Cold Nights On The Mountain

Those of you who have been following my blog know that I have spent more nights out without my sleeping bag than most normal hunters.  I know some of you are probably thinking, “Is this guy an idiot, or just plain stupid.”  Well I guess at different times both might apply but the real reason is simply time and distance.  Most of our mountain hunts were weekenders or three day hunts.  It usually took one day to hike in and one day to hike out so that left one day to hunt.  If you are going to be successful you have to go to where the animals are or in other words push the envelope of time and distance.  Most of the nights out were after a successful harvest in dangerous terrain and traveling in the dark was not a wise choice.  Traveling at night with flashlights or headlamps is no big deal on flat ground.  I have gotten back after dark many times on caribou, moose and black and brown bear hunts.

Back in the day sleeping bags were just too heavy to carry with you all day while climbing mountains and especially in the cliffy areas where goats live.  Now we have lightweight everything.  In fact there are so many lightweight items that most hunters end up taking too much stuff and their packs weigh about the same as they did before.  Also being a young airman money was too hard to come by to spend on the state of the art lightweight gear.

Each night that I slept out without my bag I learned something about myself and what I needed to do to survive.  There were times however that I wondered if I would survive.

My first black bear. I slept out without my sleeping bag about ten feet to the right of this photo.

My first black bear. I slept out without my sleeping bag about ten feet to the right of this photo.

I have told others and have written that my first night out without my sleeping bag was when I took my first goat with my bow.  Actually, it was when I harvested my first black bear in the fall of ’67.  I was hunting goats in Gulch Creek with a couple buddies and spotted a black bear on a ridge above the brush line eating berries somewhere around the 2500’ elevation level.  I stalked to within 25 yards and made a good shot and he died about 15 yards from me.  After I got him skinned, it was too dark to make it off the mountain safely.  It was a beautiful September night so I just curled up by a big rock and wrapped myself in the bear skin and went to sleep.  That really wasn’t a bad night so I guess that’s why I always say it was the night that I killed my first goat with my bow.  That night was beyond miserable.

It was the third weekend of September 1970 and there were four of us hunting goats in the Gulch Creek drainage.  The local gold miners were very active during those days and had cut a new trail back along the creek.  Using that trail allowed us to make it into what we called our base camp at the head of the valley in two and a half hours.  That gave us most of the day to hunt.  Once we were there we decided to split up.  Walter Burkett and I would go over the pass and hunt Walker Creek, which we had never done before and Rich Ludke and Dick Milham would stay and hunt Gulch Creek.

The goat trail on the ridge between Walker and Falls Creek. I’m checking out this “billy.”

The goat trail on the ridge between Walker and Falls Creek. I’m checking out this “billy.”

Walter and I made it over the pass and down into the glacier bowl where we had planned on camping by 2 P.M.  I dropped my sleeping bag and all of my camp gear there and told Walter to hunt the area around the bowl and that I was going to climb the ridge between Walker Creek and Falls Creek.  We had already spotted goats in both areas.  It only took me a little over an hour to climb to the top of the ridge where there was a great goat trail so I moved along checking both sides of the ridge for lone goats.  Late in the afternoon I spotted two large goats lying together.  I checked them out using my 18 power Mayflower spotting scope and could tell by the bases of their horns that they were both “billies.”  I started my stalk and moved in for the kill.  (See “Bow Hunting Mountain Goats”) for more details.  After making a successful stalk and skinning the goat and boning out the meat I loaded my pack and started off the mountain.  The weather had gone from cloudy to snow squalls to a steady drizzle.  It was also dark.  The angle of the mountainside was anywhere from 50 to 90 degrees and was very slick because of the snow and rain.  It didn’t take long before I slipped and fell down a chute about 15 feet.  I didn’t get hurt but I broke the top of my pack frame.  I had to stop at this point or I was going to end up falling and injuring myself or worse.  I took the bag off of my frame and tied it to some alder.  I used the frame to make me a flat area to lie on.  I was wearing cotton G.I. long underwear, blue jeans, a hooded cotton sweatshirt, a G.I. raincoat and a small synthetic lightweight jacket.  I was wet from sweat and the rain.  I put the wet goat skin over me and laid there in the rain wide eyed shivering most of the night.  I didn’t sleep any.  They say shivering actually helps produce body heat.  I’m sure it does but I couldn’t tell.  Being wet with the temperatures in the mid-30’s made me a perfect candidate for hypothermia.  Why I didn’t die God only knows.

The morning after my first bad night out without my sleeping bag.

The morning after my first bad night out without my sleeping bag.

Once I could see how to get off the mountain I tied my bag back to my frame and moved very slowly down the mountain.  My inner thighs were so sore from shivering I could hardy move my legs.  I made it back to where I had left Walter, ate some snacks, loaded my sleeping bag and camp gear and we hiked over the pass.  Walter didn’t kill a goat but he did get to sleep in his sleeping bag. 

Back at base camp Rich and Dick both had taken goats so they loaded up and we headed for the truck and then on to Anchorage.

After that night I knew I needed better gear or at least a better jacket.  Down was still king then but expensive.  There was a company named Frost Line that sold do-it-yourself kits for down jackets at a very reasonable price.  I purchased one of those kits and my wife sewed it together.  It turned out to be a great investment.  I used it until I started guiding.  You can see it in many of my old photos.  I was also able to pick up some nomex long underwear which worked better than cotton.  I kept a small piece of visqueen in my pack to cover up with if need be.

My next night out was in ’71 less than a half mile from the 1970 ordeal just on the opposite side of the ridge.  I had taken another goat with my bow and by the time I finished taking care of the skin and meat it was almost dark.  I knew I had to get to the top of the ridge before it got too dark.  It was a very steep climb but I made it in about 45 minutes.  Once on top I found a semi-flat grassy spot to spend the night.  It was a cold night with a star filled sky.  I laid my piece of visqueen down to lay on and put on my new down jacket.  I used the dry goat cape to cover my legs.  I was way warmer than the year before but I still spent most of the night doing jumping jacks to keep my body temperature up.  As I was lying there I could feel the frost falling on my face and my piece of visqueen became very slick.  With the incline it was hard to stay put and it was too small to both lie on and cover-up with.  Every time that I got up I could see a small light from a fire at the bottom of the mountain where Harold Spurgeon, one of my hunting partners, was spending his night out without his sleeping bag, but at least he had a fire.  I must admit, I was feeling a bit envious.

Going home. (L to R) Bob Butler, myself, Russ Langston and Harold Spurgeon. This is the day after Harold and I slept out without our sleeping bags.

Going home. (L to R) Bob Butler, myself, Russ Langston and Harold Spurgeon. This is the day after Harold and I slept out without our sleeping bags.

That was my last night out for a few years.  The following year on our goat hunt one in our group, Dick Roberts, didn’t make it back to camp and spent the night out.  When he returned to camp the next morning he looked like he had aged by at least ten years.  I’m telling you, it makes for a brutal night.

Dick Roberts after his night out. He is less than 40 years old. He said, “It about killed him.”

Dick Roberts after his night out. He is less than 40 years old. He said, “It about killed him.”

Most of our bad nights were from our weekend or three goat hunts in which we pushed our time limits in the steep terrain where the goats lived.  On our sheep hunts we tried to keep our camp on our backs at least until we were ready to make a stalk then we left them at the bottom.  In 1980 Ron Watts and I were hunting sheep in the Tok Management Area.  We had camped in a high saddle and the first day we hiked three miles or so down the valley and harvested two nice rams late that evening.  There was no way we were going to be able to make it back to camp so right at dark next to the two dead rams we snapped two army ponchos together and made a make shift tent.  We used the sheep hides to cover up with.  That wasn’t the warmest night but it was way better than my last two nights out.  One thing that helped was I had carried two extra pairs of the thick wool army socks.  My feet had gotten cold during those other nights.  This time I took off my boots and put both pairs of the heavy wool socks over my other wool socks which kept my feet way warmer.  The next morning we loaded up and made it back to camp and headed out the following day.

September 1982 was when Earl and I spent our night out with an emergency space blanket as our cover.  I wrote about that night in my last post, (“My Last Two Resident Goat Hunts.”)  That night was as bad as my first night.  I hate shivering.  You can’t seem to stop.  But I guess that’s good if it keeps you alive.  That was my last night out without my sleeping bag before I started guiding.

1984 was AAA’s first season.  We had purchased some of the best North Face sleeping bags for the clients, Brent and me.  Guess what!  It’s our second goat hunt and we have two clients from Florida.  Neither one was in great shape so we knew we had to do this in one climb.  We climbed hard and high and both clients took goats but it was late and the darkness got us.  It was too dangerous to try to make it off the steep cliffy mountain in the dark so we found a semi-flat place, about a 40 degree angle, to spend the night.  We had the two clients lay in the middle with Brent on one side and me on the other.  We gave them our new Cabela’s rain coats along with one of the goat skins to cover up with.  We took off our boots and put on extra socks and put our feet in black garbage bags.  It was a crisp September night especially at the 4000’ level.  The northern lights put on a display that lit up the sky and were bouncing off the mountain peaks.  What a beautiful sight.  Brent and I didn’t get much sleep and when the northern lights were beyond belief we woke the clients to show them, however, they got upset because we woke them up.  We were just trying to give them a true Alaskan experience.

Early during the night we could see the lantern at the camp at the foot of the mountain where we had left the horses and our packer, Troy Smith.  I’m sure he was enjoying a good night in camp with our new North Face sleeping bags.

I only spent one other night out without my sleeping bag over the next twenty-two years of guiding.  That was on a father/son sheep hunt.  After the father shot his ram we made it to within two miles of camp but we couldn’t get across Canyon Creek in the dark.  We built a fire which kept us pretty warm most of the night.  If you have hung around a fire in cold weather you know only one side of you stays warm so you have to keep rotating to keep warm.

My wife Karen, in 1998, waiting for the fog to lift. We had been sitting here for two hours. It rained and snowed. We were less than a 100 yards from the top of the ridge. There were two rams no more than 100 yards on the other side of the ridge with one of them right at 40”. Because of all the nights that I had spent without my sleeping bag at about 6 P.M. I made the decision to pull off the mountain. About an hour later after we were on the bottom I looked back and the clouds had lifted and there laid the rams. I still think about that decision but if it had been the other way around I would have had another story about spending the night without our sleeping bags. It’s all about time and distance.

My wife Karen, in 1998, waiting for the fog to lift. We had been sitting here for two hours. It rained and snowed. We were less than a 100 yards from the top of the ridge. There were two rams no more than 100 yards on the other side of the ridge with one of them right at 40”. Because of all the nights that I had spent without my sleeping bag at about 6 P.M. I made the decision to pull off the mountain. About an hour later after we were on the bottom I looked back and the clouds had lifted and there laid the rams. I still think about that decision but if it had been the other way around I would have had another story about spending the night without our sleeping bags. It’s all about time and distance.

After I retired and started hunting with my grandkids I ended up showing a couple of them the true outdoor experience.  After Rachel, my ten year old granddaughter, harvested her beautiful 38” ram we ended up only making it down to the alder level before it was too dark to keep going.  We found a nice semi-flat place in the alder to spend the night.  Her father and I gave her our spare clothing along with a good space blanket.  We built a fire and roasted a Ptarmigan that she had killed with a rock and some sheep tenderloin.  It was a wonderful night.  She stayed nice and toasty and slept like a rock.  Sagen and I kept the fire going and stayed close to it.  It really wasn’t that bad.

Rachel enjoying the night.

Rachel enjoying the night.

Her brother Jared, age 12, was on his first sheep hunt for the walk-in Delta Controlled Use Area when we got pinned down by a band of rams.  Then the rain and clouds came down so we had to spend the night below them with a small tarp above us stopping most of the rain and a good space blanket covering us.  We used black garbage bags to keep our feet dry.  It was a little cold that night but not miserable.  The next day the clouds didn’t lift until around 2 P.M. and the sheep were long gone so he left without a ram.

Jared and me getting ready for a cold night.

Jared and me getting ready for a cold night.

Jared after spending his first night out without his sleeping bag.

Jared after spending his first night out without his sleeping bag.

Four years later Jared was drawn for sheep again in the Delta Controlled Use Area.  This time it was the motorized time frame.  We drove the 4-wheelers back as far as we could and set up our tent.  We found sheep on the same mountain where we had slept on the previous hunt.  After a long day stalk Jared harvested his first better than full curl ram.  It had fallen down a waterfall and it took us awhile to retrieve him.  It got too dark to make it back to the tent so we slept about six hundred yards from where we had slept on the first hunt. This time we had a bigger tarp in a thicker alder patch.  We were able to build a fire under the front of the tarp which was warmer than the time before.  But the real plus was Jared had his sheep.  That’s what it’s all about.

Sagen and Jared after our last night out.

Sagen and Jared after our last night out.

Like I say, it is a matter of time and distance and being successful or unsuccessful.  If you are going to be successful you have to push the envelope.  I just read a story in my friend Lew Bradley’s new book, “Rampages” where he says, “Its mind over matter- if you don’t mind it doesn’t matter.”  I totally agree.  Looking back, I’m thinking those nights weren’t really that bad.