First off, I was not lost… I was misled.
After seeing and hearing no elk for two and a half days, Stephen decided we need to change locations. As in change mountains. As in hike back to the trailhead, get in the truck and drive to a different spot. Considering we had our camp built, hammocks up, and a freshly plucked grouse to cook, we all assumed we’d get a night’s rest and hike down the next morning. Nope. We filled our bellies with fire-roasted mountain chicken and a freeze dried meal, repacked our hammocks, bags and rain flies, and started working our way downward.
It was horrible.
It took us two and a half days to get up to the roughly 11,000ft. elevation of public land. And we made it back to the truck in a matter of hours. Through the dark. Only stopping for Stephen and Andrew to collect their things after taking a 20ft. fall down a slippery, muddy slope. (Brian and I went the long way around and saved ourselves 15 minutes… which was a good thing considering the expensive and breakable cameras and lenses we were carrying).
By the time we reached the flat dirt road that signaled us nearing the trailhead, I was hallucinating. Literally hallucinating. That white path under my headlamp was shape shifting, becoming water, daring me to step off a mirage cliff face… it was weird. But I stuck to the original plan of putting one foot in front of the other and somehow made it back to the black Silverado that delivered our group from Texas to the South San Juan Mountains.
I was dead. Dead tired. The hope filled anticipation of stretching out and sleeping at the trailhead was the my main source of fuel during our decent. So when Stephen informed us that we’d be driving to our next spot without so much as a cat nap, I was none too excited.
I sat passenger and caught a few winks between the massive road bumps. I tried like hell to stay awake and be a good co-pilot, lob out pointless doses of conversation every so often to make sure Stephen didn’t doze off at the wheel, offer any assistance I could with navigation and reading FM road signs. But I was too damn tired. The kind of tired where resting your eyelids becomes more important than the vehicle you’re in staying on the road.
To no surprise, the Navy SEAL veteran didn’t need my help and instead got us to the South Fork trailhead without any trouble. And then told us we’d be moving out in 15 minutes. I sensed a mutiny earlier when we were neglected rest before driving away from the previous trailhead, and after this second slumber pump fake I knew my friend Brian (who I’d dragged into this backcountry adventure to film it with me) was inches away from punching me in the mouth and hitting the abort button. I told Stephen that Brian and I were going to sleep at the truck, then hike up at first light. Can’t film in the dark anyway… that’s what we told Stephen and ourselves at least. Stephen gave me one of his two-way radios and then he and Brian plugged in markers on Brian’s GPS. The rendezvous was settled. We split ways - Stephen and Andrew up the trail, Brian and myself to a horizontal position with eyes closed.
Day broke. Brian was trading texts with his wife. There were issues on the home front that required his presence. He informed me he needed to get home asap. We decided to drive him down to Santa Fe, where he’d either catch a flight home or grab a rental and head down to Albuquerque and fly out from there, (available flights decided on the latter). Three and a half hours later I dropped him at National. He handed over his stove fuel, food and GPS. We shook hands and I got back on the road. Time was ticking away. (Although I had to stop and get a hot meal at Sonic, couldn’t help myself).
At this point Stephen and Andrew had no idea why Brian and I had yet to meet up with them. The only way I had to get in touch with them was to call Stephen’s wife and let her know the situation, so that on the off chance Stephen called her from the emergency sat phone, she could tell him. I made sure to do that while I had service.
Crazy rains hit me on the way back into Colorado. One lane of the mountain road was closed off because of the downpour. I was stuck in a line waiting my turn to get waved through by state workers. I couldn’t stop thinking about the time delay. It was past noon at this point and I was supposed to start hiking away from the trailhead at 6am.
I finally made it back, now well behind schedule. Stephen’s truck returned to the exact same spot we’d pulled away from seven and half hours earlier. The rain was still drizzling. Blue skies, however, were moving my way and I decided it best to wait twenty minutes on their arrival. I pulled my pack from the truck bed and began to reprioritize and repack. While doing this, I hung the pack rain cover on a nearby post to dry out as much as possible, (it got drenched riding through the storms in the back of the pickup). After three sundowns on the first mountain, I had a better idea of what I needed and what I didn’t. (This was my first backcountry experience). Against Stephen’s advice about it not being worth the weight, I decided to bring my hatchet this round up the mountain - if I was going out alone, I wanted my trusty Gerber with me, dammit.
I checked the time. It was pushing 3pm at this point. I knew it’d start getting dark just after 7pm. Four hours to get my ass up the mountain and find the guys. I thought “I can do this.” I slung my pack over my shoulders, tugged the hip straps tight, and headed up the trail. Solo.
Not far into the ascent I crossed paths with two non-hunters coming down the trail. With their brightly colored rain jackets and matching walking sticks, I assumed they were out for a leisurely day of walking through the woods. They asked if I was looking for two guys. “Yeah.” Evidently they had bumped into Stephen and Andrew earlier that morning, and where told to keep an eye out for guys in all camo with cameras strapped to their chest. They let me know my group was “up that way” a good 4 hours.
No shit. I kept trucking.
This hike was actually one of the best parts of the trip. No stress of getting the shot or keeping the lens in focus or managing camera batteries, instead it was just clean air in my nose, water and energy gummies in my mouth and sounds of nature in my ears. There was a rather loud stream / river that ran along the trail all the way back to the trailhead. Although I couldn’t always see it, I could definitely always hear it. And knowing it was there brought comfort. Because if things got bad, if something terrible happened like a broken ankle, I knew worse case I could crawl into that water and make my way back to the truck. It would suck, but I could do it.
I counted the switch backs along the trail. Matching them to the map on the GPS, constantly confirming I was on the right path. I listened to the birds (as best I could with the ever-present sound of rushing water) and admired the views. It was a good hike.
When I reached the point of the trail where the GPS told me to step off, doubt made it’s way onto the scene. It didn’t feel right. After our drive through the night, when Stephen and Brian were setting points on the GPS that was now in my hand, I remembered talk of a meadow clearing. And there was no meadow clearing at this point of the trail. Rather a very steep slope dropping down to the river I could hear below me. With the forty-some-odd pounds on my back, I felt pretty sure that if I started down this slope, I wasn’t coming back up. It felt like the top of a black diamond ski run… once you dip in, you’re only headed one direction.
I convinced myself that the aforementioned meadow clearing must be on the other side of the river at the bottom of the slope. I trusted the technology in my hand and stepped off the trail.
At this point the marker on the GPS began to move, telling me I needed to backtrack a ways. This again didn’t feel right. Then the marker on the GPS that designated my position started to jump around. Not good. I thought maybe the GPS was having trouble due to the extreme incline I was on. Or maybe it was the cloud cover rolling in. Probably both. Whatever the case, my faith in the electronic devise I was using for the first time wavered. And now it was starting to get dark. And starting to rain. And I realized in that moment that I had left my pack’s rain cover drying on the post back at the trailhead. I think I might have said out loud to myself, “This is going to get bad quick.” My brain went into survival mode. I located a massive rock jutting out from the side of the slope. I thought “I can make that work.” I slung my pack under that rock as fast I could, last thing I wanted was a soaked pack. I quickly found my rain fly, scampered up to the top of the rock, found some anchors and tied down. I climbed back down, tied down in front of the opening and got myself under the fly. Now I had shelter - check.
Next on my list - figure out how to make the shelter work.
I had about a 2.5ft. by 7ft. ledge with which to operate. Just enough space to lay down. (Although my legs were quite wedged between the rock and a tree in one spot). There was a tree, about 3.5in. in diameter, up near my head that was a bit restrictive, and I decided I could probably use a guard rail anyway considering the drop off from the ledge, so I put the hatchet to work. I had to get out of my wet clothes, mainly my pants and socks, I had already shed the soft-shell jacket. I busted out some trusty 550 paracord and tied a line directly over where I planned to lay down for the night. Wet clothes off, hanging to dry - check.
No fire was happening that night with the minimal space. No big deal - I had a good North Face sleeping bag and was closed off from any wind. Unpacking the stove wasn’t worth it, plus I could barely sit up, so I made a meal out of bars and a peanut butter packet. Wasn’t the first time, I’m sure won’t be the last. Now what? Probably be good to try and get in touch with someone and let them know I’m not dead.
I dug out Stephen’s two-way radio. Tried it a few times… nada. I began yelling for Stephen and Andrew, or anyone that might be close enough to hear me. But even though I felt they could be close (according to questionable GPS), with the hard rain and the river below (which I was pretty sure had a waterfall or mini rapids or something of the sort right under my rock shelter), my efforts seemed extremely futile. Plus I had a dark grey fly draped over a dark grey rock, on a dark, cloudy night. There was no chance of anyone finding me.
I figured out the text message function on the GPS and slowly typed out some texts to Stephen’s wife. I let her know the situation, that I was fine and that I had bedded down for the night. She did not think I was fine. And because Brian and I were missing, Stephen did call her on the sat phone. So we proceeded to have a very disjointed 3-way communication between Stephen, myself and Stephen’s wife. Sat phone on the mountain, to phone in Dallas, to text message from Dallas to GPS under a rock. It was very slow texting from the GPS, then waiting for a potential response and so forth, and I was getting concerned about the GPS battery life. (I had left my portable battery at the truck to lighten my load). After convincing Stephen’s wife we didn’t need to call a helicopter, we decided/communicated/agreed on a spot up the trail where I would meet Stephen and Andrew in the morning.
I jammed myself into the best case sleeping position. It was tight but it would do. Once somewhat settled, I became very aware that the food in my pack was inches from where my head was laying. We hadn’t seen or heard any signs of bears or cats to this point, but if there was a night where things were not going as planned, this was it. I pulled myself out of my bag and moved my pack as far away from from my head as possible without it being exposed to the rain. I wedged myself back into a horizontal position and found a spot on the ledge to where my camp axe would be at my fingertips throughout the night. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
Before closing my eyes for the night I tried the two-way one more time. At this point it was mainly for my own amusement. “Stephen, if you can hear me, tonight I’m finding my frogman mentality.”
Stephen later told me that sentence was the only thing that came through on the radio.
I did not sleep well that night but I felt great the next morning. I had not only survived but my instincts had kept me warm, safe and dry. We now joke, “of course I wasn’t nervous, I was wearing SIXSITE.” And although it’s in jest, there is some truth to it. Hunkered under that rock with my RANA camo pants hanging over my head and my Nueces vest stuffed under it, thoughts couldn’t help but go to the former Navy SEAL who designed those pieces of gear. And even though I know little about what he went through and could never truly understand the hardships associated with that line of work, those thoughts did at the time (and still do) bring confidence - because I thought “if he can do what he did, then I can do this. If he could go through a grueling hell week of BUD/S training, then I can make it one night under a rock. If he can go into a war zone in Iraq, run missions and get men back to base safely, I can get myself through a rainstorm and a fire-less night alone in nature.” And to me, that justification, that belief - that’s my frogman mentality.
As I broke down my make-shift camp site, I was even more impressed with myself because getting up on that rock to untie my fly was not easy. I’m not sure how I did it so quickly the night before with rain coming down and light fading. The river below was now visible and yep, there was a little waterfall right there, and it was still loud. I took the time to carve initials in a tree next to the rock that had protected me and my gear. Felt I’d earned that.
I packed up and climbed back up to the trail. Again, not easy. I made my way to the meeting spot and starting preparing for another night alone. Just in case. Secretly I hoped Stephen and Andrew didn’t show. And I could have another night to myself, but this time with an improved camp, a fire and a hot meal. I wanted to build on what my instincts had delivered hours before. But alas, they walked up on me as I was collecting firewood, “Hey. How’s it going?”
So back to work I went.
The following days provided other worthwhile experiences - calling in two bulls to the exact same spot, blood trailing for hours up, over and down a mountain, a six yard bow shot into a facing bull’s neck, a pack out up a steep, rocky slope that proved to be the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life, racing to get firewood as the snow began to fall, cooking back strap on a heated stone in the fire….
But the night under a rock is the story that seems to always get told. And I always start it with a simple clarifier - I was not lost… I was misled.
~ Jack Pyland, SIXSITE Creative Director