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Overcome the dangers of mountain hunting

By By Otha Barham / outdoors editor
Aug. 8, 2003
While you are planning your hunt for mule deer, elk, moose or bear in the western mountains or for these or bigger game animals in the far north, lay the groundwork now for saving your life. The vast majority of southern hunters who trek north to hunt the high country every fall will make the 2003 trip and return in good health. Tragically, some will have serious accidents and some may not return at all.
There is no intent here to alarm hunters and their families. Rather I hope to alert hunters, especially first timers to the big mountains, of the dangers they will face. I speak from the experiences I had as a southerner moving west and making mistakes in the mountains out of simple ignorance, and also my observations of hundreds of first time sportsmen and women getting themselves into trouble in the high country. If my extra emphasis tempers your excitement a little, better that than a preventable accident that could cost a life.
One of the dangers I have space enough here to cover is the kind that sneaks up on you because it involves an everyday activity that we are programmed to do almost without thinking. The danger is driving to the hunt area. The preventative is to start thinking once you hit the mountains.
If you are not experienced in mountain driving listen up. It ain't the same as down south driving. Not even close. Last fall I warned my elk hunting partner who was new to the big mountains that braking on the steep roads had to be done mostly with gears and not brakes. I drove and demonstrated for him. But later we pulled our loaded trailer down what seemed like a gradual sloping gravel road for some 10 miles. He drove like one would in low country, braking on the slippery curves and whenever we needed to slow down. I did not notice that he was using the brakes a lot because it was night time and I couldn't see his feet.
Close call
The last half mile before we bottomed out had a dangerous hairpin curve that we made okay, but as we pulled up at the bottom, the truck's brakes were so hot that they smoked heavily, almost ignited and probably had about one more stop in them before being useless. I shuddered to think what if this had happened two curves earlier. He could have jerked the transmission into low gear in the curve, but that surely would have caused a skid on the gravel that could have sent us plunging off the high cliff. Yes, "off the road" up there doesn't mean in a ditch, like down here. It usually means a flight through space.
Don't chat or listen to music while driving the mountains until you learn to brake and gear down properly as a habit. Your vehicle's manual will instruct you in turning off the overdrive and using the gears on slopes.
Next, prepare in advance for the worst weather possible at your camp. Snow, rain, ice and wind are some of the weather factors that can kill you there are others. Most of the serious snowstorms come in the Colorado mountains beginning about the second week of October and lasting until late spring. But I had a worker lost in a blinding snowstorm on July 10 at only 7,000 feet elevation, so be prepared all the time. These early storms are usually not life threatening because if one waits a few days the weather improves.
But if you are hunting even the first rifle seasons in Colorado, for example, you could get deep snow that crusts over and brings your moving around by vehicle, and possibly foot travel, to a halt. Never, ever walk away from camp even briefly without a compass and a survival kit in your day pack that includes the means to spend nights away from base camp in deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. I have two personal acquaintances who narrowly escaped death in separate incidents after traveling less than 30 minutes from their vehicles and being caught in sudden snowstorms. Both were experienced in mountain hunting, one having lived all his life at the base of the mountain that almost killed him.
Big mistake
In both cases, had the men carried compasses and used them, their ordeals could have been prevented. Don't think that because you "never use a compass" in southern woods that the same applies in the mountains. It don't! When you can't even see a tree that is five feet away, much less the stars or hillsides or peaks or a trail because of a whiteout snowstorm, a compass can be mighty handy. Trust me, I have been in storms when I could barely see the ground to take my next step. But with my compass and a map and knowing where I was, I was fine.
Once while following fresh elk tracks in just such a situation, I could not see my hand held at arms' length. But when a sudden, brief lull in the blizzard provided visibility of about 50 yards, there stood the elk.
Later I will cover some other mountain dangers before most western hunting seasons begin this fall. Remember this. Most things are bigger out west; the mountains, the rocks, the deer, the hunting woods and the dangers. Go prepared.