Day 1 - Prologue
From my current vista, I scan ridge lines and mountains 50 miles distant. The rugged landscape is breathtaking and dominated by towering cliffs, elevated mesas, vast valleys filled with brush and dark forest, and multi-colored bands of rock. Distance creates the illusion of calm tranquility.
The wind slacks for the first time in ten minutes and suddenly I hear the intense barking of dogs. It's coming from up canyon and farther North than we had expected. My cell phone rings and I snatch at it expectantly. It's Wayne and his words have me moving fast. A huge lion is pinned on a ledge 1,500 ft. down slope by a single dog. Every second counts.
Day 4 - 3 pm
After three days of hard hunting than involved over 70 miles in the saddle performing extreme, back-county riding combined with another 10 miles on foot, the action has finally picked up, turning red hot in just the last few moments. We had scoured mile after mile through steep, rocky canyons, washouts, cliffs and dense, tangled brush in search of an elusive quarry.
We were up high, just beneath a massive rim of near vertical cliffs overlooking Arapaho Rock in Northwest Colorado. Wayne Pennell, of Cathedral Bluff Outfitters, professional outfitter and guide, had been working on this tom for several weeks. The tracks and scratches told a compelling story for an expert like Wayne. This is an exceptional lion.
As winter morphs into an early spring, elk and deer feeding patterns suddenly shift, and they abandon high country for new feeding grounds. When the food source moves, so too do the predators. Finding fresh elk sign is the key to finding fresh lion sign. After a brutal, 3-day search, we are rewarded with a hot track.
The cougar is close when the dogs jump it. Unfortunately, it heads straight down into one of the steepest, nastiest witch-holes imaginable, with the hounds tracking close behind.
The dogs are out of sight and out of earshot immediately. Gusting wind makes locating the dogs difficult. After ten minutes, Wayne drops off the rim to investigate. He can't tell if the cat is treed, has escaped, or whether the dogs are trapped on the ledges or even killed. The wind masks all activity below. Wayne's call means we are in business.
After several moments of frantic probing, I find a way off the rim without taking a 50 ft nose dive onto the ledge below. Aggressively I push down slope, slanting left to connect with Wayne. Gasping for air, I scramble through loose rock and boulders, then stop to view the intense action on the edge of a 400 ft bluff.
The cougar is 250 ft away, but nearly straight down, with nothing but air between us. Wayne confirms that it is a BIG tom and I slide into position, hanging over the cliff-edge and using a few scrub branches as an improvised shooting rest. Below us, a lone hound Lindsay is battling to keep the cat pinned down. The lion is only partially visible on the ledge below. Brush, clinging to the rocky outcropping, is in the way.
The lion surges forward and strikes at the hound. The dog dodges and fearlessly fights back, driving the cat into full view for an instant. I pull the trigger and the lion goes down and goes tumbling 200 ft to the rock below. To Wayne's horror, the lone hound, close on the lion's heels, slides over the cliff as well.
Wayne and I slash our way to the left, circling, driving to get on the scene. Rapidly we descend, hand over fist until we hit a sheer rock wall. We're stopped cold and there is no possibility of descending further in this direction. Then we hear multiple dogs barking from over the cliff face and we know that dogs are alive and that they have found a way down.
Wayne works over to where the lion and dog had gone over and discovers that his hound is alive, but trapped 25 ft below on a narrow ledge. The cat is out of sight further below. Quickly he uses rope from his pack and repels off the cliff and within moments he recovers the brave dog.
Another dog joins us from out of nowhere, and we circle to the right to find a way down. Several dogs are barking far below and this gives Wayne hope that his valuable, highly trained hounds are OK. We force our way over the treacherous edge and gasping in the thin air, plunge down the rocky, unstable slope.
After reaching the bench 400 ft below, we scramble left over undulating mounds of loose, sloping debris. As we crest the final mound, Wayne finds that one if his top hounds, Pepper, lay dead a few yards from the cougar.
The cougar is an absolute monster. After a few hurried photos we quickly go to work skinning the cougar and boning out the meat. Packs loaded, we are ready for the trek out.
Wayne says it's the biggest lion he's ever caught!
We are in trouble. It took eight hours to get to this point. The mules and our jackets are miles away. We must climb several thousand feet, vertically just to regain the ledge where we jumped the cat. Wayne carries the added weight of meat and the hide in his pack. We are dangerously low on water. There is less than four hours until darkness. The math is against us.
It is too dangerous for us or the mules to move at night on this mountain. We risk being trapped high up on the mountain overnight, freezing, & dehydradted. This prospect we did not relish and we move out like our lives depend on it.
The climb to regain the rim is a grueling, hand-over-fist slug fest. Every twenty feet we stop to catch our wind and allow our pounding hearts to slow just enough. Then we continue the back breaking, muscle wrenching climb.
The extra weight in Wayne's pack is difficult to balance as we scale the rock face. He wrenches his back several times to keep from going over the edge uncontrollably. Disaster averted, his back aches and throbs intensely as we continue our climb.
My right thigh no longer wants to work. Five hours earlier my thigh was impaled on a jagged branch as my mule plunged through a particularly nasty thicket. I shrugged off the injury at the time, but now, the 10 inch gash has swollen and the thigh muscles spasm and fail to cooperate. Climbing with one good leg is nearly impossible.
We regain the rim, but take only a moment to catch our breath. We grab handfuls of snow whenever it comes within reach to cool our overheated bodies and fend off critical dehydration. Hot sweat from our exertions does not bode well. If we are still on the mountain when the temperature plummets, cold sweat and hypothermia become the enemy.
Neither of us talks as we propel ourselves through the wilderness. Fatigue, pain and thirst gnaw at us and the dehydration is nauseating. Neither of us has enough saliva to spit just once - not for a million dollars.
Every fifty feet a voice in my head begs me to lie down and rest. A stronger voice knows what will happen if we can't find the mules and get off the mountain by nightfall. It is a marathon, an ordeal of endurance as we struggle to maintain a punishing pace.
Exhausted, we locate the mules. (Wayne knows the mules will be mad and not tolerate trying to tie the lion on so he gets on his mule with the heavy lion still in his pack). Quickly we load up, throw on jackets against the dropping temperature and push the mules down the mountain. We go like demons, but is it enough? It took four hours to ride in to this point. We have less than two hours until nightfall.
In the saddle, Wayne's pack becomes a more onerous burden on his already aching, wrenched back. Keeping my right leg in the stirrup is nearly impossible. Compensating for the thigh wound for two hours has left my left leg a cramping, painful mess. The only improvement in riding over walking is that we get to catch our breath in the thin air. The dogs are now exhausted and we have to push them to keep up.
We smash down the slope on the mules, navigating nasty deadfalls and steep, jagged ledges. Fear is a great motivator and I am motivated. Crimson twilight spans the western horizon and we press into dark tunnels of forest and rock. Our elevation drops and I feel energy return as the concentration of oxygen rises. The plunge downward is a bone-jarring, muscle-wrenching test. My muscles are overtaxed, aching and only partially responsive.
Suddenly we are engulfed in blackness. The darkest timber is behind us and a waxing moon offers just enough illumination to keep the mules moving safely. We press on and on. Exhausted, we reach the truck an hour after nightfall.
Mind over matter. That's the only explanation for covering the ground we did, in the time we did, in the condition we were in. Physically, it is the hardest four hours I can every remember.
The cat is magnificent as is Wayne and his phenomenal hounds. I owe them everything, especially Pepper who was lost in valiant pursuit. I will try to hunt with Wayne again. I've never met an outfitter who worked as hard as Wayne. His hounds and this country are unsurpassed. I must come back to this place.
This will go down as one of the most difficult, most thrilling, most satisfying and enjoyable experiences I've had in the field. Mentally and emotionally, this journey has left me more alive, invigorated, and connected.