I get to lead a lot of cool adventures in the mountains. I meet all kinds of unique characters while completing some really rad objectives. This summer/fall has been no exception. Rivaling this season’s mix of backcountry climbs, fishing excursions and even an engagement at altitude, is a recovery mission I was contracted for this Sept.
It was a Friday morning when I first got the voice mail from the home office in Ouray. The general manager explained that two hunters where in quite the pickle out in the Weminuche Wilderness and she could think of no one on staff that could take on this sortie. Little did I realize how transformative this assignment would be as I casually rang her back for the details.
Forty-eight hours earlier, Russell had stood atop a ridge, just below 13,000ft, and put a trophy mountain goat to bed. He and his partner Bill were 7 days deep into a backcountry hunt of a lifetime. Due to the precarious nature of the animal’s perch, just getting a shot at him left the two hunters exposed to treacherous terrain. Somehow, Russ has put three arrows into the billy but upon dying, the goat has rolled off his stance and plummeted into a huge gully that split the eastern face of the peak. They could see that the goat had fallen down the gully and landed upon a chockstone. But they had been unsuccessful trying to access their kill from both the top and below. After trying for over a day to retrieve their quarry, the team had made the anguishing decision to hike back out to the truck and make the long drive back into town.
Upon arriving in the frontcountry, they immediately checked in with Colorado CPW (our DOW) and the USFS as the goat had fallen in the jurisdiction of the Columbine Range District of San Juan National Forest. At these offices, they worked out a solution to their conundrum with the various land and wildlife managers. DOW wanted them to salvage whatever meat they could from the animal. They also wanted pictures for their biologists. They received permission from staff to cape and take the head of the animal, even if they couldn’t salvage much/if any meat. The forest service’s district ranger was even more adamant- “Do what you’ve got to do to get that animal out of there!” There were many reasons for this sentiment and the ranger recommended they reach out to San Juan Mountain Guides in order to procure a professional guide to lead the recovery. Because this mission blurred the lines between mountain guiding and outfitting hunters, special permission was granted, and certain restrictions were waived so the tag holders could get someone in there to get their goat. This is what led to me being contacted Friday morning.
For 23 years, I’ve worked as a backcountry mountain guide. I’m also a hunter. I’ve recently been fascinated by the idea of sheep/goat hunting in the alpine and have wasted many hours on the YouTube watching epic sheep hunts in Alaska’s Brook’s range. I was enraptured listening to Steve Rinella’s recent podcast with the Executive Director of the Wild Sheep Foundation and followed along all summer as the gear company First Light profiled Tag’s pursuit of sheep, chronicled in this online mini-series. So, having an opportunity to be exposed first hand to a wilderness goat hunt at altitude was incredibly serendipitous. How blessed am I to get this chance? After an initial call out to the hunting team, I knew I was in-100%
I met Russell and Bill Friday afternoon in downtown Durango after they had just finished meeting with the Sherriff’s office. They were trying to wrangle up someone from search and rescue to help them out of their situation. I immediately told them I’d take the assignment and so they called the sheriff back and told him they had their man. Next, we sat about looking a pictures and maps and over the next two hours, we concocted a plan for retrieval. I believed I had a descent sense of the terrain and what gear and equipment I’d need to carry into the site to make recovery possible. We scheduled a meet up for O’dark thirty the following morning at a location where I could leave my rig and hop in with them for the long drive out to the trailhead. They even told me they’d been kicking up grouse out there all week, so I’d throw in my 22 pistol for a chance at small game on the way out. Everything was set, and I retired to my home to pack my kit.
That night, I laid in bed awake, turning the mission’s logistics over and over in my head. Russell and Bill were unable to assist me in humping in the technical gear needed for this recovery. All of the ropes and equipment I’d need to pull this off were going to be going in on my back- so weight was an issue and I tossed and turned thinking about if I had brought enough of the right stuff to pull this all off. It was going to be a delicate balance deciding between requisite tools like rope, webbing, climbing protection, personal needs and survival kit, etc. In the end, I opted for more “soft goods”; forgoing any climbing pro (nuts and cams, etc.) and choosing rather to bring the weight of one 50 m lead line, two 70ft. short ropes, three low stretch anchor ropes, two 10ft. pieces of webbing, a lot of cordelette and prusiks and approx. 15 locking carabiners, a belay device and a Tibloc (a mechanical prussik device I use on glaciers for hauling and crevasse rescue) Adding in a full day’s worth of food, two liters of water, warm layers and emergency supplies resulted in a heavy backpack. The robust nature of my ruck was now fueling my nocturnal considerations of the contents contained therein. This mental inventory coupled with a million brainstormed what ifs kept me awake most of the evening.
Morning came, and I was up before my alarm. A quick cup of coffee and I was out the door, off to meet the team at our predetermined synch up. After guiding and running thousands of trips over my professional career, rarely is the morning where I get the jitters. But upon meeting up with the guys, I shared with them that I had what amounted to pre-game butterflies. I was feeling that magical mix of excitement, nerves, and total stoke that is nowadays only felt before setting out on personal trips. I’ve rarely felt this way before a work assignment- but this was going to be such a unique experience that my endorphins were already running high.
After loading my gear and a duffel of (if needed) overnight gear into Russell’s truck, we were off for the field. Bill and I chatted while Russell drove out of town. 20 miles of pavement led to an hour of 2wd washboard that climbed high into San Juan National Forest- A final spell of technical 4Lo chundering followed as we ground out to the trailhead. I enjoyed having the time in the cab to get to know these guys. We were headed out on a complex and high consequence objective and upon completing the long drive out, I felt like I had a solid understanding of my new teammates. I also had the opportunity to demonstrate leadership, opting not to stop the truck and take an easy poke at a grouse Russell spotted just off the road in a grove of aspens. “We need to focus on the task at hand and not burn time on a bird this morning” I explained. Even though it was now legal shooting hours and the bird was the required distance from the road, this was no time to get distracted and risk an even later departure into the hills. At the time, I didn’t realize how critical this decision would turn out to be!
We stepped from the truck into the cool morning air as a small band of mule deer flushed across from our parking space. Shouldering our packs, we set out overland, looking to cut a corner off our initial hike, connecting up with an established USFS trail that led out to the wilderness. Although my ruck was heavy as fuck, I moved quickly and felt fresh. Bill and Russell however looked like a team that had hunted hard for the last week and the toll of the many miles they’d already spent in the backcountry was evident on their face and in their pace. Our plan was for us to head in together to a certain point and when the final approach was clearly in front of us, they’d take the bridle off of me, allowing me to sprint ahead and potentially start setting up before they would climb up to the kill site. After about two hours of steady and slow progress, the final route into the alpine showed itself. Russell pointed out a point on the ridge of the 13k peak and I was off. The two of them would follow and grind up the slopes behind me as safely and efficiently as their tired bodies could move. Both men are north of 60 and were obviously beat from their days already spent hiking in, around and out of the backcountry. But I was thoroughly impressed with their strength, perseverance, endurance and resolve. I charged forward to get out in front of the team.
The route up to the ridge was not all uphill. Rather than climbing straight up, I had to navigate through a series of mini canyons, across about a mile of undulating, above treeline terrain before I’d actually be on the hulking mass of slope that led upward to the peak. I thought about traveling this route on the way down. I was attentive and tried to visually catalog key landmarks in my mind to assist in navigating on the return trip. As I pieced out the line of least resistance, I told myself that the hunters had sorted this approach puzzle out before and I knew they were both running tracks on their GPS units. I put my head down and humped upward. Eventually, I hit the high point. But what lay below me was daunting. Looking down the north east face of this peak was absolutely terrifying. Like throw up in my mouth a little bit terrifying. The west facing slope I had ascended was mellow but at the top, the ridge ends abruptly in cliffs tumbling thousands of feet to some small alpine lakes below. Looking from my stance at the topography beneath me, I was sure I didn’t have enough gear to go off the top. I’d have to somehow traverse into the face, find some anchors, and descend from there. I was scared and focused. I threw down a quick sandwich, quaffed some water and proceeded to gear up with harness and hardware.
I worked my way down a precipitous spine that split the northeast and true east aspects of the face. About 300 feet below the ridge, I devised a way across some scree, barely clinging to the peak at an angle of repose. The cliffs below this rock field were huge and dead vertical. The hunters had shared a GPS waypoint with me the day before. But they had marked the coordinates using a Garmin InReach which I’ve learned is not always the exact location. Often times waypoints are close, but a little off- in this instance, the coordinates seemed to be marking a point further out the rocky spine which I knew couldn’t be true. I craned my neck over the walls below me trying to see a pile of white goat. I shaded my phone’s screen from the sun, trying to study pictures and video they had provided me, in an attempt to match those visuals with the reality in front of me. Nothing was making sense. Then my own InReach lit up with an incoming message. “We’re on top” Bill had relayed. I looked back up me to the ridgeline above. I saw no one. I carefully hustled back across the scree traverse and climbed up to the horizon line- Still nothing. I moved up and over the actual highpoint of the ridge and spotted the team 500 ft. below me, sitting in the sun on the ridge, above the true east face. I waved and then retrieved my pack and made my way south and downhill to them.
Upon reaching Bill & Russ, I was relieved albeit still perplexed as to actual location of the kill site. The spot below us- where the goat was shot and had fallen from was far less intimidating than the bluffs and flying buttresses that made up the NEast face I was just trying to scope out. Yet the goat, who was now in sight about two hundred feet below us, was still precariously located high off the deck, in a major gully filled with rotten rock and pitched at a consistent 70-80 degree angle. In order to get over to him, we’d need to descend the ridge some more and at a point where we could drop in, begin a traverse over the huge cliffs that guarded the upper slopes of the face. Bill and Russell had gone out on this face unprotected the day before. They had described their earlier attempts at accessing the goat as a mix of scrambling and belly crawling across the terrain. I stood in awe at what they had done un-roped. The traverse to the gully wasn’t particularly difficult. But there were sections where you’d have no rock to move across with hands and/or feet. There was this vast stretch in the middle of the traverse where you’d be side hilling on dirt and tufts of alpine vegetation. If you fell, you’d quickly pick up momentum and for sure would blow out over the cliffs below- ala homer Simpson, Springfield gorge style.
I set ropes to bring our team across the east face. The initial 150 ft off of the ridge was unprotectable and although it was exposed, it was the most compacted soil and scree we’d find. The slope angled at 25 degrees down to the first real anchor I could find. A honking boulder around which I affixed a piece of static cord. I tied off my first short rope and ran it out until I clipped the far end into a natural pinch wrapped with a cordelette. This downward sloping pitch hugged the first tier of cliff just below the ridgetop. For the second run of rope, I took my lead rope and ran it for another 50 meters to another natural anchor I had wrapped with cordage. This was to be the longest section of the traverse protected by a fixed line. In the daylight, the rope afforded us piece of mind. The pitch was not difficult to walk across but a we moved from one tuff of alpine vegetation to another, as expected, random tufts were occasionally falling away under our weight. While clipped to the safety line, we had little to worry about. Crossing this slope in the dark, hours later sans rope would prove to be the scariest part of my day for sure. But for now, all was well, and I quickly installed the final short rope at a third natural anchor on climber’s left of our intended gully.
I scurried back across the lines and called Bill and Russell down to me at the first anchor, harnessed them up, and then one by one we moved across the face of the mountain. At the second anchor station of the traverse, I detached my longest cord from the traverse, essentially cutting ties with the route back across the slope- In my best German accent, I embodied my inner Hinterstoisser and joked with my teammates, “Vee have now committed to the face, yah?” The three of us moved together, individually soloed down more moderate terrain, hooked into the third and final fixed line and completed our traverse to the anchor at the gully. Bill was wide eyed and shared his apprehension with what we had just done. I told the boys I was amazed that they had made the same traverse yesterday without protection while motioning to the huge real estate and air time below us. I tried to highlight the boldness and audacity of their decision to explore these slopes without pro. “I can’t believe we did this” Bill continued. “We were just so focused on trying to get up to the goat that I guess we just ignored where we were.”
Neither hunter had much experience climbing and so it was pretty useless taking a belay on what awaited me around the corner. The route above involved scrambling up 60+ feet of rotten chimney to the chockstone, and then somehow surmounting this obstacle and pulling up and over onto goat ledge. From below, it looked totally doable. I would keep my feet on either side of the chimney, stemming on solid granite and then bypass the chockstone by making a few moves to the right around the roof. The right-hand face of the chimney was only about 70 degrees and did not appear to be featureless. I surmised it ‘d be a quick couple moves of moderate fifth class climbing, 5.8 at the most and then I’d be through the worst of it. But with no belay, at +12,500 and looking at a fall that would for sure send me hurtling out the chimney, the mind has a way of making you keenly focused on self-preservation. I took a second to breath deep, center myself and launched into the gully with a laser focus on the task at hand. I knew I had the climbing moves, but I was troubled by what I’d pull over into atop the ledge- Would it be a cloud of death and overpowering smells of dead animal? Would it be blood and busted broadheads with little room to bypass? Or worse, would there be a mountain lion up there that had somehow alluded our aerial observations and laid perched upon the chockstone with a kill he’d claimed?
I dismissed these thoughts as irrational rubbish and quick dispatched with the lower part of the pitch. I was running a self-belay using the lead rope and moving a prussik up with me. I was able to wrap a natural pinch in a piece of rubble with some webbing- great now the fall was only going to be about 40 feet. Moving up under the chockstone, I gingerly probed its underbelly and tried to ascertain how it was stuck to the mountainside. Convinced it wasn’t going anywhere, I looked about for another natural piece of pro to sling. I opted for some rocks wedged between the chockstone and back corner of the chimney, cleared away a bunch of dirt and wrapped two pieces of 6mm cordage around what appeared to be a solid little chunk of geology- great, now I had cut any potential fall to about 20 ft + rope stretch. Not ideal but better than a free solo. But the bottom line was clear- falling was not an option up here! I trusted nothing but my own skills and purchase on the rock. Taking a deep gulp of high mountain air, I exhaled, committed to the face climbing out right of the chockstone and pulled the moderate moves up and onto goat ledge.
I had placed my teammates around the corner, out of sight of the chimney, so that the detritus and boulders I was sure to dislodge while climbing this dirty fissure would fall clear of them at the anchor below. This left me alone in the gully and the silence I encountered upon that ledge was deafening. I broke the tension by speaking to the goat. “Hey buddy- it’s okay. We’ve got you now” In retrospect it must have sounded comical to Bill and Russ, hearing their guide talking to the dead creature one hundred feet above them. But it felt right to me at the time. I had mantled up into a chaotic scene with blood and excrement splattered both on the ledge and on the walls leading up the chimney. When the billy had fallen, he’d bounced onto a spike of rock, one I’d have to use as an anchor, pinballed into the left side of the chimney and augured into a depression on the downhill side of the chockstone. He was a mess and talking to him helped me find peace and center myself. There was no big cat or crazy smell, but the reality of the moment was no less powerful. It’s one of the moments I’ll remember most about this mission.
I yelled down to the team that I’d reached our target and that I needed a few minutes to find more anchors and fix my line. Then I’d rappel back down to them and discuss our next move. I delicately pawed my way up the chimney above the chockstone and the dead animal. Key holds were covered with blood and I looked back as my lead line trailed through the mess. I was pretty much down to my last pieces of kit. I would need to find the perfect natural anchor in order to fix my rappel- I was unsure I could reverse the moves and downclimb back to the team if I couldn’t find something to wrap. Lucky for me, the world’s most perfect mushroom of rock was protruding above the kill site, approx. 50 feet higher up in the chimney- I mean text book- you couldn’t ask for a better natural anchor. I wrapped the mushroom with my final 20 ft. piece of static rope, tied a figure eight on a bite and threw a locker on the anchor and clipped in. Bomber! I pulled up the remaining length of lead line and rigged a rappel. I abseiled back to the chockstone and saw both Russell and Bill poking their heads around the corner, taking pictures of the route above them. I’d need to rob some gear to back the mushroom up and figure out next steps- so I continued raping back over the chockstone, back down the gully to my teammates at the lower anchor.
We quickly decided that Russell, the tag holder and I would re-climb the pitch back up to the ledge and butcher the goat. In the meantime, Bill would re-trace the traverse across the face and support us from above- All afternoon there was a steady flow of coms via inReach which Bill could reply to while stationed on top. He also could film and offer guidance from above. Or just take a nap and enjoy the view while Russ and I worked diligently below. I mentioned he’d have to cross the second section of the traverse without the security of a fixed line, but he felt confident that he’d done it before. He told me he needed to get after this section while his confidence and energy reserves were still optimal. I told him to call down/inReach us when he got safely up top. Way to send, Bill!
I turned my attention to Russell and pre-gamed with him. From here, I’d batman back up the fixed rappel, rig out a second anchor point and then belay Russ up to me. Since my lead line was fixed, I was able to belay Russell with one half of the rope and he could use the other side of the fixed rope as a handline to pull himself up and around the chockstone- This would mitigate his need to make the face climbing moves while carrying his backpack and wearing clunky Kennetrek hunting boots. In a rapid flurry of effort, I found myself back up on the ledge where I excavated the only other natural horn that I could sling to back up the initial mushroom anchor. The horn would only work in a downward direction and it was covered in a fair bit of goat blood. But I made it work, equalizing both pieces of topography and relishing the confidence that comes with having multiple anchor points composed of what I hoped was solid rock. Hell, I had already committed to rapping off the mushroom once so no time to second guess its integrity.
Russell and I were individually tied into either side of the fixed rope and we both took a moment to address personal needs. I gulped down an entire Nalgene and ate my second peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Russ had a moment of reflection with the goat. This pause in the action seemed to hit him with the same power and energy I had felt when I had first pulled up on the ledge. I watched as the hunter put his hand on the animal’s fur. Clearly, he was feeling the enormity of what he had done. It was a special and emotional moment to witness.
Time to get to work! There was only enough room on the perch for us to squat on either side of the goat. There was no flat ground, only precarious footing and sloping stances to be found. It was tough to have us on the same side of the carcass, so we often faced each other on either side of the goat’s body. The one exception was our effort to initially roll him over. He was clearly bloated but wasn’t smelling too bad. This all changed when we turned him over for initial inspection- Russ grabbed the front legs, I pulled the rear and we rolled him over on the ledge. The dead goat made weird gurgling noises as noxious gases escaped from the holes in his body. We were tied in and had nowhere to go- we stood there, and both took an olfactory assault that will not be forgotten anytime soon! Fighting our gag reflexes, we examined the damage the creature had sustained.
The goat had smashed the right side of his head and had a substantial hole behind his right jaw. Later that evening, we also realized he’d lost his right ear in the fall. The left side of his face was also a little smashed, albeit intact and his nose was bloodied and a little smooshy. But his horns were intact and as regal as ever. It’s amazing he could take such a large fall, bounce and not even nick an end. I was also in awe of his size. Regardless of his swollen innards, it was clear this guy was old and experienced. He was a monster and having never touched a mountain goat before I stood in absolute amazement over his hulking front half- massive shoulders a broad chest and powerful humped back. He looked like a prize fighter who often forgot leg day. His fur was white and thick and weathered. Just an incredible specimen. A true mountain man.
We got to work skinning and would salvage any meat we could in the process. Although the DOW had granted Russell permission to only recover the horns, we wanted to take the cape, skull and anything else that made sense. Butchering him was going to be different than how’d we both been trained to carve up an elk- We’d be skinning him in reverse- Rather than making an incision in the legs and across his belly, Russ intended to make an initial cut in line with the animal’s spine. Once we had cut his hide away laterally, we’d peel the cape down over each leg, leave evidence of sex and then cut off the head from the backside of the neck. All difficult enough on flat ground for experienced goat hunters. But here we were- two rookie goat butchers, precariously affixed to a tiny ledge with very little room to move around.
Russell’s effort skinning the goat was inspiring. We worked together as he gently ran his knife under the skin as I continuously pulled and rolled the hide away. We worked together field dressing the goat and used a bone saw to cut off the animal’s legs on side one. We’d get a head of steam, cut and pull, grunt and groan and skin until our backs would start screaming from being bent over in awkward positions. Then we’d stand up, surf our inevitable lightheadedness and exhale deeply while locking eyes with each other in a “what the hell are we doing?” kind of way. After these brief rest breaks, we’d squat again and continue skinning. We rolled him over and completed side two. Throughout the process, we noted not only weird natural lesions and funky inner goat stuff but noted the many points of blunt impact and penetrating trauma billy had suffered on his bounce down the gully. We also found the arrow shaft and broadhead tip that had initially felled the goat. Shot one was right into the animal’s brain stem. Shot two must have gone high. Shot three has found its mark deep into the rear part of the spine.
After completing both sides, we moved on to the decapitation and I slowly pulled the cape down and away from the goat’s body until the hide was only attached to the animal’s sex organs. A final cut and we had turned this guy inside out. Throughout the process of field dressing him, Russell snapped numerous pictures for CPW biologists to examine what was left to recover. I appreciated his fidelity to and honesty in documenting the kill. He wasn’t going to leave anything we could recover but unfortunately the meat had turned and everything underneath the cape was green and starting to rot. Where the goat had taken the biggest hits during his fall, bacteria was present, and contusions were already festering. It was an amazingly rugged dissection to be a part of.
When we were finished, we hung on the rope and worked together to fold the hide and head into a game bag. We retrieved Russell’s backpack and slid the harvested package into his ruck. The process had taken over three and a half hours to complete. It was getting on 6:30 pm and it was going to be dark really soon. We still needed to clean up, rap down and make our way across the traverse. I asked Russ if he needed me to fix the second part of the traverse with the rope we were currently using. He felt that as long as he could get across in daylight, that he’d be good. This meant I’d need to get him on his way, so we quickly rigged him up for a final rappel. After he’d touch down, he’d clip into the fix line leading out of the gully, head around the corner and continue to traverse the face. He planned to go really slow and carefully across the unprotected bits. Like Bill, Russ shared that he took solace in the fact that he’d done it before and could complete it one more time. I appreciated this perspective, but I knew he had not made this un-protected crossing with a backpack full of heavy goat. There was no time to waste- we now had little light left, so in the pink alpenglow of an amazing sunset, Russell set out to get it done. Nice work, Russell!
I was alone again; still roped up above the now skinned carcass, a pile of used havalon blades, trashed rubber gloves and clumps of goat hair strewn about the perch. I quickly cleaned up the site and realized that I was going to have to leave a solitary piece of rope wrapped around the mushroom in order to get down. I didn’t believe the decomposing granitic quartzite would hold up to the friction of my final rappel. We’d been safe so far- but how many sketchy things can one team pull off before their luck runs out? This was no time for complacency, sweating LNT ethics or concerning myself with the miniscule cost for a new piece of anchor rope. I stripped the backup anchor from the bloody horn and set up the rappel line so I could pull it down from below. I offered a final prayer for the goat, took one last look up at the mushroom anchor and stepped off and over the chockstone. I quickly abseiled the rotten gully back to the corner anchor. At this point, I clipped myself in and coiled two ropes. There was hair and blood and chunks of meat all over my equipment. Light was disappearing quickly and as the final shreds of daylight disappeared, I cleaned the natural pinch anchor. Then I soloed up to the traverse that was formally protected by my lead line. My pack was heavy, I was pretty exhausted from 15 hours on the go and my hands were cramping from dehydration. It was now completely dark. The hardest part of the traverse was out in front of me- somewhere in the dark. At least I couldn’t see the massive cliffs below…
Balanced upon the last quality patch of rock I could find, I pulled my flashlight out of my chest harness. I usually wear a buff around my head which I use to hold my light in place. I was in a hurry and thought the moves would go quick, so I opted to instead hold the light in my mouth- bad decision! I clung to the side of the mountain with a death grip. I tried to keep my feet on rock whenever possible as I scanned the route ahead in an attempt to recognize handholds and feel out tufts I had trusted earlier in the daylight. At one-point mid-traverse, I began to get gripped- the term climbers associate with analysis paralysis…ex: I couldn’t move up or down, I was gripped. I’ve been gripped plenty of times before, both on personal and professional exploits. Years of facing high consequence situations in the mountains has taught me a form of self-talk that I can use to act and get through these moments of doubt. Some internal dialogue of assurance and a couple of deep breaths later and I was moving again. Slowly and awkwardly- but steadily I made my way across the traverse. I had a scary moment or two when footholds gave way and at a second point where I had climbed too high up to continue- but I solved it all by maintaining a level head and a calmly uttering “Michael- you got this” I ate my nerves, swallowed my fear and moved bravely in the pitch-black stillness of the night.
Eventually I arrived at the final anchor point. I could see Russell and Bill’s flashlights shining above me on the rim. I pulled up on top of the first large boulder that I had slung as an anchor seven hours earlier. I coiled the final two ropes. My pack was full, top heavy and unruly. There was no more room in it for all this gear. I stacked the final coils of cord atop my shoulders, grabbed my stashed trekking poles and climbed the final hundred and fifty feet ascending the upper reaches of the face. I pulled over the top with grunt and let out a barbaric yelp of triumph. Bill met me with a “We were worried about you” “It was spicy for sure my man” I smiled back.
We quickly reloaded our kits while trading gear and equipment back and forth, re-setting our loads for the 4+ mile trek down. The moon still had yet to rise and being on the ridge now exposed me to a steady, chilly wind. I polished off the last of my second liter of water and ate a gu packet. The boys were cold from waiting for me. With packs sorted, we filed into our line of descent and I led our group down the flanks of the peak. We did well navigating the various mini-canyons and undulating terrain of the lower mountain. I had taken note of enough landmarks on the ascent, so I was able to employ much the same heading we’d employed on the way up. We used the distant city lights of Durango as our lodestar.
When we hit a point where the way forward was unclear, Bill and Russell consulted the GPS while I fired my light up to the 1200 lumen setting, peering out into the blackness of the lower mountain. The unit’s screen displayed a track to the right, but I could make out cliffs and was for sure that the route continued left. I suggested that Bill reset his GPS- as my Garmin also plays funny games sometimes with tracking down instead of up. Sure enough, a quick recalibration adjusted the direction of travel arrow to the left. We were approximately 150 yards. from our archived line of ascent and intersection with the initial trail.
When we hit the final, deep mini canyon, the GPS showed us directly across from the trail on the upper mesa. Neither Bill nor Russ could remember crossing this canyon, but I did, and I insisted we forge ahead. After a little back and forth, we hit the bottom of the final ravine, turned up stream and climbed our way up and out of the canyon, arriving on the established route that would take us home. We were knackered and as we stumbled down the final three miles to the truck, we said little. Occasionally one of us would break the silence with a comment and a couple of funny jokes were told. The moon rose. We found the turn off for the final bit of off trail, overland travel to our parking spot. The team dug deep and Russell navigated us to his rear tailgate just shy of midnight. Another two hours of four wheeling down the mountain and into town and this mission was complete. We had our man. We got the goat.