By J.K. Kirkpatrick
Gray predawn light pours heavy through the thin walls of our three-season tent. My toes went numb hours ago. Had we taken the time to clear the snow from under and around our insufficient shelter, perhaps they’d still have some sensation. My brother lay directly to my right, our warm breath sticking to the ceiling and our sleeping bags in the form of frozen condensation.
First rifle season in central Colorado is expected to be cold, and snow’s always a possibility. But an extraordinary blizzard had blown in two days before the season and left the high elevations with a foot of snow on the ground. We hiked in the previous day, making it almost three miles before we elected to drop our overstuffed packs and set up camp. Seasoned backpackers always say that one “packs their fears;” we were a couple of obvious cowards to everyone at the trailhead.
Our camp consisted of a three-season tent, a five-degree sleeping bag for my brother, and a twenty-degree bag for myself. At dusk, we crammed 400 pounds of Texan into our tiny tent and prayed the weatherman lied about the temperatures potentially dropping into the single digits that night.
My bag quivered throughout the night and betrayed its inadequacy. More snow and ice piled on the rain fly and weighed against my feet, continually pressed against the tent walls due to the slight slope we had selected for a campsite. Bear Grylls had done us a real disservice by spending all those nights in hotels rather than actually in the wild.
“Hey, you awake?” whispered my hunting partner. “Yeah,” came my shivering reply, “it’s cold as shit in here.”
Without small talk, we looked for motivation to get out of the sack. Neither of us needed to get dressed—we slept in every article of expensive hunting clothing we schlepped out there. I worked the zipper on the tent door as sheets of frozen condensation fell on me. The tent illuminated without color as I peeled the door back to reveal my frozen hunting boots cruelly awaiting my already frigid feet.
I tried forcing stiff feet into stiffer boots; I couldn’t get my heel all the way to the sole, so I gave up without quarrel. I wobbled to my feet, shouldered my rifle, and walked with the inelastic gait of a satyr on stilettos. I had to piss since midnight but couldn’t work up the courage to leave the tent for fear of losing hours of precious built-up body heat. There was a suitable aspen within steps of our tent; I leaned my rifle against it, unzipped and dropped anchor.
The snow in front of me melted and steamed into dark yellow slush. My brother performed the same ritual somewhere in the distance behind me. My jaw slowly lowered as my eyes adjusted and I realized that the hueless, snow-covered hills before me were colored brown and tan with the bodies of a bull and his harem. The regal ghost of this gray forest took a moment to assess the frozen Texan with boots for high heels 50 yards away. If elk could laugh, he may have died of asphyxiation where he proudly stood. My tag would be punched without breaking the early morning silence.
“Psst!” I hissed at my brother behind me. Keeping my feet planted, rotating to him and putting the backs of my hands against my forehead with my fingers separated, I signaled what was in front of me. The bull and his cows gracefully trotted downhill and out of sight before either of us could zip up and grab our rifles. A half-hearted attempt at pursuit was given before we dusted the snow off our sitting logs in camp.
Planting our icy asses on some fallen aspens, my brother dropped a pile of finger width limbs on the ground. With the flick of a gas station butane lighter, I applied flame to a chunk of Firestarter. The flames quickly consumed the dead aspen limbs and licked at our frosty fingertips. I removed my boots and socks to reveal pale, numb feet. The condition of my feet was the present problem, but it was shadowed by our paltry gear and the promise of more snow and even lower temperatures.
Upon the realization that I still didn’t have feeling in half my feet, my brother scurried to snap more limbs from every nearby tree. His conspicuous concern shown by the violence with which he dropped them onto the dwindling blaze. He offered his lungs as a makeshift bellows. Our fire roared again; I attempted to thaw my nearly frostbitten feet. Steam rose from my boots standing inches from the inferno.
“Man, I’m not sure we’re prepared for this weather,” I said, painfully stating the plain truth.
We weren’t quite ready—or equipped—to be backcountry western hunters. With slight feeling returned to my appendages, we painstakingly packed our scant supplies and navigated our way back to the trailhead. We lost the trail a dozen times, cutting through snowbanks and slipping down hills as the wet snow clumped to our appropriately packed gaiters.
We returned to the nearest town and reassessed our plan for the next four days. A camp site in Room 128 of the local motel suited us as we spent the short season day-hunting from the trailhead. My toes stayed warm each night. We left Colorado with tags unscathed and all twenty toes.
A few seasons of unpunched tags later, we’d put to practice hard-earned experience and eventually triumph. After finding a formula for success in the backcountry, I still have a few resolute rules born from that first trip: my boots are insulated, my ultralight sleeping bag is rated to zero degrees inside our four-season tent, and my rifle hangs on my shoulder when I piss.