The alarm on my watch woke me at four a.m. and I quickly got dressed, ate a power bar and some jerky and drank as much water as I could. I have found that one of the most important keys to feeling good at high altitude in the mountains is to drink about twice as much water as I feel like I want to. Luckily the area I was scouting had seeps and creeks all over the place and finding water was easy. I had decided to go extra lightweight on this first climb so I was using water purifying tablets rather than carrying a filter with me. Much of the water in the area seeped right out of the mountain and was probably safe to drink without purifying, but I didnít want to learn the hard way that it wasnít, so I always purified it.
I climbed for about an hour and arrived at a large boulder field I had seen on Google Earth. As I had hoped, I found a great perch for glassing that gave me a view of the other side of the valley. I could see four of the bowls above timberline on that side along with the marshy valley floor. I arrived at my perch at the perfect time just as the morning glow started to provide enough light for glassing. Since I had decided to travel extra-light, I only had my 10x42 Zeiss binoculars with me, no spotting scope and tripod. I began scanning the open, grassy bowls hoping to see elk out feeding. I quickly spotted a couple skylined cows way off at the far end of the valley. What a feeling to have travelled 1100 miles and now to be at the top of the world seeing what I had come all this way to see! I continued to glass for another hour or so and spotted a few more elk scattered around the valley. They were all at the far end, as far away from the trailhead parking area as they could be in the valley. Without a spotting scope I couldnít see antlers but I was happy to get a feel for where the elk were feeding.
I was feeling antsy and decided to continue to climb up above timberline to the top of the shoulder. I was pleased with how I was feeling. I had been training pretty hard in preparation for this scouting trip and the hunts that would follow, but coming from under 1000 feet of elevation back home and climbing right up to 12,000+ feet I never quite know how Iíll feel. Sometimes I feel fine and sometimes I really struggle. Today I felt great. As I broke out above timberline the sun was now shining and I could see forever. I felt like I was in the movie the Sound of Music! I absolutely love spending time up above timberline. Itís just good for the soul.
The rest of that first morning I moved around the top of the shoulder and glassed different areas in both the northern and southern valley. I saw several more groups of elk, many of them bedding out in the open, chewing their cud above timberline. The elk were up in the bowls at the far end of the northern valley. I began to plan to drop back down to the trailhead and head into the nasty trail back into the valley and then climb up to some of those far off bowls to check out the access and get a feel for how the elk were moving around up there. I hated to leave the high country so soon because it was just so beautiful, but I wanted to start figuring out that trail as soon as I could. I had gained about 2500 feet of elevation from the trailhead to the top of the shoulder so I had a long downhill hike ahead of me. After eating a quick lunch I headed down. Along the way I picked up my small camp. I had marked a waypoint on my GPS so finding it was easy. I use my GPS a ton on scouting trips marking waypoints when I find good glassing points, good elk sign or water sources. I always have my GPS and a compass easily accessible and I use them together to navigate. Itís easy to navigate with a map when you have an open view of mountain peaks or other landmarks, but when deep in the timber, it can be really tough. Thatís when a GPS is invaluable.
I reached my vehicle at the trailhead around 3:00, right as another thunderstorm hit the area. I waited it out for a couple hours taking a nap in the back of the little car. When it broke I adjusted the gear in my pack and headed up the trail into the northern valley. I remembered from the previous year that the first section of trail is fairly reasonable. There were a couple wet, marshy spots to hop across with a strong likelihood of getting some water over the top of my boots. I spent some extra time trying to figure out if there was a different route that would avoid the wet spots, but I didnít find any so I just had to go for it. I didnít do too bad.
Itís amazing the number of elk and deer tracks that stay visible in wet, marshy areas. It looks like a herd of elk just passed through hours before, but I know from past experience that many of the tracks are days or even weeks old. Still itís exciting to head into a hunting area with so much sign. The first section of trail climbs fairly steeply following a fast moving creek. At the top of a waterfall the ground levels some and the first really challenging section of trail begins. Actually the trail completely disappears in a maze of thick willows and wet marsh grass. I decided to set camp off to the side of this area where several huge boulders created some nice flat ground and an old fire ring told me that others had liked the spot. I had covered a lot of ground and tons of elevation in 24 hours and I didnít want to overdo it so setting camp early in the evening seemed like a good idea. I often donít like to have campfires in valleys that I will be hunting or scouting, but this was a vacation too and I wanted to enjoy myself. Being solo can get a bit lonely and a nice fire in the evening is a welcome comfort. Sleep came easier the second night and I decided to sleep in a little bit the next morning since I didnít plan to be at a certain glassing spot at first light anyway.
After packing up camp I spent some time searching behind camp to see if there was a route up into the timber that would avoid the marshy, willowy mess near the creek. Sure enough there was! This was the first of many such discoveries I made about the trail that would allow me to travel deep into the valley without killing myself in boulder-fields or willowy marshes. For the next few hours I marked dozens of waypoints on my GPS indicating the direction I needed to go to avoid trouble. Every time I came to a difficult area that seemed like the only route was through something extremely uncomfortable, I would take time to search around for a different route, and I found one every time. I was beginning to feel very confident in my ability to hunt this valley in September without absolutely killing myself day after day getting back to the good hunting areas.