Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Mountain Lion Hunting in the Cascades vol. 2

Decided to go for higher altitudes today, find some snow, and then find some tracks. We headed for the ridge and canyon section between the north and south forks of the Toutle River, which peters out to the east at the base of Mt St. Helens. On the way up we saw more elk, and lots of rubbing trees. I set up in a few clear-cuts and tried calling for cougars or any furbearer, but to no avail.

When we reached the snow line, we immediately found plenty of sign, but all bobcat. Ever the undaunted opportunist, I switched into bobcat hunter mode and felt my optimism levels rise as we gained altitude. We were driving on a road that was covered with between 18 inches and 3 feet of snow, that had repeatedly frozen and thawed, so that it was a hard, thick cake. Every mile or so, when I saw what looked like fresh sign, I would get out of the vehicle and walk the tracks until I reached a good ambush location, such as an old log landing, where I had long shots in multiple directions. Then, I would set up a calling scenario and let 'er rip for about an hour. Twice I had motion, but
both times behind me and I never got a good look at what was coming in.

As the sun climbed higher, it warmed the ice road, turning it into a slushy luge course that made for some absolutely harrowing moments, one of which ended the days hunt. We narrowly averted a skid into a snowy bowl that would have been UGLY (as in a mile straight down, probably rolling many, many times, before coming to rest abruptly against the tree line resulting in sudden death.) In the process of not dying, we got stuck.

I remember looking up at the sun and thinking two things. One: This is the kind of thing that is characterized by cascading effects which can end in cold numbing death. Two: Slow death might be worse than sudden death.

I looked at Ray, my guide for the day, who isn't a guide at all, but a nice guy nonetheless. I had been telling him for about a mile that we were making a big mistake by challenging "chewy" snow, especially as high up as we were, and with the sun's warming rays. He said, moments before we almost slid off the planet, "If it weren't safe, I wouldn't be doing it. I ain't gettin' stuck. I don't want to have to walk out of here any more than you do." Truth is, he couldn't walk 100 yards in that snow. But I could, and would have to, for 6 miles.

So, after my mini-day dream, where the sky was beautiful and the snow was as white as a virgin's veil, and two things occurred to me (as above), I looked at Ray and said "It's 2:00 pm. The snow will only get worse for the next hour or two. We can try to get this thing unstuck, but, when we fail, I am going to have to hike out of here to get help." He nodded, cursing aloud, lamenting the straights he had put us in, and acknowledging repeatedly that he should have listened to me. I tried to ease his discomfort. "Its a beautiful day. How bad can it be be?" He looked at me with a small amount of fear in his eyes, and said in a low voice, "We are over 20 miles from a real road, it'll be dark in a few hours, there is no cell phone reception here, and I don't have the right extrication gear. I am sorry I got us here, but now we're fucked."

I though hard about this frank assessment. It occurred to me, as it often does in these kinds of situations, that at least, there were no snipers. And nowadays I add, no IEDs. However, Ray was right in stating the hard reality of our situation. I asked him how far he could go. He said "I'd be a fool to leave this truck. They'd find me wadded up." That, of course, left precious few options. I needed to ruck up quickly, get down the mountain, communicate our situation to someone (like the outfitter in charge) as soon as possible, and get Ray off this mountain to prevent him a very cold night at minimum (I shuddered to think of that ridge at 2am). Hoo-ah.

A quick inventory ensued. 4 bottles of water, a rifle, a handgun, 2 oranges, a stick of salami and some beef jerky. I checked my pack. Survival gear, 1 first aid kit, emergency blanket, whistle, compass, GPS (Rhino w radio), and a couple of knives. Good to go. I took a GPS reading and recorded the coordinates. "Ray, I'll take half the water, an orange and the pistol. I'll be down by dark I hope, and you'll be outta here by midnight. Stay warm, don't leave this position- you're on your own" (I'd been wanting to use that line for years). I shook Ray's hand and left at 2:15 pm.

It was pretty simple. I'd either make contact with someone at the first available cell phone signal and set the gears in motion, or I'd spend the night out here, and so would Ray. I tried to leave it right there in my head, and ignored the nagging realities of cascading effects. I recalled the last place I felt the vibration of my phone receiving email or text messages was about two miles a way, on a ridge where one could see Mt. Ranier, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, and Mt. St. Helens from virtually the same spot. I checked my battery --going low fast with the temps and the constant searching for signal. I shut it off and began my march, snapping a photo of the stuck truck before leaving (above).

After about two miles, I arrived at the ridge. I checked signal, dialed the outfitter, and afterwards my wife, and related the situation, gave coordinates, and assessed options. Once that was accomplished, I was relieved. Now that someone knew where we were, we were in good shape. It took me about three hours to get down to below snow line, and the outfitter was arriving as I was taking off my pack. After a tense exchange with him, he was convinced that he couldn't simply run up there and fix things John Wayne-style, without making a bigger mess. I made it clear that I had no intentions of going back up there having just come down plus 5 miles, just to get stuck and have to spend the night in the snow. We debated for a few minutes, but my photos, description, and GPS coordinates convinced him easily to call in reinforcements. Ray was rescued from the ridge before 11 pm.

Tomorrow, we will return to the snow, but will not attempt to drive so far. I hope to find a good transitional spot to be well positioned for either mountain lion or bobcat. Stay tuned.


Vicar(ious) said...

Good goin', Cagey.
POAS, anyone?

Anonymous said...


I hope you get a discount from the outfitter. Look into your contract with them under "In Case We Almost Kill Our Client" clause.

The way you've described it, your preparedness and clarity of thought kept you personally from realizing your maximum regret. You weren't the lucky one here, your driver was the lucky one to have had you with him.

I'm glad you're both okay.


KGT (aka Cagey) said...

Thanks Rich, and thanks for the nice words, Josh.

It was surreal, once Mo and I went through all of the "could-haves." A bit frightening. Remember the book "Into Thin Air"? The take home message of that for me was ... "One does not fuck with snowy mountains."

40 years old and still learnin'.