IT WAS THE LAST ELK HUNT of the season. Three of our four clients had been successful early in the week, and we were hunting hard to make sure the other guy didn't get skunked. No luck. On the next-to-last day of the season, the snow came: wet, heavy, and deep. Alex, my boss, made the judgment call: "We've got to get these guys out of here. We'll ride out today, then you and I will come back and take down camp."
We loaded their gear, meat, and antlers on the pack mules and started out. The mules U-shaped feet were better prepared for this winter work than their equine half-brothers. Snow balled up in the horses' rounder hooves until they were walking on stilts of packed ice, making them prone to stumble—not a good thing on the narrow trail that switched back across several deep canyons. It took most of the day to get down the mountain to Willow Creek, where the trucks and horse trailer were parked. From there we had forty miles of dirt road to navigate before we hit the pavement, then another thirty-five miles to our homes in Apache Creek.
Ten animals would never fit in the trailer, so we left the four mules and one horse behind in a nearby Forest Service pasture to be picked up the next day. We drove most of the night in four-wheel-drive low gear, sliding off the road on two different occasions, having to winch ourselves out of the drifts. We said good-bye to our hunters as we dropped them off at the Rode Inn motel, drove home, caught two hours of sleep, ate breakfast, then started back up the mountain. During the night, the snow had stopped, the sky cleared, and the temperature plummeted. The snowplow had been up the mountain past Rainy Mesa to the Gilson ranch but had turned around about ten miles short of where our animals were. We knew we could never drive back into our camp in the Gila Wilderness under those conditions, but somehow, we had to get those animals out.
So we started walking, carrying halters and lead ropes.
Were I to design the ultimate aerobic exercise machine, it would simulate walking in knee-deep, wet snow at high altitude. This was in the days before synthetic fibers, and our clothes were soon soaked with sweat. We trudged on, stopping only to ease our pounding hearts.
When we finally made it to Willow Creek, the mules were their usual stubborn selves, refusing to be caught without playing hard to get. They were not broken to ride, so we took turns riding the lone horse, bareback, while the other man walked—each leading two half-wild mules. The sun was already setting in the pale, winter sky as we started following our tracks back down the old logging road.
The way back was somewhat easier than the way in; we were going mostly downhill, and the person walking had the benefit of the rider and other animals tromping down the snow. But we were wet, cold, and hungry—perfect candidates for hypothermia. We both ended up walking, it was too cold riding. Hours passed. The moonlight reflecting off the snow created a surreal world in which time stood still. I wondered what death would feel like, imagining it to be warm and restful. We staggered on, falling too many times to count.
The sight of that truck and trailer made us nearly weep with relief. After loading the animals, we climbed into the truck cab and cranked up the heater. Uncontrollable shivering helped keep us awake long enough to get home. Alex's wife fixed us pancakes, bacon, and eggs while we cared for our hungry and thirsty pack string. A hot meal, hot shower, and fourteen hours of sleep later—I was good as new, except for the frostbitten ears that plague me even now when winter comes to call.