeing it from atop one of the most alluring geographical edifices you’ve ever laid your eyes on. It takes a lot of self-control to keep the camera in the bag, but taking photos wasn’t part of the plan.
Step after step…blah, blah, blah. Enough about climbing a mountain. They’re all the same. The views they afford are different, but every single mountain you will ever climb requires just one thing: putting one foot in front of the other in an increasingly difficult manner. It’s never fun to climb a mountain; it’s only fun to be at the top, which we were before we knew it.
Far past the turnaround point, the summit is not a place from which I’d want to carry an elk. My partner feels the same; he admits that if we see one, he’ll give it a shot, but we’d both rather bag a doe right next to the truck. We continue to slog through the undergrowth, with a vague notion of where we parked the cars. There’s only a narrow strip of land through which you can exit, you’ve got to be careful not to tread on private land. I surmise we’re not the only armed Coloradans patrolling before dawn.
As the sun rises, higher and higher in the sky, I’m thankful for the four layers I’ve packed. By this point, I must have worn four or five different combinations of vests and base layers…but I’ve been comfortable the whole time. The sun is strong, and the boulder field we’re navigating is slippery. I imagined Sleeping Giant as a bland, rocky outcrop with a fairly straight shot to the top, however the terrain is anything but that. From large rock faces that would look more at home in the Yosemite Valley to small, tree-lined resting spots that could be where Emerson hashed out Transcendentalism, we made our way through a half-dozen different mini-eco-systems, until finally we reached the relative clear of the shrubby meadows at the base of the mountain. From here, it’s an easy walk to the car, and a short ride home.
We didn’t even see an elk, but that’s probably for the best. I’m gung-ho for most things, but I’m not entirely certain I have the constitution necessary to kill, gut, clean, and pack out an elk for…twelve hours. While the hunt was technically unsuccessful, we still got in a twelve-mile hike, and a summit I’ve wanted to tackle for the longest time. The hunt itself might have been fruitless, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth getting up before dawn.